Postcards From the Web

From Computer to Cancún



illustration by A.J. Garces
Last year, Southwest Airlines asked its customers "Why Surf the Internet When You Can Fly It?" As advertising slogans go, it's not a bad one. In fact, with the recent glut of travel-related sites on the Web piling up like LaGuardia on Christmas Eve, the idea of using the Internet to get somewhere in realspace is really taking off.

At their cores, both the holidays and the Internet itself reek of escapism, each full of the promise to take you somewhere, anywhere, other than a desktop. So now is a perfect time to fly or drive or even sail through a few of these thousands of travel sites -- there's something out there for every motoring speed. A few go as far as to let you be your own self-serve agent and others aren't even worth a virtual layover. The bulk of the travel URLs we visited are the equivalent of sitting in coach, but some -- like Southwest's -- are flying strictly first class.

Ironically, Southwest prides itself on being a no-frills carrier. Enjoy the peanuts, but don't hold your breath for a croissant. Yet the airline's ambitious online efforts may be the web equivalent to an airport terminal in cyberspace. Twenty-five years ago, founder Herb Kelleher launched Southwest Airlines with a wacky business approach that pioneered the art of cutting corners without cutting services. Today, Kelleher's vision has brought him to the Internet to market his tale of airline ingenuity. The story itself, written by a pair of investigative journalists and sold in book form as Nuts! (published by the Austin-based Bard Press), details Kelleher's blueprint for zany promotions, low costs, and unusually high productivity. But as interesting a story as Kelleher's success is, Nuts! is ultimately more notable for its online promotion. The Nuts! website (http://www.stillnuts.com) is as clean and user-friendly as Southwest itself.

With sample chapters, author bios, and a press kit containing reviews and tour schedules, online Nuts! has become Kelleher's latest success blueprint for integrating the Internet's possibilities for marketing, promotion, press, publishing, and travel. Kelleher's previous Internet marketing success, the Home Gate (http://www.iflyswa.com), is actually the place to find the airline's original "Why Surf..." campaign. An image of the ad is available in the "Advertising Gallery," a historical collection of Southwest's witty print ads, which, in turn, nicely backs up Nuts! contention that low-key, high-humor advertising went far to establish Southwest as a flyable entity.

More important than the airlines' clever ad collection is that the rest of Southwest's Home Gate provides easily accessible news, schedules, and fare information. And because building an itinerary and actually purchasing the tickets is relatively easier here than on many of Southwest's competitor's sites, Southwest's Ticketless Travel promotion has real potential. With only a credit card, modem, and cab ride across town, you can go straight from the cyberspace of Home Gate to Southwest's actual local gate at Robert Mueller -- exactly the type of progress Kelleher preaches in Nuts!

But what Southwest's Home Gate lacks is an inherent incentive for Internet users. Pricewise, what you get from Southwest online is what you'd get over the phone. Conversely, the smartest way to shop online for bargain airline tickets may be at ETN's Discount Fares Online, a worldwide association of consolidators, discount travel agents and bucket shops. Although their site (http://www.etn.nl/discount.htm) is a bit convoluted, it's conveniently full of links to discount groups with online deals, including the popular American Airlines (http://www.americanair.com) homepage. While the site itself offers similar flight, gate, and fare information as Southwest, the difference here is entirely in the NetSAAvers program, whereby American delivers discounted fare information via e-mail directly to subscribers. After completing an onsite application requesting only your e-mail address, American will begin sending weekly e-mail offers on Wednesdays for underbooked flights leaving anytime that Saturday and returning anytime the following Monday or Tuesday. Although the flights generally leave from Dallas, with Austin offerings coming on average only once a month, the significant price breaks (round-trip to Los Angeles, Cleveland, or San Jose for $159) make a tank of gas to Dallas seem reasonable after all.

USAir offers a similarly easy subscription service at their site, http://www.usair.com/, although their current program (also a Saturday to Tuesday offer) doesn't offer flights originating from the Southwest. But Austin remains a sign-up option for their specialized mailings, so presumably when they begin offering Austin-originating flights they'll begin sending mail. The infamous ValuJet's site (http://www.valujet.com) is more concerned with self-congratulatory notes about their comeback than their own e-mail service, noticeably failing in its initial promises to offer fare or departure information.

