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Vacations made to order

ELECTRONIC EXPLORER: Some Web sites go beyond helping travelers find air fares and hotel rooms, customizing trips based on their likes and dislikes.

By LAURA BLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2000


Life Online
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Forget Microsoft's famous query, "Where do you want to go today?" By using technology to filter and rank vacation options based on interests, preferences and budgets, several recently launched travel sites are saying, "Here's where you should go today."

Personalized weather reports, stock quotes and e-mailed, airport-specific air fare alerts have been around for years, and many online travel companies already customize their content to some degree.

But the latest made-to-order sites are targeting travelers who do not know what they want. These sites "are trying to act as full-fledged travel agents who can provide more resources than a simple booking tool for airlines, car rentals and hotels," says Krista Pappas, travel analyst with Gomez Advisors, a Massachusetts e-commerce firm that supplies consumer ratings for a variety of online travel services.

For example, Follow the Rabbit (http://www.followtherabbit.com) promises to find the vacation destination best suited for you by asking cybertravelers to choose from among more than 80 activities and characteristics, from scuba diving to dry, sunny weather to a desire to avoid jet lag.

At competitor VacationCoach (http://www.vacationcoach.com), users fill out an extensive passport of likes, dislikes and specific preferences (type of transportation, budget range, how far from home they want to travel, etc.). VacationCoach then spits out recommended destinations from a database of more than 100 possibilities (all within the United States for now), along with tailored links to Web sites that can help travelers book the trip.

Other newcomers offer a similar but narrower focus. GeoPassage (http://www.geopassage.com) uses travelers' personal interests to create customized tours to 15 foreign countries, and soon-to-launch EuroVacations (http://www.eurovacations.com) will do the same for Europe.

Such sites represent a natural evolution from online sales of point-to-point airline tickets to cruises, tours and other more complicated vacations, says Lorraine Sileo, vice president at PhoCusWright, a travel research firm in Connecticut.

Travelers spending that kind of money online expect personalization, and combining a human touch with the efficiency of the Internet is the ultimate goal, Sileo says.

But, she adds, "I think the jury is still out on whether you can automate that process."

Indeed, a few recent trial runs yielded decidedly mixed results.

When asked to recommend a three- to four-day trip from Washington, D.C., in late June for a couple who were extremely sensitive to jet lag, wanted a mild and sunny urban environment, and favored such activities as shopping, architecture, dining and theater, Follow the Rabbit came up with 15 choices, topped by New York.

No surprise there, but No. 2 on the list -- Paris -- would have been a stretch for a long weekend, not to mention the jet lag. The sites in the Manhattan destination report veered from insipid to insightful. (An example of the latter was this tip to Zen Buddhists: "The handsome, tightly maintained and very Japanese Dai Bosatu New York City Center on the Upper East Side offers the Northeast's premier Rinzai experience.")

And if that D.C. couple were motivated to actually make the trip to New York, they would have had to plod through a list of booking options that did not include Amtrak, a logical choice for a journey along the Northeast corridor.

At VacationCoach, meanwhile, a hypothetical traveler from Los Angeles asked for a three-day getaway in July that had to include walking and sailing and would cost less than $300 per person, not including air fare.

Top choice: Texas Gulf Coast, followed closely by Wyoming's Devils Tower and Buffalo Bill Country (sailing in Wyoming?).

These sites all sound good, warns Gomez Advisors' Pappas. "But they are still in an infancy state."

Electronic Explorer appears monthly. Send e-mail to lsbly@aol.com.

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