World at your fingertips

By Tom Agee

This year my wife and I made our trip of a lifetime - eight weeks travelling around the world, visiting America, England and Europe, including a 12-day Mediterranean cruise. I suppose when you reach a certain age, you decide you'd better do it while you and your bank balances are both still in good health.

We truly went from the ridiculous to the sublime, starting with Menopause the Musical at the Las Vegas Hilton and ending with La Traviata at the State Opera House in Prague. In both cases we booked our hotel accommodations as well as our theatre tickets, even choosing our seats, on the internet.

I admit I'm a long-range planner and an internet junkie, so almost a year in advance I started to investigate our options including, of course, talking with our travel agent, a knowledgeable, tolerant woman, thankfully with a sense of humour.

Like many, we usually wait for the annual sales of airline package deals to the usual locations, which include a limited range of accommodation options. That's fine if you're heading for LA, the Gold Coast or Hong Kong. On the other hand, if you want to know how other travellers have rated the hotel you're booking into, what attractions you must see and where you'll get the best shopping bargains, just a few minutes on the internet can help make your trip that much better.

That's particularly true if you're taking a trip with numerous destinations, some of which your travel agent may know little about, and you want to be sure you get both value for money and a great experience.

So fasten your seat belts. Here are my favourite internet destinations for planning your next trip, well in advance, I hope.

My first port of call has to be TripAdvisor. It and Virtual Tourist are typical of a new type of website, one that is user-generated. They comprise travellers' unsolicited reviews and comments about hotels, resorts and vacations, which can be a real eye-opener and better than any travel guide.

Take our first stop in America, Las Vegas. I'm afraid the give-away hotel rates used to lure you to gamble are gone forever. It's an expensive destination where five-star luxury hotel/casinos on the Strip, like Bellagio, can start at $500 a night.

Since we were more interested in seeing shows than gambling, instead of a casino we opted for The Carriage House, a four-star hotel, rated 12th out of 249 properties, just a block off the centre of the Strip and a bargain for just $200. Comments posted on TripAdvisor included: "When we opened the door to our room we knew we hit the jackpot (we weren't in Las Vegas to gamble)."

And they were absolutely correct. Our spacious suite (not just a room) included a lounge with TV/DVD entertainment centre, bedroom with king-sized bed and TV, large bath and, a real bonus, a fully equipped kitchen. Having flown from Auckland to San Francisco to Las Vegas in one go, it was just what the doctor ordered - friendly, quiet and no queuing to check-in.

TripAdvisor users rate their stays on rooms, service, value, cleanliness and pool. Bar charts show overall ratings by honeymooners, older travellers, families with young children, young singles and families with teenagers. Even if you're contemplating a package deal from your travel agent, it will pay you to check out the hotel options here before you buy.

For instance, you wouldn't get comments from guide books or your agent about the Luxor (rated 47th) like: "Too far away at the end of the Strip. It would be great for a few friends going away for a weekend to get drunk, but for a couple looking for a romantic weekend this is not for you."

We used TripAdvisor to find great stays throughout our trip, including bed and breakfasts in Britain. We weren't looking for budget accommodation but we were looking for value-for-money, like a hotel chain in America owned by Hilton (Hampton Inns), an excellent overnight hotel at Heathrow (Jurys Inn), as well as lovely boutique hotels in Barcelona (Hotel Jazz), Paris (Hotel de Varenne) and Prague (Hotel Julian).

However, one word of caution. Although TripAdvisor and similar websites provide links to internet travel brokers such as Expedia, Orbitz, or Hotels.Com, which may be fine for last-minute deals, always compare them with prices on the hotel's own website. We got equal or better prices by dealing directly with the hotel. Some guaranteed to meet any lower price in order to cut out the middleman.

We also used TripAdvisor for information and/or links, which gave useful reviews and information on sightseeing, eating out, entertainment and so on. And last but not least its user forums provided little gems of information, such as which was the best way to get from Charles de Gaulle Airport into Paris, how to save with week-long Metro or museum passes, what are the safest parts of Barcelona to explore at night, or how to prevent being ripped off by Prague taxi drivers.

You can also hire your cars over the internet. There are several popular sites but I liked and used it for the United States, Britain and Europe. It deals directly with well-known firms such as Avis, Thrifty, Budget, Enterprise, National and Alamo.

Its prices were very good, especially in England where cars with automatic transmissions are fewer and cost more to hire. You can also buy car insurance through CarRentals.com for substantially less than the rental firm charges.

If you're driving you'll want to tap into websites of organisations similar to our AA for maps and detailed instructions to help plan your journey. It's not quite GPS satellite navigation, but it was the next best thing to help us find our way in both the US (AAA maps) and England (The AA). Input the address you're leaving from and your destination's address and both sites will literally tell you which way to turn when you pull out of the drive (you'll need the zip code of where you're leaving from for the American one).

Don't overlook the websites for the countries and
cities themselves. For instance London tool kit is a great resource, which gave us an overview of Heathrow hotels, including a map showing the Hoppa Bus routes and the hotels it serviced.

When we came to making decisions about our Mediterranean cruise, we found Cruise Critic Online invaluable. It helped us sort out which cruise line was right for us, giving ratings and reviews of the actual ship, stateroom locations and even tips on what to see at our ports of call. Thanks to a photo tour of the boat and a 360-degree webcam view of our stateroom we knew exactly what to expect when we stepped on board.

Although the internet is full of discount cruise brokers, much to our surprise, our agent was able to save us a substantial amount to get the business. Which brings us to the big question: with all this information on the net what did we need the travel agent for?

I always gave our agent an opportunity to quote on major items, such as big hotels, car hire, cruise and travel insurance, though sometimes the web was cheaper. But even if you use the internet simply for information-gathering to help you make more informed choices, and book everything through an agent, you'll have a better trip all around. For a trip like ours I do think it's vital to book airline travel through the agent. Booking on the internet, even for simple trips, can be tricky because prices and availability are constantly changing and once you click "confirm", that's it. In a trip with 18 connections over two months, you need someone who is talking to the airline almost hourly and can make adjustments if your plans or airline schedules change at any time.

Having said that, since we were departing on Air New Zealand, a member of the Star Alliance, I found its Round the World Mileage Calculator a marvellous tool for planning any overseas trip.

Download it from Star Alliance.

If nothing more it lets you plan your trip at your leisure, as you can see all the options available rather than having to leave everything to a busy travel agent. Give your agent a printout of your tentative itinerary as a starting point, which he or she can then fine-tune.

My wife often said she thought I was probably having more fun planning our trip than I would have in taking it. Actually, one helped make the other one of the most memorable experiences of our lives.

* Tom Agee and his wife paid their own way on their trip of a lifetime.

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