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Five money-saving resolutions for 2004

SmarterTravel

Still planning your vacations in the same old way? If you don’t know about the changes that transformed online booking in 2003, you could be wasting hundreds of dollars on every trip. But it’s not too late to break your bad shopping habits. Resolve to start the New Year with five fresh approaches that can save you money.

Resolution #1: I will research my trip at multiple websites and take advantage of tools that make it easier to find the lowest prices.

Your favorite online travel seller may have turned up a great deal once, but it won’t have the lowest fares every time. To save money in 2004, the single most important thing you can do is add more bookmarks to your browser. And if you’re looking for one site that will always sell the best airfares, you’re out of luck—it doesn’t exist. That’s because some airlines, like Southwest and JetBlue, only offer tickets online through their own websites, while others have negotiated special deals with the major travel sellers.

Fortunately, new tools that were launched or expanded in 2003 can assist you in shopping around. Try SideStep, for simultaneous results from multiple providers; Booking Buddy, for convenient comparison shopping; and Orbitz, for a powerful flexible search that allows you to find lower fares on alternate travel days.

Resolution #2: I will consider flying small airlines with which I may not be familiar.

Don’t pay more for a ticket just because it’s on a name-brand airline like American or Delta. JetBlue, AirTran, and Spirit are just three of the small low-fare carriers whose fortunes soared in 2003, while United’s Ted, Independence Air (based in Washington, D.C.), and an unnamed airline based in Pittsburgh cleared for takeoff this year.

Small airlines don’t necessarily fly small planes, so there’s no reason to shy away from them because of concerns over comfort or safety. And with more of these carriers flying into big airports and big cities, it’s more likely than ever that you won’t have to sacrifice convenience, either.

Plus, you may be surprised at the service you’ll get. JetBlue and AirTran have championed their state-of-the-art entertainment systems, while Spirit boasts a premier first-class product. And while some of these airlines’ innovations, such as gourmet meals for sale, have been copied by the industry giants, others are only available on the upstarts.

Resolution #3: I will be a savvy shopper when booking my hotel stay.

Stay a week in a major city and your room can easily cost you twice the price of your airfare. That’s why you should take as much time to research your hotel as you do your flight. You can lower your bill by taking advantage of new best-price guarantees introduced this year by Hyatt, Marriott, and others; just check the rates on their websites, and then try to get a better deal elsewhere. Or search TravelWeb.com, the hotel-owned site that was launched in 2003, to find the lowest prices for multiple companies at once.

Also, be sure to avoid these common pitfalls when shopping for a room:

  • Using Google or another search engine? Don’t just click on the first result at the top of the page. Expedia, the leading third-party retailer of hotel rooms online, has purchased “sponsored links” for many important keywords like “Chicago hotels” that take you directly to its site.

    Be careful, though, because Expedia, or its sister company, hotels.com, won’t always have access to the best rates for a particular city. Those two companies, combined, sell 60 percent of the rooms offered by online agencies, according to estimates by the travel research firm PhocusWright. But you shouldn’t be fooled into paying too much just because you come across their websites first.

  • If you’re using a specific hotel company site, don’t just search from the home page. Sometimes, lower Internet-only rates are hidden in a “Special Deals” section.
  • Don’t choose the “best available rate” without being sure it really is. I’ve seen some chains associate that term with high room rates that you should never have to pay.

Resolution #4: I will plan my entire trip far enough in advance that I can save by bundling my flight with a room or a car.

Most people buy their airfare a few months ahead, but wait until the last minute to book a hotel stay or a car rental. That procrastination can cost you money. In 2003, the biggest online travel sellers all rolled out packaging technology that allows you to bundle airfare with other components of your trip. The potential savings are considerable. One caution: Make sure to compare the package cost with the best prices you can find for each item anywhere. For example, even if Travelocity can save you money in a package, you might pay less if you book your airfare on Orbitz and your hotel room at Hilton.

If a package isn’t right for you, it’s still worthwhile to lock in the best rate you can find in advance on a room or some wheels, instead of hoping for a last-minute bargain. That’s especially true if your reservation is refundable; if you find a better deal later, you can always cancel and rebook at the lower price.

Resolution #5: I will join the frequent flyer program that’s best for me and maximize the value I get from my miles.

So what if you only travel once in a blue moon or haven’t flown that carrier before? Frequent flyer miles are still a great way to get extra value out of an airline ticket. Sign up for a credit card, earn miles off your cell phone bill, and be aware of short-term bonus offers and partner relationships, and you’ll be well on your way to a free ticket or a first-class seat.

Unfortunately, the major airlines all made changes to their loyalty programs in 2003 that made miles worth less than they used to be, and award seats harder to come by. So if you want to take advantage of frequent flyer benefits, you need to be savvy about how you earn and burn your miles. But that’s no reason to shun them entirely.

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You may not be able to keep these resolutions all year, but if you’re thirsty for more ways to keep your travel spending down in 2004, keep reading this column every week. I’ll tell you how to find great deals and show you how to avoid traps that can cost you money.

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