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Electronic Explorer

Internet Bargains to Keep an Eye On

January 11, 1998|LAURA BLY

They promise insider knowledge, up-to-the-minute specials and access to only-in-cyberspace deals. Too often, they deliver something less: confusing graphics, warmed-over advice and pitches from companies that may or may not offer bona-fide bargains.

Despite these collective shortcomings, a trio of high-profile, discount travel Web sites have recently launched features that warrant a second look. It's clear from the opening illustration on the redesigned Best Fares site (http://www.bestfares.com) that the mastermind behind this online version of the subscriber-only discount magazine has a 747-sized ego. But beyond the pose of editor and publisher Tom Parsons straddling a commercial airliner, the site provides some genuinely useful information--including time-sensitive deals uniquely suited to dissemination via the Internet.

Best Fares' new design makes it clearer which tip-offs are reserved for subscribers and which ones are free to all comers. Among the latter is a weekly roundup of Internet-only weekend deals on air fares, hotels and car rentals, plus steeply discounted "Snooze You Lose" air fare specials that may last for as little as a few hours.

Another promising addition: daily feature stories that cover such topics as the ins and outs of getting bumped from an oversold flight and how to save money on the ski slopes. Anyone who's been stranded at an airport by a blizzard or a mechanical snafu--and wondered what, if anything, the offending airline is obligated to do about it--can benefit from "Rules of the Air." The feature (http://www.1travel.com) is a discount site notable for its database of fares.

Compiled by Terry Trippler, a 30-year travel industry veteran who started as an airline ticket

agent, the site provides concise descriptions of eight major airlines' "contracts of carriage," the rules governing everything from minimum airport check-in times to penalties for booking "hidden city" tickets. As Trippler points out, such amenities as free hotel rooms, meals and phone calls are the exception, not the rule, when a flight is delayed or canceled. But, he adds, some airlines go further than others for problems that aren't weather-related: America West and Continental, for example, provide meals at regular intervals, while American and United do not.

Nearly a year after its launch, the commercial tone of "Arthur Frommer's Encyclopedia of Travel" has intensified, and the poorly designed site (http://www.frommers.com) remains confusing to navigate. The travel guru's latest pitch is for his "Budget Travel Magazine" at $14.95 per year. This month it has an article on Las Vegas bargains.

Small bytes: Aimed at the growing legion of travelers tethered to their laptops, Forbes Magazine's new "Rooms With a Clue" feature (http://www.forbes.com/tool/toolbox/clue/) is a searchable database listing hotels around the world that provide such services as in-room data ports and Internet access. The listings include rate and contact information, and display the hotel's phone jack type, power plug type, and whether the telephone system is digital or analog. . . . San Francisco's Convention and Visitors Bureau is finally online at http://www.sfvisitor.org. But travelers who want to take advantage of the site's citywide hotel reservations system have to access rates and availability the old-fashioned way: via a toll-free phone number: (888) 782-9673.

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

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