Travel is a major interest of mine. In my childhood I spent time in France and Italy, and from an early age I tried to get a grasp of practical travel matters. The Internet has been of tremendous use in travel planning, and has let me be involved in some travel discussion groups where I've become prominent, most recently being recognized as a SlowTrav hero in 2009.
The Internet has allowed me to post some reports on my major trips. I emphasize the practical in my reports. After getting into too much detail in the first report I wrote in 1996, I have mainly made observations of the important points; when returning to Italy I make note of the biggest changes I've seen. I'm linking to them basically as originally written; some information (and my opinions!) may have changed. My recent reports haven't gotten much response; I'm always interested in getting response specific to the reports.
Italy 1996 Included Sardinia and a stopover in England. The report is overly long, but many long-lost friends and relatives located me thanks to this report being posted.
Italy 1998 Mostly stayed as a guest of the art school where my father was teaching.
Italy 2000 Includes many airline misadventures.
Lisbon 2000 The trip was a great introduction to Portugal for me.
Mexico 2001 Mexico City and Oaxaca.
Italy 2002 A nice trip, with stress as I barely made my return flight.
Asia 2002 Hong Kong, Macau, Vietnam, Cambodia; a major adventure. It was difficult to write about Vietnam.
Italy 2004: Trip report
Relaxation and dealing with repairs at the house. Practical details on
my three stays in Rome.
Here's a blog (maybe I'm using the term incorrectly; I'm reconstructing the planning steps later) of the planning of my trip to Italy for summer 2004. It shows that I'm continuing to learn things about booking frequent flyer award travel.
Italy 2005: Trip report
Around the North in winter, plus a stay in Lugano, Switzerland.
Italy 2006: Trip
report Via London, nice stay in Bologna.
Trip report Around Portugal and Bilbao
Trip report Umbertide and Abruzzo; my mother hospitalized
Trip report A troubled beauty
Italy 2010 via Paris: The planning of this starts my new more official blog http://andrewmtrav.blogspot.com . What I write about my travel may be focused there now.
Another report, Memphis 1997, shows an early trip where I booked every part of it on the Internet. It seems quaint now as I routinely use the Internet to decide to take a trip and book it. Here are some of the sites I use. These sites are commercial or have commercial content, and they may cause ads to keep coming up on your computer. To minimize the most annoying pop-ups, download a pop-up blocker such as with the Google toolbar.
A good introduction to airline pricing can be found on Southwest Airlines' site. It makes clear the concept that, for example, you can fly outbound for $79 at 6 a.m., but the 9 a.m. flight will cost $199. It became a little less clear when, in November 2007, they compressed all the reduced-fare buckets into one column. This site just covers one airline's flights, but they're the big airline in Kansas City, and the low-cost leader in terms of bringing fares down when the enter a market, although they often don't have the lowest fares. In March 2005 they announced the end of their 50% frequent flyer bonus on trips booked online; a little later they added capacity controls on their award tickets, so their program is less appealing, but sometimes one can get good deals with them.
Southwest fares aren't listed on the Big Three airfare search engines: Travelocity, Expedia, and Orbitz. ITA Software is the basis of Orbitz's program but doesn't allow booking. QIXO and Sidestep used to show Southwest and other airlines together but they don't any more. One problem I've had with the Big Three is that they may show a long list of itineraries with the lowest fare, but they all call for returning at 6 a.m., when that may not be an option. Orbitz is slightly better than the others in putting flights at the part of the day you want first, with a note that there are lower fares at other times. I'd like to see the option of saying, "Show the lowest fares of the day as long as the return isn't before 9 a.m." As of spring 2005, Sidestep's Web product allows this to some extent. Kayak is a newer site searching across several others, allowing some of these limits. Orbitz is also useful with its flexible dates option; you can say that your dates are flexible by a few days and they will search a range of dates for the lowest fare. Another useful tool is Smarter Living's Booking Buddy; it lets you put your search into several search engines at once in separate windows; you could select the Big Three and Southwest. The problem is it doesn't let you enter a time of day preference, and it tends to freeze up my home computer. However I locate the best fare, I will probably book it through the airline's site; the sites above have service charges, and the airlines sometimes give bonus miles for booking on their site.
For intercontinental travel, the sites in the preceding paragraph can all be used. ITA Software has the nice feature of allowing a month-long search for international fares: you can say that you'd like to take a 14-16-day trip to Europe within a 30-day period, and it will say on what dates you can take this trip with the lowest fare. Consolidators may offer lower fares. I haven't booked a consolidator fare over the Internet; for my recent trips, I've either found a good published fare or had award travel. QIXO and Sidestep above search some consolidator sites. Some sites that include consolidator fares are Mobissimo, 1800FlyEurope, Onetravel and Flights.com . Hotwire (flights not shown until you purchase) is another option. Onetravel and Hotwire can be included on a Booking Buddy search. Once you've searched a few sites, go to ETN with your flight request; they promise a human response to your request within a short time. Consolidator fares may not qualify for frequent flyer credit: if this is important to you, ask about it before you purchase. A rule of thumb is that each mile is worth 2 cents; if a round trip is 10,000 miles and you're interested in getting these, it would be worth up to $200 more to get a trip that gives miles than one that doesn't, assuming the comfort and convenience are the same. If you pay more than that, you're better off paying for the trip you're trying to get for free.
