When we began planning a recent four-week road trip, our natural inclination was to turn to the Internet. Mouse here, click there, and in a few Web hits we'd be done — having...
When we began planning a recent four-week road trip, our natural inclination was to turn to the Internet. Mouse here, click there, and in a few Web hits we’d be done — having saved ourselves a bundle in the process.
In reality, things didn’t go quite so predictably. Checking travel sites such as Orbitz, Hotwire and Expedia yielded some killer deals — or so it seemed. Other strategies, including the old-fashioned phone call, did just as well or even better. Checking on the day of the stay via cellphone saved us half off or more on some motel stays.
the biggest surprise came from the least-expected source. As a longtime AAA member, I decided on a lark to order TourBooks covering the 10 states we’d be visiting.
That’s right — fat, bulky, printed books. They saved our lives.
In qualifying our experience, it should be noted that we were traveling in the off-season. Availability was not an issue and pricing was, therefore, highly flexible. Also, harsh weather seemed to work in our favor. We paid less than a third the Internet rate on a room in Santa Fe, N.M., the day after it got doused with a foot of snow. Low occupancy was our ally.
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And because we were on a do-it-yourself road tour, package deals did not apply. Rarely was our stay in any one place longer than a couple of days.
One frustrating drawback with the Web was a lack of comprehensive listings. Sites offer great deals on certain chains that, one suspects, either advertise heavily or have partnerships with the service. But there’s no breadth — competing outlets aren’t even quoted. So you’re left with doing multiple searches on numerous sites and services to get a feel for quality and price spread.
Even individual listings were curiously information-shy on the Web. Many sites don’t list pet policies — a deciding factor for us and Maggie, our bichon frisé. We also prefer to have windows that open, but sites never list that simple feature. Nor does the typical site say anything about Wi-Fi access, an obvious point of interest to a Web searcher.
Moreover, those rock-bottom online quotes often turned out to be low, but not the lowest. Without exception, I was offered a better rate over the phone. I’m not sure what’s going on here — it may have to do with fees paid to Internet services for reservations — but calls save bucks.
The efficiencies of the Internet ought to pay huge dividends with travel. But instead of detailed amenities, photos and descriptions, most sites offer bare-bones descriptions of even 5-star vendors. Here’s another case where video could prove a boon as broadband connections continue to expand, assuming vendors get around to posting it.
By contrast, Triple-A’s old-school guidebooks were a breath of fresh air. They offered the most comprehensive listings for a given destination and included context maps that eased location planning. Each listing was accompanied by a host of icons designating pet policy, amenities and other features.
The books came in handy particularly when we had to make on-the-fly revisions in our travel plans once the trip began. Flipping through a booklet proved far more accessible than calling phone information or surfing the Web.
There’s something about the eye’s ability to scan the printed page that exceeds anything the Web can yet offer.
Which brings us to the kicker: Triple-A’s print guides are much more useful than its Web site. Somehow the booklets’ breadth and ease of use do not yet translate to the Web. I’m not saying they never will, but for the time being I’ll hang on to the TourBooks.
Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of “Gates.” He can be reached at email@example.com.