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ON A BUDGET

Small Web Sites Can Yield Big Ideas

April 22, 2001|ARTHUR FROMMER

Entranced by the sites that ferret out a cheap air fare or a cut-rate cruise, many would-be travelers confine their use of the Internet to Travelocity, Expedia and other booking engines. I like a slightly more unusual group of Web sites dealing with less standard methods for reducing vacation costs. Even though I'm in the business of being frugal, I occasionally run across one that out-Scrooges even me--like the folks who delight in sleeping at the world's airports (that Web site is http://www3.sympatico.ca/donna.mcsherry/airports.htm) or the sites that tell you how to latch onto guided tours you didn't pay for.

* Free camping: Here's a directory of places throughout the American West where you can camp for free. It's http://www.freecampgrounds.com, and it lists 16 states' worth of spots where you can park yourself overnight without paying a cent--and without being harassed by police or landowners.

For example, did you know that Wal-Mart's corporate policy is to allow RVs to park overnight in its stores' parking lots? Or that certain city parks allow self-contained vehicles to camp for free or for a small, voluntary donation of a few bucks?

* Air discounts: Here's a budget service from an unexpected source, tucked away in a wing of America Online's city-by-city listings site known as Digital City. You can find it at http://www digitalcity.com/travel, and even though it's a production of that intensely commercial outfit, it's surprisingly devoid of down-your-craw advertising, RAM-hogging Java script and obsequious patronization.

From a list of 58 U.S. cities, you select the one from which you want to depart, and that leads you to a list of three current specials. For example, we recently asked to see what was cheap out of Portland, Ore., that day, and first on the list was a round-trip ticket to San Diego for $168.

Not bad, but the pickings explode if you click on "See All Travel Bargains." That takes you to a full list of to-the-minute discounts. For San Francisco, we found things like round-trip air fare to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for $259, a trip to New York City for $198 and a weekend special to Boston for just $218. Each fare is marked with a little icon that denotes the urgency of the booking deadline, so you'll know whether the fare is about to disappear. In many cases, as when airlines are trying to fill unpopular routes, the fares are good for only a few hours or days.

Also cool is the feature called "Fare Watcher." You can enter up to five city pairs and ask Digital City to notify you when the price for that route, on any airline, hits a level that you determine. Days, weeks or months later, when the computer gets wind of the price you want, it sends you an e-mail telling you there's a sale on and how to book it.

In many ways, Digital City functions like http://www.SmarterLiving.com, a rival, in that it furnishes city-by-city notification of deals. In other ways, though, Digital City's interface is cleaner, friendlier and easier to understand, and it often carries unadvertised fares, whereas Smarter Living generally focuses on announced sales.

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