TRAVEL CENTER

The World of Travel

By Rick Aristotle Munarriz

Is your local travel agent chewing his fingernails and blasting the dot-com revolution for attempting to put him out of business?

Lend him an ear of sympathy, but realize that it's only getting worse for the locals. Last year, leading online travel site Expedia (Nasdaq: EXPE) logged $15.6 billion in gross bookings, a 22% improvement over the previous year's showing. Meanwhile, Travelocity.com, a subsidiary of Sabre Holdings (NYSE: TSG), racked up $7.4 billion in bookings last year, 51% better than its showing a year earlier.

Why are folks flocking to the Internet to square away their next getaway? It's the convenience. The information. The savings. If you think that the teen hooked on iPod downloads or the hopeless romantic trolling online chat rooms for love has found the Internet's killer application, they've got nothing on the significance of the online travel industry.

Between the travel guides and the ability to scour various flights, rooms, wheels, and berths at the same time, it's the ultimate way to level the field for the vacation planner.

What's that? You have a fear of trying? Nonsense. Let's start at the top.

Are we there yet?

Every aspiring traveler is different. Whether it's a family looking to map out next summer's road trip, a corporate heavy looking to close a business deal, or a senior couple longing to visit their grandchildren, the Web surfs in any direction.

If you still don't know where you want to go, travel publishers such as Fodor's and Rough Guides have sites brimming with destination guides for popular tourist haunts. If you want something more off the beaten path, RoadsideAmerica.com has the skinny on eclectic attractions that line the country. From national parks to amusement parks to indoor waterparks, if it's out there, odds are you'll be able to find an official guide online, along with countless more unofficial perspectives on your destination of choice.  

You can also piggyback on the experiences of your fellow online users through opinion sites such as epinions.com, IAC/InterActive's (Nasdaq: IACI) Trip Advisor, or any related forum or newsgroup. Trying to narrow down that dream cruise? Check out CruiseCritic.com. Want to find out which frequent-flyer plan best fits your aerial needs? Get thee to FlyerTalk. Need directions once you're sold on an idea? Map sites including Mapquest, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) Maps, Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO) Maps, and Rand McNally will give you door-to-door directions to just about anywhere, often skirting you past roadwork delays or giving you the option to pick the more scenic highways.

Portals to the world

Travel agents are an honorable lot. Their commissions were already built in to the retail booking prices, so it's not as if the consumer was spending more for the warm assurances of a knowledgeable agent. Yet it's easy to see why the travel industry has embraced the Internet. That real, live agent was an extra layer of expenses that the air carriers and hotel operators shouldered. If they could put out enough information to educate the potential globetrotter through travel portals and then get that user to skim a thinner slice of the commissionable action, that would mean stronger margins and pricing flexibility for the travel industry itself.

But those lean slices have only become leaner, a reality that has forced many portals and traditional travel agents to tack on surcharges and cancellation fees. The sums are petty and reasonable, but it bears mentioning that you should always check on any additional charges before you close the deal.

Expedia, Travelocity, and Cendant's (NYSE: CD) Orbtiz are the leading one-stop vacation shops. From flights to lodging to car rentals to their recent move into complete vacation packages, these sites can book it all. Still, you don't want to take a flamethrower to the bridge between you and your local travel agent. If you're happy with your agent, then using the travel sites as research tools while still closing the deals the old-fashioned way will help you both out.

However, as consolidators, the online sites are often able to secure special rates that can be booked only through the portals. With the kind of volume being generated at lodging specialist Hotels.com, it's easy to see why the site originally claimed to offer up to 70% in savings over regular hotel rates.

If you come across a rate you don't want to pass up but find yourself hesitant to complete the buying process online, most portals also let you wrap up your transaction with a toll-free phone number.

Along the way, if you are comparing competing offers, you should account for any surcharges, resort fees, or taxes that may or may not be included in the prices that you are quoted. With more actual providers beefing up their own sites, it doesn't hurt to check out the direct sources, too.

So get cracking. Your next great vacation may just be a few clicks away.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz loves to travel, even if it's around the house. Rick's stock holdings can be viewed online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.

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