when the internet and its affil-iated technology launched, the most attractive promise it made was of personal freedom and accessibility. Goods and information would come steaming through your phone line, making shopping easier than ever, bringing the world to your desktop and allowing you to live a fruitful and exciting life without ever having to leave your computer screen.This hasn't exactly happened, but shopping, entertainment, news and travel have all become a lot easier in the past few years. In the depths of winter, it's travel, and in particular using your computer to get away from the chest-freezing cold air, that's most appealing.
Although we live with snow and ice six months of the year, for Canadians who can afford it winter often means cutting town. These days, most will turn to the Web to help plan their vacations, scope out prime beaches and even book their flights. It's everything the Internet promised and more.
Go to travel agents and they'll peer into their computer screens, arrange your schedule, tell you which flights are available and what the best deals are. The avalanche of travel sites now online remove the agent from the mix and allow you to see those options and make those choices on your own.
Clearly, it's catching on; a recent survey suggested that eight out of 10 Canadians with Web access have used it to create and confirm their own travel plans. The helpful sites range from full-service gems like www.expedia.ca and www.travelocity.ca to last-minute fare finders, hotel guides, city primers and chat rooms where you can trade info and horror stories. The following are personal favourites.
Virtually indistinguishable, Expedia and Travelocity are the easiest-to-use travel sites on the Web. They turn you into the travel agent, offering comprehensive info and allowing you to book flights, hotels and rental cars with a few easy clicks. Options are arranged by price, with smaller, regional airlines often giving you breaks the bigger airlines won't. Even the most complicated, multi-leg trips can be sketched out with ease, and the ".ca" means prices are in Canadian dollars.
There are hundreds of sites offering last-minute deals for those desperate to get out of town by the end of the week. Both Expedia and Travelocity offer low-fare deals and "fare-watcher" options, where they'll inform you of sudden drops in prices. www.travellastminute.ca plugs deals in Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Central and South America and Las Vegas.
For those not interested in leaving the country, or the province, www.lol.on.ca/deals.html offers last-minute vacations in Ontario.
The Lonely Planet series of guidebooks is no secret, offering tips on travel around the world (www.lonelyplanet.com). Considerably less well known is http://thorntree.lonelyplanet.com, essentially a Lonely Planet chat room where travellers can share tips and warnings for those about to hit the road. Interested in the best beach in Papua New Guinea? Concerned about getting your daily latte in Ethiopia? Wondering where you'll feel safest these days? Check here before you check your baggage.
Aside from going to a sporting event, there's no better way to get a feel for a city and its inhabitants than to ride its public transit. This site (www.subwaynavigator.com) offers maps of the subways in Barcelona, Kobe, New York and everywhere in between, plus info on public transit in other cities.
Cuba's the hot destination of choice for many Canadians, but why stay in a drab chain hotel or resort when you can plug yourself directly into the country and stay with Cubans themselves? This site (www.casaparticular.info) offers the lowdown and links on Casa Particulares, the personal houses Cubans rent out to tourists, including homes in Havana, Santiago de Cuba and other cities. A great way to experience a side of the island you'll never see from the pampered balcony of your Varadero resort.
Some of us actually like snow, so a vacation deeper into the snowbelt isn't as insane as it sounds. Settling in around the fire with a euchre deck and a bottle of your favourite adult beverage is a guaranteed good time, and www.northerncomfort.com can help steer you toward an isolated cottage deep in the middle of nowhere.