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WInging it in Cyberspace
Stuart Macdonald


It is a closely guarded secret that students throughout the country are currently being torn apart by ever increasing levels of stress. Much to the annoyance of all good tax paying citizens of the UK, this perplexed state is brought on, not through over-zealous study, but as a consequence of that crucial choice - what to do with their 3 month summer holiday?

These days, students are spoilt for choice in terms of summer destinations and the plethora of Internet sites devoted to low-cost air travel would seem to provide the ideal means of realising your holiday dreams. If you are searching for a great summer job in the sun or have had quite enough of working throughout the University year, you can readily obtain flights over the web. However, just how good are these on-line shops and should you believe all of the hype? Hackwriters visited a number of such sites to see just how much you can expect to get for your money.

We began our virtual tour at www.cheaptickets.co.uk, who were as good as their word, providing a low-cost service which unfortunately translated into a slow and yes, cheap looking site. Perhaps they were too busy hunting for bargains to notice that, despite repeated attempts, their site crashed at every opportunity. The same was true of www.travelscene.co.uk, rendering it impossible to comment on the exact type of scene they had to offer.

This trek through cyberspace could surely get no worse and thankfully improved with a visit to www.statravel.co.uk. Theirs is a far more swish and professional effort, as one would expect from an established High Street name. There are plenty of useful options and in spite (or perhaps because) of this it remains surprisingly easy to navigate. If you are in need of a human interface, there is a free call-back service, with a gaggle of sales agents on the end of the line just itching to lighten your pockets. On the downside, the website was unable to check flight prices due to technical problems and inorder to place any bookings, it is deemed necessary to prove your student status by means of an ISIC card. It also proved annoyingly difficult to obtain details of any of their attractive special deals. A simple 'click and book' system would have been useful here, as is ably demonstrated by www.faresavers.co.uk. Once past the initial confusion of their home page, the site was reasonably straightforward and was the first to actually find any prices on our chosen route between London and New York. However, 325 for a return ticket to JFK, departing from Heathrow on the 30th June and returning on the 1st October did seem rather steep. A useful tip for summer-surfers is that travel in July and August is vastly more expensive than other months, so if time will permit, flying outside this period is a much more cost effective approach.

One of the better examples is www.usitcampus.co.uk. This is a visually appealing site which manages that crucial trick of making navigation around its many pages seem more of a pleasure than a chore. The home page is slightly cluttered and as a consequence is rather slow to load, but it was worth the wait as Usit offered a great deal on our chosen route. Aer Lingus's flight from London City Airport to JFK for 259, including all taxes was by far the best of the day. Another rewarding site was that of www.flynow.com, which was easy to navigate and found a flight to match our requirements for 318 all in. Flynow also performed the useful function of checking flight availability before returning search results. This would seem a rather obvious service to provide, but it is surprising how few websites actually manage it. By contrast, another of the better known sites, www.laststop.co.uk was a huge disappointment. It took several minutes to load and once it did, had few decent deals on flights and had partially obscured their homepage with an irritating advertisement window.

For those attracted to the delights on show in Canada, www.canadian-affair.com offer a range of flexible fares from their impressive site. Generally, for summer travel to Toronto from any major UK airport, flights will cost around 370, inclusive of all relevant taxes. However, if anyone is interested in heading west right now, they currently have a two-week return ticket for 91!

Before you begin your search for summer enlightenment, however, it is useful to have some vague idea of where you want to be and what you want to do so that you can maximise the length of your stay. Many students are taking advantage of the packages offered by companies such as BUNAC (www.bunac.co.uk) and Council (www.council.com), who promise American and Canadian work visas in return for your precious pennies. This is a great way to spend your summer, especially as once you leave University or College, it is unlikely that you will again be able to obtain a work visa for either of these strict countries. Be warned, however, that such privileges come at a rather high premium and although there are ways of lowering the cost (e.g. in terms of insurance) it can prove extremely difficult to do so.

For those of a more altruistic disposition, www.btcv.org provides plentiful options to while away those summer months in blissful harmony with nature, on a variety of volunteer conservation projects. This is a nice, simple website as a result of its not being run for commercial gain. If you are in need of a more urgent escape from your infuriating flatmates, then www.solosholidays.co.uk could be the answer. A truly awe inspiring list of potential getaways with people whom you have never met and need never meet again - beautiful. The only catch may be that those pictured enjoying themselves on the site can only be described as, well, slightly more mature students...

Further inspiration is certain to be found at www.itwshow.com and at the related international travel shows in London (23-25th February) and Leeds (2-3rd March). Students are admitted free of charge on Friday at these events. Another useful reference point is the Guardian's website www.guardian.co.uk/travel. This has an extensive library of reports on a variety of destinations and is well worth a visit to obtain some more in depth knowledge. Their 'netjetters' are also worth a peek, if only to provide proof that truly anyone can travel and survive these days.

The conclusions from our whistlestop tour of the best that the Net has to offer are that it pays to do your homework properly so that you have a good idea of what it is you want to do with your summer and more importantly, just how much you can afford to pay. Many of the sites mentioned above are perfectly adequate for booking in the short or long term. However, given that the best deals come from those websites which are operated by long established companies with a High Street presence, are we really benefiting from greater competition, or is scale still king?

Stuart Macdonald 2001


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