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Six sneaky travel-site gotchas

How to avoid common gimmicks that can cost you extra

Published: November 2010

Booking online seems so simple—you search for the lowest rates, you click, and you're on your way! But being your own travel agent isn't as easy as it might seem. Here's how to avoid six common gotchas:

Fare jumping

You click on a great deal, and the site says it's no longer available. It happens on all the major sites. On Expedia, a flight we found from Miami to Montego Bay, Jamaica, suddenly rose by $40; on Travelocity the price of a hotel room in Chicago suddenly rose by $110. Also, a flight from New York City to Tokyo on Orbitz jumped by $29.

Avoid it

Don't bank on getting a juicy rate online until you click through to book it.

Added fees

Many travel products include taxes, fees, and surcharges. But not all are posted, so you might not find out about them until you get to the hotel or airport.

Avoid it

Go to the travel provider's website for fee info to avoid surprises. One we found: Most major airlines now charge for phone reservations. Booking online might not be free, either; Spirit and Allegiant levy fees for booking on their sites. Call if fee info is not available online.

Overpriced packages

When you book a flight online, you're asked whether you'd like to add a hotel room or rental car. But packaged deals aren't always bargains.

Avoid it

Take the time to price a package's components. Also check out DealBase, which does the math and lists good and bad deals.

Price guarantees

Ads promise you'll get the lowest rates or you get a refund. But we found so much fine print that we concluded that claiming a refund is a long shot. You're much better off doing your own comparison shopping and using tools found at sites like Bing (www.bing.com/travel) and Yapta to find the best times to book.

Avoid it

Ignore price guarantees and find the best deals on your own.

Dynamic pricing

It basically means that different people might get different prices online for identical searches. When we searched for fares using two different browsers—one that accepted "cookies," which track your online footprints, and one that did not—there were cases where we received additional lower fares by losing the cookies; in one case an omitted fare was $718 less!

Avoid it

Erase traces of searches by resetting the browser preferences and deleting cookies, or use two different browsers to check prices.

Hidden bargains

Major travel sites sometimes make it difficult to find the lowest prices. If you search for a car on Expedia, for example, no initial sorting tool allows you to see all rentals in price order. You must either choose "Preferred Vendors" or select a rental brand from a list of seven preferred companies or a separate list of eight more companies. Only after you've reached the second booking page can you re-sort via the "Car Price View" to see all prices. If you don't re-sort, it's easy to assume the first page of listings includes all choices. When we searched Expedia for cars on several dates in 10 cities, the best deals were omitted from the initial listings most of the time. In one case, Expedia listed Budget first at $75.50 for a two-day economy rental car in Duluth, Minn., when Alamo, National, and Avis rates were $12.04 to $20.75 less.

Avoid it

Don't book until you've reset search preferences to find all the deals. Also visit sites of individual travel vendors if they're missing.


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