Websites like Expedia.com, Hotwire.com and Orbitz.com have all but eliminated the need for travel agents -- why pay someone to compare flight durations and room rates when you can do it yourself? The problem is, if you're not careful, you may end up paying more in the long run. Finding a good price online (especially during the holiday season) requires diligence and patience, not to mention a great deal of savvy. To help you get the most bang for your buck on your next DIY travel booking, we persuaded CheapAir.com CEO Jeff Klee, Getaroom.com and Hotels.com co-founder Bob Diener, and Airfarewatchdog creator George Hobica to divulge their own travel booking secrets.
1. Get Online
Though this may seem obvious, the only way to score the best rates is to spend a lot of time on the Internet. When looking for available flights and hotel rooms, the more research you do the better. "The most important thing is to check fares often," said Klee. He notes that airlines usually have 10 to 15 different price points for any flight, meaning that rates can change at any time. Start researching your trip well in advance to get a feel for the going rates -- that way, you'll know a good deal when it comes along. But be prepared to act fast. "While everyone wants to get a good deal, you can't obsess about finding rock-bottom prices," Klee said. "Once you see a good deal, grab it. If you see a good deal during the day, there's a very good chance that it will change by evening."
2. Check Your Email
Because it's impossible to stay on top of every rate change, Hobica recommends setting up email alerts on sites like Kayak.com or using tools like Hotwire.com's Trip Watcher, which will let you know when prices drop. "But you have to check your email," Hobica said. "Someone might be holding the last seat at the lowest fare and then not buy it, which puts that lower-priced seat back on the market." Meanwhile, tuning into airline, hotel and deal-centered Twitter feeds and following travel-focused Twitter chats can increase your chances of catching a flash sale, especially if it's not advertised. According to Diener, you can save up to 60 percent on hotel rooms should you happen to spot a flash sale. By following Airfarewatchdog, Getaroom.com or Hotels.com on Twitter, you'll have a better shot at catching a price drop as soon as it happens.
3. Be Realistic
If you start researching flights and hotel rates several months before you plan to travel, you'll be able to recognize reasonable prices. But all bets are off when it comes to peak travel times, like the holidays: Don't expect a flight to cost the same right before Christmas as it did back in April. "Holiday flights are more expensive than everyday flights," Klee warned. "Don't get sticker-shock and wait longer to book in hopes that the price will drop, since you could end up paying more." The same goes for winter trips to warm-weather destinations. Diener explained that because the majority of Americans live in colder climates, the demand for hotel rooms in warmer places like Miami or Phoenix skyrockets. But deals can be found as long as you start your room search early. "Popularity means the best deals at the best hotels will be picked up quickly," he said. "Don't wait until a few days before your trip to book a hotel."
4. Be Flexible
If you're willing to be a little loose with your travel plans, you'll have more flexibility when it comes to price ranges. This is particularly true around the holidays: A survey conducted by CheapAir.com shows that travelers saved an average of $249 per airline ticket simply by shifting their Thanksgiving travel dates to depart the Monday before the holiday and return the Tuesday after. However, conducting research on flexible travel dates isn't as easy as it used to be. "A lot of booking sites have eliminated flexible search," Hobica said, stressing that you should spend extra time looking at prices both on booking websites and directly on airline websites. It's more work, but Hobica insists that it's worth the effort. "It may be cheaper to fly United there and Virgin back, but the Virgin website wouldn't show you that," he explained.
Also, extending your trip by a day or two can yield significant savings on hotel rates. "Always check for a three-night stay because lots of hotels give much better rates when booking three or more nights, rather than a one- or two-night stay," Diener said. He also suggests aiming for a Sunday night check-in; room rates drop as weekend lodgers leave.
5. Forget the Rules
How many times have you heard that booking on a Tuesday night will result in lower airfare? Or that flight prices will not drop after a certain point? "It's all nonsense," Hobica said. "Look at it logically: If everyone followed the rules, the airlines would manipulate you." Klee noted that you will generally find the best rates between four and seven weeks before you plan to fly, but the day you book doesn't matter. "Airlines tend to offer sales on Tuesday, but most people aren't going to get those seats anyway," he said, noting that airlines only offer a select number of bookings at those sale prices. What does matter, however, is when you plan to fly. Klee advised taking off on a Tuesday or Wednesday, as Friday and weekend departures are in higher demand.
Being strategic when choosing your travel dates is especially crucial around the holidays. The key is to work around the normal travel times: CheapAir.com's survey shows that travelers saved $200 on Thanksgiving flights by booking a Monday-through-Friday flight instead of a coveted Wednesday-through-Sunday trip. And opting to fly on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day (when no one wants to travel) will no doubt slash your expenses.
6. Don't Assume It's Too Late
Yes, you will have better luck finding reasonable rates the earlier you book. But Hobica believes in not giving up, especially when it comes to holiday flights. "If a fare was way too high for your pocketbook, you should jump back into the pool a few weeks before Christmas," he said, noting that airlines may drop the cost of unsold seats in order to fill a plane. Just don't bank on convenient options, as the more desirable flights will surely be sold out. You're more likely to come across bargain airfare on red-eye flights or inconvenient departure times. "It's like shopping at Marshall's," Hobica said. "They may have what you're looking for in your price range, but only in an extra small. If you can make it work, then go for it."
[See: 6 Common Travel Setbacks]
7. Read the Fine Print
When booking flights and hotels online, reading the fine print is crucial -- whether it's the terms of your ticket or the terms of the website. You may book a flight on Spirit Airlines and plan on obtaining your boarding pass from the gate agent only to find that you'll be charged an extra $10 per ticket for not printing at home. Or you could end up reserving a hotel room only to find that the booking website doesn't include additional taxes or fees in the rate, like Expedia, and the price isn't quite the bargain you thought. Before you hit the "Purchase" button, make sure you know exactly what you're getting for your money.
8. Make Sure Someone's Got Your Back
The best advantage a travel agent offers is that he or she fights for your rights should something go awry with your travel plans. If you prefer to do things yourself, Klee said you need to make sure that you are using online services that provide reliable customer support. "That way, if you're in a bind, you can get help more easily." Sometimes, booking websites will absolve themselves of any responsibility should the unexpected happen (which is why you should pay attention to tip No. 7), which can lead to an unexpected, often lofty set of cancellation or change fees. Purchasing flights and hotel rooms through a reliable third-party booking site will grant you access to a customer service team that can negotiate with the airline or hotel on your behalf, saving you time and money.
[See: Best Travel Apps Under $3]
-- Miriam B. Weiner
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