Shop online when planning next vacation

The Internet has become an amazing tool for deciding where to go on a vacation, then comparing prices for various elements of travel. When a trip is being taken close to home, the state Department of Tourism’s site (www.travelwisconsin.com) has long been an excellent starting point.

It’s surely not the only helpful online resource, though. Here are four others for Wisconsin travelers to consider:

At www.WisconsinGuide.com, sisters Lisa Peterson of Verona (Dane County) and Sandy Sayler of Omro (Winnebago County) have developed a Web portal with more than 30,000 Wisconsin businesses that are linked to tourism. This Website was launched in August 2002.

“We were always looking for new places to visit throughout the state,” says Sandy. “We thought if we could create one resource where people could come and search for this information, we could help others, too.”

Lodging, dining, shopping, sports and recreation are a part of this venture. The next goal is to put WisconsinGuide.com into print form by spring 2004.

Sandy notes two challenges for the business: keeping up with constant changes, and enticing people to return to the site. She and her sister have developed SiteBuilder Xpress, software that allows Wisconsin business operators to create a Website of up to five Web pages on WisconsinGuide.com.

There is a set-up fee of $200, then a $30 per month maintenance fee. The developers say a site can be up and running in as little as 15 minutes. For more, call (608) 848-1275.

Lisa has done Internet marketing and design work for Fortune 500 companies. Sandy is the site’s writer and database manager.

Vacation Connection, at www.lodging1.com (that’s a numeral before the dot-com, not a letter), has been around since 1984. It lists about 3,000 properties, from cottages to resorts, available for rent in Wisconsin.

Among the recent specials: a three-bedroom home on Lake Delton (Wisconsin Dells area) that can accommodate 12; a guest house on Big Silver Lake (Wautoma) that sleeps 10; refurbished cottages, with fireplaces, on the water near Sturgeon Bay, that can each sleep five people.

“We were one of the first businesses of this type to have a Website – something we did in 1992,” says Bill Welk of Oshkosh, who runs the business with his wife Lois. They are a charming couple whom I met earlier this year, at the annual Governor’s Council on Tourism.

Bill says 60-70 percent of his Internet visitors are from Illinois; he contends the average person is willing to drive three to six hours to get to a destination. Other customers are looking for accommodations while traveling on business.

“Exhibitors for a trade show may want to stay together,” he says, as an example. Vacation Connection can help them do that, perhaps in a setting other than the typical motel.

Before the Internet, the Welks say they’d get 3,000 lodging inquiries per week on their toll-free business line. Today they measure success by Website visits, saying there are 150,000 to 250,000 per month.

Their staff of three part-timers can build Websites for properties and link them to Vacation Connection. Starting next month, Bill says it also will be possible to make lodging reservations online.

Toll-free inquiries still are an option, too; the number is (800) 477-2920.

Wisconsin Online Inc. is the brainchild of Dennis Falck of Milwaukee, a proud father of two children who has come up with a guide to Wisconsin recreation, entertainment and community events.

Listings are updated every Friday, and there is no cost to list an event. There are 119 subjects; consumers also can search for events by keyword, city or county.

I don’t have children, but nonetheless I was particularly impressed with the assortment of summer camp listings that are a part of www.wisconlin.com. (Look for “summer camps and youth programs.”) There were 191 listings as of this week.

For more about www.wisconline.com, call (800) 575-9781 or send an e-mail to reception@wisconline.com.

Last, I’ll mention one of my favorite online shopping sites for instate travel: www.flato.com. It is an opportunity to save 50 percent, or more, on the cost of motel stays, restaurant certificates, attraction tickets and other services/items/entertainment – some of which have nothing to do with travel.

This is an online component of Good Karma Broadcasting: ESPN/1380-AM in Beloit, 100X/100.5-FM in Madison, and WTTN/1580-AM in Watertown.

Each radio station also does on-the-air sales of certificates on Saturday mornings; in Madison, also tune in from 8-10 p.m. on Tuesday through Thursday.

From Abbotsford to Wisconsin Dells – and the Twin Cities to West Palm Beach, Fla. – there are tremendous deals. Motels typically are economy to mid-level chains, but occasionally bed-and-breakfast options also exist.

Selections tend to heavily favor the Madison and Wisconsin Dells areas, particularly with regard to restaurants and services.

I have saved a lot of money when traveling because of Flato.com, although the very best deals (and most choices) seem to come from listening to the radio, not doing business on the Website. Friends and I have used these certificates to subsidize Badger sports trips to the Twin Cities and holiday shopping trips to the Chicago area, particularly Gurnee Mills.

Just one warning: It is tempting to favor “discount” more than “need.” If I hear of something that I want for a specific date, I will:

* Check out certificate restrictions. Some motel stays are just good from Sunday through Thursday, or will be restricted to a certain time of year, or the certificate will expire soon.

* Make a reservation for the lodging, to ensure room availability, THEN buy the certificate. You can always cancel the reservation if certificate availability disappears.

Choices this week included 68 lodging options, including $54.50 for a night at a Clarion Suites in Madison. Tickets to 10 Wisconsin Dells attractions were heavily discounted, as was admission to the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, and movie tickets in Lake Geneva.

Happy hunting!