There is certainly no shortage of travel-related entertainment on the Net. One way for first-time web-users to get started is to log on to something like the Rough Guides web site, which contains links to a whole range of entertaining travel-related sites. In minutes, you can be enjoying pictures of tennis courts at the Sana'a Sheraton (City.Net), consulting a database of people who accommodate tourists free in their homes (Hospex), arranging a house-swap (Homexchange), and reading travellers' bulletin boards (Lonely Planet).
Specialist information is one thing, but what about practical sites, which offer customers the possibility of actually booking and paying for airline tickets and hotel rooms?
TravelWeb is an example of a site giving lists of hotels around the world that can be reserved online. North America dominates the list, but random checking does turn up some impressive last-minute bargains, such as double rooms as the Atlanta Hyatt Regency for $69 (pounds 43) which were available when I checked last week.
Having booked a room, potential customers can then key in details of where they want to fly from and to. Clicking randomly, London to Rio, for example, generates possible flight-routes on scheduled airlines via Madrid, Paris and New York, each with associated prices.
Which is jolly good fun, but there are no bargains here, and it is not at all clear why holidaymakers would want to book flights through the uncertain medium of a keyboard rather than on the telephone.
Some sites do, however, offer the advantage of listing the cheapest available flights to any given destination. The website Cheapflights is excellent for this, carrying a huge list of all conceivable destinations - from Dnepropetrovsk to Denpasar - containing links to all current flight deals from the UK, with relevant contact numbers, and in some cases, the opportunity for e-mail booking. But is anybody actually booking their holidays through the Internet? Bargain Travel, whose flights are among the cheapest listed by Cheapflights, might expect to be beneficiaries of the Internet, given that they are a zero-frills outfit operating from home with very little time for even answering the telephone.
"In fact we are disappointed with the Internet response," said a spokesman. "Maybe 10 per cent of our inquiries come through the Net, but a lot of these are just people filling in the form for fun. Most of them are wasting our time."
The picture is confirmed by Rowan Stewart of Regent Holidays. "Our website does generate a lot of queries," she says' "though a lot of them are highly vague, such as 'I want a cheap flight to anywhere'. We send e-mails back to all queries, then phone them up. I wouldn't want anyone to book a whole holiday without our actually speaking to each other first."
One of the pioneers in the field of booking and paying on the Internet is British Midland, which puts its service online in February 1996. To date, though, the total number of bookings made online comes in at a rather paltry 100 per week, by comparison with the 7,000 bookings per weekit takes over the telephone. "The numbers are increasing, however," adds a spokesperson.
British Airways launched its online booking service in January, though at the moment it is limited to World Offers (and is available in the UK only). Julia Groves, who is in charge of the operation, admits that it is still at an experimental stage. "In February the site recorded 270,000 hits, but the actual number of bookings taken this way is still tiny," she says.
One developing aspect of BA's site - available to Java-compatible computers only - is interactive booking. Customers can key in the sum of money they wish to spend and the temperature they wish to experience. A map of the world comes up showing them which destinations match their specifications. "We are going to start actively promoting this in the summer," says Julia Groves, "and many more criteria will be introduced."
Market research suggests that travel agents and guidebooks will be indispensable for a few years yet. "People use the Internet to buy products that cannot be bought elsewhere, such as software," says market research consultant Simon Sylvester. "When making a big purchase like a holiday, customers want to speak to the people they are dealing with."
A cyber revolution? Or a false dawn? Time will tell.
Regent Holidays, Bargain Travel
FCO Travel Advisory Service