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Although there’s a lot to be said for spontaneity, many travelers feel more secure if the details of their long-awaited vacations are worked out in advance.

Happily, with the wealth of online resources available, that is not difficult. And sometimes it can be as much fun as the trip itself.

Find a destinationYou’ve done Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, London and Madrid and want to try some lesser- known destinations. First choose a country. To take a look at what national tourist agencies deem their most worthy sites, visit the Tourist Offices Worldwide Directory at www.towd.com. Select a country from the list and visit its Web site to discover its major cities and regions.

Most national Web sites also provide a list of top events for the year, searchable by topic of interest. You can also search for recommended itineraries based on the needs and interests of your group, be it wine routes, cycling paths or kid-friendly destinations.

You’ve got a few ideas now, based on those high-resolution photos and descriptions. But maybe you’re cynical and would prefer something other than the official view. After all these people are paid to lure you to their country. For the opinions of real travelers, check out various forums and message boards. Many registered users provide their insights on places visited, or offer links to published articles on destinations. A couple of these are www.bootsnall.com, which bills itself as “the ultimate resource for the independent traveler” and www.igoyougo.com.

If you are more moved by images than words, visit the travelogs of a photo-sharing Web site, such as www.trekearth.com for inspiration.

Many travel-guide publishers also maintain handy Web sites providing overviews of popular destinations. On many, you’ll find more forums for travelers seeking information about the places they plan to visit or giving tidbits about where they have been. Those worth checking out include www.frommers.com, www.fodors.com, and www.roughguides.com.

Another good way to determine the highlights of a given area is to see what itineraries are proposed for multi-destination guided tours. Then plan to strike out to those very same places on your own. Rick Steves, for example, sells tours all over Europe. Glean inspiration by visiting www.ricksteves.com and clicking on tours.

If you’re interested in planning your travel around a particular event rather than a place, a good site to visit is www.whatsonwhen.com. It will direct you to the top events of any country month by month, and often provides you with a link to the event organizer’s Web site. A similar Web site is www.isic.org, which ties in with the International Student Identity Card.

Even if events take a back seat to the destination itself, it’s nice to know what’s going on locally. Locally published English- language magazines can be great sources of information regarding the best clubs for live music, English-language cinemas, the newest clubs and restaurants, exhibitions and more.

The “In Your Pocket” guides make great resources for those bound for eastern Europe in particular, and its Web site allows access to guides of more than 45 European cities. The site, www.inyourpocket.com, also includes Instant City Guides downloadable for free as PDF files.

If you’re young and hip, or consider yourself so, check out the postings on quirky, irreverent things to know in a particular city at the sometimes-raunchy Web site www.gridskipper.com.

Booking your tripNow that you know where you want to go, it’s time to think about how to get there. Do you want to make the arrangements yourself, or leave it up to an agency? You might assume the former would be cheaper, but that’s not necessarily true. Tour operators block out plane seats and rooms in the resorts featured in their catalogs, reducing the overall price. And packages not sold in good time can be deeply discounted.

Let’s imagine a seven-day holiday on a Greek island in late June as a likely example of cost savings for a childless couple from Stuttgart. A visit to the Stuttgart airport Web site takes you to a booking engine that indicates the cheapest flight available June 24 to July 1 to Heraklion, Crete’s largest airport, as of mid-May is about 393 euros, including tax.

On the other hand, a weeklong package holiday from Stuttgart to Crete for that same period booked through an agency such as the German travel company TUI costs about 500 euros per person, including flight, airport transfers, three-star hotel and half-pension. Even if you use that hotel for three nights only and spend the rest of your time exploring the island, it would make sense to book the package.

To fly or not to fly?There are budget carriers galore here in Europe, but it’s not easy to keep track of who flies where. Luckily, someone’s doing that for us. Visit www.whichbudget.com and search by either departure airport or destination to find links to all the budget carriers serving a particular city.

