THIS year, more than half of all travel will be booked using the Internet, a first. For travelers using the Web to plan or buy, here's a primer on 10 things you need to know before hitting the "buy" button.
1. Shop around
Online travel shoppers visit on average more than three websites researching prices before they buy, and you should do likewise. Start with an online travel agency such as Orbitz, Travelocity or Expedia, then try a travel search engine such as Kayak or SideStep, which search an array of travel sites. Then check with supplier sites, those operated directly by the airlines or hotels, and click on their deals section.
2. Check out the source
Some online travel agencies such as Expedia and Hotels.com charge a fee for air travel or hotel buys. You can save the fees by buying directly from the supplier. A few minutes of work can save you a few bucks.
3. Don't count on price guarantees
Most online low-price guarantees must be carefully documented if you're planning to file a claim. Even then it can be difficult to extract the guarantee. Your best bet is to shop before you click so you won't need to make a claim.
4. All stars are not created equal
A hotel that gets three stars on one website may get four on another. If you are unfamiliar with a hotel or hotel chain, it is important to read each site's fine print on what constitutes a star, especially when you are using an "opaque" website such as Priceline or Hotwire.com, on which the name of the hotel is not revealed until after you have committed to the purchase.
5. Take customer reviews with a grain of salt
Websites that provide reader-generated content are popular, including such sites as TripAdvisor, among the biggest and most active. Much can be learned from reading the musings of "regular" travelers, but be a little skeptical of the feedback on these sites. When I read them I disregard the very best and very worst comments and look for the middle. If a hotel is really great, most of the reviews will be complimentary. If it is awful, most reviews will reflect that too. Watch for flowery praise; if it reads like a brochure, it very well could be from one.
6. Sold out isn't necessarily so
When a website says a certain date is sold out, that may or may not be true. Many websites have an allocation of rooms and when that allocation is gone, they hang the sold-out sign, though inventory may still be available at other websites or through the hotel's own website.
7. Opaque sites can save you money, if you do your homework
Buying travel on an opaque website such as Priceline or Hotwire.com can save you big bucks. But you could end up paying more than you would have buying from a regular source. Shop around first to get a good sense of hotel prices. Then visit a website like Bidding for Travel (www.biddingfortravel.com) or Better Bidding (www.betterbidding.com) for advice and tips before you make a binding bid, because once you click "purchase," you own it.
8. You can always wait
If after all your shopping you have not found a deal you consider worth booking, you can hold off. Sometimes fares will drop as you get closer to your travel date, but not for all destinations and all times of year. If you find something that is within your budget and seems reasonable, you should buy it sooner rather than later. FareCast (www.farecast.com) analyzes historical fare data and tries to predict whether fares will increase or decrease, though it doesn't do so with 100% accuracy.
9. Sign up for e-mail notification of deals
Many airlines will send you a weekly list of upcoming deals for last-minute travel. Websites such as Sherman's Travel (www.shermanstravel.com) and others will send you their lists of best deals.
10. Use a travel agent, if you don't have time to do it yourself
If you have a complex itinerary or are going to an unfamiliar place, seek out a travel agent with expertise in that area. Look at it this way: You might buy a hammer and 2-by-4s to build a fence, but you'd hire an expert to build a house. Why not do the same for travel? You could end up saving money in the long run.
Contact James Gilden at www.theinternettraveler.com.