Rest Assured by Amy Marr
Don't be fooled by spectacular photos, lists of luxurious amenities, or star-based rating systems. To find a hotel that lives up to its Web site's promises, you have to do your homework. "Be willing to dig around and collect opinions from different sources," says Susan Stellin, New York Times travel reporter and author of How to Travel Practically Anywhere ($16, Houghton Mifflin), which hits stores in April. Start by collecting ideas from guidebooks, magazines, and Web sites you trust. ("Don't overlook local tourism-bureau sites," notes Stellin, "which can list a far greater range of options.") Then vet your picks by checking out unbiased reviews and opinions on blogs and in discussion groups (see "Blogsploitation"): Does "no frills" really mean "no air conditioning"? When you're ready to book, shop around for rates and read the fine print about taxes (are they included?) and cancellation and change policies. Sometimes a hotel's home site can yield both the best rate and the most flexible agreement.
Special Agents // When to Go Pro
Once the lone purveyors of computerized price comparisons and snazzy brochures, travel agents have suffered in the dot-com era. It hasn't helped that in recent years the major airlines have slashed commissions from at least 10 percent to zero, forcing agencies to charge per-ticket fees that now average $27. Nearly a third of the U.S. travel agents operating in 2000 have since fallen off the map. But the survivors are far from obsoleteespecially for adventure travelers. "How do you know you're getting a decent trekking guide if you find him on the Web?" asks Andrew Haffenden, owner of Nature Travel Specialists, a Helena, Alabamabased agency that focuses on active explorations in Australia, Asia, and South America. Agents like Haffenden cater to travelers who want what the Internet can't offer: expertise (many now specialize in a particular destination or type of travelsay, surf vacations or Amazon adventures), efficiency (a good agent can find online deals a lot faster than you can), and a live human voice (particularly handy when a trip doesn't go as planned). Experts can even save you money, says Haffenden, who books intra-Australia airfares on low-price domestic carriers that aren't on the major online sites. "That's what we add: the value of knowing the destination and knowing what's there." K. L.
Suite Spots // Where to Look for Lodging
www.Quikbook.com offers bargain-priced distressed inventory (industryspeak for "unsold rooms") at more than 1,000 independent boutique hotels worldwide. www.Placestostay.com features 16,000 hotels in 160 countries and claims to offer up to 70 percent savings, plus 24/7 customer service via phone or e-mail. www.Tablethotels.com presents a well-edited selection of high-end boutique hotels with architectural personality and impeccable service, all with best-price guarantees. www.Bedandbreakfast.com's user-friendly database dishes out beta on 22,000 inns worldwide, with hot deals that change every Wednesday. www.FiveStarAlliance.com represents 1,000-plus luxury hotels handpicked by the editors, with good insider tips (like which rooms offer the best views), exclusive offers, and a satisfaction-guaranteed pledge. www.Travelintelligence.com lists 3,500 hotels, each reviewed by one of the site's stable of 120 independent travel writers.