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Some savings, some stresses, some surprises using last-minute travel sites


It was about noon one recent Wednesday when I sat down to chase a last-minute Internet travel trifecta. The idea was to test the new crop of discount sites aimed at last-minute travelers and to snag an air fare, hotel reservation and rental car on short notice but at a good price.

And what do I have to show for it? A bit of fading sunburn from hiking, swimming and poolside lounging beneath Arizona skies. A deeper acquaintance with the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright around Phoenix. A $551.51 hole in my credit-card account. And several new favorite Web sites . . . plus a few misgivings.

It's easy to see why increasing numbers of travelers are relying on the Internet to book late-breaking trips. They can do their shopping at any hour wherever they have access to the Web, and they can comparison-shop with a few keystrokes.

The Internet can turn the economics of last-minute travel upside down. Until recently, airlines and hotels built their prices around the idea of rewarding good planners. Those traveling on impulse, on late-breaking business or in an emergency often paid dearly.

In the last couple of years, as Internet booking behemoths such as Travelocity and Expedia have matured, several smaller Internet companies have begun targeting last-minute travelers. (The Web addresses are listed at the end of this article.) Among the sites: LastMinuteTravel and Site 59, both launched earlier this year; 11thHourVacations, which launched last year; and Smarter Living, launched in 1998 without a booking engine but with an excellent air fare search setup. (For details on these and other last-minute sites, see L13.)

Sites like these are especially good for air fares, which involve fewer intangibles than hotel bookings do.

For example, when I called US Airways recently to buy an LAX-London ticket with six days' notice, the operator came up with a price of more than $1,200. But if I had gone through LastMinuteTravel (a test I tried in late October), I could have landed the same ticket from the same airline for about $500.

Still, when it comes to sniffing out the particulars of a deal involving an unfamiliar hotel or rental car outlet, there's no digital substitute for a few minutes of telephone follow-up.

Which brings me back to my misgivings. I did not suffer highway robbery on that weekend in Phoenix. It was, on the whole, a pleasant, reasonably priced 2 1/2 days. But my expenses crept up in annoying ways that were invisible on the Internet. Also, if I'd relied exclusively on the Internet, I'd never have learned how to whittle $30 more off my hotel bill--it took a travel agent to do that--or that my "on-airport" rental car wasn't.

Using search engines, listening to colleagues' opinions and studying travel sites that pop up on the "most used lists" compiled by companies that track such access, I began my quest.

To build a weekend: Like millions of U.S. tourists, I wanted a two- or three-day itinerary built around a weekend. I confined myself to mainland North American cities west of the Mississippi, and, traveling alone, I aimed for a combined hotel, air fare and rental car cost of less than $800. I avoided auction sites because many withhold details, and I wanted to know up front exactly when and where I could go.

My first hope was to find a combined package that would kill three birds (flight, hotel and car) with one electronic stone. By their names, which used phrases like "last-minute," "11th hour" and "moment's notice," several sites seemed to be selling that idea.

The most enticing was Site 59, which specializes in themed weekend packages in U.S. and Canadian cities. I was ready to overlook the site's subtle East Coast tilt (of the first 20 weekend destinations listed one day, five were west of the Mississippi), but the calendar got in the way. I wanted to stretch my weekend by adding a Monday, and among that week's Site 59 inventory, most trips required return flights on Sunday.

Many other sites with procrastinator-friendly names were really just selling travel in general, and some had no last-minute offerings.

Another bother: Like many consumers, I prefer to browse prices without giving up personal information. Thanks to retail sites such as Amazon, which makes no such requirements, we know that registration before browsing really isn't necessary. But many travel sites insist on registration before they'll show you their prices. My first response was to reject them in favor of more open sites. But in some cases I did relent and sign on.

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