What's the one thing that everyone needs to stay competitive in the new economy? A break from it. There's just no substitute for a summer vacation to restore your sanity and recharge your batteries. And we don't mean a long weekend tacked onto a conference or a "getaway" during which you spend half your time connected to the office via phone, fax, pager, or email.
Our advice: Unplug already! But before you get away from it all, get on the Web. Travel planning is fast becoming one of the Net's killer apps. Eric Budin, 30, cofounder of GreenTree.com, a San Francisco-based Web company that sells health products, does all his travel planning online. "It costs me zero time," he says. "I can even book travel while I'm on the phone." Recently, surfing Travelocity to plan a vacation to New Orleans, he saw that fares to Paris were low, so he decided to go to France instead and booked his ticket directly through the United Airlines site.
This edition of @work is designed to take you away from work. It offers lots of ways to use the Web to plan your dream vacation — plus advice on how to stay off the Web once you're on vacation. Bon voyage!
A Fair Fare
Be your own travel agent. One of the best vacation-oriented uses of the Web is comparison shopping among airlines. Microsoft's Expedia Travel (www.expedia.com), Travelocity (www.travelocity.com), and Preview Travel (www.previewtravel.com) are the Big Three of online travel agents — sites that let you compare fares, schedules, and availability for dozens of flight options offered by multiple airlines. These sites also let you book hotel rooms and rent cars.
Reality check: These sites may not get you much of a price break, compared with what your travel agent can get you. But they do put you in control of the shopping process. Plus, unlike most human travel agents, these sites always remember who you are. Tom Caldwell, 39, vice president of marketing for Atcom/Info, a San Diego software startup, recently used Expedia to book a trip to Aspen. He started buying airline tickets online because, he says, "I was frustrated with people at my travel agency. They don't know who I am, or my likes and dislikes." These sites will remember what airport you fly from, what class you fly in — even where you like to sit on the plane.
Michael George, 42, VP of marketing for Bizfon, a Salem, New Hampshire-based company that makes a phone system for small businesses, has set up his Expedia profile so that anytime the fares change to one of the places that he or his wife are hoping to visit — including Athens, Salt Lake City, and Missoula/Bozeman, Montana (for great fly-fishing) — he gets notified right away. You don't get that kind of service from a travel agent.
There is one big drawback to buying tickets on the Web: You're on your own if you have a problem. If your flight is canceled, you're not going to call Expedia to get emergency help with catching a later one. The Web offers a do-it-yourself model — for better and for worse.
Name your price. The most important reason to use the Web to book air travel is personal power, rather than price. But the Web does present opportunities to save money. Say your weeklong roadshow was canceled. The good news is, you now have time for a much-delayed vacation. The bad news is, you don't have much time to plan for it — or much money saved to pay for it. So make your best offer at Priceline (www.priceline.com). The site's reverse-auction model lets you name the price that you're prepared to pay for an airline ticket, along with the dates when you want to fly. If there's an airline that's willing to sell you a ticket that matches those conditions, then you're in business. Of course, you may find yourself departing at 6 a.m. and suffering through two grueling layovers — all just to travel a few thousand miles. But if you decide to take a vacation at the last minute, or if you really want to save money, then Priceline is a good place to start.
Be smarter about being cheaper. But Priceline isn't the only way to save money on air travel. Almost every airline site offers Web-only specials that get distributed by email at midweek and that are good only for travel the next weekend. These last-minute, fire-sale fares can lure you on a quick get-away or an occasional extended stay, but they don't give you the kind of notice that you need to plan your dream vacation. Plus, if you subscribe to five or six major sites, the emails quickly pile up in your inbox. Smarter Living (www.smarterliving.com), a free online consumer community, sends out a weekly email that consolidates Web-only deals from 20 airlines.
Work those miles. One of the few benefits of all those business trips that you take are all those frequent-flier miles that you rack up: They come in especially handy when you're planning a vacation. WebFlyer (www.webflyer.com), from the publisher of InsideFlyer magazine, keeps you up-to-date on what you can buy with those miles — including free flights and hotel stays — and on when you can use them (it lists blackout periods, airline by airline). Another site, BizTravel (www.biztravel.com), lets you store all of your frequent-flier information in one place.
Now the Fun Begins
Find a guide that's really worth following. We've all had vacations in which the heaviest item to carry is the guidebook that explains where to go and what to see. Fodor's Travel Online (www.fodors.com) will help you lighten your load. It lets you create your own miniguide to any of 99 destinations, from Berlin to the British Virgin Islands. You can personalize the information by specifying, for example, that you'd like to stay in hotels in the $100-to-$200 price range that also have a pool and a health club. Or you can specify which kinds of cuisine you'd like to eat and then read reviews of restaurants that serve such fare. It's like a having a high-quality cheat sheet that includes all of the information you need.
