June 30, 1997 12:00 PM

FLYING THE FRIENDLY WEB

Travel Web sites, which tout bargain airfares and no-hassle booking, are flying high. After a few hours online, though, speed-dialing your trusty travel agent may seem like the way to go. Is the Net the ticket? It all depends on what kind of traveler you are. For airplane geeks—the kind who memorize seating charts and set up spreadsheets to track their frequent-flyer miles—these sites may be the best thing since wheels on luggage.

Four popular travel sites—Expedia (www.expedia.msn.com), Travelocity (www.travelocity.com), Flifo (www.flifo.com) and Preview Travel (www.previewtravel.com)—work similarly. Each lets users enter their itineraries and book the cheapest tickets available. Nifty gimmicks abound: Expedia lets customers pick their own plane seats by clicking on a chart that shows availability. And users can dither all they want. “The computer is perfectly happy” to deal with picky purchasers, says John Levine, author of Internet for Dummies. “But if I ask a travel agent for the same effort, he or she might get a little testy.”

In a comparison, the Web sites matched or beat travel agents’ prices on domestic routes. But the humans, especially those from “consolidator” agencies with access to ultra-cheap fares, trounced them on international bookings. “It’s going to take a while before we’re really competitive with an expert travel agent,” admits Expedia product manager Erik Blachford. For now, the savvy use the Web to scout destinations (Expedia and Preview, which also operates on America Online, sport the best info) and prices—then pick up the phone. But if a fare war is on, try the Web. After all, says Preview spokesman Ron Pernick, “it’s more fun than sitting on hold.”

CREATURE FEATURE

How refreshing to find a sci-fi game that doesn’t take itself too seriously—and a comedy CD-ROM that’s genuinely funny. The Space Bar is set in the Thirsty Tentacle, a sort of intergalactic Cheers populated by a motley crew of ingeniously silly aliens. There’s the smart but helpless Fleebix and the dopey, brawny Thud, a symbiotic pair who depend on each another for survival—but drive each other crazy. There’s the lizard-like Auditon, with huge ears and no eyes—it perceives only by sound. To solve a murder, the player must chat with each, then learn what it’s like to be them.

The Space Bar has a great pedigree: Director Steve Meretzky created the top-selling 1984 computer game of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and visual designer Ron Cobb was the artist behind the creatures in Star Wars’ memorable cantina scene. Cobb, who also contributed to Aliens and Back to the Future, says that “imagining evolution” helps him dream up his critters’ looks. But their personalities are all too earthbound. “There are a lot of human characteristics in there, exaggerated,” he says. “You come up with the most incredibly bizarre creature, and most people will say, yeah, I’ve met a guy like that in a bar.”

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