10 smart tips for travel shopping on the Internet

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 Web sites researching prices before they buy, and you should do likewise. Start with an online travel agency such as Orbitz or Travelocity, then try a travel search engine such as kayak.com, 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.com and hotels.com charge a fee for air travel or hotel buys. You can save the fees by buying directly from the supplier.

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 Web site may get four on another. If you are unfamiliar with a hotel, it is important to read each site's fine print on what constitutes a star,especially when you are using an "opaque" Web site such as priceline.com 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 // Web sites that provide reader-generated content are popular, including such sites as tripadvisor.com, 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. 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 Web site says a certain date is sold out, that may or may not be true. Many Web sites 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 Web sites or through the hotel's Web site.

7. Opaque sites can save you money, if you do your homework // Buying travel on an opaque Web site such as priceline.com 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 go to a Web site such as Bidding for Travel (biddingfortravel.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. FareCast (farecast.com) analyzes historical fare data and tries to predict whether fares will increase or decrease, though it doesn't do so with 100 percent accuracy.

9. Sign up for e-mail notification of deals // Many airlines will send you a weekly list of deals for last-minute travel. Web sites such as Sherman's Travel (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.

[Los Angeles Times]

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