My bucketshop-style, real-world travel agent makes some astonishing offers: 'Seven nights in London from $12*'. The rub lies in the asterisk, offset by the words 'conditions apply'. The conditions make snaring the offer impossible unless you're prepared to catch stopover flights that require you to sleep overnight on aluminium airport seats or travel back in time. As a result, I rely on the Net, which always seems to offer the promise of the ultimate cutthroat quick deal. Time is of the essence because I've impulsively booked a flight to Thailand without thinking about accommodation. I look set to pay for my complacency because it's high season and rates have doubled. So I embark on a journey as tortuous as any I am likely to undergo in the real world and which drags on like a red-eye flight. To simplify matters, I head for that stalwart, lastminute.com, only to find it's more upmarket than when I last looked. Flightcentre.com serves me better, with loads of scope for cheapskates. But too few of this hub's hits promise instant availability and I can't hang around to see if a vacancy might emerge next week. It's the same story at 'Thailand's leading tourism portal', Sawadee.com. I try to book one hotel - the Blue Sky in Phuket - via Sawadee, but rain clouds gather 24 hours later when I discover it's full. Rats! Just when I am beginning to consider taking a tent, after a flurry of clicks, I more or less randomly wind up at a travel portal I have rarely investigated, Expedia.co.uk (motto: 'Be inspired'). Through Expedia I find a cheap central boutique hotel in Patong, which offers Ethernet access in every colour-therapy-co-ordinated room and is a stroll from the beach. Job done. In the wake of my research binge, I've learned lessons and confirmed suspicions. For one thing, it's worthwhile returning to Sawadee because it offers some blistering off-season promotions, such as a room at a Wi-fi-enabled ecolodge for 11 HK cents a night. For another, as one travel-addict friend corroborates, you get good deals from British travel sites such as Expedia. Maybe it's because Britain's 60 million people want to get away every other month to escape the dinginess. Also, although on this occasion I didn't learn much, I'm sure you can gain superb voyeuristic insights from rating sites such as VirtualTourist.com and TripAdvisor. com (motto: 'the good, the bad and the ugly - real stories from real travellers'). The amateur reviewers who roll up to rating sites pull no punches because they can choose to be anonymous and are apparently not in bed with the travel industry on the whole, although sometimes you wonder about their objectivity. One critic in a thread describes a hotel as 'the worst I've ever stayed in - there was dog do on the Astroturf and worms in the swimming pool'. The next critic says: 'This hotel is superb. Immaculately clean throughout and five-star service.' Read between the lines if you have time. The truth is that impulsive eleventh-hour holiday booking amounts to an extreme sport probably best avoided - unless you thrive on the kind of migraine I'm getting over. It's a sport that may yet drive me back into the arms of my travel agent.