NOTES FROM ELECTROLAND

Not a Big Deal After the merger of online travel agencies Travelocity and Preview Travel was announced last week, news photos showed Terry Jones, head of Travelocity, and James Hornthal, head of Preview Travel, chatting in front of the Essex House hotel in New York, two postprandial corporate warriors dabbing the corners of their mouths as they digested their succulent meal of equities and options.

As we pondered what this merger might mean to rank-and-file travelers--aside from, in one swoop, making the once mighty Microsoft Expedia look like yokel.com compared with the new Travelocity/Preview colossus--we couldn't help but wonder what might happen if we tried to use these all-powerful online travel booking sites, which claim to offer the best prices for travel, to book a room in that very hotel. We arbitrarily chose the date of Nov. 2 for a one-night stay and went online to seek quotes for that grand old pile of a five-star hotel overlooking Central Park.

After various hiccups and maddening clickabouts, Preview Travel, Travelocity and Expedia all quoted the lowest-priced room at $385. (Note to Preview: Nikko no longer operates Essex House; can you remove that link, please?) Each listing assured us this was the "best available rate."

Suggesting that the merger will mean very little to consumers if, as this utterly random test suggests, the services offer identical products and prices anyway.

But then we picked up the phone --and were quoted $350 for the same room by discounter Hotel Reservation Network.

And $336, with a AAA discount, by the Essex House itself.

Which may tell us more about the merger, and the services involved, than anything Mssrs. Jones and Hornthal might offer.

Provided the merger is approved, Travelocity will absorb Preview Travel--and be the primary online travel agent available via America Online and Yahoo--in early 2000.

CRUISE NEWS

Sailing From Baltimore

Didion World Cruises, the D.C. travel agency that last year marketed cruises from the port of Alexandria, will instead sail from Baltimore next summer. Didion has leased Premier Cruise Lines' classic Rembrandt during July, with sailings to the Bahamas, Charleston, New England/Canada and several cruises-to-nowhere. The Rembrandt, nee Holland America's Rotterdam, was built in 1959 and is small by today's standards: 38,000 tons and 1,100 passengers. Info: 202-371-8800. www.didioncruises.com.

Apple Vacations is organizing cruises from the Port of Baltimore to Bermuda next May, September and October via Commodore Cruise Lines' Crown Dynasty (1993, 20,000 tons, 800 passengers). Info: through travel agents or www.applevacations.com.

BEHIND THE SCREENS

United, They Fall

CoGo began receiving phone calls and faxes from livid travel agents Thursday afternoon, denouncing United Airlines' decision to cut the commissions it pays agents from 8 percent to 5 percent. How will this affect travelers? Agents may increase fees for booking air tickets (one agency told us it may raise its $7-per-ticket service charge to $10 or $15) and speed their shift toward selling high-pay package tours and cruises--or maybe into other lines of work.

BARGAIN OF THE WEEK

Walloonapalooza!

Sabena Airlines is offering an introductory round-trip fare of $330 on its new nonstop service between Washington Dulles and Brussels, home of the Walloons and the Flemings, seat of the European Union and a serious chocolate town. Outbound travel is permitted Oct. 31-Dec. 31; tickets must be purchased by Dec. 1. Fares are not valid Dec. 12-24. Info: 1-800-955-2000, www.sabena-usa.com.

Help feed CoGo. Send travel news, road reports and juicy tattles to: cogo@washpost.com. Fax: 202-334-1069. Mail: CoGo, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Include name and phone number.