Go online for holiday travel help

SAN FRANCISCO (11/21/2003) - It's that time again. Time to pay way too much money for an airline ticket, spend way too much time in line, and arrive at your destination much too tired and cranky from the hassle of planning your trip. But there are wired ways to avoid the usual aggravation of the annual holiday travel season.

The Web offers plenty of tips and tools to help make your travel planning and your trip itself as pleasant as that home-cooked meal you're trying to get to.

Shop Around

Travel bargains abound on the Web, but it may take plenty of legwork to find them. The secret is to shop around, experts agree. Not all of the travel sites, big or small, have the same fares, says Jared Blank, a travel analyst at Jupiter Research. "If you're willing to take the time, it's wise to check out at least two or three sites," he says.

You might want to start with big-name travel sites, such as Expedia.com, as well as Travelocity.com and Orbitz.com. Those sites are consolidators, offering fares from numerous airlines, but sometimes deals can be had by going directly to major airline sites.

You might also find unexpected bargains on smaller sites, both the consolidators and airlines. Among those worth clicking on are Cheaptickets.com, or Quikbook.com, and Tourgang.com. Sites of some of the smaller, budget airlines include JetBlue and Song.

Research Your Options

"The single most important thing is to shop around," agrees Jon Douglas, the news editor at travel information site SmarterLiving.com. "Check more than one site. Just because an airline is shouting about a sale fare, it doesn't mean it's the lowest fare available on that route. Check multiple sites, routes, days."

SmarterLiving.com's Booking Buddy makes checking multiple sources easy. It allows you to enter your itinerary and then select which of the major airline sites or travel sites you'd like to search. Booking Buddy also searches Southwest.com, a discount airline site that does not offer its fares through any third-party sites. Booking Buddy, like the rest of SmarterLiving.com's services, is an information-only service; you book your tickets through the actual travel or airline site itself.

Another tool for searching multiple sources is SideStep. This free browser add-on searches multiple travel sites to display the best available fares. It opens in a browser frame when you visit a travel site, and allows you to comparison shop.

An Open Mind

Flexibility is just as important as your willingness to do your legwork, and the Web offers several helpful tools.

"Always try to travel on off-peak days and times. Only a sadist would travel on the Wednesday before or the Sunday after Thanksgiving," says Henry Harteveldt, prinicpal analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

Travelocity.com offers a helpful "Flexible Dates" feature, which lets you select your price and your airline, and then tells you the dates on which those fares are available. You can view all of the information before booking the flight--you're not forced into making a blind purchase.

But if you are willing to buy on faith, you can save even more using sites such as Hotwire.com and Priceline.com. Called "opaque sites," they offer substantial savings on airfare, car rentals, and hotels, but they don't allow you to see all of the details, such as the airline, actual flight time, or hotel chain, before you make the purchase.

Last-Minute Advice

With Thanksgiving just a few days away, finding cheap flights is a challenge--but not an impossibility. SmarterLiving.com publishes last-minute fares from more than 20 airlines on its site each week, Douglas says.

Another place to look for last-minute fares is Site59.com, a travel site that specializes in last-minute trips, Douglas says.

And if you really want a Thanksgiving deal, consider a trip of a different kind.

"There can be some remarkable international deals around Thanksgiving," Douglas says. "If you're not going to Grandma's, if you're looking to hop across the pond, you may be able to find a great deal."

A Room of Your Own

If you need a hotel room, the Web can help again. But travelers should be aware of some recent changes. Perhaps the most significant one is that many hotel chains have stopped awarding frequent visitor points to guests who book rooms through a third-party site, such as Expedia or Hotels.com.

Some hotel chains have also begun offering "best rate" guarantees on their own Web sites, Douglas says. This means the best rate for any given room is available directly from them online. If you don't see such a guarantee on the site, it never hurts to call and ask.

Even when you book online, calling to confirm your reservation is always a good idea, especially when you book through a third-party site, Jupiter's Blank says. In the past, Hotels.com confirmed bookings with the hotels by sending a fax--obviously not a foolproof method. Hotels.com now has direct database connections with many hotels, and all hotels have access to the company's online extranet to secure reservations, says Bob Diener, president and co-founder of Hotels.com.

You may also save on airfare and hotel rates through a package deal, which all of the major travel sites now offer. By booking your airfare and hotel stay together, you could save a significant percentage off of purchasing both individually. But like anything else, Douglas warns, it's wise to shop around.

"It's important to be savvy. A package will save you money over booking that airfare and that hotel from that site, but you should be wary," he says. "You may be able to find a better deal on that airfare and that hotel if you purchase them separately somewhere else."

Hit the Road

When you've bought your tickets and booked your hotel, look for other Web-based travel-easing tools. Most airlines now offer online check-in, so you can print out your boarding pass and save a lot of time at the airport.

"If you have a printer at home or in the office, use your airline's site to check in," Harteveldt says.

The rules vary by airline, so make sure to check the airline's site for any restrictions. Some won't allow people traveling with children, or children under 12 traveling alone, to check in online. Sometimes the service is limited to travelers who are not checking luggage.

You should also check the airline's site to get flight updates, especially in the winter, Harteveldt says. Many sites will send flight updates to your cell phone or handheld device.

And if all the holiday traveling leaves you needing a vacation, consider this advice from SmarterLiving.com's Douglas: "Mid-January is a great time to travel. You can find plenty of bargains."

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