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Holidays in hell

Travel searches are hair-pullingly frustrating. Try Google and you'll find tons of booking sites but few reliable info sites. How to find your dream resort.

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by Vijay Verghese


Illustration: Vijay Verghese

CYBER TRAVEL IS A CINCH, RIGHT? With so much travel information on the web all you have to do is enter a few search words on Google or Yahoo and, click, you’re on your way. Or so you thought. Think again.

As many as ninety-nine percent of web searches on the Internet for travel in Asia – and a good many other categories besides – end up in dead-end streets. Why? Because the Internet is, at best, a clumsy assortment of just about everything everyone can throw at it, from genuine websites to ditzy diaries, web cams detailing the humdrum lives of people like Jennifer Ringley (the Pennsylvania student who started it all on Jennicam in 1996) and boring bloggers – those dull people who record all their daily minutiae and serve it up as web fodder for the unsuspecting.

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Alas, it is no longer possible to tune in voyeuristically to watch Jenny brush her teeth and watch TV, a routine that held millions in thrall as they waited, patiently, for her to undress for bed. Said a blasé Jenny, “I keep JenniCam alive not because I want or need to be watched, but because I simply don’t mind being watched.” Nowadays you can head to Earthcam (www.earthcam.com) to view everything from African game to ant colonies in Britain and traffic cameras in various metros around the world. “Hey that’s my husband, and that’s NOT me with him.”

{Alas it is no longer possible to tune in voyeuristically to watch Jenny do extraordinary stuff like brush her teeth and watch TV

The rest of us can type in pretty much anything on our screens and the chances are we’ll end up on a sex site peddling Japanese cartoons, farm animals or worse. At least animals gained some celebrity with David Attenborough as he crawled into hitherto secretive rainforests to shine bright lights in their faces, moving the camera within an inch of their privates. “And here as I lift its hind leg we can see how a male slow loris engages his partner and…” QUIT IT Attenborough, leave those poor critters alone. Now Serengeti lions are captured live and anonymously in their most dramatic action moments – as they loll about in the shade and let their lady friends get on with managing the kitchen. Hurrah!

Then there’s the case of the US fraudster who was nabbed and fined for misdirecting innocent queries in less-than-innocent directions. The gentleman in question hit upon an idea of marketing genius. Realising that many people (and a significant number of Americans including the president) can’t spell, he registered scores of web domain names based on misspelled queries. For example, the innocent Disney may have been registered as dysney.com and so on. Millions of dyslexics in search of Mickey were thus redirected to vastly more useful and enlightening sites like XXXSirens.Com and so on that are entirely responsible for my continued education today. But the game was up. Apparently someone at the FBI could spell.

With all this static and subterfuge it’s a wonder anyone gets through to any page of value at all. And Google has over FOUR BILLION PAGES catalogued. What are your chances? Slimmer than Brittney Spears, I would reckon. A simple query like “sex” will pull over 219 million possible sites. Forget brushing up on the G spot and other arcane wisdom. It simply won’t happen.

But here’s the real rub. Say you’re planning a visit to Bali and you sensibly keyed in “Bali hotels” on Google to launch your search, you’d end up with almost 1.5 million results. Even narrowing the field to “Bali luxury hotels” would return almost half a million possibilities. There simply isn’t enough time in the Roman calendar for all this sorting and sifting. The smart money is on the first 20 results. This is what your friends will tell you. Check the first two pages and drop all the rest – it must surely be rubbish if a major search engine has ranked it so far down. Right? Wrong again.

{Your search for "Bali hotels" may return 1.5 million results. There isn't time enough in the Roman calendar to sort through this

The crux of the problem for serious travellers (and I apologise for having been rather digressive arriving at this) is the fact that the overwhelming majority of searches on the Web are dominated by retailers. Search for digital camera models and you’ll find hundreds of sites offering you the best deal on the latest SONY. Key in “Bangkok hotels” and all you’ll find is cluttered travel agency sites pushing bargain basement deals with all the twinkling paraphernalia and blinking messages that you’d expect to find in an Amsterdam bordello. They all ask, right up front, “Which airline? Which hotel? Which date?” This is the last step in travel decision-making.

