Online Travel: The traveller's guide to booking online

Having trouble getting the hang of holidaying via the internet? Cathy Packe offers up some vital e-advice
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The Independent Travel

There really is nothing to worry about. The internet can revolutionise the way you plan your holiday. The Web can help with the research and planning that goes into arranging a holiday: buying guidebooks, ordering brochures, deciding when to go - and that's before you start to book flights, accommodation or car hire. A little time spent online will unearth all sorts of useful material, and most of it is free.

I'M NERVOUS ABOUT THIS

There really is nothing to worry about. The internet can revolutionise the way you plan your holiday. The Web can help with the research and planning that goes into arranging a holiday: buying guidebooks, ordering brochures, deciding when to go - and that's before you start to book flights, accommodation or car hire. A little time spent online will unearth all sorts of useful material, and most of it is free.

Many tourist offices now publish mountains of information on their sites. Some of them are, frankly, dull and clunky, but others - such as www.cvb-heidelberg.de, the official site for tourism in the German city of Heidelberg, are clear and informative.

The first thing to consider is the weather. The Meteorological Office ( www.metoffice.com) publishes seasonal information about worldwide destinations based on past conditions, as well as three-day weather forecasts. If you are thinking about planning a walking holiday in Britain, the Ramblers' Association site ( www.ramblers.org.uk) has a great deal of useful information. If you want to travel by car in Europe, or just within the UK, try the Michelin site ( www.viamichelin.com); type in your starting point and destination, and it will give you the distance, a suggested route, potential journey time and the cost in road tolls.

IS THE INFORMATION UP-TO-DATE?

It varies. Any website is only as good as the people managing it, but the best sites update their information on a minute-by-minute basis. Compare this with printed timetables or guidebooks, which begin to go out of date before they have left the printer, and you can begin to see online advantages. Powder Byrne ( www.powderbyrne.com) is among a number of travel operators who have stopped issuing a brochure each season, in favour of the more up-to-date information the company can publish on its website (although bookings are still taken by phone rather than online). Other companies, such as Kuoni ( www.kuoni.co.uk) use their websites to add last-minute offers to the online version of their printed brochures.

DO I NEED TO SPEAK FOREIGN LANGUAGES?

Usually, not. The Union flag (or, sometimes, Stars and Stripes) indicates if an English translation is available. See, for instance, www.arena.it, the website for a night at the opera in the Arena in Verona. The internet enables you to book tickets for events and performances without going through an expensive agent. You can select a price category, and see where you'll sit. The same applies in the UK, of course: for tickets to this summer's season at the open-air Minack theatre in Cornwall, go to www.minack.com; book for the Royal Shakespeare Company's productions at www.rsc.org.uk; or you can plan your trip for this year's Edinburgh Festival at www.eif.co.uk.

IS IT CHEAPER TO BUY ONLINE?

Often: easyJet ( www.easyjet.com), for example, offers an online discount of £5 per ticket - and does not allow phone bookings until a week before the departure. Virgin Atlantic ( www.virgin-atlantic.com) has a £10 discount, a rate common to long-haul flights. On the other hand, some online retailers, particularly the US-based ones like Orbitz ( www.orbitz.com), charge a small fee for handling some bookings, a practice which is likely to extend in the coming months to the more widely used retail sites. However, the service fee is usually offset by the lower cost of the journey compared with other sources.

Some companies - notably, the no-frills airlines - add on a completely disproportionate fee, typically £4, for booking with a credit, rather than debit, card. Ryanair has lowered its fees recently, but still has a fee even for debit-card users. The only way to avoid the charge is to pay with an Electron card, intended for electronic payments.

Buying online is usually cheaper because it is much easier to shop around and find the lowest price, either by comparing one company with another, or by being able to see when lower prices become available. The British Airways site ( www.ba.com) is a good example of this. Let's say you would like to book a weekend in Nice, departing, ideally, on 22 May, but you are prepared to be flexible. Type in your destination and departure date, and a calendar will appear, covering a two-week period including your date, with a price for each day. You may discover that by travelling on a different date you could pay significantly less - information which you may struggle to discover from an agent.

IS BUYING ONLINE SECURE?

Credit card bookings made through reputable sites will be made using Secure Socket Layer (SSL) technology. This means that any communication between your computer and the computer at the other end is unreadable by anyone else, because the information is securely encrypted. Your browser will indicate whether you have a secure connection, and if you don't you will be offered the option of updating your system so that you do.

WHAT IF THINGS GO WRONG?

When making any booking online, print off confirmation of your reservation. (Typically, the final page of the booking process and the e-mail that is usually sent to confirm a transaction.) This will have an all-important booking reference, which can be given on arrival at the hotel, car hire office or check-in desk. With this, there is no more reason that your booking will not be honoured than there would be if you had been given a reservation number over the phone, or had been sent confirmation by letter or fax.

Remember, too, that amounts over £100 paid direct by credit card are likely to be protected under Section 75 of the 1974 Consumer Credit Act. Check the terms and conditions offered by your credit card company for individual details.

With any bookings, made by whatever method, things can sometimes go wrong. In the event of a problem, you would need to present your proof of booking and sort it out direct with the hotel or company concerned. When bookings are made through an intermediary, it can sometimes be less clear with whom the contract has been made, so it is important to read the terms and conditions on each website.

Well-established intermediary companies like Expedia ( www.expedia.co.uk), Lastminute.com ( www.lastminute.com) and Opodo ( www.opodo. co.uk) have some forms of financial security, and they should also have such colossal buying power in the travel industry that this in itself can be a powerful form of protection.

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