It's no fun to find out you've paid more for your ticket than the guy sitting next to you. But given the constant swings in travel pricing, it's practically impossible to know if a good deal is actually the best one—and when to take the plunge.
But there's good news: More websites and online travel agencies are offering tools and guarantees to take the risk out of clicking BUY.
• Vacation packages. On Wednesday, Travelocity began a new refund policy for most of its packages—specifically, its flights-plus-hotels packages. If you book a package with Travelocity and subsequently spot it for cheaper elsewhere online—any time prior to the day of departure—you can get a refund for the difference in price. Through March 22, the agency will also receive a $50 discount toward future travel. (For full rules, see travelocity.com/guarantee.)
UPDATE 1/11: This price guarantee replaces Travelocity's rate-protection program for air/hotel and car/hotel packages. Called PriceGuardian, that service automatically refunded your credit card up to $500 if another Travelocity customer books your trip for less. Travelocity has discontinued this service.
• Flights. Earlier this week, two helpful sites—which have earned raves from Budget Travel during the past couple of years—teamed up. Yapta, a price-tracking website, and TripIt, a free travel organizer, compliment each other as nicely as peanut butter and chocolate.
These sites now let you put money back in your pocket if a fare drops after you've booked it. They also help you keep track of all of your e-mailed itineraries and maps, letting you easily access them via hotel lobby computer or your smartphone. Thankfully, their services are free.
The joint effort means you can now forward your airline and hotel confirmation emails to TripIt (firstname.lastname@example.org). Your purchase price is quickly verified. If the airfare drops after you purchase it, Yapta will alert you if you're eligible for a refund or credit based on the airline's policies. Most fliers don't know that major U.S. airlines have policies that qualify you for a refund if the fare goes down after you book. Of course, they don't tell you when your fare changes—and fares drop only happen about 15 percent of the time—so travelers rarely see the money (which averages about $300, says Yapta). Thankfully, TripIt and Yapta keep track of these things for you, when you use either one of them.
Some airlines charge re-booking fees of up to $150, while others rebook you for free. So there may not always be a happy ending.
• Hotels. "Users of our fare-tracking system begged us to track hotel rates," says Yapta CEO Tom Romary. So as of March, the site has done just that, monitoring rates at more than 110,000 hotels worldwide. Just pick a property and sign up to be alerted whenever it slashes its price for your travel dates. Yapta's system is most useful for properties that let you cancel for free—in which case you simply rebook at the lower rate. (Some hotels have change fees, so you'll have to do the math to know if it's worthwhile.)
Orbitz debuted a money-back guarantee in November. If someone else finds a better rate at Orbitz on a hotel stay you've booked, the company will automatically reimburse you for the difference and send you a $50 code good toward a future booking.