If your travel tastes are more exotic than those that Fodor's caters to, visit Lonely Planet online (www.lonelyplanet.com). Denise Hontiveros, 25, a business-development manager for MSN Link-Exchange (a division of Microsoft), used the site to help her plan a trip to Bali. Lonely Planet presented information on attractions in that country — plus an area where recent travelers to Bali shared their insights. "Most guidebooks are outdated by the time you get to your destination," she notes. What better guide than someone who's just been there?
Take along your sense of adventure. Sure, it's fun to visit museums, cathedrals, and other genteel sites in beautiful cities. But if you're looking for something that's more adventurous, then the Great Outdoor Recreation Pages (www.gorp.com) should be your pre-vacation destination. The site lists tours and trips that will get you climbing, diving, hang gliding, windsurfing, or even caving. Just thinking about such choices feels like a vacation.
The Green Travel Network (www.greentravel.com) offers "Get out of the City Guides" to places such as Boston, Buenos Aires, and Washington, DC. By pointing you to opportunities for running, hiking, and horseback riding, these guides help you get beyond the usual tourist attractions. Such activities don't count as extreme travel, of course, but they do give you a way to work some exercise into your trip. The guide also has listings of walking, hiking, and biking tours in various parts of the world. 0A%If you want to do something for the environment even as you enjoy it, then consider a volunteer vacation. Volunteer America! (www.volunteeramerica.com/VolVacations.htm) gathers links to information on various environment-friendly trips — including one on which you help with trail management in Washington State's Wenatchee National Forest, and another in which you record behavioral data about humpback whales in Maui.
Kick back. If your idea of an adventure vacation is a daily massage and some aromatherapy, then the Spa Locator, at Spa finder's Spa Source (www.spafinder.com), will put you in a peaceful state of mind. You can search not only by location but also by atmosphere and treatment type. Fielding's Cruisefinder (www.fieldingtravel.com/cf/index.htm) applies the same deep-database concept to the world of big-boat fun. The guidebook publisher also provides the benefit of its editorial judgment, rating cruises from one star ("a sinking ship") to six stars. The "Ship Comparisons" feature lets you compare the attributes of any two ships head-to-head.
Log onto Lodging
Learn the inns and outs. The funny thing about business hotels and resorts is that, after a while, they all begin to feel the same. "Gee, that's a nice fountain. Didn't I just see it in Scottsdale?" So if you're looking for a place with a bit more personality, or for a romantic vacation, visit the Bed & Breakfast Channel (www.bbchannel.com). This site lists more than 21,000 B&Bs and inns across North America, as well as 6,000 other lodging options around the world. The listings for each hotel are extremely detailed, often including descriptions of every room. For many B&Bs, there's a link that lets you send email to the owner. InnCrawler (www.inncrawler.com), meanwhile, is a one-stop search site that gathers links from every B&B directory on the Web.
Who needs a roof — when you can sleep under the stars? ParkNet (www.nps.gov/parks.html), the official Web site of the National Park Service, helps you to find beautiful outdoor spots — and to figure out when you can visit them and not be surrounded by other campers. You can even make reservations online.
Mi casa es su casa. If your goal is to cut lodging costs without having to sleep outside, consider swapping your house or apartment with another traveler — someone who wants to take a trip at the same time as you and who wants to visit your town. For $29.95 per year, the International Home Exchange Network (www.homexchange.com) will list your home and let you trade lodging with other members of the network.
Hotel is where the heart is. If you opt for the more traditional option — a hotel — your best bet for getting a lower rate, and even for finding a room at a "sold out" hotel, is the Hotel Reservation Network (www.hotelresnetwork.com). The network taps into blocks of rooms that have been bought in bulk. Most of those rooms are in major U.S. cities. For example, you'll find rates for the Essex House in New York City and the Sir Francis Drake in San Francisco.
Think global, surf local. One of the real pleasures of travel is discovering places that are off the beaten path. For local insight that you won't find in a guidebook — or even on a guidebook's Web site — you can't beat the local newspaper for the city or town that you'll be visiting. For the most comprehensive and easy-to-navigate directory of links to local news organizations (including dailies, weeklies, magazines, and TV stations), visit the American Journalism Review's NewsLink (http://ajr.newslink.org). Despite the name of the organization, the site isn't all that U.S.-centric: It includes 4,925 newspaper links alone, so there's hardly any major city in the world for which it doesn't have something to offer.
