The day after Hurricane Luis deep-sixed Gary and Karen Spitz's fall vacation plans on St. Martin/Sint Maarten, the Maryland couple logged onto America Online's travel forum. On the Caribbean message board, they found several damage reports gleaned directly from island residents, along with advice on alternatives.
Their second choice, St. Thomas, was devastated by Hurricane Marilyn's sweep through the U.S. Virgin Islands barely a week later.
Now, armed with a hotel recommendation from fellow America Online members, the Spitzes are planning to head for Bermuda. "Hopefully, not every island we pick will be hit by a hurricane," Gary says. But if Mother Nature intervenes a third time, he adds, their computer will be one of the first places they'll turn for information.
The Spitzes are among a growing number of travelers using the Internet and commercial on-line services to obtain news and candid, on-the-spot assessments when a natural or man-made disaster strikes their intended destination.
Organizations such as Associated Press, Reuters and Cable News Network provide breaking news on-line. But travel-oriented newsgroups and bulletin boards, live "chat rooms," interactive World Wide Web sites and on-line publications, such as Conde Nast Traveler's new on-line service, go beyond the headlines. At their best, they combine the immediacy of ham radio with details on everything from hurricane-related cruise-line itinerary changes to how anti-nuclear protests impacted visitors to Papeete, Tahiti.
"You turn on CNN and get pictures of houses, not hotels. We have daily updates from tourism officials and members who are there," says Jerry Schneiderman of CompuServe's travel forum, which compiled a file of hurricane-related messages from forum members in the days following Luis and Marilyn's destructive march through the Caribbean.
To be sure, the information that flows from Internet Usenet newsgroups such as rec.travel.usa-canada and similar bulletin boards on commercial on-line services "has to be taken with a grain of salt . . . it's unedited, and you don't know who's behind the message," notes Lance Ladan of Internet Solutions. The company maintains a Web site (http://www.solutions.net/rec-travel) that gathers postings from several travel-related newsgroups. Cybertravelers who turn to destination-specific Web sites hoping to find updated information often discover nothing more than an electronic brochure with digital palm trees.
"A lot of places hire someone to put up a page, and that's it. But if you don't have an interactive site with 24-hour e-mail, it's like putting an ad in the paper with no phone number," says Mary Jean Batham of the Caribbean Information Office.
The Chicago-based tour operator has been posting hurricane-related damage reports from area hoteliers, tourism offices and on-island company representatives several times a week (http://www.caribbeans.com). A more unbiased source for news that impacts travelers is Conde Nast Traveler's new on-line magazine, available free on the Web (http://www.cntraveler.com). The Stop Press section, which combines wire service reports, phone interviews and on-site reporting, is updated daily and has included dispatches on such subjects as volcanic eruptions in Montserrat and the string of recent bombings in Paris.
For avid cybertraveler Karen Killebrew, owner of an Oakland, Calif., travel agency and assistant host on America Online's travel forum, the real value of on-line information is the fact that it's tailored to specific interests--and that it continues long after front-page stories have been consigned to the recycling bin.
Bly welcomes reader comments; her e-mail address is Laura.Bly @ latimes.com. Electronic Explorer appears monthly.