Experienced vacationers already know about shopping for flights and hotels on the big travel sites like Expedia or Travelocity. But what if your quest for information is more specific ? the location of a bank machine in Aruba, or a clean public toilet in Mexico City, or what Lufthansa will be serving for lunch on its Montreal-Berlin flight? Believe it or not, all of this information is free for the taking. Just visit these sites for the ultimate in inside travel information.
Planes, trains and automobiles
A cure for terminal illness
Is any feeling worse than being jet-lagged and lost in a vast foreign airport? World Airport Guide ( WorldAirportGuide.com) comes to your aid with fast facts on parking, ground transport, eateries and more at nearly 200 major airports. Whether you have to dash between terminals at Chicago’s O’Hare or merely want to scope out duty-free deals at Schiphol in Amsterdam, this site can help you plan every step of your journey through the airport maze.
Your throne awaits
Tired of plane seats that are too close to the washroom, or have zero leg room? Then visit SeatGuru.com for annotated charts outlining the best and worst seats in the aircraft used by 25 popular carriers. Updates on changes in onboard amenities (including current movie listings) are also available. Meanwhile, foodies can see what’s on the menu at over 300 airlines at AirlineMeals.net.
Routes International ( RoutesInternational.com) contains reliable links to railways on six continents. Meanwhile, devotees of the Paris Métro, London’s tube, Hong Kong’s underground or Buenos Aires’ subterráneo can unearth maps of the world’s subway systems at SubwayNavigator.com. You can even enter the names of arrival and departure stations in select cities to obtain directions and approximate trip times.
King of the road
European freeways only look like free-for-alls. Believe it or not, every country does have its own traffic regulations. Britain’s Automobile Association has the lowdown on everything from seatbelt laws to quirky customs (like Bulgaria’s tire disinfection rule) in 46 European countries. Find this info, plus a useful fuel price chart, under Travel and Leisure at TheAA.com. If you’re driving in Lebanon and stumble upon a mysterious sign, decode it with the help of the Association for Safe International Road Travel at ASIRT.org.
Turn right, go two blocks?
There are some people who love getting lost on vacation, but if you’re not one of them, try the route planner at MapQuest.com. Look under Directions, then plug in starting and end points in any of 14 countries to create customized maps and step-by-step instructions that you can print or download to your PDA. If you’re going to be driving in Europe, ViaMichelin.com is another good option: along with maps, it gives weather and traffic reports.
Planning made easy
For authoritative sightseeing advice, it’s always wise to go to the source. Locate official tourism board Web sites by scrolling through TOWD.com. Get a different spin on your destination by emailing an insider through BootsnAll.com or chatting online with in-the-know locals at VirtualTourist.com.
If you’re more interested in attending unusual events than eyeballing stationary monuments, take a peek at WhatsOnWhen.com. It boasts a massive database of festivals, spectacles and celebrations ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. (Anyone for a Mexican Radish Fiesta or India’s annual Camel Fair?) Search by specifics or browse through themed categories like Kids & Family, Festivals, Arts, Sports and “Bizarre.”
Trip expenses mount quickly, so it’s good to know how to get cash fast. Users of the worldwide PLUS or Cirrus networks can find bank machines through Visa.com and MasterCard.com. Both give addresses and maps by city or intersection. You can even search for drive-throughs and 24-hour access. To discover how many dinars or dirhams you’ll get for a dollar, pay a visit to Oanda.com, which provides handy printable cheat sheets.
Fair weather friends
Don’t let foul weather dampen your plans. Type in your destination and vacation dates at WunderGround.com for the scoop on temperatures and precipitation, based on historical averages. Those hoping to make hay while the sun shines ? or who want to make the most of the nightlife ? can also check SunriseSunset.com. It calculates the number of daylight hours you can expect.
Eat, sleep and stay healthy
What’s in a name?
When it comes to Web sites for booking accommodations, monikers can be misleading. For example, Hotels.ca quotes hotel rates in Canadian dollars, yet it’s global in scope. Similarly, CheapAccommodation.com offers more than stripped-down dives. Click on Fantasy Nights for unique lodgings like lighthouses, castles, and luxury tent lodges.
Been there, done that
Before booking, head to TripAdvisor.com for a second (or 22nd) opinion. This site directs you to articles relating to hotels, attractions and destinations. The real gems, though, are the user reviews. Writers often ramble ? you may hear more than you want to about Frank from Fredericton’s Vegas vacation ? but they are unfailingly honest.
Look homeward, angel
Savvy travelers often choose to rent homes or apartments rather than stay in hotel rooms. Start your own house hunting at Holiday-Rentals.com. Reasonable prices, in-depth descriptions and great selection (9,500 properties in 50 countries) set this site apart from rivals. You can search by date, place and price or use other options to check for features such as proximity to ski hills or wheelchair accessibility.
Food aficionados can peruse upscale restaurant reviews from Bon Appétit and Gourmet magazines at Epicurious.com. Those with eclectic tastes may prefer ChowHound.com, where message boards span topics ranging from street food in Thailand to perfect pizzas in Italy.
When dinner doesn’t agree with you, it’s TheBathroomDiaries.com to the rescue. Loo lovers dish the dirt on over 6,000 public restrooms from Australia to Zimbabwe and award Gold Plungers to their favorites. (The 2003 prize went to a lavish loo in Branson, Missouri’s Shoji Tabuchi Theatre.) If you’re certifiably sick, you’ll be better served at IAMAT.org. The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers’ directory gives access to physicians in 125 countries.
For emergency aid, log on to Voyage.gc.ca, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Web site. Aside from up-to-date reports on travel conditions in other countries, it contains listings for 270 cities around the world where you can obtain consular assistance, plus an SOS form that lets you contact the department’s Operations Centre.
Vacationers needing Internet service off the beaten path should visit CyberCaptive.com or CyberCafes.com before leaving home. The former, listing over 6,000 public Internet access points in 167 countries, is largest. But the latter, with details on rates and operating hours, is more thorough. Not sure if you need an adapter to use your modem in Albania? See Kropla.com, which also includes tips on telephoning for anyone who wants to communicate the old-fashioned way.
Learn the lingo
Wunderbar! You can print wallet-sized phrase books in 17 languages at Single-Serving.com. The site also includes audio files you can download to your MP3 player. At TravLang.com, you’ll find the essentials in dozens more languages, minus the bells and whistles. For translations of a phrase typically missing from guides ? “No smoking, please!” ? go to SmokeFreeWorld.com and find no-smoking restaurants and resorts all over the globe.
Were you humiliated the last time you gave an inappropriate gift in Yemen? Next time, make sure to visit the etiquette primer at ExecutivePlanet.com. It’s primarily intended for businesspeople, but everybody can benefit from reading the Public Behavior entries on touchy subjects like personal space and preferred greetings. The same goes for the articles at GetCustoms.com that identify embarrassing slip-ups, such as gestures with multiple meanings. Trust me, you’ll never use the OK sign again.