Travelers, on both business and pleasure, are jumping on the bandwagon. The number of people booking travel online doubled in 1999 over the year before, and in 2000, more than a third of the online population had participated in the online travel boom, according to Cyber Dialogue, an Internet consulting firm.
About 28 percent of business travelers (or their assistants) regularly make airline reservations online, compared with 33 percent who book using the telephone, according to Greenfield Online, an online market research firm.
Online travel generates more revenue than any other online sector, having surpassed runner-up computer hardware and software in 1999, according to eMarketer, an Internet research firm.
Statistics such as these may delight online travel industry insiders, but travelers should be aware that the Net is better at some things than others. With the current instability in the dot-com economy, you should be careful about Web travel companies that could head south at a moment's notice.
SEARCH AND FIND
Nothing compares to the Internet for quickly gathering information or comparison shopping, and both factors have fueled the online travel explosion.
Top general-purpose travel sites such as Expedia.com (www.expedia.com) and Travelocity.com (www.travelocity.com) can help with every step of a trip. You can plan a business trip, choose a vacation, research your destination, find the best airfare, book airline tickets, track frequent flier miles, reserve a hotel room, rent a car, get driving directions, check the weather forecast and more.
Some sites specialize in business travel, such as Biztravel.com (www.biztravel.com), which made a splash with its guarantee of cash compensation for mishaps from flight delays to slow responses to e-mail. It also can automatically send last-minute flight updates to your pager, and it provides tools to help businesses stay within their travel budgets.
For larger organizations, so-called managed travel sites such as GetThere (www.getthere.com) handle group rates you've negotiated with airlines, hotel chains and car rental agencies. GetThere can build a travel intranet that employees can use to book their own travel. Some managed travel sites are beginning to offer their services to smaller businesses.
LET THE FLYER BEWARE
All is not smooth sailing, however, in the online travel world. With any given trip, the time and cost savings you expect from going online may fail to materialize. Web pages may load slowly or crash, turning the process into a time-consuming headache. The least-expensive itinerary from a discount site may be more expensive than from other sites, or from a local travel agent.
Sometimes the advice you get is flat-out wrong. Mapping services, for instance, often provide driving directions that get you there via a slow, indirect route. Computer algorithms may be more sophisticated than ever, but most computers are no match for a human being when it comes to decision making, even with something as mundane as whether to turn right or left.
The possibility exists that some high-visibility travel sites won't be around much longer. The investment firm Bear Stearns predicts that in two years, even though online travel revenue will increase fourfold, 80 percent of travel Web sites will fold, particularly discount sites.
The biggest name in discount travel, Priceline.com (www.priceline.com) is currently in trouble. Despite the efforts of pitchman William Shatner, the company recently laid off workers and shut down its grocery and gasoline operations. The value of its stock has tumbled more than 90 percent over the past year and a half.
Priceline.com's reverse auction format has attracted a lot of bargain hunters, particularly in the travel area. You specify what you're willing to pay for an airline ticket, hotel room or rental car and hope it's accepted.
But the reality always doesn't live up to the hype. Low bids are often rejected, and when they are accepted, you have to accept terms that frequently include inconvenient departure and arrival times and out-of-the-way airports and hotels.
Priceline.com, which unlike a lot of dot-coms generates significant revenue, could still survive the predicted industry shakeout. Still, as with everything else about the Internet, the only constant is change.
For more tips about online travel, check out the CNET Travel Planner (www.cnet.com/specialreports/0-7135.html).
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://members.home.net/reidgold.