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January 28, 1996

PRACTICAL TRAVELER/ By STEVE LOHR

On Line, Finding the Right Room

In his bestseller "The Road Ahead," Bill Gates foresees a system he calls "friction-free capitalism," as consumers deal for themselves for goods and services on the Internet. The travel industry, he asserts, is ripe for this technology-led revolution with its promise of unlimited information and lower prices.

"Travel agents," Mr. Gates writes, "now search for the availability of travel arrangements using data bases and reference books customers don't have access to." But this monopoly of knowledge is fast coming to an end because more travel information is being heaped onto the Internet.

Indeed, some travel sites on the Internet's World Wide Web suggest that this future has already arrived. A few Web sites offer package vacations, while others have airline or hotel information. To sample this specialized alcove of cyberspace, I chose hotels. I'd select a location, dates and price ranges. If my brief tour is any indication, the potential of the new high-tech world of travel services is obvious, but so are its limitations.

There are a handful of Web sites that carry listings from thousands of hotels, like The Hotel Guide and World Hotel's Travelscope. They allow a person to search for a hotel by city, dates, price range and amenities. To make a booking, the Net surfer is typically asked to send an E-mail request or call an 800 phone number, and follow up by phone or fax.

Bookings With Computers

But one hotel site promises more. Travel Web offers not only pictures of the selected hotels, but also the option to make a confirmed reservation on the spot, by computer. Tap a few keystrokes, include a credit card number, and your computer is talking to the hotel's mainframe. A minute or so later, up pops a confirmation number on your computer screen. A written confirmation is sent by E-mail, which you can then print out -- a piece of paper for comfort.

The Travel Web site is the work of Pegasus Systems Inc., a joint venture of 14 hotel chains including Hyatt, Ramada, Westin, Hilton and Days Inn. Travel Web opened for bookings on Dec. 19, with more than 4,800 hotels available.

The current incarnation is just the beginning, according to Charles Zug, vice president of interactive services for Pegasus. As the software improves and high-speed data lines become cheaper, the site hopes to provide travelers with video clips and three-dimensional images.

O.K., the futuristic vision sounds great. But what about today's reality? For an on-line test drive, I chose a popular travel destination (San Francisco) and a time (the first weekend in March).

I type Travel Web's address into my Netscape browser -- software that forages out on the Internet for the requested Web site. A Netscape-compatible browser is needed; people entering the Web from services like America Online and Compuserve cannot tap into Travel Web.

After a brief wait, up pops the home page for Travel Web. It's done in stylish graphics, the blue-and-green silhouette of a bearded man in a turban riding a magic carpet, set against a black background. Below that is the Travel Web logo, followed by a sketch of a double bed, turned down. Beneath the bed are three icons: "lodging search," "lodging information" and "reservations."

I click "lodging search." What appears on the screen next is a series of boxes, some empty and others with several selections to choose from. In the "travel destination" box, I type in "San Francisco." In the "location modifier," I type in "downtown." The "hotel chain" box has 24 listings, but I hit "all."

There are eight categories of hotels, from "all-suites" to "guest ranch." Again, I click "all." For room rates, I type in $75 to $150 a night for standard and deluxe rooms, a range, I figure, which should yield plenty of choices. There are 38 amenities listed, from "AM-FM alarm clock" to "casino." Not too picky here, I select fitness center, 24-hour front desk and free newspaper.

Then, I hit the "enter" icon and await the cornucopia of computer-mediated choices to appear on my screen. Instead, a disappointing message pops up: "I'm sorry, there were no entries that matched your search parameters. Please back up to the search page and try your search again."

Well, computers are more literal-minded than accountants. These machines crunch numbers and data at amazing speeds, but they don't make judgments. Still, the only search term I entered that a computer might interpret as subjective would be "downtown." So I remove it.

The result is better this time, but the choice is meager, especially for a city with about 200 hotels. Three hotels match my request: a Travelodge in Fisherman's Wharf, a Best Western in Fisherman's Wharf and a Best Western in Novato, Calif., about 30 miles north of San Francisco.

A bit of a letdown, but undaunted I click on the Best Western Tuscan Inn in Fisherman's Wharf. Two icons appear: a drawing of a camera with a caption "see the photo," and another drawing of the magic carpet guy for "reservations." I click on the camera, and up pops a somewhat grainy picture of a lobby area, cast in deep browns, leather chairs and a fireplace. An ersatz Tuscan lodging on Fisherman's Wharf? Ah well, I click on "reservations."

More boxes appear, asking me for the month and date of arrival and departure. I enter March 1 for arrival, and departure on March 3. Bed type? I click on "double." Then I click on the "send form" icon. Two replies come back, telling me that rooms at two rates are available, $108 a day and $128 a day.

The brief room description for the two rates is the same: "Two double beds, hair dryer in room." So I click on "select this room type" for the $108 room. (A warning, here, if you are getting onto the Internet from a PC at a company or university.

If a "no response" box appears after clicking on room type, chances are your computer network restricts you from tapping into Web pages that ask for credit-card information.)

Next, up pops a Web page asking for my name, E-mail address and credit-card information. A screen message tells me the reservation has been made and, sure enough, no more than a minute later my E-mail program alerts me that I have a new message. It is from Travel Web, with a confirmation number.

Mixed Verdict

So the verdict on on-line hotel hunting? The Internet is a good place to sample hotel offerings in a city, learn the location, see the property and get a feel for prices. If you know the hotel you want to stay in, and it's among the chains in Travel Web's database, the computer network is a very efficient tool.

Still, the choices so far are painfully limited and the software is quirky. "Downtown" as a location request excludes every hotel in San Francisco? A travel agent with a telephone who knows an offbeat bed-and-breakfast place, or a one-of-a-kind hotel, can beat the World Wide Web hands down.

The Internet, it seems, still has some work to do before it is ready to revolutionize travel.


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