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Traveling online: traveling is going high-tech, but should you give your agent the boot? Maybe not yet.

Travel is going high-tech, but should you give your agent the boot? Maybe not yet.

Personal computers and commercial communications service lines have connected with the travel industry and spawned access to a formerly closed genre--the computer reservations system (CRS). The aim: to give consumers travel information, allowing them to make reservations quickly and, in some cases, cheaply.

But do these systems really work? Must you be a computer wiz to use them? Most of all, will you really save time and/or money? If you're willing to put in the time to learn your way around these services, you can increase your transportation options, eliminate waiting time and maybe even save some money.

There are a variety of online travel services in the marketplace, from airline ticketing to hotel reservations. To gain access to them, the booking system you use will probably be determined by which commercial service you subscribe to.

If you're on America Online, for instance, it makes sense for you to test either of AOL's existing travel systems--American Express' ExpressNet and Easy Sabre. (Easy Sabre is also on Prodigy, Compu-Serve and Apple's eWorld.) CompuServe, on the other hand, offers the airline-affiliated United Connection as well as the Official Airline Guide's (OAG) Electronic Edition Travel Service, an online addition to the schedule book and disk version. You can also opt for an independent service, which provides a local access telephone number that you dial into, such as Travelogix, a direct-dial upstart.

DIGITAL DEPARTURES

To get started, you'll need to create a personal travel profile. Along with your name, address and credit card number, you'll note your seating preference, any dietary considerations and whether you prefer morning or afternoon flights. The information is stored and used whenever you book a flight. You'll have to make a new profile for each system that you use, but chances are, you'll stick with one system.

To look at airline schedules, type in where you want to go and when. The service automatically searches for the lowest fare. You can also limit the search to a particular airline or to the flights into a particular airport.

After you get a list of itineraries and fares, choose one and then authorize payment by credit card. You can get your ticket at the airline counter, through your own travel agent or via overnight delivery. Most CRSs also offer hotel and car rental bookings (OAG does not, but plans to by the end of '96).

WHAT PRICE CONVENIENCE?

ExpressNet is free, but you must be an American Express cardholder. United Connection and Easy Sabre are included in AOL's basic $9.95 per month service fee.

The OAG Electronic Edition is a premium service on CompuServe--on top of the basic rate, you're billed a flat fee of $28 an hour (8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Central time, Monday through Friday) and $10 an hour off-peak. OAG insists it's worth it because it's the source that provides the original information to every other system.

LOST IN CYBERSPACE: A WORD OF WARNING

If you're not an experienced computer user, some of the programs will send you into technohell. For instance, there's nothing easy about Easy Sabre. One of the first services around, it uses older technology. It shows text only, as opposed to graphic icons. Each selection is numbered. For airline fares, choose No. 1; for hotels, choose No. 2 and so forth. "It takes some time to figure it out the first time you use a CRS," says Randy Petersen, editor and publisher of InsideFlyer magazine. "Don't wait until you need a flight before logging on," he warns.

Non-techies might consider a company like Travelogix, which designed its interface with Joe "never-touched-a-computer" traveler in mind. It's as easy to use as any point-and-click Macintosh or Windows application.

Computers also don't ask you whether you're a AAA member or suggest coupons or promotional packages. Travel agents have access to unpublished special fares, such as blocks of consolidator seats that can be discounted up to 65%. Logging on to ExpressNet, for instance, is not the same thing as physically going to an American Express travel Office to discuss packages and discount options.

Another problem is that only systems don't handle flexibility well, and they can't tell you not to drink the water. "A simple Los Angeles-to-San Francisco round trip can be done online pretty easily," says David Buskirk, vice president of sales and marketing for Associated Travel, an agency with 144 locations in the western U.S. "But if you're flying to San Francisco, then on to Seattle and someone's going to pick you up, but you'll need a rental car later, then things get more difficult," he explains.

If there's a problem with your ticket, most of the online reservations systems have 24-hour 800 numbers to call for help. But any frustrated traveler can tell you it's not nearly as satisfying to wrangle with a disembodied voice as it is to go and thump on the travel agent's desk.

Maybe the most important consideration in deciding whether to book online or in person is security. It's a scary proposition to send your credit card number tumbling out into cyberspace--like leaving a wad of cash at the bus stop for safe keeping. All the online services swear their systems are secure. ExpressNet uses passwords. Easy Sabre has installed a "security wall" to keep proprietary information inside. But hackers like the infamous Kevin Mitnick, who was arrested for stealing credit card numbers online, prove that nothing is fail-safe.

BOOK IT YOURSELF

Despite the pitfalls, online booking can be a boon to some travelers. For people who want to be absolutely certain that they're getting the best published fare, nothing beats seeing the price range for yourself. "When an agent says, `This is the best fare,' you don't have any choice but to believe them," says an Easy Sabre spokesperson.

Another advantage is in having total control over your schedule. There's great value in having that information at your fingertips. Moreover, it's available night and day, as well as weekends.

Anyone who has cruised the World Wide Web these days can testify to the cool stuff that's popping up online, including photos and even videos of hotel properties and destinations. On top of that, you can conduct a search of, for instance, "New Orleans" and "hotels," to get a comparison of Crescent City accommodations within your price range.

But best of all, booking by CRS gets you to the head of the line--a big plus if you've ever waited on hold interminably during a fare war. And often, by the time you do get your turn on the phone, the discounted seats are gone. With CRSs, you book your seats directly.

WHO'S USING THE SERVICE?

Most of the features of online booking services favor business travelers. In fact, many of the companies, including Travelogix and OAG, report that business customers represent a majority of their clientele.

And no surprise. According to a recent Carleson Travel Network survey of business travelers, 67% reported carrying a laptop computer on trips. And most said they used their machines to access schedules and fares directly. Seems savvy travelers are searching databases for the schedules they want, then downloading them for later use.

And most often, they end up using the timetables on a moment's notice. A business traveler's plans change capriciously. An exec who has flight information at his or her fingertips 24 hours a day can turn on a dime. But that feature is best suited for the full-fare unrestricted customer.

Automation is another feature biased toward business. Travelogix found that a vast majority of business travelers go to the same places over and over, rent the same type of car and stay in the same hotel. This type of travel doesn't require trained agents. In fact, it's best suited to the meticulous memory of a machine.

But leisure travelers can benefit from using an online system. The biggest benefit is perusing the lowest fares and getting a jump on them during a fare war. But generally, vacationers make their plans well in advance and lock into a nonrefundable ticket. That's where you can best utilize the expertise of a travel agent. Besides, when you're planning a vacation, it's a lot less fun to turn on a machine than to sit with your sweetheart amid dozens of cheesy tourism posters and plan your trip!
COPYRIGHT 1996 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Consumer News; computer reservation system - CRS
Author:Cade, John
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Aug 1, 1996
Words:1402
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