If ValuJet does begin sending mail, a good follow-up site may just be Diana Fairechild's Healthy Flying (http://www.flyana.com). Fairechild is a passenger advocate using the web to sell her book on consumer flight safety, although I suspect all you'd need to know without buying the book is available in the online excerpts on jet lag, insensitive policies, fear of flying, recycled air, lost luggage, unwholesome airline food, and pesticide showers in flight. And because Fairechild offers so much about the flights and so little information on what to do once you get to the airport itself, the technologically advanced money pit they call Denver International Airport (http://infodenver.denver.co.us/~aviation/diaintro.html) may be a good next step for complex subsites on airport regulations, safety, and time management.

For reports on why DIA itself has been deemed such a failure by the airline industry, there's a slew of industry trade magazines available online, the best of which is Travel Weekly Online (http://www.traveler.net/two/). Utterly overwhelming in its link capacity to travel opportunities by air, car, rail, and sea, the news features -- helpful business-based items on security, passports, and airline restructuring updated weekly -- are far easier to navigate. Friendlier, but also more commercial, is the web edition of Condé Nast Traveler (http://travel.epicurious.com). While lighter on news, the site is heavy on shortcuts to better vacations and its ombudsman page offers nice examples of dispute resolution horror stories. Exploring options for your deceased Aunt Edna's frequent flier miles is easy here, but Condé Nast's typically-overblown style makes the site's concierge option far more complicated than it has to be. One feature allows prospective travelers to search locales from a series of trivial vacationing factors such as a potential hotel's architecture.

With its "Unstuffy. Unflappable. Unbeatable" motto, HotWired's RoughGuide (http://www.hotwired.com/rough/) lives up to its promise and makes for a nice ultra-quick mirror image of the stuffy Condé Nast site. With thousands of links, RoughGuide also has its own subsites for an international selection of regions and cities, including a fairly extensive Austin section worth tipping off to visiting friends. Who knew The Back Room was within walking distance of Austin's youth hostel? Apparently HotWired does.

But online travel guides come no rougher than No Shitting in the Toilet (http://www.magna.com.au/~nglobe/nsitt/contents.html), a zine based on a sign the author saw on a toilet door at Jack's Cafe in Dali, Yunnan Province, China. Along with a Top-10 list of travel-related songs, and a guide to finding, buying, and dancing to music worldwide, NSITT also offers a wonderfully quirky "Suspicious Package" feature -- a Leno-esque page asking travelers to submit unusual commercial products they've found as global consumers.

Equally irreverent is the net version of Monk Magazine (http://www.neo.com/Monk/), the diary of two men who quit their jobs, sold everything they owned, and hit the road with their cats. What's notable about their mobile magazine isn't its breadth of cities, but the intensity with which they cover the cities in which they do stop, exploring the subculture of say, San Francisco, better than any link page could ever offer.

But what if you're so enthralled by the Monk traveler's plight that you sell your belongings with hopes of tracking them down on the road? At least keep your computer, not for the e-mail flight offerings, but for AutoPilot -- a simply amazing tool for destination-to-destination car travel and information (http://www.freetrip.com). Financed by unobtrusive ads for hotels, shops, and eateries along the way, this free service will calculate and print a mile-by-mile direction sheet that actually keeps a suggested running time counter in the margins. According to AutoPilot, Wall, South Dakota is a mere 21-hour and nine-minute trip from South Austin.

Why Wall? Because the Wall Drug Store is depicted on one of the four postcards the Outpost Network's Virtual Vacation page (http://www.outpost.net/) will send to a loved one of your choice -- for a $5.95 fee. It's the only pay-to-play site recommended here, but it seems like a real bargain to establish a practical joke or murder alibi. Virtual Vacation will mail postcards every few days -- with a real South Dakota postmark -- to the friend, relative, co-worker, or spouse of your choice, with a message describing your experiences at Wall Drug, the Corn Place in Mitchell, the Black Hills Reptile Garden, or Mount Rushmore. Of course, Virtual Vacation won't actually take you anywhere, and that may be just fine if you're too busy or too tired to actually travel yourself. At that point, it comes off as a site of web genius capable of undoing the travel progress of e-mail services, link collections, and online airport regulations. It's so nuts that chances are Herb Kelleher himself is a subscriber.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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