Virtual plans on Internet for real trips

March 16, 1997|By Matthew McAllester | Matthew McAllester,NEWSDAY

When we arrived in Mexico's Oaxaca City, we saw a man standing on the other side of the glass in the arrivals area holding a card with my name on it. So, I thought, Rene Cabrera really does exist and is here to fetch us, just as his e-mails had promised.

My faith in the Net took a giant step forward.

This was the start of a journey that had begun weeks earlier on my computer keyboard, a journey mapped out almost entirely on the Internet to see exactly how feasible it is to plan a vacation online -- and then take it.

After a short drive, Rene pulled into Las Bugambilias, his bed and breakfast in the center of town; it was even more charming with its wrought-iron gate, chirping birds in cages and ceramic floor tiles than it had looked on my computer screen.

Enriched by Internet

At this point, I became a believer.

For all its current shortcomings, the Internet's enormous variety, speed and interactivity had already enriched my vacation. It wasn't easy for me to come to this realization. In researching and writing about the Internet for nearly a year, I'd come to learn that there's more hype to disbelieve about the Internet than any other invention since the advent of the solar panel. With the experimental booking of this vacation, however, the Internet has shown signs of establishing itself as a regular part of life rather than a freakish trend.

Which isn't to say that traipsing through the largely unmapped and sometimes poorly maintained highways and byways of the Internet is the easiest way to go about making travel plans. Not yet, it's not.

Human travel agents, paper guidebooks and newspaper ads still have a lot going for them. I had a bit of a hard time believing that at least some part of my vacation would not be spoiled because I had organized it online.

Skeptic though I was, I couldn't help the rush of excitement when I found the one and only Web site of a bed and breakfast in the gorgeous southern Mexican city of Oaxaca.

Before I even left New York, I had seen in relative detail on my computer screen the place where I did, indeed, spend 10 wonderfully relaxing days in November. I had told my host via e-mail that I wanted to try out the temazcal steam baths advertised on his site. And I had e-mailed him just before I left to confirm that I had just been to the mall and would be bringing the two pairs of Gap jeans, size 32 in the waist, that he had asked me to buy for him.

The vacation began with e-mail. My wired girlfriend shot off a handful of e-mails to friends and friends of friends who she knew had visited Mexico. Within days she had forwarded their replies to my mailbox.

This was part of a typical response: "Only with great jealousy and envy can I speak of Oaxaca To me it is the best of Mexico, all in one location: a beautiful old Spanish-style city, built around a 'zocalo' [town square] where you can still sit at a cafe and watch the world go by and last but not least, the best food I've ever had in Mexico."

I was sold. With all the e-mails we received about Oaxaca, I felt that someone had written a small travel book, just for us. For free.

Still, I needed some specifics, so I took an online trip to the Yahoo! directory at http: //www .yahoo.com. There I found several sites about Oaxaca. One was the home page of Las Bugambilias at http: //www.mexonline.com/ bugambi2.htm.

Sometimes it's good to trust the professionals, so I also visited the Rough Guide site on Hotwired at http: //www.hotwired.com/ rough/ and printed out pages of advice about restaurants, sights and all the usual information a good travel book will have. This way I didn't have to buy a whole book on Mexico just to find out about one region.

Traveler's tips

There's no set structure to planning your vacation online, but keep in mind three main objectives: First, find out what your destination has to offer. Second, settle on a place to stay. Third, get yourself some travel arrangements and plane tickets.

Although the Internet can seem to have even more choices than the real world, don't worry if you get a bit lost. A good idea is to take notes on paper of the Web addresses that appeal to you, or make bookmarks on your browser and come back to them later. If you come across a page you know will prove useful as you continue making your plans, print it out. Keep all your printouts in a folder or a binder and start putting together your own guidebook and itinerary.

First stop should be the relative order of Yahoo!'s travel section at http: //www.yahoo .com/Recreation/Travel/. Yahoo! is a search engine but, unlike other such databases, everything in it is seen by a pair of human eyes and placed into categories by human fingers tapping at keyboards. That makes Yahoo! a guidebook to the Net as well as a digital bloodhound.

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