It's easy to make fun of internet evangelists, especially when the whole business seems to be getting ahead of itself, as it is now. How ridiculous, to fund the 200th online video site! How silly, all these would-be MySpace imitators! How foolish, spending millions on TV advertising to try and get people to use a search engine other than Google!

Yet I was reminded the other day that for all the big problems the internet has helped to solve, there are a whole bunch more in which it has made barely a dent. And some of them are the most obvious things.

Consider this: I need to find a specific type of beach hotel in a specific part of Mexico. My wife has always wanted to see the Mayan ruins and I bought her a trip as a birthday present, but now I have to figure out the details. The plane tickets were straightforward enough, but finding the right hotel has been surprisingly complicated.

The search engines, first of all, yield a confusing mix of helpful (hotel and travel websites) and unhelpful (third-tier aggregator) links. You can spend all kinds of time chasing down all the possible avenues of research, but most of it is wasted and you never get the sense that you've really seen all the possibilities.

The recommendation sites, where travellers supposedly share their experiences, were pretty much bereft of input on the places I was interested in. In the end, nothing I could find on the net was as helpful as a good guidebook.

What I really needed was someone who had been there, who knew the places, and who could tell me which one matched my mind’s-eye view of what I wanted. In other words, I needed a good travel agent.

I'll remember that next time I see yet another online travel start-up.

Get the full story at Times Online