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Advice to Consumers - Do Your Research
When Booking Travel Arrangements Online
By David van den Berg, Belleville News-Democrat, Ill.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

Oct. 20, 2003 - You work hard for your vacation and want to make sure it's memorable. 

But will making arrangements for it online leave you only with the memory of being dot.conned out of your hard-earned money? Is booking travel online safe? 

"Shopping online is safe -- probably a lot safer than handing your credit card to a waiter at a restaurant who disappears behind a curtain," said Henry Harteveldt, a principal analyst with Forrester Research in San Francisco. 

More and more Americans are booking travel online, Harteveldt said. This year, he said his company projects 28.5 million households will spend $27.8 billion booking travel online. Harteveldt said his firm projects 30.7 million households will spend about $34 billion booking travel online next year. 

Making travel arrangements online offers several benefits, Harteveldt said, including the ability to control arrangements and not needing to deal with travel agents who may have a lot of clout with a particular airline or hotel company. Additionally, the Internet has made airfares and airline fare structures transparent, Harteveldt said. 

"It's like walking into a changing room after a tornado has blown through and swept everybody's clothes off," he said. 

In addition to Web sites of individual airlines, hotel and rental car companies, six major Web sites offer Web surfers the chance to book travel. They are: 

So how do you use these sites to book that memorable vacation or even a more mundane trip? 

First, do your homework. Steve Lott, the business editor at Aviation Daily, an airline industry newsletter, said booking travel online does save money but said travelers should search multiple sites, and not trust just one. 

"The fares on Orbitz do not necessarily match the fares on Expedia," said Josh Marks, the associate director of the George Washington University Aviation Institute. 

Research is important, especially for complex arrangements like a cruise or a vacation package, Harteveldt said. There are tools like user reviews of hotels on Travelocity and travel guide sites that can help. But, airfares come and go, and when a shopper sees a good deal, the user needs to respond, Harteveldt said, adding when sites offer the opportunity to book and hold a reservation for a short period, it's a good idea for the shopper to take advantage. 

"When you see something very good, don't sit around expecting it to be there in an hour and a half," he said. "Jump on it." 

Those interested in booking travel online should visit the airline's individual sites and consider registering for frequent flyer programs, Marks said. Harteveldt also said when visiting individual airline or hotel sites, registering for weekly notifications of specials is a good idea. 

People booking travel online for the first time might not want to use Priceline or Hotwire, Marks said, even though those two sites can save people 25 percent over the others. On Priceline, the user submits a bid for airfares or hotels, and if the bid is accepted the traveler is stuck with the flight schedule or hotel given them. On Hotwire, travelers are shown the cost before they pay it, but details like the name of the airline and the flight times are not revealed until the purchase is made. 

"If that matters to you, you're better off to pay the difference," Marks said. 

Both Marks and Lott said people booking travel with Expedia or Orbitz need not worry about not having an advocate if something goes wrong. Lott said most of the big Web sites offer customer call centers where people can turn for assistance. 

There are sites and offers to be careful of, Harteveldt said. He said shoppers should be careful of buying upgrade coupons on auction sites, and should check the terms and conditions of the upgrade to make sure it can be used. In addition, Harteveldt said shoppers should be wary of sites he called "consolidator or bucket shops" that offer deals on what he said are second and third rate foreign airlines, and said people should never visit what he called "gray market" sites to buy frequent flyer award tickets, because no one can buy or sell miles. 

"You are always better off paying a little bit more and buying from a legitimate source," he said. 

-----To see more of the Belleville News-Democrat, Ill., or to subscribe, visit 

(c) 2003, Belleville News-Democrat, Ill. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. TSG, PCLN, IACIZ, 


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