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Using a travel agent to book flights, hotels has advantages over booking online

CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg, the “Travel Detective,” spoke at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg about the advantages of negotiating airfare and hotel deals in person.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg, the “Travel Detective,” spoke at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg about the advantages of negotiating airfare and hotel deals in person.

I, like many of you, book my family's leisure air travel online. I also arrange our hotel stays and rental cars via the Internet. Package deals on Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz and other aggregate sites are too good to pass up. It's convenient and I do it in the middle of the night without ever having to talk to another breathing being. I wear pajamas.

Peter Greenberg says I am a loser, and he hasn't even seen my fuzzy slippers.

Not just me, but you too, if you arrange travel the way I do. We aren't alone. Some 90 million Americans use the Web to plan leisure travel each year, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

Greenberg, the travel editor of CBS News and author of several travel advice books, doesn't have anything against the brave new digital world. In fact, during a recent 40-minute interview in St. Petersburg, his open laptop alerted him to e-mail at least 10 times. The cell phone didn't let up either. This is not a man living in the past, wistfully hoping for the glory days of air travel to return. (And by the way, they won't, no matter how nostalgic the new ABC show Pan Am is going to make us.)

He likes the Internet for research, but prefers to book via a human being. How novel.

The problem with booking everything online, he says, is that everything isn't online. For instance, users of aggregate travel sites should know that Southwest Airlines, one of the nation's most popular, won't be found there. He also says that not all fares show up online and that the cheapest fares listed may not be the cheapest overall.

I get his point, but I still find the convenience worth it. And for those people just looking for a deal, Priceline and other discount bidding sites offer some phenomenal prices on hotels.

But when I really think about it, I don't have enough fingers to count the times I've been disappointed when I book hotel rooms online. The cheapest room usually has the crummiest view, often of the parking lot or the air-conditioning units. I am not one of those people who doesn't care about the room because "we just use it to sleep and shower." I consider the room as part of the experience, and I don't want to look at air-conditioning units. The only time I don't care about the view is when the stay is a stopover on a road trip. We all have our idiosyncrasies, don't we?

My family could tell you of a Thanksgiving trip when we got a great deal on Travelocity for a room at the Gaylord Palms Resort near Orlando. I was so disappointed at the location — we might as well have been overlooking the parking lot at Raymond James with no view of the stadium — that I went into the bathroom to pout. "Uh, we're going down to the lobby," my unsympathetic boys said through the door. We couldn't change rooms because we'd booked online.

That was the Internet "deal." We've stayed at the Gaylord several times since in much better rooms because I've called for reservations and know to avoid the "Florida view."

On the occasions that we've rented a house or cottage for a week, I've used websites VRBO.com and weneedavacation.com. While they have led me to places, I've always contacted the owners, initially via e-mail and then by phone, to get more information.

Just this summer, we stayed in a cottage in Southwest Harbor, Maine, near Acadia National Park, that I found through a real estate company there. I was torn between two places and I could have booked it all online, but I called Sheri Wright at L.S. Robinson to ask a few questions.

They are both nice, she said, but the Homer Cottage is more rustic. "If you like rustic," she said. I pressed her on her definition of rustic, wondering if that meant there was no indoor plumbing. Well, she explained, there are some open beams and the small second bedroom is off the kitchen with a slanted ceiling because it's basically under the eaves. The view of Somes Sound is fantastic, she countered, plus there's a wide porch on which to sit and take it all in.

The promise of a view, of which I am so fond, won me over and we went with the Homer Cottage. Sheri didn't tell me this, but the cottage had a supremely comfortable, fairly new bed. Another plus. Talking to Sheri helped make the decision.

Just for kicks, I recently scanned the St. Petersburg rentals on airbnb.com, which matches travelers with people who want to rent a room in a private home or apartment. The site handles listings in nearly 190 countries, though it has experienced some bad press lately on its handling of an apartment trashing in San Francisco.

Nearly 70 rentals for St. Petersburg are listed, but on closer inspection, few of them are in St. Petersburg. Some are in Riverview (Hillsborough County) and Holmes and Bradenton beaches (Manatee County). A map accompanies the search so the user can see how spread out the locations are, but how much that map means to someone in England is debatable.

In this case, Peter Greenberg's point is well-taken. Not about us being losers, but about talking to someone so that you know what you're getting yourself into or if you are getting the best deal available. Maybe it's not a deal you are looking for, but rather just to be thrilled with your accommodations and that includes the location.

I don't think I'll completely abandon my pajama-night travel surfing on the Internet. A great deal at a hotel in Paris in December was too good to be true. I booked on Expedia. I'll let you know how the air-conditioning units look.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8986.

. MORE INFORMATION

Interesting travel sites

Website: seatmaestro.com

Lowdown: Before choosing your seat, check out whether it's a good one. This comprehensive site lists 184 airlines and 1,143 seat plans. Updated daily.

Website: fairsandfun.com

Lowdown: New site shows events, fairs and festivals in every state. Easy, uncomplicated way to find the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi or the Circus City Festival in Indiana — or just find out what's on while you're passing through a state.

Website: ricksteves.com/graffiti/graffiti15.html

Lowdown: This interesting forum for minority travelers (most posters are African-American and Asian-American) deals with whether travelers encounter racism in Europe, what it looks like and how to deal with it.

Website: jetsetter.com

Lowdown: It's easy and free to join this site that focuses on luxury travel deals. Among the best features are the ability to hold reservations for 72 hours before committing, deep-discount flash sales and a feature where you can register as standby for a hotel that is fully booked, in case a room opens up.

Website: getaroom.com

Lowdown: Another hotel booking site promising discounted rates; very fast, streamlined appearance. Use it as a comparison to a hotel's own website when looking for the best price.

Website: google.com/hotelfinder

Lowdown: Provides an easy-to-use hotel search feature. It looks a lot like the one for Kayak Hotels, but with no ads. Allows you to adjust your location search area by manipulating the Google map. So, instead of searching the entire city, you can fine-tune your search by manipulating flexible mapping lines and search just an area around a convention center or museum, for example.

Times wires

. Coming Monday

More budget-saving travel tips from Peter Greenberg, CBS News travel editor and author, in Here's the Deal in the Metro section.

Using a travel agent to book flights, hotels has advantages over booking online 08/27/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 27, 2011 5:30am]

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