Computers: Meagre catch on the travel lines: Mike Hewitt finds bucketfuls of bargains - in the high street

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The Independent Online
IT IS AN appealing thought: dial up Compuserve, the computer information service, download your elecronic mail, check your Glaxo shares and - what the Hell? - while you are about it, why not book a couple of weeks in Alicante, too?

On-line travel services, which have been around in one form or another since the mid-1970s, should be theoretically ideal for finding the best bargains on airline seats and hotel rooms. Unlike the back pages of Time Out, the London listings magazine, their information is updated daily, or even hourly, reflecting availability and the latest discounts. And by using their intuitive menus, you can draw up your own itinerary, bypassing the tour of the cultured pearl factory and the obligatory stop-off at the grappa distillery.

So are the high street Thomas Cook and the corner bucket shop about to succumb to technology?

In the UK, the most easily accessible on-line travel services are available through Compuserve: American Airlines' EAASY SABRE, the independent OAG (Official Airlines Guides) and TWA's Travelshopper. All three offer 24-hour price and schedule information for hundreds of airlines and thousands of hotels worldwide. In addition, you can hire a car through more than 50 rental companies. In the case of OAG, it is even possible to book an African safari, complete with hunter and, if required, bearers. More than 15 million updates are made to the services daily.

The modus operandi of the three is much the same, save that OAG carries a peak rate surcharge of 47 cents per minute and 17 cents off-peak. Once you have logged on, the system asks where you are travelling from, your destination when you are travelling, the number of travellers and the return date. You can then get more detailed and specify such things as preferred airline, class of seat, location, and any dietary requirements.

After working on this information for a few seconds, the program presents a list of flights and their prices, highlighting any restrictions that might apply. EAASY SABRE offers a 'Bargain Finder' option which, if requested, automatically scans for the lowest- cost flights. According to Compuserve, the average transaction, from logging on through to inputting credit card details - all the services charge in US dollars - takes about eight minutes.

Impressive - or is it? In fact, nearly 95 per cent of the people who sign up with EAASY SABRE, OAG, and Travelshopper do not use them. Even for those that do, bookings, as opposed just to queries, amount to somewhat less than one trip for each registered user per year. The reason is simple: high-street travel agencies can usually offer better deals (see table).

'On-line services are great tools for finding schedules and fares,' according to one technically aware travel expert. 'But they usually lack the ability to book the absolutely last available seats on a plane. These are the sorts of seats that airlines tend to pass on to travel agencies and discount shops, who then sell them on at reduced rates.

'For this reason, EAASY SABRE and Travelshopper are best used as the first step in making a reservation. You should pass the information to your agent, who will usually be able to rebook you at a lower fare on the same flight, or else suggest other flights at similar times for less money. In this way, you get the best of both worlds.'

The same is true for hotels. Here, the prices offered by the on-line services tend always to be the official rates. It is usually better to call the hotel direct and haggle. For example, a single room, mid-week at the Sheraton Park Tower hotel in Knightsbridge is given as dollars 322.05 ( pounds 215) by EAASY SABRE. Indeed, when the hotel was contacted, this was the rate confirmed by reception. However, when it was suggested that pounds 200-plus was maybe a bit steep for just a single room, even though it was convenient for Harrods, the receptionist relented and came up with pounds 185. Computers are less amenable to reason or charm.

Basically, you get what you pay for. With a travel agent, you pay for years of specialised training, special deals with airlines and hotels that the ordinary person in the cyberstreet could never hope to clinch, and eight hours a day on the job. So for the time being the virtual travel agent should be used to complement the high-street variety. A bargain fortnight in Benidorm courtesy of the home computer is probably still a few years away yet.

Compuserve; 0800 289458.

----------------------------------------------------------------- BARGAIN FLIGHTS: ON-LINE SERVICES VS THE BUCKET SHOP ----------------------------------------------------------------- Destination EAASY SABRE (pounds)* Bucket shop (pounds) Difference (%) New York 312 224 28 Tel Aviv 347 212 38 Sydney 858 599 30 San Francisco 1,122 299 73 Tokyo 991 575 42 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Original prices were quoted in dollars. The conversion rate used was dollars 1.50 to the pound. *Prices are based on scheduled carriers with confirmed seat availability operating out of Heathrow, exclusive of airport tax. The reservations were made two weeks in advance, with departure specified for June 1 and return flight on June 15. -----------------------------------------------------------------

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