|By L.A. Johnson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Mar. 6, 2005 - Need a good price on an airline ticket, hotel room or car rental?
Look no further than the Internet. For travelers with a spirit of adventure and who don't mind surfing the Web, that's where the best travel deals often are found.
Numerous online travel sites offer both novice travelers and experienced globetrotters easy access to a wide range of travel options.
The No. 1 rule of online travel searches:
"You have to shop around," says Bill McGee, online travel consultant to Consumer Reports WebWatch, which does quarterly investigations and head-to-head comparisons of Web sites. "There is no one-stop shop, no silver bullet."
Because no one travel site always has the best deal, it's best to check in with one or more of the Big Three online travel Web sites, Travelocity.com, Expedia.com and Orbitz.com. Find out what carriers they are listing as offering the lowest price available for a particular flight route, hotel room or rental car.
"Primarily for air-fare searches, the difference between them is just how they display information," says Jared Blank, editor of Online Travel Review at www.onlinetravelreview.com.
The absolute lowest price available may not always be the best way for you to go. Keep in mind your personal preferences, such as whether you want only nonstop flights -- which may cost more -- or prefer red-eye flights. Perhaps you could fly out of or into an alternate airport near your departure/destination city or even leave or return a day earlier or later, all of which could save some bucks.
For example, a preliminary search of the Big Three for a flight from Pittsburgh to Palm Springs, Calif., indicates that some particular airline has the best rate.
"Then, go and check the airline's Web site directly, because the airline sites do not charge service fees," Blank says. "So, it could end up being cheaper."
Travelocity.com offers a special feature indicating when three or less seats are left on a particular flight.
Also, check the direct Web sites for the low-fare carriers such as Southwest, Independence Air, or the recent addition to Pittsburgh, Hooters Air, whose flights generally aren't listed on third-party sites.
In addition to third-party online travel sites such as Travelocity.com, Expedia.com and Orbitz.com -- which search travel suppliers directly -- other sites, such as Kayak.com, Mobissimo.com, Sidestep.com, Farechase.com and Qixo.com, search lots of different travel Web sites at once.
For Web surfers who can endure a little mystery and have plenty of flexibility in travel times, other sites such as Hotwire.com are an option.
"Hotwire will show you the fare between your two cities, but not the airline or the times [until you've paid for it]," Blank says. "It is often cheaper than any other published fare."
For those who can endure a lot more suspense and also have flexibility in their travel times, try Priceline.com.
"They ask you to bid on the route and won't tell you the time or the airline until the bid has been accepted," Blank says.
If you have no idea what to bid, Blank says a good rule of thumb is to bid 10 to 20 percent below whatever Hotwire.com is showing.
Consumer Reports testing found that Hotwire.com and Priceline.com did have lower fares, but the restrictions are greater.
"If you bid on it, you can't say, 'I don't want to leave on Friday, I want to leave on Saturday." You have no choice," McGee says. "And you're not aware of the product [brand] you're bidding on until they've already gotten your credit card information and the sale is final."
"On the whole, you're going to find a lower price [with Hotwire and Priceline], but you have to decide whether it's worth these drawbacks," McGee says. "You have to be extremely flexible."
Prices can change in a day, an hour, a minute and even seconds. So, when you find a fare or price you're comfortable with, book it.
Travelers booking trips online also should be aware of a practice called fare jumping, when a particular quoted fare suddenly increases mid-booking, McGee warns.
When it comes to hotel reservations, each online travel agency has its own deal with hotels, so, again, check around.
"Just because one site says a given hotel doesn't have rooms left doesn't mean another site doesn't have rooms left in that hotel," Blank says. "If a hotel you want shows no rooms, check other Web sites."
Also, check the individual Web sites for the hotel or hotel chain.
"And still call the hotel directly," Blank says. "They have leeway to negotiate a bit on both price and availability. It's still worth making that phone call."
Two smaller hotel Web sites that also might be worth checking are Quikbook.com and Tourgang.com, which sometime have deals the larger Web sites don't, he says.
Orbitz's hotel listings make it easy to see, in a single glance, the best room rate available for one-, two-, three-, four- and five-star hotels in a particular city. In 20 select cities, Orbitz also makes it especially easy to quickly find hotels in particular neighborhoods, near landmarks or areas of interest.
With car rentals, the rules are the same. Check the Big Three and the brand Web sties.
Blank says travelers also can often save quite a bit of money booking rental cars through Hotwire.com and Priceline.com because they use only major rental agencies and the time of day you're renting the car doesn't matter.
Booking vacation packages -- flight and hotel, hotel and rental car, or flight, hotel and rental car all together -- can be cheaper than booking each component separately, but again it's best to shop around.
Expedia.com's package listings indicate how much the consumer saves booking the components together, and packages can be billed to two different credit cards for people splitting the cost of a trip.
Read the fine print -- some special deals are nonrefundable -- and be aware of any extra fees. Qixo.com automatically tacks a $20 fee onto its plane tickets.
And even given all the online options, McGee says there still is a place for travel agents.
"If you're looking at a pretty straightforward thing, like booking a flight from New York to San Francisco, look online," he says. "On a cruise or package or something that you need expertise, we suggest you use a travel agent."
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