Sunday, February 12, 2006
Every year, as more travelers use the Internet to plan and pay for their vacations, more players are trying to get a piece of the action.
In 2005, more than 64 million Americans bought or reserved an airline ticket, hotel room, rental car or package tour online -- up nearly 20 million from 2004, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. And with each leisure traveler spending an average of $1,288 online, real money is changing hands. We took a look at several dozen sites that have come online during the past year. Most weren't worth more than a cursory glance, but several broke new ground, fit a niche or at least accomplished what they set out to do. Here are 10 sites worth checking out.
WHO IT'S FOR: Travelers who prefer independent hotels to chains.
PROS: Owned by Pegasus Solutions, the company that started online hotel booking 12 years ago, this is a well-financed site with a database of 5,000 independently owned hotels. Can book on the site. Allows varied search parameters, including type of location (city center, rural, mountain, lakeside or airport) and hotel rating.
CONS: Search criteria need work. For example, ask for any hotel in Italy that offers skiing, and choices include 12 hotels (none is located in the skier-friendly Italian Alps). Then ask for a five-star in Italy that offers skiing and, instead of the number being winnowed, 45 hotels pop up.
WHO IT'S FOR: Trying to find the official tourism sites for an area you want to visit? This site links you to visitors bureaus across the globe.
PROS: You can search by continent, country or state. Most comprehensive for destinations in North America. California alone offers links to more than 70 individual convention and visitors bureaus across the state. Also offers hotel and vacation bookings.
CONS: Results are not displayed alphabetically. Map search contains fewer results than word search. Many foreign countries aren't included (no Italy?).
WHO IT'S FOR: Armchair travelers who enjoy hearing about what it's like to live in out-of-the-way places.
PROS: A small, eccentric site that features audio interviews with locals living in six places across the globe, with plans to add three or four more places this month. You can listen to Alwin from Paramaribo, Suriname, talk about the melting pot of ethnic groups who live in that port city, or Amy from Shiraishi Island, Japan, discuss the traditional lives of the tiny fishing island. Also includes info on books, movies, crafts, etc., that relate to each place.
CONS: The audios can get ponderous in an NPR kind of way. If you're tired, you may find yourself nodding off. Needs to expand the number of places covered.
WHO IT'S FOR: Anyone looking for a bargain place to stay in high-priced Hawaii.