By Janice Lieberman
There's nothing worse than anticipating a much-needed getaway, traveling all day to get there, and discovering it's a dump-for $300 a night. It's why the whole vacation-planning process makes me nervous: With so many sites and so many choices, how do I know I'm getting the best deal? (I happily turned the job over to my husband, Steve, who doesn't mind trolling online for days.) So what do the experts recommend to make the process easier and rewarding? Here's how to get the best prices with the fewest clicks, plus backup sites to help you feel better about your decision.
© Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Thinkstock1. Become an expert well in advance. George Hobica of airfarewatchdog.com suggests signing up for e-mail alerts and online news-letters. It's the best way to familiarize yourself with destinations and prices. "All the travel sites do things a little differently," Hobica says, "so sign up for several, and check them daily." (A dedicated Gmail or Yahoo e-mail address will cut down on the spam in your main e-mail account.) In other words, for now, keep your mind open and your wallet closed. Yapta.com and bing.com are the best, Hobica says, but also try orbitz.com, kayak.com, shermanstravel.com, smartertravel.com, travel-ticker.com, and travelzoo.com. And don't forget to ask friends on Twitter and Facebook for their tips.
2. Decide on a few destinations. Now that you have a better sense of what's out there, you want to work backward. Barbara Messing of travel-ticker.com explains, "Don't fixate on one place. Let the deal be your inspiration." Her team combs the Internet for deals that offer reductions of 40 to 60 percent. One recent example: the four-star Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa Valley wine country for as low as $109 a night (a 45 percent savings), with a wine tasting for two and 20 percent off spa treatments. "Dealhounds" on airfarewatchdog.com scour the Web all day for the latest and best deals.
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3. Reassure yourself. Before committing, play detective. For videos of hotels, restaurants, activities, and attractions, go to tripfilms.com and insiderperks.com. Tripfilms depends on travelers for their observations, while the videos on InsiderPerks are created by the site's staff. Watch both to get a good overview of your destination. Browse through other families' vacation photos on flickr.com (it's okay-really), and read candid reviews by travelers on tripadvisor.com.
4. Search for the lowest airfare. Experts consider kayak.com the best first step in searching for low-cost airline deals (it doesn't include Southwest, so you'll have to check the airline separately). To find out if the fare is likely to rise or fall over the next seven days, check bing.com Price Predictor. You'll almost always get a better deal if you're flexible-you can fly out on one carrier and return on another, for example, or fly to an offbeat airport like Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California (15 miles outside L.A.), or Midway in Chicago. Voyij.com searches the Web for the best sales, promotions, and package deals from your departure city. If you care where you sit, check seatexpert.com for a guide to the best, and worst, seats. Lock in your rate, but don't pull the trigger yet. (Depending on the airline, you may have ten minutes to 24 hours to commit, so do the next steps-fees and hotels-quickly.)
5. Find the hidden fees. If you want to know the real price of the ticket, check Airline Fees: The Ultimate Guide at smartertravel.com. Will you have to pay for that blanket, the soda, and the pretzels? Some airlines charge up to $100 extra for a seat with more legroom. Most charge $15 to $25 to check a bag; anyone traveling after July 31 on Spirit will pay up to $45 for a carry-on bag. To find out what your airline charges, go to its website or check the Guide. Then compare with FedEx, UPS, and U.S. Postal Service rates. "Depending on the route and method," says Hobica, "the cost savings from shipping versus schlepping can range from little or nothing to dramatic."
6. Get a room, then book your flight. Hotels.com features over 70,000 properties, from small bed-and-breakfasts to all-inclusive luxury resorts. The site flagged a special deal recently at Wyndham Glenview Suites in Chicago: Stay four nights and pay $69 a night, a 40 percent savings. For unbiased shots of lobbies, rooms, and neighborhoods, go to tvtrip.com. At oyster.com, you get photos, plus the pros and cons.
If you always end up with the room next to the ice machine or elevator shaft, click on tripkick.com for the good, the bad, and the ugly about hotels in more than 20 U.S. cities and some international destinations. If you prefer to rent a house, go to otalo.com. It's to vacation house rentals what kayak.com is to airfares. Refine your search by cost, number of bedrooms, and must-haves like a pool and a welcome mat for your poodle; photos are included. Once you've booked your room, book your flight.
7. Rent a car before you leave. If you don't care which car-rental company you use, head to hotwire.com for deep discounts on rentals, says Anne Banas of smartertravel.com. Check rates for both airport and off-site pickup. Sometimes you can save on airport fees and taxes by picking up your car just outside the airport. (If there's no free shuttle service, factor in the cost of a cab. Off-site hours may be limited.)
8. Avoid getting lost, hungry, and annoyed. For terminal maps, on- and off-site parking, ground transportation, handicapped accessibility, estimates on how long the security check will take, and where to eat or drink, go to ifly.com.
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9. Follow that plane. What do you do when there's been a delay and the gate agent doesn't have any more info than you do? Check on your flight, either online or with a free iPhone or iPod Touch app, with FlightAware Flight Tracker. It tracks by airline and flight number, or route, within five minutes of real time (flightaware.com).
10. Once you've landed … "Check in" at Foursquare, a free app for iPhones, BlackBerrys, Palms, and Android phones. Tell your friends where you are, and get their recommendations on the hot spots in town. If they're in the area, they just might join you.
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