I have been going to Las Vegas for years. I remember when it seemed to be a string of about a half-dozen big hotels (well, if the old Flamingo could be considered big), dismal downtown and the convention center with its Hilton. The rest was sand.

Every year with the enforced regularity of a trade show pilgrim, I made my way back to Vegas at least once, sometimes more often. Year by year, things changed. The Landmark was imploded. Wayne Newton set up shop. Prices began to creep up.

Little by little. Circus Circus began with a new turn towards families. Sigfried and Roy began their wild animal shows. Paul Anka opened a night club. Collateral material about the city began to mention Hoover Dam rather than only ritz and glitz and gambling.

Then more quickly. MGM Grand became really grand. The Rio spread upscale casino action to a new part of town. The pyramid at Luxor began rising.

Then, about a decade ago, Vegas hit warp speed and created an altered state. Downtown got a canopy of lights. Venice came to the desert. Ancient Rome was built within a year. The Bellagio added real elegance and real art to what had in the past been a collection of overdone kitch and excess. The Mandalay Bay began to chip away at the aging convention center business at the far end of town.

At the same time the city began to grow as a city, a place where millions of people lived rather than only visited to gamble and do what they were not permitted to do at home.

No other city has changed as much, as quickly as Las Vegas has. Today, any person who has been there recently, knows Vegas is a big city, one of the fastest growing in the world.

Vegas used to be easy to plan: Get a cheap hotel and wander the strip; downtown was there, but only recently has made a comeback.

Since the beginning of the Web revolution three areas of Internet commerce have been the leaders in development of online transactions. Pornography shot into the lead as a money maker and much of what the Web knows today about security, privacy, online business, advertising and so on came from those early girlie sites. Gambling rapidly secured a niche that made money almost from the get go. And finally, travel, arguably the first legitimate online business, became an online money maker and continues to grow at dramatic rates.

For better or worse, Las Vegas encompassed all of these Web areas. But today, Vegas is one of the real hotbeds of Internet development in terms of travel. Web sites such as Vegas.com are at the cutting edge of destination information as you read this column.

Before the Web, anyone looking for information about what’s happening in Vegas had to pick up brochures, call hotels and speak with concierges or try to get a local newspaper to get the local scoop. Many of the deals only were discovered when visitors found someone “in the know” or got a tip from a casino worker.

Today, everything is as close as your nearest Internet browser. So much is happening in the former City of Sin that a good Web site is a God-send.

Las Vegas Web sites that make reservations and arrange packages abound. But there are only a few packed with details about this city that blend the gaudiest glitter with down-home suburban working folk, cutting edge exotic shows with neighborhood movie theaters, Fifth Avenue fashion boutiques with mall department stores, and renown gourmet dining with chain restaurants.

Vegas.com is perhaps the most innovative and certainly the most extensive. The deals found here normally match those on any site. Here users can access details and make reservations for everything from hotels, air, live shows and entertainment, tours, dining, golf and spa offerings, transportation and recreation. The site is packed with information for every type of visitor from families, conventioneers, brides and grooms and gamblers. They have even set up a Club Access program that helps get visitors inside the velvet rope at dozens of the hottest clubs without greasing the doorman’s palm. If you want overall content about Las Vegas and the surrounding area, this site provides more than any other Vegas site.

LasVegas.com is another extensive site that doesn’t have the breath of information found at Vegas.com, its focus is more on just package deals and hotel information. LasVegas.com is linked with the local paper and has convenient listings about what’s happening in Las Vegas as a city rather than only a tourist/business destination.

After these two specialty sites, the best deals seem to be found at Expedia.com which has an extensive Las Vegas hotel and activity inventory. The depth of material at Expedia is impressive, but is limited to hotels, air and packages without the depth of content found at the sites above.

The old days of booking your casino and being able to discover most Vegas on your own, are gone. Casino hotels and restaurants that once were a guaranteed bargain can cost a fortune. If visitors don’t know what they are doing, they can get burned with prices that would make New York blush.

If you are going to Vegas, search for your bargains. Think ahead. Plan ahead. Make reservations. It is more important than ever.