Are We There Yet?

Getting away has only gotten easier. Thanks to the many online resources available, everything from trip planning to tracking down bargain fares can be done from the comfort of your own home. With summer travel on the mind of many a Fool, Rick Munarriz explores some of the sites that will make your vacation planning seamless.

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By Rick Aristotle Munarriz (TMF Edible)
June 17, 2002

"Are we there yet?"

Oh, the joy of summer road trips. It's that time of year again. School is letting out, so your kids or grandchildren are bouncing off the walls. If you don't have kids, stop smirking or I'll let you borrow mine.

Either way, this is the start of the peak travel season. Whether it's packing the family into the station wagon or jetting off with that someone special on a romantic getaway, there's a world out there worth exploring and I trust you'll wear comfortable shoes.

So, how many travel tips and cost-saving suggestions will I be able to pack into this stationary column with limited carry-on space? Let's see, and before I'm through I promise I'll deliver the goods on how to make that "Are we there yet" question disappear forever.

Destination unknown
Thanks to the massive depth and width of online content, you no longer have to rely on guesswork, long-distance phone calls, or outdated touring suggestions from Uncle Harold to map out where you want to be.

Travel publishers like Fodor's and Rough Guides have their sites brimming with destination guides for popular tourist haunts. If you want something more off the beaten path, has the skinny on eclectic attractions that line the country.

You can also turn to your fellow online users for advice by seeing what folks are saying at or check out any official or unofficial travel sites related to your ideal destinations. It's hard to top the free advice of locals as well as those who have recently been to where you are set on going.

Once you've decided where it is that you want to go, there's no need to take a marker to the atlas anymore. Map sites like Mapquest and Rand McNally will give you door-to-door directions to just about anywhere, often skirting you past roadwork delays or opting to pick out the more scenic blue highways.

Booking it
If getting there is half the fun, does that make coming home the other half? That's no fun! Well, neither is making travel arrangements, but things have gotten a whole lot easier since online travel sites became one-stop vacation shops.

Expedia and Travelocity are the two heavies here. From flights to lodging to car rentals, these sites can book them all. This doesn't mean that you want to take a flamethrower to the bridge between you and your local travel agent. If you're happy with your agent, using the travel sites as research tools while still closing the deals the old-fashioned way will help you both out.

Expedia and Travelocity offer a wealth of information, but some of it may be compromised. Not every carrier or hotel is listed while others have featured relationships. Also, since the major airlines have cut commission payouts dramatically over the past few years, some of the sites will hit you with surcharges on some carriers that you won't get hit with if you book directly through the airline's own site.

So, don't rely on just one site if you can spare the time to surf around. Even the newer kid on the block -- Orbtiz -- isn't always the low-price leader despite its bargain-geared affiliations. In short, it never hurts to shop around, even beyond the sites who claim to do all the shopping around for you.

However, sometimes you will find deals that your agent or the traditional online travel site just can't touch. It's not for the weak of heart or strong of schedule but that's when you will ultimately come to love or loathe the online booking experience.

The bargain bin
It's easy to reason away why sites like Priceline and Hotwire have such amazing deals. An empty airline seat, like an empty hotel room, is an opportunity missed. Anything that the company can muster above the upkeep costs is better than the barren alternative.

However, like all selective discounts, if word of the deals being given out ever became widespread, the airline or hotel chain would begin to lose its more lucrative full-fare business. So, Priceline and Hotwire are there as the surplus street peddlers, providing deals for the nimble as long as the traveler is willing to jump through the hoops of uncertainty with no turning back.

At Priceline, the original "Name Your Own Price" travel site, you pick where you want to fly, sleep or wheel rent, and then submit how much you are willing to pay. The approvals or rejections typically come back in minutes, but the real dilemma is where Priceline will send you and if you bid too much or too little.

But just as the Internet empowered the service provider with the medium to reach everybody with a wired connection, that same online advantage also works for the consumer. With the ability to organize and share information online, veils don't stay on for long in cyberspace. At, successful Priceline bidders hit the message board to share bid and brand information. While there's no guarantee that the same hotels, airlines, and bids will be accepted, the repeat rate given Priceline's mostly automated service has been very good.

If you like to take fewer chances, Hotwire removes one layer of the mystery for you. It will tell you the price and, in the case of lodging requests, the level of quality and amenities available, too.

Either way, it's highly suggested that you check out the traditional online sites to see what rates are out there before you commit with Priceline or Hotwire. If your travel plans are flexible, it's more than likely that Priceline or Hotwire will save you a great deal of money, but keep in mind that both sites do charge processing fees and, more importantly, they are not refundable.

Are we there yet?
Oh, right, the query stopper as promised. Last summer, on one of those stretches of road that seemed to go on forever, my oldest son hit me from behind with the hand-me-down question that I, too, had used in my impatient youth.

"Are we there yet?"

I adjusted my rear-view mirror so my tired burning eyes could fix in on the same ungrateful smugness that I, too, probably wore out in my backseat days. Without giving it much thought, I countered with a question of my own.

"How can we be there while we're still here?"

He thought about it for a while. He moved on to something else. He never asked the question again.

Rick Aristotle Munarriz will be cutting through a dozen states over the next couple of weeks as his family hits the road in search of everything from thrill rides to comfort foods. You can tag along, with daily state-based reports in The Motley Fool Take. Rick's stock holdings can be viewed online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.