What you'll find in this story: Internet travel deals, Travel Web sites, hidden savings, inexpensive travel tips, expert secrets
Around the time that Google became a verb, shoppers began trolling the Internet en masse for travel deals. Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz grabbed the lion's share of the business early on, and loads of travelers assume they're the best places for bargains today. But new players, as well as sites run by hotels, airlines, and car-rental agencies themselves, have all gotten in on the action. There are more options than ever, but finding the best price has never been more complicated. Here are some of the new rules.
The attraction of using meta search engines, also known as screen scrapers or aggregators, is obvious: They retrieve prices from several sources simultaneously. Instead of looking up a fare at Expedia, then Travelocity, American Airlines' site, and so forth, you plug in a request at a site such as Mobissimo, Qixo, or Kayak and let them do the searching for you. Each aggregator works a little differently. Most of the people who use SideStep, the oldest and most established of the bunch, download it onto their computer for side-by-side comparative shopping with other sites. Even though Kayak, the biggest new name in search engines, was still in its testing stage at press time, the site is already exceptionally user-friendly. Rather than throw every result your way, Kayak allows you to specify a window of time for flight departure, how many stops you're willing to put up with, and a range of acceptable prices.
Assume no one is objective
It's no secret that most travel sites have "preferred partners"--companies that have special contracts so that they're given top billing in search results, whether they're the best value or not. Instead of sifting through skewed options, rejigger the search so that your preferences--say, cheapest airfare or a hotel's proximity to the city center--appear first. In general, aggregators have an air of objectivity because they don't actually sell travel, they just cull prices. But in recent months there's been squabbling about which sites can list which prices--Travelocity, for example, pulled its rates off of Kayak--so be aware that even the aggregators can't give the full picture.
Don't expect one site to cut it
No site always has the cheapest prices, and no single source searches all the possible options. Airlines such as Southwest and JetBlue rarely show up on third-party search engines. The InterContinental Hotels Group, which includes Holiday Inn, recently pulled nearly all of its properties from Hotels.com and Expedia. It's also impossible to find all of a city's independent hotels at one site, nor can any one source search the range of low-fare carriers in Europe or elsewhere.
Be wary of gimmicky guarantees
Nearly every travel site has some kind of price guarantee. Most are of dubious value. Orbitz, for example, states that if you find a fare for $5 less than they offer, they'll give you
$50 for future travel
Sounds good, but caveats and time restrictions make it impractical, if not impossible, to call them on it. At Lodging.com, customers are greeted with the headline "Stop Searching& 110% Price Guarantee" and an example of how the guarantee works: Say you book a hotel for $100 through them, then find it elsewhere for $90. (They don't explain how you'd find the other rate if you were to stop searching, as they suggest.) After you prove the second offer is legit, they give you the price difference ($10), plus 10 percent off the difference (a whopping $1), and the room winds up costing $89. Guarantees are only worth something if customers follow up on them. Most people don't, and even if they do, it's an arduous and not all that rewarding process.
Compare apples to apples
Some sites include extra fees up front, while others, such as Expedia, are sneaky and bundle up a vague compilation of taxes and service charges at the last minute. Booking policies can also be different--one site may penalize you $10 for canceling a hotel reservation, while at another there's no charge.
Not only will you almost always pay less, chances are you'll get better treatment if you skip the third-party booking engines and make reservations directly. After our magazine mentioned a hotel executive who admitted that her company routinely gives the worst rooms in the house to customers who book through third-party sites, we received dozens of letters from readers saying that they'd been treated poorly at hotels for that very reason. "This is one family that will never use Travelocity again," a typical message read. Always remember that you're not done shopping around until you inquire directly at the source.
Consider opaque sites
They're nothing new, but sites such as Priceline and Hotwire--you don't find out which hotel, airline, or car-rental company you're working with until your bid has been accepted and your credit card charged--remain good money savers.
If you're looking in particular for a decent room for cheap in a big city, Priceline is a fine source. Check out Biddingfortravel.com, a kind of user's guide to Priceline, for help, but be aware that you may not be treated as well at the hotel as someone who's booked direct (see above).
Clean your cookies
Travel sites are engineered to get the most money out of users, sometimes by trickery. Kelly Malasics, of Bridgeport, Conn., wrote to us about her experience locating a great online fare to Las Vegas, only to have it disappear later in the day. "I deleted the cookies for the site and tried again," she said. "Voilà! I found the flight I wanted at the price I wanted."
Pick up a phone
The old standard still works. Consolidator airline tickets, charter flights, and other unconventional resources that a good travel agent would know about can rarely be booked online. A hotel manager will be more willing to negotiate rates with a human voice than with a message on a computer screen. And it's often easier to talk through your options with a car-rental agent than scroll through them in the fine print online.