All of us travelers need useful websites to click on — the modern equivalent of a travel research library, only much more up to the minute.
From which airport terminal does your plane take off? Do you need a visa, or will a passport do? What's your money worth when you land in a country where the money looks nothing like your own?
We used to spend lots of time and energy looking up the answers to these sorts of questions or, in many cases, phoning until we got the right person to answer them.
Nowadays, we turn to the Internet — and amazingly, many people start from scratch every time to find the websites with answers to the same sorts of questions they asked six months ago. Or they mark so many travel sites as "favorites" that they overwhelm themselves. What's the point of having 15 currency converters when you need only one really swift, easy-to-use site to answer your question?
Here are ideas for a Travel Toolbox — a group of sites for general research when you have questions that the Web can answer quickly.
These are not the sites for booking vacations, flights, hotels and cars, or the budget sites that offer rock-bottom deals (sometimes with strings attached). These are the sites that answer the little — but often urgent — questions that pop up when you prepare for a trip, or when you're on your way. At that point, you'll either use your laptop on the road or pull into a cyber cafe. Either way, chances are, you'll have some access to a computer and the Internet.
These sites offer you the basic tool kit. If you're a mountain climber or a dogsledder or a horse rider, you'll want to add Web resources about those adventures to your kit. If you travel a lot to the same places, you can add their Web sites.
As with any toolbox, you'll be changing the contents from time to time. You may be adding a honeymoon site or two for a while — but the time will come (it had better come!) to delete it. Just as you need special tools in your general toolbox for an odd job here and there, you may want to keep a site handy for specialized business travel a few times a year, or for using if you want to see Aunt Martha every other Thanksgiving.
You'll also be replacing the tools in your kit because they are either aging or broken, just as you would in any toolbox. Some travel sites, you'll find, are great for a while, then begin to let you down because the content's no longer as current.
Sometimes a site will develop trouble with its Internet host, becoming too difficult to navigate — no fun when you're trying to find information. And frequently, sites go out of business; one day they're there, and at some point in the middle of the cybernight, they're gone.
We've sifted through hundreds of sites over time, and chosen the basic toolbox we offer today. You can put all these sites in a single travel folder on your computer, or group them any way you like.
You may also, of course, take exception to our choices. Perhaps you already have a favorite currency converter or weather site; forget about ours, and use it. If you're already comfortable with a site, there's no reason to switch.
We based our choices on technical reliability, ease of use, and the quality of the content — sometimes a tough choice, given that many sites often do the same thing well. As an additional suggestion, we offer you some Web sites that are Travel Toolboxes themselves, because they include so many useful links or services.
So go ahead, start building your customized toolbox with these sites as the basic contents. If you find, as time goes by, that you haven't been using a site, remove it. If one of these sites — or any site you find — is particularly useful, send a link to a traveling friend. And rest assured, when you have those little travel questions, you'll be glad to get the right answers fast.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Passports, customs, health and safety information — it pays to have it all at hand, whether you're about to book your trip or have done so.
- Passports: travel.state.gov/passport
It's travel information you'll use only once in a while — the U.S. Department of State's passport site. But when you need it to answer virtually any passport question, you'll be happy to find it quickly.
- Visas: www.travel.state.gov/visa/americans1.html
Will you need both a passport and visa to enter China? (Yes.) And at what point will you need a visa in the Netherlands? (After 90 days.) The Department of State untangles entry requirements of other nations.
- Safety: travel.state.gov
The State Department's travel Web site has a wealth of information for travelers — passport and visa links to other government sites, and useful stuff on every page. It also contains all the "Consular Information Sheets," popularly read advisories on safety concerns in different countries and cities.
Now consider our advisory on these advisories: Be thankful that the U.S. government is diligent in its research and postings, and understand that a long description of crime is a way to make you cautious, not necessarily scared out of your wits.
Take the drill on Paris, on the France consular sheet, so detailed that you'd think every Parisian is out to steal your purse or wallet. That is ridiculous; the point is that, yes, pickpockets and other thieves effectively work the subways and commuter trains, so be careful. Hang on to the goods when you hang from the Metro handrail.
Those general safety descriptions are the advisories; in the case of country or city directives labeled "Warning," pay strict attention. Warnings are issued when danger is real and imminent.
- Health: www.cdc.gov/travel
Everything you need to know about diseases, outbreaks, vaccinations and the like for specific destinations, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's site. It's a little scary, sometimes, so — as in our own advisory above — pay attention but understand that the worst-case scenario in any place is not the norm.
- Customs: www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/vacation/kbyg
This is the invaluable "Know Before You Go" page by U.S. Customs, which deals with rules and regulations about bringing things back into the country, as well as taking things from it.
- Travel insurance: www.insuremytrip.com
Travel insurance is a difficult aspect of trip planning to pin down. This site explains (and also offers) 63 travel insurance plans from 14 companies, making it a comprehensive site for its subject.
- Tourism information: www.towd.com
The Tourism Offices Worldwide Directory, at last glance, contained 1,421 entries — toll-free numbers, faxes, addresses and Web sites for every state tourism office, plus government-supported offices around the world.
Need information about airports and airlines? You're likely to find it on these sites.
