Here's our comprehensive look at the best ways to travel: how to find a deal, avoid lines, pack, fly, tip, and more.
PART THREE: BOOKING
Are you comparing apples to apples?
Fees and taxes can raise prices dramatically, so find out if they're included in any price you're quoted. Booking engines keep travelers in the dark by bundling their taxes and fees or by waiting until late in the booking process to show them, and some charge more than others.
Get a trigger price
Do the necessary research so you'll know a good deal when you see one. What do we mean by "necessary research"? Start by taking a look at Farecast.com, a newish website with reams of historical airfare data, and then do your shopping around. Airfares change like that, and you have to be ready to book at a moment's notice--or the fare will disappear.
Beware any checked boxes
Some travel sites will automatically add extras that you might not want--most notoriously, travel insurance. Rail Europe, for example, tacks on a $10 per-ticket insurance fee, which online customers pay unless they notice the pre-checked box and opt out. If you see a checked box on a website, look closely for the fine print.
Delete your cookies
Websites put cookies on your computer that let them know you've been there (which is how they remember your name). Travel sites, however, have used them to avoid showing you the same price every time you visit. Delete your cookies and they'll treat you like a new customer. How you delete them depends on your computer and browser, but the option is usually available under the "Tools" or "Preferences" menu of Explorer, Safari, and Firefox. Some cookies serve a useful purpose, so delete only the ones associated with the booking engine.
Connections are a drag
Whenever possible, fly nonstop ("direct" flights may in fact make a stop on their way to the final destination), and depart early in the day, before delays have a chance to bungle schedules. In winter, you should avoid hubs such as Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, and New York; these airports are likely to experience weather-related delays.
It's your honeymoon!
And that's super. But if you say so when you're booking a trip, you'll get charged a higher price (it's just like with weddings, when flowers cost more than they usually do). The time to announce your honeymooning status is when you arrive at the airport. Same goes for a major anniversary or any other special trip.
Bid low, score big
While Priceline is now a full-fledged booking engine, it's most valuable for its bidding system. We like it for hotels in cities, but be wary of two-star hotels and below, and research neighborhoods in advance. BiddingForTravel.com has examples of successful bids. The law of supply and demand means you'll do better at business hotels on weekends, at resort towns on weekdays, and anywhere off-season.
Subscribe to e-newsletters from airlines, hotels, and travel sites. The best deals are last-minute, and to get them you need to hear about them immediately.
Sales are contagious
When an airline slashes fares, competitors that fly the same route tend to follow suit. So if a carrier doesn't have availability, or the times or connections are less than ideal, scope out its competitors.
Psst! Secret fares you'll never see at booking engines
Tour operators that book packages with charter flights (such as Vacation Express, Funjet, and Apple Vacations) also sell just the flights--for far cheaper than regularly scheduled ones. The potential downside is that charter flights usually go once a week, so if you miss your flight or the plane conks out, you're stuck. Consolidators, which sell discounted fares on regular airlines, are another resource. The best ones, like 1800FlyEurope.com and India specialist HariWorld.com, work out deals with the airlines that fly to a certain area.
We now live in a grasshopper's world
Remember the fable of the anal-retentive ant and the seize-the-day grasshopper? These days, the grasshopper wins. There's rarely need to book a trip more than two months out. In fact, you often pay more. The few exceptions when you should reserve well ahead: busy times (e.g., holidays), trips for large groups, exotic destinations with few flights, when it's a special event like a wedding (and you have no flexibility).
Confirm all of your reservations
It's a particularly good idea with hotels and car rentals during peak travel periods, when they're more likely to overbook and hand your room or car over to someone else.
And confirm your cancellations, too
Get a confirmation number or, even better, a confirmation e-mail. If you don't have proof in writing, you're facing an uphill battle if the charge eventually shows up on your credit-card bill.
If you call a company and the person who answers sounds like an idiot or a jerk, hang up before saying your name. Call back later. (To find out which keys to press to reach an operator at hundreds of companies, go to GetHuman.com.)
Maximize your cell phone
Turn it into an address book, with contact info for airlines, hotels, car-rental companies, and your car and health insurers. (Get a local phone number, too, in case the toll-free one won't work overseas.) And if you use your cell to store loyalty-program account info, you can toss those membership cards.
Welcome to our country! Now go home
If you don't have enough blank pages in your passport, or if it expires in six months or less, some countries won't let you in. (Not sure if you need a visa? See state.gov/travel.) In the U.S., the rule is that you now also need to have a passport if you're entering the country by air from Mexico, Canada, the non-U.S. Caribbean, the Bahamas, or Bermuda. People arriving by cruise ship may also require a passport as early as January 1, 2008.
Why a hotel room is kind of like a rug
Few price quotes are non-negotiable anymore--that goes for a rug in India or a hotel room anywhere. Don't accept the first rate you see; ask if there are unadvertised specials, or if the hotel can do better. Play up whatever you bring to the table--you're with a group, for example, or you visit often. Instead of a lower rate, you may end up with free parking or an upgrade. Just make sure the person you're wooing is in a position to deliver.
One word: plastic
Pay for all bookings with a credit card, so you'll be protected in the event the airline or tour operator goes out of business.
Without evidence, you have no case
Bring a copy of whatever is included in your rate. Otherwise the hotel might, say, charge you for breakfast, or the car-rental agency could try to give you a compact instead of a minivan. They'll find it a lot harder to argue if you have it on paper.
A few thoughts on travel insurance
If all you have reserved are flights and hotels, insurance generally isn't worth it: You can rebook a flight and only suffer a $100-per-ticket (or so) fee, and hotels rarely have strict cancellation policies. But if you're headed on a cruise or a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, such as a safari, insurance looks better and better, because tour operators and cruise lines (which are less likely to get any last-minute bookings) tend to penalize those people who cancel. You should also consider buying travel insurance when you think the odds are decent that you won't be able to take the trip for one reason or another. Just make sure you understand up front exactly what is and isn't covered, which situations allow you to cancel, and what the cancellation time frame is.
What about when disaster strikes?
Some people believe they should get insurance in case there's a terrorist attack or natural disaster. Recent history has shown, however, that travel companies are incredibly sensitive when such events occur, and they almost always drop their usual restrictions and allow their customers to rebook or cancel without penalty. Of course, there's no guarantee that this will always be the case.