Retail sites and booking engines fail to service a web customer’s biggest requirement – the need to shop around, to research, to circle the subject and identify choices. The breathless haste of the Web makes it practically impossible to go through a selection or comparison process before proceeding to the checkout (or booking). In other words, the last stage in decision-making (the actual booking or purchase) is amply catered for, but there is little or nothing by way of reviews, a buffet of choice, independent opinions and the like that constitute the all-important first steps.

Print magazines that have fitting content are far too busy protecting themselves from the perceived – but highly overrated – threat of the Internet. Instead of exploiting the power of the Web and coopting it, they see it as competition, thus preventing people from accessing the best sort of information – material researched and written with journalistic rigour, employing checks and balances and quality filters. This is particularly true of Asia where almost all the travel information on the Web is posted by travel agencies. I am always quick to point out to friends that these are not “travel sites”. They are extensions of the travel agency with all the maddening nonsense, inaccuracies and outdated literature you might normally encounter there. These are booking engines at best, NOT information engines.

Not only do these so-called travel sites fail to provide useful up to the minute information and good images, they deny onward access by failing to supply hotel telephone numbers, e-mail addresses or website links. They fear this will lose them business. All it does, though, is frustrate the potential traveller who then has to backtrack from the dead-end street back to the search engine to start all over again. For FIT (Frequent Independent Traveller), read Frustrated Irate Traveller. The higher up the price scale you are – in other words, the more fussy – the greater the frustration quotient.

Of course if you know precisely what you want to purchase, there’s no problem. But Internet – and shopping – habits are rather different. If you were to imagine the shopping and buying model as a large pyramid, people would normally start at the bottom, the broadest part, to conduct general research. This is where they expect to find the maximum information on product specifications, reviews and so on, on hotels, cameras, fashions and the best places to dump their mother-in-laws. The bottom of the pyramid is where the maximum demand is concentrated.

{Travel searches are dominated by booking-engine sites which are useless if you want to shop around and do research

In the next step, viewers (or shoppers if you will) move up to the narrower mid-section of the pyramid where the search is trimmed to down to a few specifics. You’ve decided on India, and whittled it down to Rajasthan. At this point viewers start comparing specific prices and product details. Should they choose the plush Lake Palace in Udaipur or something sumptuous and closer to Delhi like Rajvilas, Samode Palace, or Neemrana? At the very end of this process, viewers move to the tip of the pyramid and make their actual booking – the very last step. In reality, this pyramid is completely inverted. While there is minimal or no genuine research available, there’s a flood of booking options. Key in anything on the Web and the blizzard of results will verify this instantly.

Finding a specific Hyatt, Sheraton, Shangri-La, InterContinental or Hilton might be easy – such brands constitute the highways of travel search. But, turn off on a smaller search byway to find a boutique property in Bali, and you’ll be well and truly lost. To find some little-known but charming place in Ubud you will need to know exactly where to place the hyphens and backslashes. The truth of the matter is that even the “highways” and visible brands fail to come to the rescue as most searches (at the bottom of the pyramid) will be for a basket of choice and not one specific hotel. People will start their search with something like “hong kong hotel” rather than Mandarin Oriental, Grand Hyatt, or Peninsula, unless they’ve already made their decision or happen to be loyal customers.

What can travellers do? Firstly, narrow your searches by including quotation marks to define your phrase. This tells the search engine to look for a combination of words in the exact format you have presented. Looking for “free Singapore hotel” without quotation marks will pull those words randomly. You’ll get free parking, toll-free numbers and so on as the word “free” figures in a vast number of directories. Make your key words as specific as possible and drop irrelevant words like ‘and’ and ‘where’ and so on. As Google explains, it “ignores common words and characters such as ‘where’ and ‘how’, as well as certain single digits and single letters, because they tend to slow down your search without improving the results.”