- Flight conditions: www.fly.faa.gov
Link up to the Federal Aviation Administration's air-traffic command center, and you'll be able to click onto your destination airport in the United States, and to learn general conditions on the runways. We clicked onto Philadelphia International a few weeks ago and learned that the windy weekday was "causing some arriving flights to be delayed an average of two hours and 24 minutes."
- Local airports: www.wsdot.wa.gov/aviation/InfoClearinghouse/USAirports.htm
Your local airport is a must for your tool-box, with information you'll need about getting around and what's offered in the terminals — and tips for making the best of your time while waiting to board.
- Flight tracking: www.flytecomm.com/cgi-bin/trackflight
The easy-to-use real-time flight tracker tells you how many minutes until landing for any commercial flight in Canada or the United States — and you don't even need the flight number. You can look up, for instance, everything flying now between Los Angeles and Miami, get a list of all the planes now on that route, and choose the ones you'd like to know about. You'll get more data than you probably need: type of aircraft, current altitude, ground speed, estimated arrival time.
- General airport info: www.quickaid.com
For international airports in the United States, this site is an invaluable tool; you'll find airport codes, links to individual airport sites, and parking and airport hotel information. For international airports out of the country, it's not as complete, but still very good.
- Airlines: www.dot.ca.gov/hq/planning/aeronaut/htmlfile/AirlineWebsites.html
The site is called "Airline Toll-Free Numbers and Web sites," which explains it all.
Whether it's weather or data about your data port abroad, here are some travel sites, not easily grouped, that we're putting together under the "Travel Particulars" umbrella.
- Weather: www.worldclimate.com
You probably already use a site to find the current weather somewhere in the world; www.weather.com and www.accuweather.com are two popular sites with current temperatures and extended forecasts. But that's not what you need when you're planning a trip. You're more likely to want an average temperature at the time you'll be going, or you may wonder whether the place will be wet or dry. Worldclimate.com lists average highs and lows and rainfall for each month of the year, plus longitude, latitude and altitude.
- Money: www.x-rates.com
The cyberworld boasts currency converters galore, and we've chosen this one because it's simple and has some great features. Not only do you get a currency converter, but you can also click on "currency photos." And for those of us who file expense accounts shamefully late, the site has a "historic lookup," on which you can find the worth of currency for dates past.
- Electrical systems: www.kropla.com/electric.htm
Will your hair dryer blow in Bologna? Will your computer recharge in Rio? Plug in with the correct plug or connection — on this site.
- Foreign languages: www.babelfish.altavista.com
How do you say "How do you say?" in a foreign language? Get useful words and phrases down before you leave home by entering them on this website. They'll turn up in the language you choose from a drop-down box.
- Time/date: www.timeanddate.com/worldclock
If it's noon, this must be Pago Pago. To be sure, consult this site. We've given you the Web address for its fullest list of cities. Once you see the city and the current time, click on the city name for more info, including user-semi-friendly telephone dialing codes.
If it's only the current time you're looking for, and your place is not among the most popular destinations, use this time machine. The scroll-down box on the left-hand side of the screen holds an enormous database of cities.
- Metric conversions: www.sciencemadesimple.com/conversions.html
Americans, unable to learn to think in groups of 10, are not a metric people. But much of the rest of the world measures distances in kilometers, temperatures in Celsius, weight in kilos, and gasoline in liters. If metric makes you manic — or just confuses you — this site's your converter.
The international phone system is a labyrinth, and dealing with it can run you around in circles. Here's some help.
- Abroad: www.the-acr.com/codes/cntrycd.htm
Figuring out the right digits to get your phone call into a small town in a remote country can be daunting, and finding the correct numerical string to reach Paris also takes some work. This is the Big Mama of all international calling code directories, whether you want Cluj, Romania (city code 64) or any phone in Qatar (country code 974).
- North America: www.allareacodes.com
Here are all the area codes in North America, in numerical order or by place name.
- Multiple services: frequentflyer.oag.com
An impressive toll-free-number site for travelers, with hotels, car-rental agencies, airlines, and airline loyalty-club phones around the world. If you want to find carry-on luggage restrictions for an airline, under "Traveler Services" click "Carry-on Guide."
ON THE GROUND
The details on trains, cars and subways — sites that get you around on the ground.
- Trains: www.amtrak.com
All aboard on Amtrak's easy-to-use site that has anything you need to understand train travel in the United States.
- On the road: www.aaa.com
Traveling by car, truck or RV? The American Automobile Association is your authority. It has a very good mapping site, an Internet version of the venerable AAA TripTik.
- Underground: www.subwaynavigator.com
Get the lay of the underground anywhere in the world, and the overland too, because this site includes commuter trains as well as subways.
It's great to have an electronic toolbox, but you may want some ideas for additional contents from books that specialize in listing and describing hundreds of travel Web sites. These include sites for specific countries, and for Web travel bookers. Here are two books we like.
"300 Incredible Things for Travelers on the Internet" (300Incredible.com, $8.95.) Ken Leebow's book is part of his series on hundreds of Internet sites, and covers a wide range of travel sites, mostly without much explanation. But they are grouped well, and you can easily find what you're looking for if you have a specific place or subject in mind.
"The Rough Guide to Travel Online" (Rough Guides, $11.99.) Samantha Cook and Greg Ward give thorough explanations of hundreds of sites, grouped under travel basics, themes and activities and destinations.