It's Saturday morning and you decide to fire up the home computer and log onto the Internet. You're planning a trip and want to access travel files on computers all over the world. Your first online stop is the German Tourist Office's Internet site. You do a search for Munich and Berlin hotels offering double rooms under $100. Then, with a few keystrokes, you book a room in each city. Next comes a search for a low airfare to Europe. You find charter, standby and other special opportunities you never knew existed. Again, you make the booking online, using a credit card to pay for the tickets. Once your airline and hotels are taken care of you reserve a pair of tickets to the Vienna Philharmonic. And finally, after calling up a detailed on-screen map, you plan a backroads drive through a corner of Austria.
Is this possible in 1995? Not quite. Subscribers of America Online, Prodigy or Compuserve can book hotel rooms and air tickets on Eaasy Sabre, but the rest is still in the "someday" category. An Internet site for the German Tourist Office is still in the talking stage. Even Eaasy Sabre—a collection of travel product databases similar to those used by travel agents—has limitations which we will discuss later.
But first, let's talk about other online travel planning resources. For years I subscribed to Compuserve but finally gave it up as a lost cause. Sure, there was Eaasy Sabre and I could also search various databases and access travel articles from publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, but at that time the process was expensive and the information of marginal use. (Here it should be noted that searching large computer databases is an acquired skill and other travelers may have had more success than I.)
Next, came Prodigy. It was simpler and cheaper but seemed much slower and offered less information. True, one could log on to a bulletin board where people asked and answered each others travel questions, but this was a process in which I quickly lost interest. To be fair, there were other travel resources on Prodigy, but for the independent traveler to Europe, I found little that wasn't available in a decent guidebook.
Currently I'm trying America Online, an improvement over Prodigy and Compuserve. Though many of its travel databases are rather shallow and contain only cursory information, from the AOL platform one can jump off onto the Internet, that vast, amorphous collection of worldwide computers that are somehow all linked together. When truly useful travel information is available online, the Internet is where you'll find it.
I'm a cyberspace novice, but I didn't have any trouble tracking down LTUs page on the World Wide Web. Though it contains some typically useless online travel info, the LTU (the German airline) database offers a link to one very useful section entitled Public Transportation. Click on LTU Information, then on Travel Guide to Germany and from there to Public Transportation (or go direct via http://www.ltu.com/ltu/pubtrans.html). Here you'll find something called Subway Navigator. With it one can determine the subway route between any two subway stations in more than 50 major cities in the world. Let's say, for example, you'll be staying in the center of Vienna, near St. Stephan's Cathedral, have tickets to the Volksoper and want to know how to get there. Since you're near Stephansplatz you type "Stephan" as your starting station and "Volks" as your destination. (A complete list of subway stations is provided online). In a few seconds your screen informs you there are two "Volks" stations; Volkstheater and Währinger Strasse/Volksoper. Choose the latter and you are quickly presented with a screen I downloaded and have reprinted here word for word:
"Route from Stephansplatz to Währinger Strasse/Volksoper in the Vienna subway.
Result of the route search from Stephansplatz to Währinger Strasse/Volksoper.
Estimated time = 25 minutes
Line U3, Direction 'Johnstrasse'
Line U6, Direction 'Heiligenstadt'
* Josefstädter Strasse
* Alser Strasse
* Wahringer Strasse/Volksoper
Sorry, you can't display the graphical map. It is not available for your town.
Pretty nifty, eh? And there's more. From the same Public Transportation page you can quickly link to the Web site RailServer which provides rapid (less than one day) response via e-mail to questions about rail travel between any of some 23,000 European railway stations. This free service provides accurate, up-to-date information, and is much cheaper than a copy of the Thomas Cook Timetable. The RailServer is maintained by Frederik Ramm of the University of Karlsruhe in Germany and can be accessed via any WWW browser at the following URL: http://rail.rz.uni-karlsruhe.de/rail/english.html.
The Rail Server's web site also offers links to a couple of dozen other Web pages of interest to Europe travelers. Just one click away are databases with these titles:
Fly and Ride Stations at Airports in Germany, Railroading Around the World, Railroading in France, Railroading in The Netherlands, Dutch Railroading, Railroading in Finland, Railroading in Italy, Railroading in Denmark, Railroading in Norway, Railroading in Canada, Around Scotland by Public Transport, Railroading in the Czech Republic, Robert Bowdidge's Railroad Page, Christian X Nielsen's AOL Travel Information Page, Martin Smith's London Underground, Australian Timetables, Mercurio Server: Information for Railway Fans (ICE, TGV, Eurostar, European Railway News & train types) and the Subway Navigator.
