A New Trend in Travel Guides?

by Jim Crandall (jcrandall@vcnet.com)

Copyright 1996 James Crandall. All rights reserved


During a recent search-and-destroy session inside my swollen Netscape bookmark file, I rediscovered several travel-oriented Web sites which can be easily overlooked when stacked among the popular Net search engines, and glamorous corporate home pages. These purely functional sites, salvaged during my relentless raid, are like many other useful pages that pop up occasionally on random explorations of cyberspace. Although inconspicuous by themselves, they can, when linked, become a powerful bundle of planning aids for the business and recreational traveler. I like to think of these assembled Web sites as my personal tool chest for the production of disposable, one-trip travel guides which are up-to-date when I depart, and obsolete when I return.

When planning foreign travel, you might find the World Factbook () a good place to start. This CIA- generated atlas of geopolitical information is especially useful for learning about a country's vital statistics, but since the site is only revised each July, information can be dated. A more current resource is provided by the State Department (). Here, one can find data on each country's laws, regulations, and customs as well as current travel and health advisories. Arriving at a foreign airport or border crossing, only to find that you need an entry visa, inoculation certificate or international drivers' license, can result in considerable embarrassment and wasted time.

Getting advance word on the weather can also make one's trip go more smoothly. A few days before any travel outside of California, I always check CNN's excellent weather site () to determine whether I should pack wool or cotton, boots or sandals. There's nothing like arriving in Orlando expecting sunshine, or in Boston ready for rain, when the weather is exactly the opposite. By the way, there's some great packing advice, courtesy of Delta Airlines, at Packing Tips ().

Arriving at an unfamiliar airport always has its pitfalls, and one of the biggest is local transportation. There's nothing as pitiful as the person who, baggage in hand, stands stalled outside the arrival gate wondering how to get from here to there without resorting to costly cabs or pricey limos. Information on hotel shuttles, inexpensive airport buses and nearby rapid transit stations can often be found hidden inside the various airline Web sites. American Airlines, for example, provides this link for its passengers under Destination Information/Route Maps (). Other useful transportation information that travelers can assemble before each trip is Subway Navigator () where one can find station-to- station routings for many major transit systems around the world, available in both text and graphic form.

City mapping services and address finders like those on De Lorme's popular CD-ROM, Street Atlas USA, are now also available globally on the World Wide Web. One of the best is MapQuest () which can jump to numerous locations by keying in the country, region, city, business or even a specific address. Unlike Street Atlas USA, a "find" using my own home address was right on the mark. As a mapping and routing utility, the accuracy and flexibility of this program make it a definite bookmark for the frequent traveler.

Okay, now you can download diagrams for the Paris Metro and plot your business calls in New York, but what about those troublesome language barriers? New York? No problem. Paris? Ooh la la! Fortunately, almost any communication block can be broken at Language Guides () where, after installing the proper sound- reader, you can collect and memorize enough phrases to start a simple conversation with just about anyone in the world. Remember, if you at least begin with their language, you'll usually get a warm reception. Yes, even in France!

Speaking of surprises, one of the biggest is how quickly one's cash supply diminishes when traveling. Who knew that a cab ride from Boston-Logan to Cambridge would cost $35, or a newspaper and a cup of coffee in Rome would run 10,000 lire? Not to worry if you have an ATM card that links to the Visa/Plus system (), and if you have done your homework before you depart. Use this site to plot the location of money machines near your hotel or out-of-town residence, then print out the mini-maps and tuck them away for future reference.

Planning ahead is always smart; it is a must for events that require advance booking or reservations. My personal queries when researching any big-city destination are: "What's showing?" "Who's playing?" and "Where's the nearest golf course?" Ticketmaster Online () is a good stop for getting seats at the theater or sports arena, and golf.com () will find, describe, and put you in touch with the starter at the course of your choice.

A regular round of golf or set of tennis can help keep one fit while traveling, but what if that pesky hay fever kicks in, or your trick knee gives out? Maybe you have a medical condition that needs periodic monitoring? If so, it's essential to have a ready reference to health services available in each place you plan to visit. Using MedAccess (), you can generate a list of local doctors, specialists and hospitals, and add it to your growing roster of travel resources.

Now that you've found and filed these bits and pieces of information that will make your business trip much more efficient or your holiday a lot more enjoyable, it's time to print everything and organize the pages into usable form. A three-hole notebook with separators for the cities or countries on your itinerary will suffice, but if you travel a lot, it may be time to invest in one of the page layout programs for publishing your collected materials. If you don't want to spend the big bucks for Aldus Pagemaker or Quark Xpress, try Bookmaker's affordable ClickBOOK (street price: about $30) which can help you produce anything from an address book to a technical manual.

Imagine! A custom-made trip guide just for you! And who knows? Maybe some digital entrepreneur is already working on just such an Internet enterprise. Maybe personalized travel guides will be next in the ever-expanding catalog of online services for travelers on the World Wide Web.

Additional Resources

Mastercard Locator

Switchboard (telephone numbers)

Currency Converter

Time Zone Information

Tipping Guide

CDC Health Warnings

International Clothing Sizes

International Etiquette

James Crandall, B.A., M.A. in Fine Arts, UCLA, recently took an early retirement from Los Angeles College, where he chaired the Art/Architecture Department.