The world of travel has turned upside-down

Travel and the internet are made for each other, as Simon Calder discovers from 500ft above Madeira
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The Independent Travel

As the phone rang at 3pm last Monday, I was 1,500 miles from home and floating 500ft above a ravine in Madeira. Handily, my precise location was inside a cable car drifting over the dramatically corrugated terrain just east of Funchal, so I could take the call from The Independent without too much danger.

My office-bound colleague, Ciar Byrne, was enjoying the rather more prosaic surroundings of London E14. She needed 400 words on Barbara Haddrill's planned trip using only surface transport to get from Machynlleth, mid-Wales to Brisbane, Australia.

Ten years ago, researching all the options for a land-and-sea to the other side of the world would have taken a couple of days, even with a good stock of research material. I had only a couple of hours, and - as the glass bubble swayed into the upper cable car station in the village of Monte - my only tools of the trade were a laptop with a wireless card, plus my sound-recording gear.

"Opportune" hardly does justice to the sign I read as I climbed the steps, like tens of thousands of pilgrims, to the mellow old Church of Our Lady. It announced that I had just entered a Wi-Fi zone, one of several sponsored by the authorities on the mid-Atlantic island. And look, here's a café. I took a window seat with a view that cascades down the valley to the city and the ocean beyond; ordered a chinesa (coffee with milk); and powered up a rather travel-weary PC. Despite the battering the laptop has taken over the years, it successfully hooked up with the wireless internet system - and connected me to the world.

Travel and the internet are made for each other. Millions of prospective travellers, each with different agendas, are able to access thousands of suppliers who may have the requisite seats, beds or rental cars. This is about as close as travel can get to a perfect market. Yet in the early days, the concept of "online travel" used to be as narrow as the bandwidth we were obliged to use. With a dial-up modem and plenty of patience, you could conduct simple operations such as checking train times, buying a no-frills flight or finding a cheap hotel - which you then had to phone to book.

Even five years ago, so blunt was the internet as a research and booking tool that the then-president of the Association of British Travel Agents, Stephen Bath, suggested it might be more worthwhile for agencies to buy a new carpet than to invest in the internet. Today, his company, Bath Travel, has embraced the online era - and makes a decent living out of booking no-frills flights for clients who lack the time, inclination or technology to buy direct.

The world of travel has turned upside-down. It used to be that only an agent had access to the disparate inventories of travel companies. Agency fees were concealed within a commission system: there was no saving involved in going direct, so why would you bother? Today, it is usually safe to assume that the cheapest way to buy travel is by booking direct and online. There are a few exceptions - such as round-the-world flight itineraries (see pages 16-18 of today's Traveller) - but they are becoming rarer with every technological upgrade.

Whether you are the "making it up as you go along" kind of traveller, or you prefer to plan everything well in advance, the internet is likely to be central to your travels.

The man who started the no-frills revolution, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, was an early adopter. When he created easyJet, he cut out the travel agent: the only way to book a seat on the cheeky orange airline was by phone. Soon, though, he became aware of the potential of the internet in matching disparate (and sometimes desparate) travellers with flights to cities and sunshine destinations. "The biggest innovation of our times in travel", he calls the internet.

With a carrot-and-stick approach, easyJet soon started offering a discount for booking online, and disallowed telephone bookings for flights departing more than a week ahead. Today, booking fees for dealing with human beings have become standard in much of the travel industry. Stelios goes one further with his easyHotel and easyCar enterprises, where the only way to buy is online. "I can see other travel providers increasingly doing the same," says Stelios.

"More and more hotel rooms will be booked online, reducing distribution cost and increasing occupancy thus reducing the cost to the consumer. The same will become true of car rental, coaches to and from the airport and even ferries and cruises."

In the past couple of years, though, "online travel" has acquired a much broader meaning than merely procuring a travel commodity. The use by travellers of e-mail and, latterly, internet-based telephony, has provided a low- or zero-cost route for online contact. A decade ago I would queue up at hot and dusty poste-restante desks in the vain hope of news from home, or pay a fortune to send faxes which, more often than not, failed to arrive.

Monday's short-notice assignment brought home to me the wonders of communication that we already take for granted. While I checked the best escape route from mid-Wales online, I hooked up a microphone and headphones. This meant I could talk via Skype (one of several the free or nearly-free "VOIP" telephone networks) to the geniuses of overland travel at Thomas Cook Timetables in Peterborough.

Digging around the Thorn Tree, the Lonely Planet's travellers' forum, revealed the current options for crossing the straits between south-east Asia and Australia, while finding the likely wait at the loneliest railway junction in the world - Tarcoola in South Australia - was the work of a few seconds (though the gap between trains is many hours).

The online provision is frequently flawed: if you search the National Rail Enquiries website for a train to Dover, it will refuse to cooperate until you specify whether you mean Llandovery, Dovercourt, Andover, Wendover - or Dover Priory. The expert agent still has an important role to play. While price-comparison sites such as SkyScanner.net enable travellers rapidly to research the burgeoning range of cheap flight options, they still require time and dedication to find the best-value combination even for a straightforward journey. A good travel agent can put a value on experience, and click their way to a client's best option.

While I was clicking, the clock was ticking. Within the allotted 120 minutes I e-mailed the copy to the news desk. Then I phoned to check that the words had arrived (there is still, in my experience, no substitute for Alexander Graham Bell's 19th-century medium for instant communication). And then I checked to see whether my flight home from Funchal was on time. Yes it was, promised the airline. Two days later, I was still in Portugal due to the "wrong kind of plane" being sent to the island. But at least I could research and write this story while waiting.

COST COMPARISONS

Once finding the cheapest airfare involved making numerous phone calls, or paying visits to a number of often lugubrious agencies. Most airlines and air fare specialists now allow you to check their fares online, thus saving a lot of time and helping reduce your phone bill. I should also point out that one of the first of the airfare specialists has grown to become the country's leading independent tailor-made travel company. But although Trailfinders (0845 058 5858; www.trailfinders.com) accepts online enquiries it has (to date) steadfastly refused to offer online booking, believing that such a thing would result in reduced service levels.

With the beginning of the internet boom, websites such as www.cheapflights.co.uk began to appear to guide you to the agency offering the lowest fare. Nice idea, but cheap fares aren't much use unless there are seats available when you want to fly.

So, to save you from having to go directly to the website of each airline or specialist, a new generation of websites has emerged using the latest "meta search engine" technology. These latest "travel comparison" websites check live availability and search for the best rates for air fares, hotels, car hire and even airport parking, trawling through hundreds of providers in an instant.

You can't have a discussion with these websites, but if you're happy to click keys to make your arrangements, sites such as www.travelsupermarket.com, www.traveljungle.co.uk or www.sidestep.com might be what you're looking for. You don't pay more to use their services - the companies usually receive introduction fees from the providers when you purchase. But, if you still want to discuss aspects of your holiday, you'll be pleased to know that human travel agents aren't extinct... yet.

By David Orkin

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