Feed your tastes. If your sensibility tends toward the high-brow, you can be a culture vulture at CultureFinder (www.culturefinder.com), which allows you to search for arts events — theater, opera, art — months in advance. For the skinny on street fairs, carnivals, and events like Mardi Gras, party on at Festivals.com (www.festivals.com). And kitsch lovers and aficionados of all things camp will die for Roadside America (www.roadsideamerica.com). The site offers a fascinating guide to "Mystery Spots in America" and features loving articles about such must-read topics as the "World's Largest Ball of Twine."
Be prepared. The Boy Scout motto is a good vacation mantra. Once you know where you're staying, be sure to spend some time on MapQuest (www.mapquest.com), where you can plot directions to and from all the places that you know you want to go. And if you're going to a place where you don't speak the native tongue, take a crash course in the basics at Travlang (www.travlang.com). You can learn how to get your point across in any of roughly 70 languages, including Icelandic and Esperanto. You can also listen to the pronunciation of exotic words in RealAudio — or look up words that you don't know by using the site's translating dictionary.
Finally, to calculate how much you'll be spending on your trip, make a quick stop at the Currency Site (www.oanda.com), a currency converter offered by Oanda. Consult it while you're planning your trip, or print out conversions in a wallet-size format that you can carry with you. It won't make your vacation any cheaper, but it may help prevent sticker shock when you get home and see your American Express bill.
Katharine Mieszkowski (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior writer. She really needs a vacation.
Action Item: Beach Reading
Let's face it: Most books about the Web are dead-tree catalogs of obsolete links. But Travel Planning Online For Dummies is an exception to this don't-go-by-the-book rule. Author Noah Vadnai, a seasoned travel writer and globe-trotter, has written a logical, step-by-step guide to organizing your trip.
Especially useful is the book's advice on sorting through the array of online travel deals that purport to be "bargains." Vadnai explains what it really takes to find a cheaper flight, a less expensive rental car, or an affordable hotel room. One commonsense hint: When searching for low airfares, look for flights with lots of empty seats.
Another nice feature: The paperback comes with a CD-ROM that contains links to all of the book's recommended sites, so you won't have to waste time inputting URLs. You'll wish you were on vacation already!
Coordinates: $24.99. Travel Planning Online For Dummies, IDG Books Worldwide Inc., www.dummies.com
Sidebar: Ramp Down
Anda Bruinsma, 42, is a senior manager of the global work-life and wellness program at Nortel Networks. She helps the company's employees balance the demand for exceptional performance with the demanding pace of life and work. Here's her advice on enjoying your vacation once it's under way.
Should you check email or voice mail while you're away?
So what part of "vacation" don't you understand? Don't take technology with you. Although you may feel some angst at first, it tends to disappear quickly. Most people who are fanatics about checking email are driven by a heightened sense of their importance.
Besides unplugging, what are the key elements of a good vacation?
Change your pace. Ramp down. Don't try to do 12 European countries in just 10 days. Exercise skills that you don't use very often. If you feel mentally drained, then do something that's physically demanding. And leave your coworkers at home. If you vacation with them, you'll keep talking shop.
Lots of people are taking several short vacations, rather than one long one. Does that approach work?
No. Take off at least two weeks at a time. You'll spend the first few days ramping down. And, in the days before you return, you'll start ramping up for the "crises" that you'll face when you get back. But at least you'll get a week to 10 days of real vacation.
Sidebar: Postcard from Poland
Last summer, Paul Krygowski, 42, the creative director of Organic Online, got an invitation (via email) to the first Krygowski family reunion, in Blazowa, Poland. He was eager to go — but he had no idea where to stay or how much the trip would cost: "I hadn't been there since the imposition of martial law, which was 15 years ago."
But the chance to spend three days with 179 other Krygowskis was just too intriguing to pass up. So Krygowski logged onto the Poland section of Lonely Planet online and followed links to the Warsaw Voice, an English-language newspaper. From there, he surfed to Hotels Poland, a site run by a Warsaw-based travel agency. That site recommended many of the same hotels that he had read about in guidebooks — with one difference: "The rates quoted on the Web were much lower."
By comparing data on major car-rental sites, Krygowski found that Budget Rent a Car had the lowest rates in Poland. He also found that it was easy to book a car from his browser. He wanted to be a savvy shopper in his homeland. So he used the Oanda currency converter, which let him print out wallet-size cheat sheets: dollars-to-zlotys, zlotys-to-dollars, marks-to-zlotys. Unfortunately, he couldn't do much about the cost of souvenirs.
Coordinates: Lonely Planet online, www.lonelyplanet.com; the Warsaw Voice, www.warsawvoice.com.pl; Hotels Poland, www.hotelspoland.com; Budget Rent a Car, www.budgetrentacar.com; the Currency Site, www.oanda.com/converter/travel