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More travelers are booking the fun stuff early

By Sean O'Neill
October 3, 2012

Tours, shows, exhibits, and other activities are being booked by some travelers farther in advance than ever. The reason: Internet travel sites, in an effort to distinguish themselves from each other, have been adding activity and excursion options to the menu of products they sell. For example, these days many websites, such as Travelocity, allow you to book a double-decker bus tour of New York City at the same time that you book your airfare and hotel room. Generally speaking, it has become easier to plan vacation activities in advance, and more and more travelers are doing it.

Eventually, an increase in the number of early bookings will make it more difficult for spontaneous travelers to book activities on the fly. Luckily, that's not a problem yet.

Case in point: I recently chatted about this trend with Michel Barraud of Paris Vision, which runs more sightseeing tours in the capital of France than any other company. (Paris Vision is such a large company that the chances are high that you're handing money over to them if you do any sightseeing in the City of Light, such as a nighttime cruise of the Seine.)

Michel sketched out the overall trend. In 1999, his company opened its website with booking and payment options. In its first year, only about 3 percent of reservations came through the Internet. But in the past two years, sales have doubled to about eight percent. More importantly, advance bookings coming through partner websites and agencies, such as Expedia, have also doubled. About half of Paris Vision's bookings now come from these independent operators.

How early are customers booking? Michel says that about 20 percent of customers book Paris Vision's tours and other activities more than 45 days in advance. Another 30 percent of travelers book between 15 and 45 days ahead. So half of travelers are booking less than a week ahead.

Michel recommends Viator.com as an online source for booking activities and tours. The site offers reservations for activities from multiple suppliers and for multiple destinations worldwide, giving the broadest range of options available. (Not surprisingly, Paris Vision supplies tours to Viator. But I'm still impressed enough with Viator that I encourage you to take a look at it before you plan your next trip. You may find that some of the activities available are so compelling--such as a sunrise tour of a red rock dome in the Australian outback for $100--that you'll want to plan your trip around them, rather than the more customary practice of booking airfare and hotel before booking activities.

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Today's travel intel

Reader tip: "Clean up your cookies--it could save you money! I used a well-known travel site to price tickets for a trip. I kept checking, to see if prices would drop. That flight stopped being listed after a week, and the next best flight kept getting more expensive. A few weeks later, I checked prices from a different computer. Whaddya know? The original flight was available, for $50 less than that next-best flight. That evening I checked again from my PC, but the flight I wanted was not available. I deleted the cookies for the site and tried again. Voila! The flight I wanted, at the price I wanted." --Kelly Malasics, Bridgeport, Conn. The Feds are tightening up airport security. Today, the Transportation Security Administration took over the job of checking passenger I.D.s at airport security lines at New York City's JFK airport. It was the start of a national rollout of about 2,000 federal screeners, who will appear at airports nationwide within the next 18 months. [Source: Aviation Week] Want to have your own travel TV show? Then follow the example of Robin Esrock, a Canadian who dropped out the rat race on his 30th birthday for a round-the-world trip that was only supposed to last a year...and that has never stopped. Esrock filmed clips of his travels and posted them on YouTube, and he also wrote freelance articles in a style modeled after Hunter S. Thompson. He built a website called Modern Gonzo, and he's been rewarded for his self-promotional efforts and multi-media storytelling talents with his own upcoming TV show on the Canadian cable channel OLN. Travel photo contest. Trafalgar is once again holding a photo contest inviting people who have taken one of its previous tours to submit a short journal or story along with a photo. After a first round of judging, the winner will be selected by public vote.

Travel Tips

Where does the Lego lady go to unwind?

Cecilia Weckstrom has designed several toys for Lego, such as Exoforce, Power Racers, and Sponge Bob. Since April, her job title has been Experience & Innovation Director. She travels the globe spotting business opportunities for Lego. She's rarely at home for two weeks straight. Clearly, Cecilia is a great person to ask for travel advice. She has broad travel experience as a Finn who works in the U.K. for a Danish company. Plus, she's a professional innovator, with a sharp eye for creative vacation spots. So where in the world would Cecilia say you should go on vacation? "My recommendation has to be Pietra Santa in Tuscany, Italy, a stone's throw from Pisa, known for the leaning tower. Pietra Santa is the home of sculptors from all over the world. Originally even Michelangelo lived here. It has the best foundries in the world, having cast sculptures for Ferdnando Botero, Henry Moore, Mitorai and many more. It further has countless marble-yards, where you can turn up, rent yourself a spot, a block of marble and the tools and have a go yourself and not forgetting the delicious food and cappuccinos in-between. Italians have turned having lunch into an art-form and if you want a piece of the real Italian culture, in an authentic setting unspoilt by truck-loads of tourists--look no further. My dad moved there in the early nineties, which is when I discovered it too. I have visited many times--almost every year if I can make it! Pietra Santa is great for a day trip from Pisa, or you can stay at the many tiny little hotels around and in Pietra Santa itself, and go dip your toe into the sea at Forte di Marmi, the beach resort nearby. It is affordable, genuine and a wonderful place to get your creative juices flowing!" Can you recommend a restaurant in Pietra Santa? Restaurant Gato Negro just by the Piazza del Duomo is excellent and hugely popular. So try to stop by earlier in the day to reserve a table to make sure you get one. Another little known restaurant is Da Piero's, just over the railway bridge, whose sea food pasta Frutti di Mare with a little Frizzante white wine is the best I've ever had--all fresh ingredients and simply unbeatable value. I've tried both and each serve excellent food. Gato Negro is a little more expensive, but then they are in a prime location. Signora who runs Da Piero is very friendly and greets everyone like a long-lost relative, whether you can speak Italian or not. A stroll around the city is good fun, try to stick your nose into the Duomo and the little chapel at one of the side streets to see amazing murals painted by Ferdnando Botero himself, another resident of the town, make sure you also stumble into a marble yard and have a look at what people are working on, it's simply amazing and of course a cappuccino at the Piazza is a must. Is this a place children will like? Italians love children so wherever you go, don't be surprised if your little one becomes the centre of the attention in a shop, a restaurant or a cafe. The town is not a child-specific place as such, so not a lot of play areas or entertainment specifically for children, but then if it's a day trip make sure to visit ice-cream shop next to the Piazza del Duomo, nothing beats proper Italian Ice-cream! What is it about this place that draws you back? The town is unique as the center for sculpture in the world, but it also is a quintessential little Italian town so it is a very genuine experience of what life is like away from the big tourist traps. It is a very beautiful place, a truly authentic Italian town at the foot of the mountains, it seems to time has stopped here--life has a different rhythm and it is very easy to relax here and it is impossible not to get infected by the creativity which seems to be abundant here--everyone is an artist and if you aren't already, you soon fancy being one too! And it makes for an easy daytrip from (or to!) Pisa, Florence, Lucca, and Forte di Marmi. Any hotel or rental car recommendations? I haven't stayed in hotels here, but there are plenty to choose from both around Pietra Santa and in the town itself, in many different price ranges so you are guaranteed to find something to your liking and budget. You can also rent a car at Pisa airport and go visit places like Lucca and Florence too, which are neat little day trips. How to book it: Fly a U.S. discount airline to New York City, and then hop a flight to Bologna on Eurofly for about $700 round-trip during peak season. Or fly on Zoom to London, and hop a discount carrier (which you can find at WhichBudget) to Bologna, Rome, or Florence. Rent your car through AutoEurope for cheap rates. Look for hotels via online booking website Venere. Related: 14 Top Questions About Italy, Answered. Earlier: Where does the Guinness master brewer go on vacation?

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