The landscape of travel within Europe has changed as low-cost carriers with fares of next to nothing have entered the scene. DoHop is a current favorite, searching low-cost and legacy airlines. Just as Southwest isn't included on most booking engines in the U.S., Ryanair , is the dominant low-cost carrier in Europe, but it is not included on some sites listing these carriers. Search engines that specialize in low-cost carriers in Europe are Skyscanner (which sometimes has trouble working correctly) and WhichBudget, which makes you look for flights from each London airport rather than combining them. I've found that these sites still miss out on some low-fare airlines: Volareweb, for instance, used to fly from Rome and Milan to Bilbao but it wasn't shown here when I checked. Volare's cessation of service in fall 2004 is an indication that one should worry about counting on low-cost carriers' service when it's crucial to make a trip.
I learned in March 2004 that online booking was becoming possible from outside Italy on the Trenitalia site (most reliably only on the Italian language site). I have an explanation for non-Italian readers here. In August 2004, I'm finding that reservations are working well on the English language site, although some of what it says is misleading. I've done some editing, allowing for the site working in English and noting some problems that people find in booking.
The Big Three sites list hotels; Orbitz is good with its matrix of ratings, prices, and distance from search location. These sites are increasingly emphasizing their prepaid deals, while I prefer to make a more traditional booking (to be paid at the time of the stay), which I may cancel if a particularly good deal turns up later. Sidestep is a good starting point. If you understand their rules and can live with them, Priceline is hard to beat for value; look at the boards listed below to understand how to bid on Priceline. Priceline usually beats Hotwire for the same class of hotel, but sometimes you can identify the Hotwire hotel before you commit to it (for instance, there may only be one 3-star all-suite hotel downtown with a swimming pool), which may be useful. The downloadable Travelaxe program lets you search across several wholesalers, such as Hotels.com . For hotels in Europe, Italy in particular, Venere shows a lot; now they've changed to showing prices per night, not the total for the stay.
For North American travel, Orbitz has worked well for me; their grid has improved to show bottom-line pricing, since there can be so many extra charges on rentals. When I've located the best rental, I book on the rental company's site and make sure I've signed up with their program to cut time with paperwork at the time of rental, and sometimes get a discount. It seems that each time I use a company, my license or credit card has changed since the last time I used them; in some cases, you must update the information before making the reservation. After one rental with Hertz where I was upgraded to a car with their Neverlost navigation system, I'm tempted to spend a little more and get this when I'm driving someplace unfamiliar.
For rentals in Europe (my only experience is in Italy), the taxes and mandatory insurance can more than double the base price. Auto Europe comes highly recommended partly because it quotes an inclusive price, and promises to meet competitors' prices. They require payment at the time of booking.
Shortly after I was first connected to the Internet, I wanted to pursue my travel interests there. I subscribed to the Travel-l Internet discussion group in 1992; at the time it consisted mainly of academics asking about places where they were going for conferences. As the Internet expanded, there were many changes in the character of the group, and there were growing pains. Travel-l's server in Turkey eventually collapsed. TheTravelzine, established in 1999, was the principal heir to Travel-l but got into problems of the owners' making. The boards I've found useful at various times are:
TheTravelzine I had an important role there, recognized as Ziner in the Spotlight; that page about me is reproduced here. I considered it the top area for general travel discussion, but that has come to an end. I don't want to put many negatives on my home page; a separate page explaining the whole sad story is here.
My new favorite is Slowtrav -- Specializes in vacation rentals, primarily in Italy. It has informational pages about practical matters. Its Slowtalk discussion boards are a good source for up-to-date practical information about Italy in particular.
Other niche sites:
Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Especially for discussion of more exotic destinations.
Flyertalk Specializes in discussion of the various frequent flyer/stay programs, which extends to the services of the airlines and hotel chains. It also has boards for general travel discussion.
BiddingForTravel The main place to go for help in placing a Priceline bid. The board's moderating style is a subject of controversy; read about it in the "Online Travel Booking and Bidding" section of Flyertalk Travel.
BetterBidding A friendlier alternative to BiddingForTravel, catching up in providing information. Also includes Hotwire discussion and information to help identify hotels on Hotwire.
Finally, links to the sites of artistic members of my family:
My father James McGarrell
R.I.P. my brother Flo McGarrell, 1974-2010:
Flo's home page
Some edits of dead links made October 22, 2013, but for the most part this page reflects an outlook from a few years ago.