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Electronic Explorer

A Mixed Bag: Frommer's Ambitious Web Site

March 09, 1997|LAURA BLY

Four decades ago, Arthur Frommer's "Europe on $5 a Day" launched a generation of budget-minded Americans across the Atlantic. The book helped turn its peripatetic author into one of the travel industry's biggest brand names--and, more recently, one of its most acerbic critics.

Frommer's latest platform, a Web site dubbed "Arthur Frommer's Outspoken Encyclopedia of Travel" (http://www.frommers.com), includes liberal doses of both commercialism and idealism--with varying degrees of success.

At 6,000-plus pages, the searchable site encompasses everything from thumbnail sketches of 85 cruise ships to an editorial blasting Universal Studios' new Terminator 2 3-D ride as evidence that Orlando theme parks "continue to plumb new depths of mindlessness."

A key element of Frommer's self-described magnum opus is Vacations for Real People, a daily tip sheet of bargains and novel, budget-oriented travel programs. While many of the featured programs aren't new, the magazine has included such newsworthy items as Air Jamaica's recent expansion to other Caribbean islands and the impact of the rising dollar on the price of European travel.

Frommer's emphasis on frugality also is reflected in a well-organized section that lists descriptions and contact information for more than 30 consolidators--companies that sell airplane seats, hotel rooms and cruise cabins at a sharp discount. Like its less comprehensive counterpart on America Online (keyword: Arthur Frommer), the new Web site gleans much of its material from "Arthur Frommer's New World of Travel"--a voluminous tome that focuses on such worthy alternatives to mass tourism as home exchanges, educational tours and volunteer work.

Unfortunately, however, not all those options have been updated. For example, a lengthy article on vacation programs that emphasize alternative technology includes a reference to a Ukiah, Calif.-based outfit called Real Goods--and the notation that 1996 sites for its one-week workshops "had not yet been announced as of the time you read this." The admission would be bad enough in a monthly travel magazine, but it's particularly jarring in a medium that promises (albeit too often doesn't deliver) more immediacy.

Just as annoying is the site's paucity of links to other Web sites. Case in point: In a section devoted to the 10 travel questions he fields most often, Frommer addresses the "is it safe?" issue by advising readers to call a Washington, D.C.-based recording of U.S. State Department travel warnings and advisories. A much cheaper alternative (and one aimed squarely at his Internet readers) would be the agency's own Web site (http://travel.state.gov) and its listing of travel warnings. But those drawbacks--along with the site's confusing design and Frommer's erroneous assertion that competing travel Web sites "simply list standard prices for tickets and tours"--don't negate its significant value as a resource for budget and alternative vacations.

Small bytes: If you're a college student headed for a week of sun, sand and suds this month, Spring Break '97 (http://www.springbreak.com) is a good place to start your journey. Along with travel deals and posts from fellow students in search of rides or roommates, the site features links to Web sites for such popular gathering spots as Panama City and Daytona Beach, Fla.; South Padre Island, Texas.; and Cancun, Mexico. . . .

More straightforward than many of its Web competitors, the new Travel Health Information and Referral Service (http://www.travelhealth.com) includes links to government agencies and a list of travel clinics arranged by state. It also offers what its Denver-based founder, a well-traveled osteopathic family physician and nutritionist, claims is an Internet first: e-mail answers to questions that aren't addressed elsewhere in the site.

Bly welcomes reader comments; her e-mail address is Laura.Bly@latimes.com. Electronic Explorer appears monthly.

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