TRAVELING THE WEB MAY BE AS TIRING AS TOURING ALL OF EUROPE :CONFESSIONS OF AN EDITOR ATTEMPTING TO PLAN TRIP ONLINE

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As you read this, chances are that I am enjoying a beer, or perhaps some good red wine, in an outdoor cafe far, far away from my home city of Chicago. Since it's my first visit to Europe, I thought I'd try my hand at using the Web to plan my trip. Here's my story:

Notepad and computer printer at the ready, I fired up my browser to begin my tour. First stop: Yahoo!, where I promptly enter "Paris+hotel" in the search field. Out comes an Alta Vista search page offering more than 800 choices.

A*LOT*OF*WAITING*ONLINE

None of the first 10 matches seem to be what I was looking for, and most are in French.

Ah-ha! Number 12 on the list is A Paris Hotel Selection, dubbed "a selection of hotels in Paris based on the location, the charm, the comfort and the hospitality." Sounds perfect. I click on the link. And wait. And wait. And wait. Nothing happens. I try this several more times over the course of a day and never do see the selection. Charming.

The Yahoo! search continues. About 35 listings down comes another promising entry: Hotels in France, an online reservations service (http://www.hotels.fr). Clicking on this link gets me to a smartly designed page, complete with frames and a banner ad. The cute drawing of the purple porter carrying a bag makes me think: This is one friendly site.

Alas, it's also clearly not what it's cracked up to be. Clicking on the search button leads me to a form in which I'm to enter a hotel name (I didn't know one) or a star rating (I selected the listing dubbed "tree stars").

`I*RUN*SCREAMING*FOR*COVER'

Spotting the Britannique, a name I recognized, I click on the link. What I get is a message saying "this hotels has no more informations in our web site. Close de window to return to the list."

Suddenly I don't feel so bad about not speaking French.

Deciding that France-based sites aren't getting me anywhere, I click over to Travelocity (http://www.travelocity.com). Clicking on Destinations and Interests leads me to a region menu. I click Europe. Then France. Then Paris, from a list of what must have been every city in the nation. Then, from a list of 18 topics, lodging. Then, I give up. Presented with a list of what must have been every hotel in the city, I run screaming for cover. Too much information, no way to sort it. This is not the great time-saver I expected.

Then I remembered something a Web developer had whispered in my ear. Check out Fodor's (http://www.fodors.com), he said. Hopping on over, I find a helpful home page offering articles to read, a hotel search function, something called the Personal Trip Planner and a variety of other information.

I click on hotel search, and up pops a list of cities to search. Paris. Price range? Very expensive. Oops-the company's not picking up the tab on this one. Budget. Click search.

In a matter of seconds information pours onto my screen. Hotel names. Phone and fax numbers. Mini-reviews. Amenities. A star next to the name if it's a hotel Fodor's approves of. All easily printed out.

FODOR'S*WEB*SITE*A*WINNER

Picking up the phone, I dial some numbers. The fourth hotel I try turns out to be a winner. Reservation made-by phone.

With reservation in hand I try out the trip planner. Using forms and clickable boxes, I choose Fodor's top restaurant picks and a guide to "can't miss" sights.

Seconds later my very own travel guide pops up, offering dining reviews and a slew of info about the city. Off it goes to my printer.

So what did my experience tell me? First off, that there's a lot of drek on the Web. That searching for specific information is neither easy nor fun. And that I'll probably never buy a Fodor's guide in a bookstore again, since just about everything I want is free online.

Here's hoping Fodor's can figure out a way to make money from its site, because it sure has the right idea about how the Web can be fun, entertaining and useful.

Got any Web travel stories? Share them with Interactive Media Marketing Editor Debra Aho Williamson at daw@crain.com.

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