Phone call unleashes torrents of information Guides: Helpful travel material is available from a multitude of sources, and much of it is free


September 27, 1998|By Carol Fowler | Carol Fowler,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Many years ago, on a cross-country driving trip with our children, we ended a hot, long day in Amarillo, in the land-of-extremes Texas panhandle.

We cruised down Highway 237, looking expectantly at each motel with a patch of grass and swimming pool in front. One after another had posted "No Vacancy" signs in glaring red neon. least it seemed glaring after we had just driven 500 miles in a station wagon with a broken air conditioner and three kids, restless as caged tigers, in the back.

We finally stopped at a pay phone, and I thumbed through the American Automobile Association guide for Texas and started calling motels in towns down the road. I finally located one in Clarendon, about an hour away. We logged another 60 miles and pulled in.

My husband never signed a register so happily and I never plopped into an air-conditioned room with such relief. The kids got a quick swim before dinner in the motel's mom-and-pop restaurant. Everyone's mood was considerably soothed.

That dog-eared guide was a godsend.

The AAA guides are among one of many free travel resources. While AAA guides are not strictly free, in that you have to be a member, they are available for the asking, along with maps and trip-planning services, once you have paid your dues.

Some oil companies have similar arrangements for travel club members.

The sources for free travel information are endless. Much of it is simply a phone call away. If you are online, the amount of travel information, advice and booking opportunities soars into the stratospheric cyberspace.

But you must have a little of the buyer-beware attitude. Often listings, either in printed guides or electronic, come from those who pay to be included, partly because the free material has to be paid for in some way. So while the number of rooms or amenities may be accurate, the adjectives may embellish the real thing.

Here are some resources for free travel material.

* State tourist offices: Every state in the union publishes a glossy, magazine-size guide to entice visitors to its mountains, lakes and cities. These books are also filled with information that covers historic sites, places of natural beauty, accommodations and sometimes restaurants. Other sections have a rundown on museums and theaters. Some of the states are putting out guides for the seasons or active travelers. A bonus of most of the state guides is that they have excellent pull-out road maps that can be used for driving trips through the state.

And these free travel aids are available simply by calling. Phone directory assistance (area code plus 555-1212), ask for the state capital and then for the state tourist office. If your request is simple, you can often leave your name and address for the brochures to be mailed to you. But most offices give you an option to speak to someone.

Even if a travel agent is helping you plan a trip, the guides are helpful. When we planned a trip to Alaska, I used that state's excellent vacation planner to book back-country lodges at Denali and Katmai national parks, when we departed from the standard cruise-land itinerary.

If you call the state tourist office number, you can also be referred to regional tourism offices. Large states, such as California, have a lot of these agencies for a specific area. One of them, the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association, has put out a stunning guide that is presented as a travel journal. Its poetic photographs and writing will certainly lure you to the lake. But it also contains lists of recreation facilities, resorts and dining possibilities in easy-to-read table format.

* Foreign government tourist offices: Almost every country in the world has a tourist office in the United States, usually in one or more of the largest cities. A call will bring in a flood of brochures, guides and maps in the mail. Some of them also have extensive information on the regions of the country. A gorgeous guide to Provence from the French Government Tourist Office made me want to run to the Luberon and pick lavender.

* Cities: If your trip takes you only to a specific city, you can phone its chamber of commerce or convention and visitors bureau. Call directory assistance and ask for the chamber of commerce or the convention and visitor bureau number.

* Library: You will find virtually every travel guide that is published in many library systems: for example, Fodor, Frommer, Fielding, Lonely Planet, Let's Go, Access and Michelin guides. I have frequently consulted them before I decided what book to buy. Sometimes I have used them to find a more updated version of a guide that I already owned.

* Last word: That night in Clarendon must have impressed everyone in my family. About 20 years after it happened, my oldest son drove through that Texas town on a cross-country trip.

"I found the motel, Mom," he said. "I remembered the green doors."

In brief


Picking up a hotel phone can be an expensive proposition. Hampton Inn Hotels has several suggestions for keeping the cost down.

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