Germany-based readers who need to fly within Europe at the last minute might do well to inquire at a L’tur travel agency or visit its online site, www.ltur.com, to find out what deals Lufthansa is offering just a few days before the departure date. Click on “Flug,” then “Lufthansa last minute.” The site is in German, but is easy to figure out.

If your destination isn’t far away, it could pay to take the train. Booking early and keeping an eye out for specials are crucial. If you immediately click to the English version on the Web site of a country’s national train network, you may miss some deals because not all of those posted in the country’s native tongue have been translated into English. If you’re planning extensive train travel, you’d also do well to consider the many rail passes available. Get an overview at www.raileurope.com.

Looking to save big? Take the bus. Granted, it’s not the speediest option, or the most comfortable, but it can result in big savings. On www.eurolines.com, a round trip from Mannheim to Prague, booked 20 days in advance, is 59 euros, including booking fees. Convinced now?

Choosing a hotelSometimes selecting a hotel straight from the guidebook feels a little, well, unadventurous. But then again, you don’t want to end up in a dump, either. What to do? Visit www.tripadvisor.com and see what hotels rank first among travelers who have actually stayed in them. Some contributors even post photos of the actual rooms, which can be a far cry from the model rooms on the hotels’ Web sites.

If you’ve encountered a real gem or a horrid fleabag in your own travels, why not let the world know about it by posting your own review? And it pays to read these reviews, rather than just look at the star ratings assigned by travelers. Some rather fussy types will lower their ratings over the lack of Diet Coke in the mini-bar.

Once you narrow your hotel choices, put their names and city into any search engine, and chances are you will find several hotel booking Web sites that purport to find you the absolute rock-bottom rates — often lower than the rates offered on the hotel’s own Web site. Chances are, you’ll find just as many prices as booking engines.

If you’re interested in a chain hotel in a larger city, Travelocity or Expedia might be good sites to check. Another Web site that frequently comes up is www.venere.com. To compare prices between booking agencies, visit www.nextag.com, which allows users to comparison shop.

Feeling leery about providing your credit card details online to unfamiliar Web sites? Somewhere among all the hits for booking engines you’ll run into, the hotel itself may have its own Web page. Try inserting the word “tel.” or “telephone” into your search criteria. Once you have the number, call the hotel directly and ask about rates. If they’re higher than what you saw online, inform them of the best price you found, and see if they’d be willing to match it. Chances are good that you’ll still need to lock in your reservation with a credit card, so have your card at hand. At least you’ll know who you are giving the information to.

Special interestsIf you’re female and going it alone, there are plenty of Web sites to help you find journeys tailored to your interests, or travel agencies that specialize in holidays for women. The Frommer’s Web site recently posted a useful directory of organizations and agencies geared to helping women travel: www.frommers.com/rss/articles/1739.html.

Among other specialty sites are ones for teachers and students interested in travel that enhances classroom lessons through an agency such as EF Educational Tours (www.eftours.com).

Finishing touchesWhat often sets a great trip apart from a merely good one is the chance to meet and mingle with the locals. As a tourist, you’ll frequently find that most of the people you run into are fellow tourists. You could consider striking up an e-mail acquaintance with someone at your destination before leaving home, and asking that person to take you out for a night on his or her town, local style. Any online community where people meet would be a good starting point. Why not set up your own site on www.myspace.com and search by name of your proposed destination? It goes without saying, exercise caution when arranging to meet.

Maybe you studied French in high school, but never made much use of it, and now that you’re heading to the Cote d’Azur you want to see what you remember. Give yourself a quick refresher by visiting the BBC languages Web site at www.bbc.co.uk/languages. Beginners will find the site handy, too.

Armed with all this free knowledge available at the click of a mouse, you’ll feel confident, informed and inspired to head into the unknown. And upon your return, you can visit one of those travelers’ forums and be the expert who answers the question “How much is the train fare between Prague and Krakow, and how do we get the best deal?”

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