Net your travel plans to bypass the travel agent and the guidebook
CAIRO: Now that our Eid Al-Fitr travels are behind us, let’s take a moment to recall the parts of the vacation that we really ought to smooth out for next time.
You may have encountered, as a few dear friends of mine did, travel agents saying flights were sold out when they weren’t.
Lest you get caught in the same quandary when Eid El-Adha is upon us in a mere two months, let’s take stock of how to do all this with a bit more ease.
Step one of any trip is booking your flight. Travel agencies, in Egypt especially, but also in the wider world, are surprisingly not equipped to best serve you. They tend to get a block of tickets to sell; after those are sold, they’re inclined to tell you the flight’s sold out so that you’ll book another flight for which they do have tickets. But most international airlines can be accessed via their websites – as can the ability to purchase tickets from them. Check out www.qatarairways.com, www.airfrance.com, www.britishairways.com, www.thy.com, and www.emirates.com, to name but a few. To get a broader view, you can go to a pan-airline site like www.travelocity.com or www.expedia.com and see all available flights heading in your intended direction.
In addition, there are advantages beyond not having to be endlessly put on hold on the phone with a travel agent or having to go in with wads of cash to their office. Online you can often pick your seat, your meal, and sometimes even look up the in-flight entertainment. With a quick pop over to the Cairo International Airport website (www.cairo-airport.com), you can even look up which airport terminal you take off from.
Don’t worry about having an e-ticket. They’re now mainstream enough that even at the Cairo Airport you are no longer met with a quizzical look, and instead are ushered through security as easily as if you had an old style ticket.
But don’t stop once you’ve got your flight tickets – book your hotel online too.
Is Internet access in your hotel room as important as proximity to the Aya Sofia in Istanbul or the Eiffel Tower in Paris? Fear not, top websites let you filter your search accordingly. Expedia.com and Travelocity.com are aiming to be your one-stop online travel agency by enabling you to book your flight and hotel at the same time (as well as other useful items like your rental car). That said, so are hotels.com – an interactive corporation-owned e-business – Ticketmaster, RealEstate.com, Match.com, TripAdvisor.com, Ask.com, and the aforementioned Expedia.com, which seems to do the job best.
At hotels.com, you specify which city you want and your arrival and departure dates plus, if you want, which landmark you’d like to be near, and any critical hotel amenity like Internet access or gym. Your results are sorted by the filter you select: best sellers, lowest price, or highest star rating; and include an indication (admittedly in miles, since this is an American-originated website) of the distance to your selected landmark. Once you’ve found your hotel online, you can book directly and get printed confirmation. This is much better than your not-so-trusty travel agent could do over the phone or in person, and more comprehensive and up-to-date than your dog-eared Lonely Planet or Rough Guide travel book. Why take Lonely Planet’s advice on the best hotel in Dubai when it may have taken a nose-dive in the few years since the book was published?
Once the flight and hotel are booked, the historical need for a travel agent ends and most of us would turn to a guidebook to figure out how to spend the days and evenings of our vacation. Once again though, the web is proving increasingly more helpful.
The emergence of a vast set of online travel recommendations is great news for Egyptian residents, for whom getting the right guidebook is no easy task. The American University in Cairo bookstore is your best bet, but they don’t stock all the publishers such as Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Let’s Go, and Frommers. We know too that ordering your guidebook via Amazon.com can’t be done since they don’t deliver to Egypt, and your Aramex Shop&Ship membership would mean you’d likely have to wait a month to receive it anyway.
For easy access to up-to-the-minute recommendations on places, routes, sights, and experiences, look up websites like www.virtualtourist.com, www.tripadvisor.com, and www.ugoigo.com. They give you well-sorted lists of recommendations, with tens of thousands of other travelers’ comments and photos a mere click away. It’s wise to do a cross-comparison of these three sites as you compile an itinerary for your sightseeing days. Of course take what you read with a grain of salt – among the honest and reasoned comments are bound to be a few raging ones sent in by overly disgruntled people with vengeance on their mind, not to mention rose-colored ravings by the hotels themselves.
And yes, even the biggest Internet-philes acknowledge that even paper has its place. So yes, once you’re on the ground at your travel destination, it’s still great to go old school by buying a guidebook and (if you need the extra detail) a map.