Conversation with Internet Travel Guru Michael Shapiro
No one doubts that the Internet is redefining how travelers, travel agents, and local guides and tourism providers are doing business. But if the Internet is an information superhighway, we seem to have lost the road map. Enter Michael Shapiro, Internet cartographer for travelers. Michael is the author of the highly regarded Internet Travel Planner as well as the Internet travel columnist for the San Francisco Examiner.
Transitions Abroad: How would you describe the changes taking place in the travel industry as a result of the Internet?
Michael Shapiro: One of my early lightbulb moments was back in 1995 (eons ago in Net time) when an agent booked me a ticket to Mexico. I wanted to change the date. She said all other dates were full. So I logged on to a new site called Preview Travel and found that not only was another flight available, it was slightly cheaper.
The Net opens avenues previously unavailable to travelers: it offers a way to check out ticket prices or tour possibilities you may otherwise would never know existed.
TA: Can travelers really get good airfares online? It still seems like more of a hassle than calling up a good travel agent.
Shapiro: Yes, sometimes, especially for last-minute and Net-only specials. I still advise people to check all channels, including travel agents and the discount ticket agencies who take out those little ads in Sunday newspapers. For complex international itineraries, its hard to beat a good travel agent or discounter.
My friend Morris Dye has said for years that travel agents have traditionally sold two things: access and expertise. Now that the Net gives everyone access, travel agents are only worthwhile if theyre experts. That could mean experts at finding discount tickets or experts at helping plan the right family vacation or ecotour. And now that many agents are charging fees, it only makes sense to use them if you feel youre benefitting from their expertise.
TA: One big complaint about the travel industry is that while hotels or agencies may have a website, they sometimes neglect to answer email. Is this common?
Shapiro: Customer service is still evolving online. It is a lot better than it was a couple of years ago, but it still has a long way to go. Any online operation should answer email by the end of the following business day, preferably sooner. If a company doesnt promptly get back to you, take your business elsewhere. On the plus side, many larger companies now have toll-free numbers listed on their sites, or they offer the option of initiating an online chat with a service rep.
TA: Travel book publishers also seem a little confused as to how to use the web. Does it make sense for publishing houses to put entire guidebooks online?
Shapiro: Well, Rough Guides says its print business has jumped 15 to 20 percent a year since they began putting most of their content online. However, they probably would have grown anywaythese are fat times and people have money to travel, thus they buy more guidebooks. My feeling is that the Net doesnt replace a good guidebook, it complements it.
The best online guide applications enhance whats in the print guides: for example, Lonely Planets online Upgrades and Frommers daily email newsletter. You can probably do fine with online guides for a weekend getaway, but if youre going to travel for a week or more, its well worth spending $15-$20 for a good guidebook.