I tried the Czech Railroading page and from there found a link entitled Czech Republic. Under "Praha" were usual choices such as "sight-seeing," "restaurants," "accommodations" and so forth. Clicking on "accommodations" brought forth a list of hotels, private rooms, booking agencies for accommodations, and this folksy message:
"I am sorry but being Prague inhabitants, we have got no experiences with lodging here. That's why we need your feedback! If you know about a hotel, hostel, private rooms or camp site which you want to recommend to the others, let us know. If you find here a recommendation you do not agree with, or you have got any other tip related to accommodation, write us as well."
This is just a beginning. I expect European tourist offices to soon establish Internet sites that will allow us Internet browsers to download to our very own computers a list of every hotel and pension in the tourist authority's city, region or country. (For example, Swissair's Web site will debut in early 1996.) The same for restaurants, events and sight-seeing. In addition, you'll be able to find out which mountain passes are open, the depth of snow on ski runs, which Autobahns are under repair, which sights are closed for repair and easily reserve everything from an airline ticket to a seat at the opera.
Right now, however, pickings are a little slim. Eaasy Sabre takes some learning, is rather tedious - it is still faster to get a price quote from a travel agent - and has its limitations. For example, I recently tried to book a hotel room in Heidelberg. My first request was for a double room under $100. Eaasy Sabre had none. When I upped the ante to $120, the lone suggestion was the Ramada Inn in Heppenheim, 32 kilometers away. Searching for a November airfare from Tampa to Frankfurt, the best Eaasy Sabre could do was $658 plus tax on USAir. I got the same $658 price directly from the airline's reservation service, but a call to DER Tours yielded a quote of $572.
AOL also offers the Traveler's Advantage, where for a $49 annual fee, one can obtain various travel discounts plus a 5% rebate on travel booked through Traveler's Advantage or Eaasy Sabre.
In AOLs Traveler's Corner are the Weissman Travel Reports. These are principally guidebook-style destination summaries. I checked one for Vienna and found a very general description of the city and its main attractions; far less than in the most basic guidebook and without phone or fax numbers, addresses, hotel or restaurant recommendations or, for that matter, any specific information. The so-called "professional" versions of Weissman's country reports can be purchased online for $8.95. These are the same reports that many travel agents supply gratis to good customers.
Probably the most useful Europe travel information provided by AOL is in Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door folder in the Travel Forum section. Here, from time to time, the extremely knowledgeable Steves offers his comments on various aspects of budget travel to Europe. There is also a folder entitled European Updates by Country, though when I looked on September 16 there was nothing on Germany, Austria or Switzerland. The Steves folder also includes letters from his "Road Scholars." Most interesting were those under the heading "rip-offs and scams" in which people described how they had been cheated by Italian waiters and Hungarian train conductors.
Also on AOL are a lot of interesting looking titles which turn out to be dead ends. The Travel Articles Library, for example, is a collection of files that can be downloaded to your computer, but most are just brief subscriber comments and only a few of them are about Germany, Austria or Switzerland.
There is also a Travel Café where one can have a live, online conversation with other AOL members. In addition, there are Travel Boards where members ask and answer each other questions on a variety of travel topics. The World Travel board lists about 500 postings in the Austrian folder over the last two years, 438 for Germany and about 600 for Switzerland. Most of these, however, are brief questions, answers and comments by AOL subscribers.
In my view, America Online is not yet an important trip planning tool for the Europe traveler. The Internet, however, shows great promise. When European tourist agencies establish a presence on the World Wide Web and open their databases to anyone with a computer and a modem, having the means to access that information will almost be a necessity.
Whether it's a service such as America Online, or the Internet itself, locating useful information online is a time eater. Going from Web site to Web site on the Internet can be a particularly slow, tedious process, even with the fastest modem (currently 28,800 bauds per second). My computer is a Power Macintosh 7500 with a too-slow SupraFaxModem (14,400 bps). The basic America Online charge is $9.95 per month and includes 300 free minutes. After that it's $2.95 per hour. Other online services are similarly priced, or you can go direct to the Internet.
Let us know your favorite online travel information sources and well pass them on. RHB