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Computing your course
[Times art: Jeff Goertzen]

LIFE ONLINE: Setting up a trip on the Internet can be easy and efficient, and it might save you money. On the other hand, it might be a lot of work.

By JOHN BOWLES

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2000


Looking to vacation in paradise? Take a tour of the Internet and you will learn that GORP.Com's travel expert, Rob Sangster, says paradise is in Thailand, and GORP can book the trip for you. Or how about Switzerland? It's Delta Vacations' "Dream Destination of the Month" at its online site.

Africa, Latin America? The Travel Discounts site has just the package for you.

Life Online
A weeklong look at everyday life with the Internet. Stories
Travel planning on the Internet can be easy and efficient, and it can even save money, if you know your destination.

If, however, your potential trip has more parameters than just destination, researching your options online is more work.

Having retired and recently sold my home in New England, I moved to a condo in Palm Harbor in March. Later in the spring, I began Internet research on my travel concept: "Cool Places to Stay in July and August," places with average maximum temperatures not over 80 degrees. I also wanted destinations with interesting museums, excellent restaurants, good hiking areas and other activities.

Vacations made to order
Some Web sites go beyond helping travelers find air fares and hotel rooms, customizing trips based on their likes and dislikes.
It seemed a pretty simple concept and certainly not an original one. After all, American families have been going to the Carolina mountains and the Maine coast during the summer for generations. I expected that it would be easy to zip onto the Internet and, in a few hours, over a day or two at the most, I would have my plans arranged.

There obviously had to be a Cool Places to Stay travel club that would give me a summer package. It was just a simple matter of finding it.

In early April I cranked up my WebTV and looked for "travel clubs." Search engines found 2.4-million domain names matching those words.

After a day of random exploration, I realized that I had stepped into quicksand. So I backed off and tried the key word "travel." Still more than 2-million. This project was clearly going to take some time.

It would take about 75 hours, over more than a month.

Hour by hour, day by day

The first priority was to establish the cool temperature parameters by finding locations in the United States with a maximum high temperature of 80 degrees. The next step was to determine the most interesting cool places to visit

Eventually, after a trial-and-error approach to weather and temperature Web sites resulted in numerous dead-ends, I found a series of links that began with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, or NOAA, and led to a NOAA-CIRES Climate Diagnostics Center page (CIRES is the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences). This gave me a color display of mean temperatures for July and August overlaid on a map of the United States.

A few more links downstream from the NOAA-CIRES map was climate data for a large number of locations. It was then fairly easy to construct a list of 100 or so sites within my maximum temperature limit of 80.

Ultimately, I hit pay dirt. After a project week of this random search process, I found WorldClimate, a free, easy-to-use Web site that provides historical weather information for more than 85,000 locations around the world.

I was able to get average maximum temperatures for all of the destinations that were eventually included in my Cool Places travel plan.

Armed with the data of WorldClimate, I decided to make a midcourse correction in my travel planning and go to a few familiar destinations with interesting activities, such as Taos, N.M.

Turning to an older source

While waiting for the Triptik and state TourBooks to be assembled by AAA, I started my research on Taos, Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and Moro Bay, Calif., three destinations with which I was already familiar

I also relaxed the average maximum temperature parameter from 80 to 84 degrees to accommodate Taos, one of my favorite vacation destinations.

Though I did use the Internet to get updated information on Taos, Mammoth Lakes and Moro Bay, I relied heavily on my own previously compiled files.

Despite my knowledge from previous trips, the selection of accommodations for this vacation was time-consuming. Because I had invited guests to join me in both Taos and Mammoth Lakes, I needed to rent a condo or cottage, and there is a long list of lodging possibilities at each place.

It took two project days just to narrow down the list to several options in each of the three destinations.

As for the rest of the trip, with 20 individual stops decided on for my two months of travel, choosing lodging was a challenge. Hundreds of options seemed to fit my criteria of inexpensive but nice places to stay.

It took me two project weeks of trudging through Web sites and using the telephone to track down information on price and availability. But eventually, with the help of some educated guesswork and the AAA rating system, I pieced together two months of lodging in condos, cottages, national chain hotels and offbeat motels.

The AAA Triptik broke the drive from California to Washington into convenient day trips. The AAA TourBooks provided basic activity information at possible overnight stops.

Still, most of the destination research required digging into lodging sites on the Internet.

One of the overnight stops I selected is the apparently obscure town of Gualala, Calif. The Yahoo search engine provided information on a number of lodging and rental options in Gualala, which in turn described crashing waves and long, sandy beaches.

What have I got?

Once the research was merged into a travel plan, it was simple to allocate time to each destination: a week in Taos and about three weeks driving up the West Coast, for example

The Internet is the perfect vehicle for booking travel arrangements.

There are a lot of good sites. For air fare, I used http://www.cheaptickets.com and double-checked the results on the Yahoo Travel site. In an hour or so, I lined up and charged my airplane tickets and reserved the necessary rental cars.

The whole trip, excluding food, should cost about $6,400.

This travel experiment on the Internet has been fascinating. If, in fact, I have found some cool places to stay, I will use the Internet again next year to plan my summer travel.

And in the interim, I may even discover a Web site that already has the information packaged. But if I don't, from what I have learned in this experience, I can easily cut the Cool Places planning process to a project week rather than a month-plus, and I probably could reduce a similar package cost to less than $5,000.

Now, I just can't wait to get on that first airplane in July.

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