As you plan your vacation this summer, the World Wide Web may not be a complete substitute for a travel agent, but there are some excellent sites worth a look before you pick up the phone to make a reservation. At a minimum, you might save the cost of a guidebook and a map.
If you are planning a stop in a major city, Fodor's, one of the major travel-guide publishers, has a site (www.fodors.com) that is in some respects superior to its books. The Fodor's site offers what it calls a "Personal Trip Planner," which provides customized information on 87 cities worldwide.
For example, if you are traveling to New York, you select that city from a list, then click on a set of checkboxes to indicate if you want information about lodging, dining, or what Fodor's calls "Essential Information" (how to get around, currency conversion, etc.) and Fodor's "Top Picks'' of local attractions. In addition, you can request an overview of dining and lodging in New York.
Once those choices are made, you refine them by checking boxes from a more detailed list. You can choose your lodging location (midtown, near the airport, etc.), your price range and what facilities you want your hotel to have (restaurant, pool, bar, health club, etc.). You make similar choices on places to eat (price range, location, type of cuisine, etc.).
Under "Essential Information," you can request details on everything from getting around town, to entertainment, to packing, to tipping. Once you've made your choices, you tell Fodor's to create your "miniguide." In a few seconds, it appears on your screen and can be printed on your printer. There will be a list of hotels, with a guidebook-style description of each. Those the publisher especially recommends are marked with a star.
Note: The price listings are sometimes inaccurate, so be sure you check this information carefully before booking a room.
The restaurant listings are extensive, including details about decor, specialty dishes, atmosphere and need for reservations. Fodor's top picks include tourist attractions in categories ranging from best views, to architecture to museums, with details about each, including hours, prices (if any) and what to look for.
All of this information is available, of course, in Fodor's 97 New York guidebook, at a cost of $13.50. It includes additional material, including neighborhood and citywide maps. But the guidebook cannot give you the personally edited "miniguide'' that the Web site offers free of charge. One wonders how long Fodor's can continue to provide this information free.
If you need a city or neighborhood map by the way, try Mapquest's site (www.mapquest.com), which offers a variety of customized maps and directions. You can join Mapquest free online and within a few seconds have a map of the neighborhood around the hotel you have chosen in New York, for example, or a map of the whole city.
Mapquest will also provide road travel directions from your house to virtually any address in the country. You enter your home address, then the address of your destination and in a moment, your directions appear in text form on the screen. Above them are a map of the overall territory covered, and a map of your neighborhood and of the neighborhood of your destination.
The problem is that the overall map is not likely to be detailed enough to show each route your directions tell you to use, which may require you to buy a road map, then mark your route yourself. The directions, however, seem good. For instance, the route designated to travel from Washington, D.C., to Rehoboth Beach, Del., about 120 miles away, was the preferred route of seasoned Washington beachgoers. One commercial map program we tried gave a longer route.
Mapquest's trips/directions section seems able to find any city or town, but may report it is unable to find either your precise starting address or destination. However, if you use Mapquest's "Interactive Atlas,'' you may have better luck. The interactive provides detailed maps with a "zoom" feature that allows you to see a chosen location in 10 different perspectives ranging from a national view to a view of the street address in its immediate neighborhood.
So if your travel directions map only gets you to the city or town where you are going, the Interactive Atlas should give you a map showing you exactly where your destination address is. In addition, you can choose from a long list of checkboxes for the locations of lodging, restaurants and other attractions near your destination.
The resulting map will show you the locations of the kinds of places you designate, but, unfortunately, does not provide any specific information about them. That's too bad, but, after all, it's a free site.
T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Brit Hume at email@example.com.
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