Tony Wheeler: The potential of web travel

'The best things technology brings to travel are convenience and certainty'
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The Independent Travel

When did you first become aware of the web's travel potential?

The word blog hadn't been invented back in 1994 but I did a daily diary of a trip across the USA in an ancient Cadillac on one of the pioneering websites, O'Reilly's Global Network Navigator. Astonishingly even back then people read it and recently I've put it on my site: www.lonelyplanet.com/tonywheeler/travel_blogs/

First time you booked online?

Ten years ago. Remember the web's just had its 10th birthday as something really usable.

Favourite travel website?

I should feel guilty about promoting my own site but the Thorn Tree - Lonely Planet's travel chat room - is terrific. If I'm looking for any "what's happening" or "how do I that" answer that's always my first stop.

Best experience using the web?

A few weeks ago, in Iraq. I'd been turned back at the Iran border and had to retrace my steps across northern Iraq (the "safe" Kurdistan region) with the intention of crossing back in to Turkey and flying to Istanbul to catch a flight to the US. 9.45pm: arrive at a hotel in Arbil and get a room. 9.50pm: dump my bag, hotel desk tells me there's an internet cafe round the corner. 9.55pm: internet cafe tells me they close in 5 minutes. 10pm: I've found the Turkish Airlines website, checked their schedules and got a flight from Diyabarkir at 5.45pm the next day.

Worst experience using the web?

I've never had a really bad experience but I have learnt to be very sceptical. There's this belief that the web is up to date. In fact there's lots of stuff which is way out of date, just because it's digital does not mean a thing.

Do you always travel with a laptop by your side?

Yeah, I've developed this feeling that it's not really written until it's digital. And I feel almost resentful having to write it down and then rekey it. The first time I took a real laptop with me on a trip was in 1986 (a Toshiba with floppy drive) and I've walked up to Everest Base Camp with a Palm PDA and a clip-on fold-up keyboard in my pocket.

Do you find yourself always doing business on the move?

Unfortunately. I suspect soon we're going to always be in touch, when sat-phones get cheap enough. Even where your own phone can't roam you can usually pick up a local SIM card.

Must-have travel technology?

I am really trying to avoid Blackberries; I've seen first hand the evil results of "Crackberry" addiction. My favourite techno toy is the Global Position System (GPS), I like knowing where you are, how fast you're travelling, which direction the hotel or campsite is, plus it's constantly evolving. Recently I downloaded from my GPS the locations of all the sites at the ancient Afghanistan city of Balkh onto Google Earth and produced a nice little map.

Isn't it nice to switch off sometimes?

It is although even when you're right out of contact all that happens is you catch up, you still don't get to switch off. The only time in the last 10 years I've managed to totally clear my email inbox was when I was marooned on an island with no connections for a week.

Favourite internet café?

I love them all. I love the huge, smoky, hidden away Chinese ones. The neat, tidy, efficient western ones. The funky African ones. The ones in places where you simply do not expect them, like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Least favourite?

The slow ones, where you're reduced to reading a book while you wait for a single message to open up. The slowest connectivity I've seen in recent years is Ethiopia.

Has technology spoiled the idea of 'getting away from it all'?

I don't think so. There is still no substitute for seeing somewhere yourself, getting there on foot rather than by car.

What's the best thing technology brings to travel?

Convenience and certainty. There's no pleasure in hanging on the phone waiting for info or trekking across town to join some endless queue in an airline office to find out if there's a seat on the flight.

What do you think of travel blogs?

Great, but no favourites because most of the time they're creatures of the moment. When something happens, blogs appear.

Does the web spell the end for travel guidebooks?

No, but they're making us reassess guidebooks and direct them in different directions.

Where next for online travel?

With a lot of technology the components are all there, they just haven't been linked together. The PDA welded to the phone and the GPS for example, so it isn't just "find the phone number of a specific restaurant", it's "find the phone number of a restaurant meeting these criteria within x miles of my present location. And then call it."

Tony Wheeler is the co-founder of Lonely Planet

ONLINE SANS FRONTIERES: THE VIEW FROM EUROPE

Reisen, viaggi, voyages: looking beyond UK-based websites can yield rich pickings for the online traveller in Europe.

National rail sites are vital for information on routes, and many, such as the French SNCF site ( www.voyages-sncf.com) provide search engines and links - as well as special online offers. Among the other key sites for western Europe: www.b-rail.be (Belgium), www.db.de (Germany), www.trenitalia.com (Italy) and www.renfe.es (Spain). For routes and continent-wide rail passes see www.raileurope.com.

European automobile and touring clubs have useful driving information. Try the ADAC ( www.adac.de) for Germany; the Italian Touring Club ( www.touringclub.it); its Belgian equivalent ( www.touring.be); and the Spanish RACE ( www.race.es). Such sites provide information on road conditions.

Mappy ( www29.mappy.com) is another essential tool for drivers. Set up by the European Travel Commission ( www.etc-corporate.org) in order to encourage transatlantic tourists, Visit Europe ( www.visiteurope.com) is an excellent resource - but, since it was designed for travellers from the Americas, visitors must identify their region of origin.

Mixing and matching low-cost airlines can make for interesting journeys, either directly from the UK or elsewhere in Europe. Cut-price Continental companies to look out for include Germanwings ( www.germanwings.com), Niki ( www.flyniki.com), Wizz Air (www.wizzair.com), SkyEurope ( www.skyeurope.com) and Germania Express ( www.gexx.de).

Publishers' sites are another good source of information. Good French sites include Le Petit Futé, ( www.petitfute.com/) and Le Routard ( www.routard.com). See www.baedeker.com for a similar offering from the leading German guidebook producer.

Foreign sites also provide a different perspective on destinations that may be less widely advertised in the UK. Senegal, for example, once part of France's colonial empire, is now a popular destination for French tourists. So too is Réunion, the Indian Ocean island which is officially part of French territory. Travelling to either is cheaper from Paris than from the UK.

National newspapers provide useful links, although subscription is increasingly required for full access. Try Le Monde ( www.lemonde.fr), Libération ( www.liberation.fr), Corriere della Sera ( www.corriere.it), El Pais ( www.elpais.es) and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ( www.faz.net).

Finally, how much will it cost in sterling? The best site for rates is the Universal Currency Converter ( www.xe.com/ucc).

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