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Web allows travelers to be their own travel agent

Bargains on airline tickets, hotel rooms, car rentals -- you name it -- along with guarantees of the "lowest prices available" are all part of the online sales pitch for those looking to book vacations over the Internet.

There are inviting images of sun-drenched beaches beside tropical blue waters, tips on how to select a cabin on a cruise ship and blank boxes beckoning Web page viewers to type in information on departure and return dates in order to "build your trip."

No question, the Internet and social networking sites have changed the way travel is arranged.

Officials at the bigger Internet travel sites say the Web has brought the world to the fingertips of the consumer.

Besides getting good deals, travelers can obtain ratings on hotels from others who have stayed at them, find out what attractions in a region are the most popular and get advice on safety issues in foreign lands.

"A really important thing to know is that online travel companies like Orbitz allow consumers to become their own travel agents," said Orbitz spokeswoman Marita Hudson Thomas. "We find consumers really like to compare and they like to see what they are buying, especially with hotels. That's why we put pictures up."

At Travelocity, the philosophy goes beyond selling airline tickets, according to company spokesman Joel Frey.

"Our desire is to deliver great travel and value-added lifestyle experiences to our customers that will create lifelong memories," Frey said. "Yes, it's important to get safely to your destination and find a nice place to stay, but when it's all said and done, time spent with family and friends experiencing once-in-a-lifetime experiences like riding in a hot air balloon are what really matters most."

As travelers become more savvy, they are taking increased advantage of other technological advances. Just take a glance in the passenger terminal at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Travelers, especially those with carry-on luggage, often choose an electronic check-in kiosk to print out their boarding pass, rather than lining up to be waited on at ticket counters staffed by employees of the different airlines.

"Anyone who has the ability to go online to search for the best price and ultimately book their trip can print their boarding pass, arrive at the airport and their first human interaction would be with someone at the security checkpoint," said Douglas Hartmeyer, spokesman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which runs the airport.

That is, of course, unless the traveler has luggage that needs to be checked in, he said.

Technology, Hartmeyer said, "helps facilitate the traveling process when you're going to fly."

Deborah Williams, a long-time Western New York travel writer and author, said travelers also can now check in ahead of time online with a number of hotels.

"The big benefit is that when you arrive at your hotel, you don't have to stand in a line to check in. Some hotels have electronic kiosks where you get your card key to your room," Williams said.

But, there is another side to virtual travel arrangements.

Just ask Noreen Gurney, a travel agent with Travel Outlet WNY Discount Travel Agency of West Seneca.

"When people use the Internet, they have no physical person to come to, so I always tell them a very important phone number, 1-800 WHO CARES," Gurney said. "You can call that number, but nobody is there to help you. You're on your own, baby."

There are telephone numbers on the Web pages of online travel retailers, but Gurney said there is no replacement for direct human interaction when putting together a trip.

"We don't charge for our services, so why not come in, sit down and let us help you?" she said.

Daniel Crawford, who owns the travel agency, said that when he opened his business 22 years ago he made a commitment that his agents would be personally familiar with different locations around the globe.

"When the customer asks, 'Do you know anything about the Hotel Melia in Los Cabos, Mexico,' we can say we've been there. People say 'Wow, you've been there?' The brochure may say it's nice, but we have agents who have firsthand experience and they can say it's nice or it needs to be updated," Crawford said in highlighting the importance of the personal touch.

Travel agents, he said, may be able to get better prices than Internet companies because they often deal directly with wholesale tour companies.

Williams said travelers would be well served to visit a travel agent, particularly when planning a major excursion.

"If you've never taken a cruise before and you're planning a family cruise, it makes sense to talk in person to someone who knows about the ships and knows which would be appropriate for a family or which ports would be the best," Williams said.

There's another benefit, she added. "If something goes wrong, like the volcano in Iceland that paralyzed air travel, if you had an actual travel agent, you could call and they would get to work finding alternative routes."

As for drawing travelers to Buffalo Niagara, the Internet and social networking sites have proven a tremendous asset, according to Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"In the old days, five years ago, people really relied on our visitor guide. Now we have seen a huge shift. For the first time ever, we had more unique visitors to, about half a million, which exceeded our printed visitor guides. In 2010, we'd printed 400,000."

Because Web traffic at the Convention and Visitors Bureau was up about 50 percent in 2010 compared to 2009, Gallagher-Cohen said her organization is looking for an even bigger and more enhanced presence in the virtual world to draw visitors here.

"We are really investing and upgrading in our technology because this is the world we need to live in," she said, adding that the Internet provides a level playing field when competing against major destination cities with big promotional budgets such as Las Vegas.