Until recently, the best way to hear about new travel deals was to subscribe to e-mail updates, whether from airlines or more general travel sites. The downside was an in-box clogged with offers that weren't always great values or that weren't applicable to you.
Now there's an alternative: RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary, depending on whom you ask. Subscribe to a site's RSS feeds, and you get updates--on sports, politics, travel deals, whatever--delivered to your desktop or Web browser. Beyond their ability to keep you in the loop, RSS messages are easier to ignore than e-mails. A summary pops up in a tiny window or directly in your browser, and if you don't click on it, the message automatically disappears after a time period of your choosing.
You're all set to start receiving RSS alerts if you use Apple's Safari browser or Mozilla's Firefox, or if you have a homepage at my.yahoo.com or my.msn.com; anyone with a Yahoo or MSN e-mail account is eligible, and registration is free. Alternately, download a free program called a news reader. Links can be found at most sites with RSS services, or by doing a Google search for "RSS reader" or "RSS aggregator." Most are Mac- or PC-specific, so pick one that works with your computer. Once you have a way to get RSS feeds, follow your news reader's instructions. (Clicking on a small orange box labeled "RSS" at sites that suit your fancy usually does the trick.) Don't be alarmed if you're prompted to click on "XML." That's just the format in which the messages are delivered.
The most useful feeds let you set parameters for what messages you'll receive. At FareCompare, you can plug in any two domestic cities to learn when sales for that route are announced. Travelocity sends RSS updates on airfares between your home airport and up to five destinations, as well as deals for specific types of trips--beach, casino, etc. Kayak, the aggregator that canvasses rates from airlines, hotels, and car renters, has a Buzz Best Fares feed with airfare deals departing from a city of your choice.
Though they might not track deals based on specific departure cities, RSS feeds at other travel sites keep tabs on all sorts of genuinely good offers. Smarter Travel lets you sign up for alerts on flights, hotels, packages, cruises, or deals aimed at seniors, students, or families. SideStep offers a choice of more than 30 RSS feeds, including 12 different kinds of vacation packages divided by destination and interest. And RSS alerts from Auto Europe and 1800FlyEurope might come in handy if you've got a trip to the Continent in the works.