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A Cyber-Novice's Search for Deals

On the promise of cheap air fares and other bargains, one frugal traveler leaps into the world of online booking to see what she can snag.

May 30, 1999|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

"One Week Stay, Club Med Huatulco, $278.60"

"Travelers ages 18-22, $45 standby fares"

"Ultimate Vacation--Vegas, Cancun, Hawaii--Only $9.99"

All day, every day, deals like these, which may or may not be too good to be true, are promoted on the Internet. It's enough to make a budget traveler's pulse thrum.

In the past, I have always bagged travel bargains by clipping ads and hanging on the phone. Lately, though, with everyone talking about booking travel deals on the Web, I've wondered what I'm missing.

One woman I know, experienced at cruising the Web, recently found a last-minute round-trip fare from L.A. to Vancouver on Alaska Airlines for $99. So, for a lark, she booked it, reserved a room online at a modest hotel, and took her daughter to Vancouver for the weekend. They wound up spending a little more than $500 for the whole trip.

Was her experience unusual? And can a person with only modest experience surfing the Web cash in?

To answer these questions, earlier this month I took a trip on the Internet. But though the journey lasted more than a week, it was no vacation. I visited online travel agencies, got tempted by last-minute cut-rate air fares to Honolulu and Japan, and even bid in a cyber-auction to see if I could nab a Club Med vacation for a rock-bottom price.

When it was over, what I had for my considerable investment of time was a reasonably priced fare to Washington, D.C., to visit my mom for Mother's Day. Not exactly the stuff of dreams, but along the way I learned a few lessons that will save steps the next time I look for travel deals on the World Wide Web.

The first lesson? Some Internet "deals" are more trouble to claim than they're worth. The second: You've got to start out with a clear sense of what you're after, or you'll get hopelessly distracted jumping from one site to another. The third is that you must comparison shop to get the best deals, which tend to be last-minute fares offered on airline Web sites.

Spur-of-the-moment travelers are saving money because some segments of the travel industry have found that the Internet is an effective way to sell off empty airline seats and hotel rooms. Take the average economy-class airline ticket from L.A. to Washington, D.C. In mid-May, it was priced at about $600 if purchased 21 days in advance. Fourteen days before departure the fare rose to more than $800, then tripled if you tried to book it a week later. That's typical: As you get nearer the flight date, the ticket price rises.

But two days before the flight, an airline might find the plane isn't full, so it puts a block of seats up for sale on the Web. As a result, the world's turned upside-down for airline passengers with Internet access. They are discovering that last-minute tickets can be cheaper than those purchased in advance.

The complicated calculating that airlines do to keep their planes full is known as yield management. More and more, resorts, hotels, cruise lines and car rental agencies are practicing yield management too, dumping their distressed inventories (packages at out-of-season resorts, cruises with itineraries that haven't caught on and the like) on the Web, where bottom-feeders hunt.

By all accounts, it works. One week in April, MSN Expedia (http:// expedia.msn.com), the Internet's third-busiest travel site (behind Travelocity, http://www.travelocity.com, and Preview Travel, http://previewtravel.com), sold $16 million in tickets and trips. At about the same time, Priceline (http://priceline.com), the much-advertised site that lets travelers bid on airline tickets, did a million-dollar day, or about one sale every 17 seconds.

The potential for big business has resulted in a proliferation of travel-related Web sites. Indeed, there seem to be more of them than shops in the Marrakech souk, where you can wander for days trying to decide whether to buy a carpet from one salesman or the next. But you never quite know whether you've bargained your way to a good price because you may not know how much your rug is actually worth.

The Internet travel bazaar is just like that. You shop around, buy a ticket and take a chance that you got a deal. Accomplished Web surfers who are also travel savvy find it challenging and fun. But the Web severely tests bargain-hunting novices like me, who don't know where to start, what to do when you get an error message or how to pass the time while waiting for the Web page you want to slowly appear.

Meanwhile, you look up at the clock and gasp. Four hours have passed since you logged on. You've missed an important phone call, and the cat hasn't been fed!

And when it looks as if you've found an airline ticket at a price you like, there may be trouble ahead. In most cases, you've got to enter a date and departure time, coming and going, on a Web site's booking screen. That date and time must match the availability of the fare you're after in order to capture it. In other words, the cheap fare may not be available at the times you desire.

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