The internet has liberated travellers. It makes us more independent; it enables us to cut out the middle man, hunt for bargains, and check the latest information on sights and hotels that may be hundreds or thousands of miles away. But it also makes us more vulnerable. We can't always be sure that a site is legitimate, that our booking will be honoured, or that we won't be overcharged.
One of the most basic problems that I, and I'm sure many other travellers face is trying to track down official websites. If you don't know the correct address, you are reliant on the results thrown up by Google or a similar search engine. The problem is that travel is one of the most overcrowded corners of the web, with thousands of sites vying for attention -- a few good, but most poor.
It wouldn't matter so much if Google could read your mind, but it can't. You can type in appropriate search terms and still fail to find the site you want. Even worse, you can be misled. Some agents have become adept at 'optimising' their sites for search engines, so that they regularly manage to appear on the first page of Google results, and they also know how to make their site look official.
It is easy to be seduced. Looking for some information on holidays to France? Type 'French Tourist Office' into Google. Top of the 5,720,000 results (in fact, it takes up the first three places in the list) is www.francetourism.com and the summary rubric says: "French Tourist Office for France tourism, travel & tours." The home page has the greeting: "Welcome to the official website of the French Tourist Office, the authority on France travel and France tourism". And is full of links to commercial sites.
But, assuming you were after the official government-run French Tourist Office, this probably isn't the website you were looking for. That comes at number four in the Google results, and it is called www.franceguide.com.
Want to book a special weekend in Venice? Fancy the Danieli Hotel? Type "Danieli Hotel Venice" into Google. The top result is www.danieli.hotelinvenice.com. It looks official. The site includes the logo of the Luxury Collection, which owns the hotel; its booking engine offers me a night in a double premium deluxe room for €515.
But on close reading of the booking payment page, it becomes apparent that the booking is being made through UniTravel, which a further search on the net reveals to be an Italian booking agent.
That's not to say that the booking won't be honoured, but I would not be making it direct with the hotel. Had I gone direct to the correct website (the very similarly named www.danielihotelvenice. com), I could have got the same room for €489.
Such misleading site names are rife. I was trying to book tickets for the Theatre Royal Haymarket the other day and couldn't understand why the seats were being sold at a £7 premium. Then I realised that the site I was on -- www.theatreroyalhaymarket.co.uk -- was not the official website for the Theatre Royal but linked to a ticket agency called www.londontheatredirect.com. The theatre's own site, by the way, turned out to be www.trh.co.uk.
Many of the sites that try to pass themselves off as official landing pages for hotels or destinations offer a perfectly legal service. You can book hotels, or tickets to sights, in a legitimate way.
But they nearly always charge commission or a higher rate than you would pay by booking direct.
Also, if there is a problem with the booking, your hand as a consumer will be much stronger if you have booked direct rather than through an agency. So how do you find the right website in the first place?
If you do a lot of searching, and consider yourself adept at decoding the results, you may feel I am teaching grandmother to suck eggs.
But it is always worth remembering that the listings on the search-results page are not always what they seem. Google's method of producing results is complex and confidential, but essentially it tries to make sure that the most relevant results feature your search terms most prominently. Google has become successful because it is very good at doing this, but it has to contend with millions of sites vying for the top position.
Not all of the results you see are based on this principle. Any at the top of the page enclosed in a pale box are not necessarily based on relevance, but are from companies that have paid Google to be there.
The tiny letters 'Ad' in the top of the right-hand corner give this away. The same is true of the results in the extreme right-hand column. That certainly doesn't mean that they are not the best results -- sometimes, tourist boards or hotels pay to appear in these sections -- but you should be aware of why they are there.
Use a 'long-tailed search' and quotation marks
This is industry jargon for putting lots of relevant words into the search box: enter, for example, "official site for French tourist board" and the top result will be the government-run site. It doesn't always work, but it should improve your chances of a relevant result.
The same is true of enclosing all or some of your search terms in quotation marks -- Google will list only sites with that exact wording.
Don't trust the site name
As my earlier examples show, the site name is not necessarily a keyto authenticity.
Thanks to the proliferation of possible site names through the use of .net (as opposed to .com or .co.uk) and other domain names, there are lots of ways to create sites that sound authentic.
Beware of misspelt site names
Even if you know the web address you want, it is still possible to be tripped up.
A niche business has developed on the web to try to make money out of people who mistype the name of the site they are looking for.
Sometimes companies have anticipated this and ensure you are automatically directed to the right place: for example, try typing www.birtishairways.com, instead of www.britishairways.com.
But other 'misspelt' addresses have been bought in an attempt to make money.
So, for example, type www.easyjte.com into your browser and you will go to a page that looks like a search-results page and includes sponsored links to easyJet and other cheap-fare websites.
If you land on a site that looks wrong, it's worth checking that you typed the address correctly.
Beware of false links
These are mostly a problem with spam emails trying to sell medication or extract your bank details, but they can look convincing. Before you click on any link in an email, try hovering your mouse over it -- the address of the website to which you will be directed will show in a small box and it may be entirely different from what the printed link shows.
Verify the site's status
If a site looks legitimate, but you still have doubts, there are a few ways to establish its true status. Almost every site will have one or more of the following links, which should give correct information about the company running it.
They may be in the small print at the bottom of the home page or buried in a drop-down menu, but if you can't find any such link, that could be a bad sign.
Contact us: The official site of a hotel or tourist board, for example, will almost certainly include a contact telephone number. Ringing that number is a sure way to verify the legitimacy of the site.
About us: Assuming the whole site is not a fraud, this will confirm the ownership and status of the site. If the site does not have an 'About us' link, there may be a link labelled 'Help' or 'FAQs', or simply a link to the name of the company, giving similar information.