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12 secrets to getting the best travel deal

It's never too early to plan a vacation. Travel industry insiders say the best way to stretch your travel dollars is to research your options and buy as early as possible.

"There are tons of good deals out there and some new tools to help you find them," says Jon Douglas, senior editor of, an online travel publishing company.

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Whether you're planning this summer's family vacation or next year's cruise, here are some travel secrets to help you get the most for your travel dollar.

1. Do your own booking for quick trips
"A simple flight to see Grandma, you're probably just fine on your own. Trying to get to Greece for the Olympics, see your travel agent," advises Justin McNaull, a spokesman for the Automobile Association of America.

Airlines have eliminated the commissions they used to pay travel agents, explains McNaull. Agents will typically charge between $20 and $40 per ticket for a service that was once free. But, if you can bundle up services and buy more than one ticket, often the booking fee will be waived.

If you are making complicated arrangements like planning a honeymoon, booking a package tour or finding the right cruise, travel agents are a wise choice.

"Finding a travel agent you can trust can give you peace of mind and save you many hours when you're planning an important or complex trip," suggests Douglas.

2. Shop and compare online for the lowest air fares
"The best deals are definitely online and the savvy shopper, given the time and a little patience, can find them," says Douglas.

"But, if you're looking for the one site that always sells the best air fares, you're out of luck. It doesn't exist. Shop around different Web sites even if you have a favorite site," he suggests.

To help you compare as you shop around, there are a few new online tools making it easier. and allow you to see results from multiple sites for convenient comparison shopping. They're free and quite successful in helping to spot the best deals.

SideStep is basically a travel search engine. It scours the Web to find the best deal. You'll need to download free software to use it, but the process takes literally seconds. SideStep becomes an icon on your toolbar. BookingBuddy operates much the same without downloading any software. With each of these tools, you can also compare auto rental rates and hotel deals.

Sometimes it's best to book your travel at the airline site directly rather than using an online agency such as Orbitz, Travelocity or Expedia. You'll save the booking fee charged by the online agency and get the frequent flier miles bonus for booking at the airline's site. Do your research to find the best fare, then go directly to the airline Web site.

US Airways recently offered a triple-miles bonus for online booking. For a coast-to-coast round trip, a distance of about 5,000 miles, you could earn 15,000 frequent flier miles, and you'd be more than halfway to a free ticket (generally 25,000 miles).

"However, the online travel agencies sometimes offer services you won't find at airline sites, such as air and hotel packaging," Douglas adds.

3. Play the seasons
Certain destinations are bargains at certain times of the year.

"It's no secret that Europe is cheaper in the winter season," says Douglas. "You can also get better rates during the early spring and late fall. It's most expensive during the summer." This applies to hotel rooms as well as air fares.

European cruises are a better deal in late spring or early fall when the kids are in school. But, expect chillier weather.

Planning to cruise the Caribbean? Save a bundle by traveling in September and October when the weather is still nice, except for those pesky hurricanes, and the fares are lower. If Hawaii is on your wish list, Douglas says to go in May or September to save on fares and hotels.

You can often find off-peak rates even during peak season, notes AAA's McNaull.

Orlando is a bargain in January -- Florida's peak season. The theme parks are busy over Christmas and New Year's and again in February, but business is slower in January. You'll find lower hotel rates and bargains on car rentals to bring in the traffic, he says.


-- Posted: May 7, 2004




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