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Good news for high-tech travelers

People with computers, modems and memberships in one or more of the on-line services can act as their own travel agents. It isn't always easy, and it isn't free, but it can be rewarding.

Computer users can gather information on flight schedules, hotels and automobile rentals; examine a restaurant guide; see if the State Department has issued an advisory about a particular foreign destination; find visa requirements; and exchange messages with other members.

The three major consumer services discussed here, Compuserve, America Online and Prodigy, give the traveler access to Eaasy Sabre for airline information and reservations. This is not as complex as Sabre _ also operated by American Airlines and the system that many travel agents use _ but is nevertheless a mass of codes and abbreviations. (Ordinarily, a travel agent still must issue the tickets.)

On Compuserve, for example, 13 travel categories are offered: seven basic products that are included in the membership fee and six extended products that cost extra. One might also stray from the travel section and look into Grolier's Academic American Encyclopedia for articles on the city, state or country, and go elsewhere to determine the weather at the destination.

When one enters the Information U.S.A. section of Compuserve, six subsections are offered: tourist adventures; parks and camping; boating and fishing; international travel; domestic tourism and trends, and state travel hot lines.

Selecting domestic tourism and trends leads to 10 more choices: airline passenger safety; air travelers' rights and complaints; Amtrak passenger services; Amtrak customer relations; auto safety hot line; information on getting the Department of Commerce's handbook Charting a Course for International Tourism in the Nineties; consumer rights on airlines; handicapped visitors; multilingual receptionists, and rail tickets or travel information.

In the Information U.S.A. section, the Lanier Golf Database is for travelers who can't bear to miss a stroke. Its first menu is eight items long. One, golf notes, contains such handy advice as suggesting "you book your starting times with the pro shop or the front desk when you make your room reservation."

Passing to another part of the initial menu, I indicated I wanted to play golf in the Madison, Wis., area (an unlikely winter wish) and was presented with a list of 187 courses. (The whole golf data base contains 12,112 courses.)

A few days before, I had left a message in two of the travel forums that my wife and I were thinking of taking a Caribbean cruise in the fall. If I took a portable computer with me, could I communicate with the office via modem? Jerry Schneiderman replied: "Many modern ships have satellite direct dial, but the rate is about $18 per minute. When you're near an island with cellular facilities, many ships allow you to direct dial that way. The cost is about $6 per minute. Still interested?"

America Online groups its travel and shopping sections together, and the user finds a menu of 15 subcategories with such strange bedfellows as Bose Express Music and USA Today Travel News.

The Travel Forum itself, "for the The Travel Forum itself, "for the traveler who enjoys the fun of planning his or her own trip and the adventure of independent travel," has 12 categories, with articles on money issues, packing tips and electrical voltage abroad. The Travel Cafe is "our very own chat room" where people who aren't offended by phrases like "chat room" can talk on line.

One spot, the Traveler's Corner, offers United States and international profiles; a place to order travel reports; information on exotic destinations, plus a destination of the month. In January, that destination was Brazil, with a what-to-do section in alphabetical order ("The Pantanal is one of the world's great wildlife reserves"); itinerary; when to go; transportation; accommodations; health advisories; what to buy; what to eat; dos and don'ts, etc.

The Travel Boards, where members communicate and socialize, had 9,530 postings available on a recent weekend. In the Caribbean travel board, "Tomwzk" (on-line services allow "handles," or aliases) was seeking information about St. Martin, "Tonywall" an inexpensive hotel in St. Maarten, and "bk0s55" offered a week at a resort for rent or exchange.

Prodigy pays its bills with income from advertisements. Virtually every screen has an ad at the bottom.

If you don't go directly to a favorite section, the service opens with 10 options. Select travel, and the next screen is a menu offering city, regional and specialty guides; reservations; travel sources; experts; travel B&B; weather; deals and discounts, and services.

I selected services, and faced a new menu. Still concerned about the Caribbean cruise, I selected Cruisescan, "a century of luxury travel and experience," with four further options. I selected option No. 4, "Send us a message," and repeated my plea for information about computer-to-office communications. The next time I dropped in, Cruisescan had answered: "Royal Caribbean says a laptop might work but you cannot plug in a computer. Renaissance has surge protector plug so that should work for you. Princess and Carnival cannot accommodate your computer."

Anyone who has bought a computer or peripheral or a software program or who subscribes to a computer magazine most likely will have been inundated with offers to join an on-line service. One would have to try very hard not to receive the necessary software and at least a month's time free of charge.

After that, Compuserve, (800) 848-8199, charges $8.95 a month for its basic services, $6 to $22.80 an hour for other services; America Online, (800) 827-6364, $9.95 a month, including five hours, $3.50 an hour beyond that, and Prodigy, (800) 776-3449, $14.95 a month, including two on-line hours, $3.60 an hour beyond that.