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Cool Pick Hotel

Fly the Friendly Web

Cool Pick Hotel Written by Amanda Cohen

While computer-aided teleconferencing and professional Internet Relay Chat sessions threaten to make business travel a thing of the past, airlines with sites on the World Wide Web are making use of the Internet's ability to respond to personal requests in order to increase direct interaction between themselves and potential customers. Since we have not yet reached the day where we can completely cocoon ourselves in our homes with our self-contained office environments connected to the rest of our co-workers only by some very thin lines coming out of the backs of our CPUs, some of us must occasionally make personal appearances in other parts of the country or planet, and that means air travel unless you have too much time on your hands.

The major airlines already have allowed individuals the first step in retreat from dealings with the world outside the computer when planning flights. No longer must we interact with humans, even by phone, to arrange travel plans. Now we can make our own reservations via Internet.

Even before this innovation, savvy users must have suspected that gaining direct access was inevitable. After all, what was that clickety-clacking we heard on the other end of the phone line during pauses in the actual discussion of departures and arrivals? The unmistakable sound of fingers on a well-worn keyboard, typing in mysterious destination and pricing codes to guarantee reservations for at least the next 24 hours. As soon as computers with modems became standard in larger offices, and eventually sought-after for home use as well, the airlines initiated web sites that cut out the middleman on the other end of the telephone.

While the middleman (or middlewoman) might have been useful for information like the fact that his or her cousin who lives where you're flying and says it's just lovely this time of year, enough people craved direct connection to the airlines to maintain immediate online flight reservations for the do-it-yourself travel agent in all of us.

Of course, you can go to each individual airline's page and try bargain hunting, but centralized reservation page suggest that competition is still possible online. I've been looking for an excuse to make reservations to fly from Chicago to Los Angeles, so I tried a few different online reservation sites to compare the results.

Yahoo Travel

There are two sides to this flight site. The "Flight Availability" page allows you to specify originations and destinations by city, state or airport code, and I'm sure we all know our airport codes. I wanted to go from either CHD or MDW to LAX, but city names work just as well.

The other page, "Is Your Flight On Time?" checks flight information based on airline, date and flight number. Only nine airlines are listed, all domestic, and you have to know the flight number to get information, though I did get a schedule for a randomly chosen United Flight #1 on October 23rd of this year. The chart includes a box for "status" which remains blank until the flight is actually in the air on the specified day. It was a little early for the October flight, but the same flight number for the current date was listed as having left Los Angeles 16 minutes late but having arrived in Hong Kong 17 minutes early. They must have had a good tail wind.

Yahoo's flight-checking capability could be useful if you're debating when to leave for the airport, or if you're the type who brings the laptop and the modem to the terminal and want to make last-minute changes without the panic of confused passengers around at the check-in counter.

On the Flight Availability side, I entered Chicago and Los Angeles for origination and destination. I chose "Departing" and "early morning" from the six options for time of day. The default date was three days away, but just for comparison, I set the date for tomorrow. I skipped the next three forms for additional flights, chose to view five options (it was a choice of three, five or ten) and left the airline choice as "any," though I could have specified any one of 33 companies, from Aerolineas Argentinas to Virgin Airlines.

After confirming that I wanted to fly out of anywhere in Chicago, rather than specifying one of three airfields, I was given five options representing three airlines. Each option included flight times and numbers, but no obvious prices. The "services" were listed in the incomprehensible code of "FYBHGQWVKM" for flight #1974.

Having chosen a flight, I clicked to Flifo, the Cyber Travel Agent, where several options allowed me to compare prices based on flexibility with scheduling and service class. The defaults were "economy class" and "lowest price." As if anyone is out there looking for anything other than the lowest price.

Finally, after all that, Yahoo's Flifo informed me that it couldn't get me any tickets before the original default date that I'd changed four pages ago. Now they tell me. And I never did find out what "FYBHGQWVKM" meant.

Internet Travel Agency

After a quick and free registration procedure (I chose the version without the Credit Card Information form and chose not to receive the newsletter, discounts and other stuff), I was greeted with a host of travel choices. Airlines are just the beginning here. From the Internet Travel Agency, you can reserve hotel rooms, rental cars cruises and more.

ITA was established in 1995 as the "first direct booking agency system on the Internet interfacing directly to the Sabre reservation network." Not being in the travel industry, I'm assuming that Sabre is the clickety-clacking we used to hear on the phone with human travel agents. The company profile of ITA goes on to say that the Sabre mainframes allow users access to more than 700 airline carriers, 56 car rental agencies and 28,000 hotels.

And that's not all. ITA has links to world maps, world news, worldwide weather reports and more useful information that you might otherwise have to learn by have to flipping through pamphlets in the waiting area at your travel agent's office

Starting with a button that promised a "true direct automated booking system," I clicked into the flight information form and was happy to see that the default departure date was today. All I had to type was two city names to learn that I could be in the sky merely an hour from now for just under $900. Oddly enough, I learned the price would be the same if I waited three days like Yahoo's Flifo had suggested.

When I tried the "Fareshopper" option that promised the 12 lowest fares, I got an error saying that part of the server was not connecting, so I couldn't learn whether a better price existed on a flight today. Sure, web sites crash all the time, but it's not encouraging to see an airline reservation system crash. It just doesn't bode well for the flight plans.

Travel Network

What The Travel Network lacks in flash and graphics, it makes up in simplicity of usage. Function over form may not win you any web design awards, but anything that takes the complexities out of travel arrangements is appreciated in the already-complex world of the web.

I entered Chicago and L.A. once again, noting this time that the default date was two days away, midway between Yahoo's cautious planning and ITA's immediate gratification. Instead of choosing the general time of day, I had to limit my desired departure (or arrival) time to a specific hour. The inital information I got back was the usual flight information grid but with the enhancement of little animated jet icons shooting flame out of three tiny engines to indicate that these flights were in fact on jet airliners and not turbo props. Also, as usual, no prices were yet indicated with the flight information.

When I confirmed my itinerary, I was presented with a travel plan that cost $1776, and that was including a Saturday night! The "Low Fare Finder" button, after a considerable but apparently standard delay, called up three travel options, two with stopovers, one with a remarkable bargain of $1773.

Somehow in all the simplicity, I had failed to notice an option that allowed me to select less specific time options for more flexible (i.e. cheaper) flight plans. There were buttons for "earlier" and "later," but they were several pages back before the prices had been shown, meaning a lot of backing up to change options. But even after I backed up and selected undesirable early morning departure hours, and accepted two turbo props and a jet to get to L.A. with the same harrowing journey back, I was given the price of $1808.

I have the feeling that I could wangle a bargain out of any of these sites given about an hour to exhaust all the options. Perhaps there's a reason that professional travel agents get the best deals. And a reason why I always prefer to drive. I hear the old Route 66 is lovely this time of year.

If all this fight-or-flight mentality is making you feel like I do, stop by The Virtual Airsickness Back Museum on your way out. Just ring the bell and we'll come pick it up for you when you're done. Have a nice trip. Buh-bye now.

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