A small but growing group of travelers is starting every trip with a visit to cyberspace.
The so-called Internet travelers use computer services to make airline reservations. It's an option that has been widely available for just over a year, and it has the travel industry watching with curiosity and some apprehension.
Travel agents earn money by making travel arrangements. If the public moves en masse to booking trips on computer, it could put agents out of business. Travelers might make reservations directly with airlines or only with travel agencies with online reservation systems.
Airlines themselves are pushing this option. Last week, American Airlines became the latest carrier to unveil a system that lets the public plan trips and buy tickets from home computers.
Still, no one's expecting an immediate switch away from travel agents, which now book four out of five airline tickets. Although computer travel services are getting better, they're still cumbersome and don't guarantee the cheapest ticket.
But the technology is advancing daily. And so is the interest.
More than 1,300 travel professionals gathered in Dallas last month for a meeting that offered a glimpse of what the future might hold. They found answers were in short supply.
"There is absolutely a good deal of interest, but there is no consensus," said Alan Fredericks, editor in chief of Travel Weekly, a trade publication that sponsored the Travel Technology conference. The magazine also sponsors a World Wide Web page that lists more than 1,000 companies and individuals with online travel information. It's one of the top-visited sites on the Internet.
Still, Fredericks said the medium is too new to predict.
"There are no clear trends, and there are no real experts. No one really knows where this will end up."
One of the few clues comes from an Internet travel survey, sponsored by two California firms: CIC Research Inc. and Ten-IO, which designs travel-themed pages seen by Internet users.
The poll, administered on the Internet, has been taken by 17,500 people since May 1995.
The survey is not scientific, but it shows who likely will be using computers to book their own travel. The respondents tended to be educated, well-paid and frequent travelers. Almost a fifth of them lived in California, with Texas and New York the next most represented states.
Those who answered the survey were eager to use a computer for travel services.
Just 6 percent of those surveyed indicated they had made a travel reservation online, but nearly half the respondents said they were very interested in doing so.
In addition, almost a third said they consider the Internet to be a "critical" or "very important" source for travel information.
The survey indicated that the cost of an airline ticket was always the most important consideration when choosing a flight.
And that may be where the Internet loses its luster.
A conference speaker, Lynne Rosenbaum, said she has found that airline trips booked online are generally more expensive than those purchased through an agent.
The reasons could be varied, said Rosenbaum, an executive with Apollo Travel Services, a computer reservation system used by many travel agents.
She said the high cost may be because the online booker is likely a business traveler who is making last-minute plans and has to pay higher fares. Or it could be that for all its convenience, computer booking doesn't guarantee cheap travel.
Another conference speaker, Travis Tanner, said even with the convenience of online booking, travel agents will still be needed to help plan some trips.
"If it's your first trip and you're going to some place in Europe that you don't know, you're going to want to talk to somebody," said co-president of Carlson Wagonlit Travel, one of the nation's largest travel agencies.
That's what my limited online experiences suggest: If the trip's complicated, turn off the computer and make a few calls before buying a ticket.
I recently used a new travel feature on the America Online computer service to plan two trips, one domestic and one to Canada.
The service, called One World Travel, lets computer users find airline schedules and fares and book flights, all from their keyboards. Sponsored by Preview Vacations Inc., it's also available on the World Wide Web at www.vacations.com.
The service performed well when I requested information on a trip to Birmingham, Ala. It was quickly able to produce the flight times and lowest possible cost for a round-trip ticket. Although I've made the trip before, it showed me routing options I didn't realize were available.
But when I tried the service to book a more complicated trip to Newfoundland, Canada, my cyberhopes were dashed.
The computer found the most direct route, but at a cost of more than $800. When I tried a travel agency, it was able to find a slightly more round-about route for $100 less. Then I called an airline and _ after some prompting _ it found a fare another $200 less, a cost savings of more than a third from what the computer had first quoted me.
My experience didn't surprise Ron Pernick, a spokesman for Preview Vacations Inc.
He said travelers find the computer system works best with routes they're familiar with. His firm is adding software to help shoppers consider alternative routes that could offer price savings.
"We do offer the best we can to interact with the existing technology," he said. "For a simple flight that you're used to doing, our system can be very, very effective."
Apparently, even if the medium of transaction changes, the rules of commerce still remain the same.
It always pays to shop around.
For more information
The results of the Internet travel survey can be viewed on the World Wide Web at www.catalogix.com. Viewers should then click on the executive summary.
Travelers can find information about booking online by connecting with Travel Weekly's home page at www.traveler.net/two.