September 3, 2003 -- Online travel agencies are short-sighted, and with reason. They pour millions of dollars into making sure they're hooked up with the world's major airlines, and do a great job of covering air travel in the developed world of North America, Europe, and northeast Asia.
But if your dream journey takes you to Lake Titicaca or Tbilisi, or you're trying to puzzle out the Czech railways or the buses in China, you're out of luck with most Web sites. Smaller airlines in the developing world may not have Web sites at all, or may have them only in obscure languages.
That's when you should turn to the three ultimate resources for travel schedules: OAG for airlines and the Thomas Cook Timetables for rail and bus services.
Riding the Rails to Anywhere
Sure, Amtrak (www.amtrak.com) has a great Web site. And Die Bahn (http://reiseauskunft.bahn.de/bin/query.exe/en) covers European trains like a rug. But if you're trying to get around South America or Eastern Europe by rail, you may have trouble finding the timetables in English on the Web. And when you're on the road, you may not have easy access to the Web at all.
Enter the Thomas Cook Railway Timetables. Their editors collect obscure railway schedules so you don't have to, pumping out new collections of timetables every two months. The timetables come in two flavors, European and rest-of-the-world, and they're both available from www.thomascooktimetables.com for UKP 9.45 ($15.27) plus shipping.
According to editors Brendan Fox and Peter Bass, Thomas Cook's timetable information comes from rail companies and from a network of correspondents who collect schedules in obscure locales and mail them off to the guides' London offices. The timetables don't cover every train and bus in the world, but they are as comprehensive as possible when it comes to touristed areas, even including commuter train schedules and private rail services, Bass says. Oddball Indian trains, German steam trains, even New York City commuter lines -- Thomas Cook has them all.
The guides are startlingly reliable, considering how comprehensive they are. In a scan of US rail routes we knew in the Overseas Timetable, we found a few typos but no major errors.
Every owner of a Eurailpass should carry the European Timetable, because it gives you quick, easy access to comprehensive English-language timetables for the whole darn continent. If you're roaming Africa or Asia by train, meanwhile, the Overseas Timetable will give you all the local schedules in a convenient, readable format.
Puddle-Jumping in Peru
When a friend of mine asked how to fly from Beirut to Tbilisi, I turned to OAGflights.com, the only Web site with the answer.
OAGflights.com is run by OAG, formerly the Official Airline Guide, an independent company that collects schedules from more than 930 airlines worldwide. OAG specializes in global airlines that don't show up on other sites. For instance, for our trip from Beirut to Tbilisi, OAGflights.com found a connection between Armenian and Georgian airlines that stumped every other site we tried. For a trip from Auckland, NZ to Perth, Australia, OAGflights.com was able to find multiple-airline routes involving the discount airline Virgin Blue that didn't show up on Expedia.
OAGflights.com has its failings. It doesn't actually cover every airline in the world; for instance, Southeast Airlines (www.flyseal.com) here in the US isn't on their schedule. (More established airlines like JetBlue, AirTran and Spirit are, though.) You can't book flights directly through the site, and their "check availability" link often gives wrong information. And to find more obscure routes, you need to click a button confusingly labeled "view alternative connections."
The site is subscription-only, costing $119 per year. But right now, they're offering free trials, and you don't need to enter any payment information. So if you have a trip to an obscure destination coming up, give OAGflights.com a whirl. It won't cost a penny.