One click and you're flying in cyberspace

Some airlines will now sell you a plane ticket on the Internet: all you do is type in your credit card number. Andrew North logs on for a flight to Prague

Did I want my in-flight meals to be diabetic, kosher, low-calorie, low-carbohydrate, low-cholesterol, low-sodium, Muslim, vegetarian or Hindu? I was astonished. Never before had I been offered such choice. I wondered if I could have them all.

This menu was being offered not by a travel agent, but by my computer via the CompuServe network. I was using Easy Sabre, a flight, hotel and car-hire reservations system provided by the network, to find a cheap ticket from London to Prague in February. Instead of ringing endless travel agencies and enduring their irritating phone jingles, I was searching the schedules of most of the world's airlines by computer.

Owned by American Airlines, Sabre is the best established reservations system for cyberspace travellers, but it has always been restricted to users of online services such as CompuServe, which are connected to, but separate from, the Internet. Improvements in credit-card security mean that such services are at last becoming available to users of the World Wide Web.

The choice is already bewildering, with airlines and travel companies falling over themselves to set up shop on the Web. United Airlines provides free Web access to its Apollo reservations system under the title PC Travel. You can book rooms in any Holiday Inn or tickets on the Eurostar. There are guides and listings services by the hundred. In the past week, British Midland has launched what it claims to be the "world's first fully bookable reservation system on the Internet". The airline claims that CyberSeat allows secure transmission of credit-card details, so you can just pick up the ticket at the airport. Prague is one of its destinations.

But before I checked in there, I wanted to see whether Sabre's flight deals could match the range of its meals. Once you are connected, Sabre asks for the key details of your itinerary. I wanted to leave London on 8 February and return a week later. From a lengthy selection, I picked the cheapest: a British Airways flight, at $250 (pounds 162), including taxes. The whole process had taken five minutes. To buy the tickets, you just click on the confirm button and tap in your credit card number. The tickets are then mailed, or you can pick them up at Heathrow.

PC Travel works in much the same way and came up with the same price for a Czech Airlines flight. It suffers, however, from that increasingly common Web affliction - congestion. The process was painfully slow. Like popular tourist sights, certain parts of the Net are becoming badly overcrowded.

There were no such problems with British Midland's CyberSeat, perhaps because of its more limited range of destinations. Its interface, the clickable graphics on screen, is extremely easy to follow. It scored on price, too: pounds 155, including taxes. Just for interest, I went back to Sabre to see if the same flights were available. They were, but for pounds 7 more. I called round several agencies and airlines - including British Midland's telephone reservations - and found they all quoted pounds 162. It seems that cyberglitches mean that in certain circumstances Net users can get lower fares than anyone else. Even better, if I take a friend the fare falls to pounds 145 per person.

But don't expect to get good deals in cyberspace all the time. There are still few agencies on the Web, so there is nothing like the level of competition on the high street. Heavily discounted "consolidation" fares, which airlines use to offload seats through agents, are still hard to find. But the number of agents using e-mail to take bookings is increasing.

Finding budget hotels in cyberspace is not easy - the Rough Guide to Prague is not yet posted on the Web, unlike its US counterpart. Hotel Net could offer only expensive hotels, although its range is expanding.

The answer is to visit an umbrella travel Web site, which serves as a central meeting point for the thousands of travel services available. Hotel Anywhere and the US Traveler's Center are especially comprehensive. The former is aimed at budget travellers, and after much clicking it directed me to a selection of low-price Prague hotels.

Rail travellers are not left out. British and European timetable information is available via the Deutschebahn Web site. It is in German, but it is not difficult to use and the company also has an English-language booking service on CompuServe. British Rail companies have yet to offer such a service on the Web...

The armchair traveller: where to look on the Net

To use cyberspace travel services, you need a computer, a modem and a subscription to a Net service provider or an online service such as CompuServe, Europe Online or America Online (which provide full Net access in addition to their own services).

British Midland's CyberSeat: http://www.iflybritishmidland.com/

Campus Travel: http://www.campustravel.co.uk/campus

Deutschebahn: http://www.germany.net/gast/antrag.html

Eurostar: http://www.eurostar.com/eurostar/eurostar.html

Hotel Net: http://www.u-net.com/hotelnet

Hotel Anywhere: http://www.earthlink.net/whotelanywhere

PC Travel: http://www.pctravel.com

Rough Guides: http://roughguides.com

Traveler's Center: http://nearnet.gnn.com/

gnn/meta/travel/index.html/

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