It's that time again. Time to make travel reservations for the annual pilgrimage to some ice encrusted outpost halfway across the continent, spouse and kids in tow, to put in quality time with the family. OK, so it's past time to be booking flights home for the holidays. So what's new? The point is, more people are using cyberspace to make travel reservations, and for good reason. You get access to the same reservation databases travel agents use, only the websites are open 24 hours a day and you can root through flight schedules like it was the sock bin at Wal-Mart.
Several sites now offer do-it-yourself airline, rental car and hotel room reservations, plus various other travel services from cut-rate vacation packages to overpriced luggage. The first online flight reservation service was "easySABRE" <www.easysabre.com>, which traces its roots to the 1950s and American Airlines' Magnetronic Reservisor, the first computerized reservations system, which became the Semi-Automated Business Research Environment -- SABRE. In 1985 SABRE went online, letting personal computer users book airline, hotel and car rental reservations. Today you can also order theater tickets, gifts, flowers and other travel-related goods and services.
"easySABRE" still exists in what appears to be its original form, a painfully slow interface that works more like an electronic bulletin board than a website. But SABRE also operates quick-and-easy "Travelocity" <www.travelocity.com>, which lets you sign in and look for flights from a single screen. After you type in flight information, it comes up with a list of available flights, along with an estimated fare. Then you pick your flights and it determines the round-trip price and asks if you want to buy tickets or change your itinerary. Like other reservation websites, it automatically looks for cheaper flights and often finds some. About the only drawback to "Travelocity" is that it runs on that erratic Java software.
SABRE was once the reservation system for America Online subscribers. Now AOL uses "Preview Travel" <www.previewtravel.com>, which is owned by the Excite search engine. Like other reservation websites, "Preview Travel" is free but makes you register. It has one of the clunkier interfaces, forcing you to wade through a lot of extra screens, and you have to re-enter everything if you want to change a single detail in your itinerary. But just before Thanksgiving, "Preview Travel" added a "low fare express" screen that is as simple as other websites. It also lets you save your travel plans online, so when you are ready to buy a ticket you don't have to start over.
Microsoft has weighed in with an airline reservation service called "Expedia" <expedia.msn.com>, and I couldn't be happier to report it sucks. Actually it's as quick as the others and its fare finder finds similar fares. But when you type in your itinerary, it either picks your flights for you, or it insults your intelligence by asking you to try to choose flights without knowing their cost.
"Internet Travel Network" <www.itn.net> provides many of the same reservation services as the other websites, with one significant difference. At the bottom of the page is an 800 number you can use to talk to a human being. In fact, click on the number and up pops a screen with phone, fax and address of the company, which is located in Palo Alto, Calif., and even a map showing how to get there. I had to use the 800 number and found the agent friendly and helpful.
It's been suggested that online reservation services will put travel agencies out of business, with stock brokers next. But after finding my best price online, I like to call a couple of travel agents to see if they can do better. Also, they can usually assign seats and hold reservations for 24 hours before you buy. Some websites promise one or both of these services, but they often don't work.
And after trying to book flights online, I have more empathy for
travel agents. Those flight databases change by the second. In researching
this story, I tried the same itinerary repeatedly at each website and seldom
got the same list twice. So try several websites and fiddle. Some of the
sites let you weight your search by price, flight times, airlines, number
of stops or other factors, and they also keep track of airline special
offers. The bottom line is that online reservation websites can save you
money. When I called an airline to book a flight I'd found on the Internet,
they wanted to charge me more. I went back to the website and booked the
same flight for 25 percent less.