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Five tips for finding cheap travel deals

With a flood of travel offers out there, folks looking for deals may end up slogging through an information quagmire. Here are five short cuts to the best bargains online and off.

Be flexible
Having a few travel days and times in mind can mean a big difference in savings. For instance, many airlines' Web sites post last-minute Internet-only air fares every Wednesday. These dirt-cheap deals typically require you to book by Saturday and return the next Tuesday.

"Being flexible -- that is one of the absolute keys to getting available seats. You're assuring yourself better seats and better flights," says Bette LaGow, managing editor of special publications at Consumer Reports.

Get a heads-up on deals
The second biggest tip is to watch for air fare sales, explains Daniel Saul, president and editor of SmarterLiving.com, a consumer travel-deal site based in Cambridge, Mass. "Every month there's a large fare sale, and almost every day there's a minor fare war."

SmarterLiving.com's newsletter notifies subscribers of travel sales weekly. When these hot fares come out, jump on them because tickets are limited.

Even if fare-war bargains are gone, you still may be able to snag a cheap ticket. During an air fare war the unconfirmed, unpaid reservations are cleared out of an airline's reservation system at midnight and no longer show up on computer terminals, LaGow says. Call the airline's headquarters, and ask if there are any sale fares left.

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To keep you informed about the latest deals, many airlines and travel Web sites offer weekly notifications of deals. Some sites offer as much as a 10 percent discount on Internet-only fares.

These e-savers offer great savings, but don't use them if you need to travel on a particular weekend because the routes change every week and the number of seats is limited, Saul says. If you must get there on a certain day, book in advance instead of getting burned when your route doesn't appear that week in the last-minute deal newsletter.

Several travel sites, including Travelocity.com with its Fare Watcher and Expedia.com with its Fare Tracker, notify users of air fare deals. LastMinuteTravel.com Inc., with its My Travel Minder, gives you e-mail updates on deals on items you request, such as air fare, hotels, packages and car rentals.

Travel on the shoulder
The two-to-four-week period that falls before or after the peak season is called the "shoulder season." It is a time when you will be able to avoid the crowds in popular vacation spots, but still enjoy the local flavor and weather. Consumer Reports' LaGow says you can save 25 percent to 30 percent if you vacation during this time.

"When looking at the shoulder season you should look at the hotel rates and car rental rates. This is where you're going to have the savings," she says.

Ask for a bargain
Call the airline directly to get a benchmark price. But LaGow warns that if something sounds good, it may have restrictions.

Charlie Leocha, author of Travel Rights, says he found the lowest fare to Spain for his family by calling the airline. He finds the Web a tedious place to look for low fares.

Once you're on a site, he says, all the competition disappears.

"They present to you what they have available," Leocha says. He maintains that talking to a travel agent is still one of the best ways to find a bargain. Now that airlines have capped travel agents' commissions, some agents charge a fee. So LaGow recommends asking travel agents upfront about their fees and their alliances with hotel chains or airlines.

"The basic rule is if you have an airline reservation ask point-blank, 'What is the lower air fare for this market?'" Leocha says. "Then ask them, "What's the closest we can come to that for my given travel days?'" The reservations agent may tell you that you can save more money by going on a different day or time.

Know the restrictions and fees
Find out what strings are attached before you bite at a tempting travel offer.

"Know what you're buying. It sounds obvious, but it's often not," Saul says. Taxes could raise the price of your ticket by 50 percent. He suggests asking what the fees are, and whether tax is included, and whether you can change your ticket if you need to.

There may be restrictions on discount tickets bought through consolidators who buy airline tickets in bulk and sell them at a discount.

The problem with consolidator tickets is that, if you miss a flight, you might have to wait for the next consolidator flight. And some consolidators may not allow you to use frequent flier miles.

LaGow says the Web is a quick and easy way to see what's out there, but some travel sites need to do a better job of disclosing charges. It is difficult to find the fees on some sites. For instance, buying an e-ticket, which leaves you with only a confirmation number to present upon check-in, may be convenient, but it can cost $7 to $30 more than a comparable hard-copy ticket.

-- Updated: Feb. 12, 2003

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See Also
14 tips for stretching your vacation buck
6 money tips for overseas travelers
Thrills that fit your budget
Financial advice glossary
More advice stories

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