Short breaks by air and last minute packages – courtesy of the Internet – continue to be strong travel bargains, summer or winter.
Since you’re reading this story, we know you are comfortable doing your travel planning online. But have you ever actually made your travel reservations and paid for your vacation over the Internet? While lodging is the most researched sector of online travel sites, in fact, when it comes to hotel reservations, the “lookers” outnumber the room “bookers” almost two to one. Many travelers who have become comfortable booking their air tickets over the Internet continue to prefer personal assistance by fax, phone or email from hotel and tour vendors (much to the industry’s chagrin).
According to the 2007 Consumer Internet Barometer, however, 48% of the Internet users surveyed are “extremely satisfied” with the web’s ability to help them find and book airfares. That’s because booking flights is so much easier; competitive airfare pricing can be delivered right into your Email inbox. Better educated, more informed travelers eager to bargain for their next vacation can quickly see that airfare deals to many popular destinations and ‘secondary’ cities are available and just one click away to book.
If you are a comfortable web surfer who is willing to fly near or far and return home within prescribed rules, log on. The Internet’s ‘weekend specials’ are usually to and from U.S. domestic destinations, some Caribbean islands or key European cities, and based on Saturday departures and Monday or Tuesday returns. A crop of online agencies are offering last-minute, week-long packages, too. And if you go to the airlines’ sites, you’ll find an even wider array of airfare bargains though these sites’ “best price” guarantee is not always guaranteed to be the best price available.
E-Mail Alerts Save You Time
Thanks to complicated computer algorithms which allow number-crunchers to predict load factors and seasonal demand pretty accurately, the airlines change their rates almost daily, totally frustrating the average leisure traveler. While many airlines have reduced online-only airfares substantially (catching flak from travel agents who are not allowed to offer these discounted rates to clients), they’ve also made them tougher to find. If you’re diligent, and use computer tools yourself, you can find these bargain fares, as well as terrific hotel and car rental rates for these “mini-breaks.”
If you don’t want to spend time online reviewing the options (many of these bargain fares are only occasionally available), go to www.smartertravel.com and register for their Weekly Deals at a Glance e-mail which alerts you only to domestic US or international specials originating from whichever airports you care to designate. Similarly, Travelocity FareWatcher is a free, personalized subscription service that tracks — for you — the best round trip fares offered for up to five city pairs of your choice. If you’re loyal enough to stay committed to flying only one carrier, you’ll find that each of the major airlines also sends out their own email blast touting special rates on select routes.
Air Fare Shopping Online
The web has other options that benefit travelers who want to stay away longer. There are “low fare search engines” that encourage airfare searches by price rather than date, for those who are flexible in their plans. Check these out on the major online travel agencies (OTAs), such as Travelocity.com, Expedia.com and Orbitz.com.
At most of the OTAs, you can also search for airfare bargains by requesting “nearby” or “secondary” airports. We have had a lot of luck with this feature, especially since the majors started cutting back on expenses by subcontracting low-income routes to regional carriers using secondary (cheaper) airports. Real life example: Trying to get to Cleveland, Ohio, my family paid $79 per person to fly from Newark to Columbus, Ohio rather than $810 per person for New York’s LaGuardia to Cleveland route. The savings made the 2-1/2 hour drive (in a $19/D rental car) seem almost pleasant!
You may have heard that eBay will be auctioning off travel packages but of course, sites like Priceline.com have been selling cheap air tickets (and hotels and rental cars) with auction style techniques for years. We dislike that some of Priceline’s blind-bidding practices require you to input travel preferences and credit card information, then oblige you to buy whichever tickets they find that meet your price, regardless of airline, number of (up to two) connections, and middle of the night departure times. However, the company now offers more sophisticated features to give travelers more choice; for example, the new PriceBreakers feature promotes last-minute travel deals chosen by the staff with a very short shelf life. An alternative are the ‘opaque’ sites such as Hotwire.com (where customers do know a ticket price and flight information, but not the carrier’s name, until the purchase is final).
In addition to the Internet, travel agents use specialized, for-the-trade-only computers to comparison shop for their best clients. Families can take advantage of the similar ‘backdoor’ search capabilities of Sidestep.com (which scours the web for other sites’ specials on air, hotels and rental cars), Kayak.com and Mobissimo.com or the British-organized CheapFlights.com for airfares. We especially like Yahoo’s FareChase in this category of “meta-search” travel sites.
The true bargain-hunter’s propensity for last-minute planning keeps alive sites such as go-today.com or the British-based and Euro-focused lastminute.com or Opodo.com. It’s true that last-minute purchases are available, but these sites are also drifting toward offering discounted travel packages with several week’s advance notice.
The Airfare Souk of the Future
Farecompare.com is another very slick research tool that can simplify the shopping process by offering route maps (“Top Deals From…” and you put in your home airport) and comparison fare finders on their site. Other tools allow you to subscribe to an RSS feed or “Email Early Warning System” to keep up — in real time — with changing airfares to your select destination, with links to the sites where you can book these fares. It’s a great site if you’re flexible about where and when you want to vacation.
At the new Farecast.com, a family can input a chosen itinerary, check the site for the history of pricing on a specific route, and hopefully predict when an airfare sale might take place.
You no longer need a virtual crystal ball to see that a lot of innovative techniques to track down bargain prices will be coming along soon.
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