To define your query further, another useful tool is the “+” symbol. After your key words, leave a space and then add the “+” sign immediately followed by a category or defining term as in ‘Bali hotel +kids’. The minus symbol can be similarly applied to exclude a word or category. Should you be comparing holidays in Japan as well as Korea, try typing ‘holiday Japan OR Korea’. The word ‘OR’ must be in caps. In most situations, though, search engines will not distinguish between upper and lower case characters.

{Start by finding national tourism office umbrella sites which can lead you to specific articles, agencies and useful sites

To narrow a search to a specific price range, use two key numbers linked by two dots (periods), as in “Bangkok hotel $100..150”. This will encourage Google to search within the specified range. The same approach is useful for extracting the best posted prices for cameras and other paraphernalia. And if you’re tired of ending up in the sweaty arms of porn sites, filter them out by opening the Google homepage and clicking on the tiny subhead titled “preferences” just to the right of the page-centre search bar. This takes you to a page where, among other things like choice of language, you can set your SafeSearch filter to the required level. This weeds out undesirable adult content.

Another option is to go to the Directory on a search engine like Yahoo and identify your subject before a) examining the directory, or b) entering a search through normal key words within this directory.

Since searches often tend to be destination specific, a useful starting point is to access the umbrella site of the national tourist organisation of that particular country or region and work your way down from there. To find these, add the word “tourism” in your search, as in “Malaysia Tourism”. For your convenience we’ve listed key Asian sites at the end of this article. Whenever you find a site that answers your queries, follow three simple rules – bookmark, bookmark, bookmark. Of course there’s no guarantee your particular sub-page will still exist a few months down the road, so make absolutely sure, navigate to the site’s homepage and bookmark it. The easiest way to bookmark a page on any browser is to press the “D” key while simultaneously holding down the “Ctrl” key (on the bottom row of your keyboard). If you can remember Ctrl+D equals bookmark, you will save yourself considerable bother and pulling of hair later trying to find the pages you selected.

For a handy page that does nifty world time zone calculations with a digital clock face that can show you the current time in New York or New Delhi, go to http://www.timeticker.com and for those irksome but oh so necessary currency conversions try http://finance.yahoo.com/currency.

So there I was in Shanghai, confounded by a faulty map – drawn, of course, from the Internet. It showed the St Regis hotel in the heart of Puxi when, in fact, it was more than an hour’s drive away from where I stood, in distant Pudong. So much for that business trip. Had I had the luxury of an Internet connection at hand I might have watched listless lions in the Serengeti instead. As it was, all I could do was contemplate the traffic and fume. On business trips – or even leisure jaunts with wailing tots in tow – time is money and all the difference between beachside breakfast and nervous breakdown.

What a palaver. Why bother? I can’t wait for Jenny to come back.

Useful Sites

Australia www.australia.com
Bali www.bali-tourism-board.com
Bhutan www.tourism.gov.bt
Bangladesh www.bangladesh.com
Brunei www.tourismbrunei.com
Cambodia www.tourismcambodia.com
China www.cnta.com/lyen
China www.chinatravelservice.com
Dubai www.dubaitourism.ae
Guam www.visitguam.org
Hongkong www.discoverhongkong.com
India www.incredibleindia.org or www.tourism-of-india.com
Indonesia www.tourismindonesia.com
Indonesia www.indonesia-tourism.com
Japan www.jnto.go.jp
Kenya www.magicalkenya.com
Kerala www.keralatourism.com
Laos www.visit-mekong.com/laos
Macau www.macautourism.gov.mo
Malaysia www.tourism.gov.my
Maldives www.visitmaldives.com.mv
Mauritius www.mauritius.net
Myanmar www.myanmar-tourism.com
Nepal www.welcomenepal.com
Pakistan www,tourism.gov.pk
Palau www.visit-palau.com
Papua New Guinea www.pngtourism.org.pg
Philippines www.tourism.gov.ph
Sabah www.sabahtourism.com
Sarawak www.sarawaktourism.com
Shanghai www.shanghaitour.net
South Africa www.southafrica.net
South Korea www.tour2korea.com
Singapore www.visitsingapore.com
Sri Lanka www.srilankatourism.org
Taiwan www.tbroc.gov.tw
Thailand www.tourismthailand.org
Vietnam www.vietnamtourism.com

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