Shopping foreign travel websites on the information superhighway can be as fraught with risk as driving the German autobahn in a Pinto.
Looking for a place to stay for a special occasion, Tim Mozer of Los Angeles was shopping online in May for a hotel room downtown. On Voyagenow.com, an English-language website based in Thailand, he found a $73-a-night rate (including taxes) at the Omni, more than $25 less than he found on any U.S.-based sites, including Omnihotels.com.
When he started to make his reservation, he found out why.
"They asked for my flight information and nationality," Mozer said in an e-mail. Then he read the fine print: The offer was only for foreign tourists in the U.S.
The Internet has made global commerce easy, but travelers need to be aware that rules and restrictions may vary and weigh that against the savings.
Reserving airline tickets through a foreign website can lead to roadblocks similar to those Mozer encountered.
"Some [foreign sites] said, basically, there are ticketing rules against mailing a ticket to the U.S.," said Bill McGee, author of a Consumer Reports WebWatch study of 20 travel sites in the U.S. and six European countries. (As electronic tickets become more common, that will be less of an issue.)
The study, released in November, found that despite language and currency issues, some European travel sites could save American consumers money.
"Savings ranged anywhere from $1 to all the way up to $300," said McGee, formerly travel editor of Consumer Reports.
The best savings were typically on flights that originate in the home country of the website. For example, the lowest airfare from Brussels to Rome was $157 on Belgium-based bblt.be, said McGee. (Fares were available at the time the study was conducted in June and may not be available now.) On the same route, the lowest fare on U.S.-based Travelocity was $246, he said.
With my limited foreign language skills, trying to duplicate the results was an exercise in futility.
The study acknowledges that most Americans will likely be comfortable using only English-language sites and warns consumers to make sure that they understand the fine print, a challenge even in one's native tongue.
The study also found that U.S.-based companies (such as Expedia.com) that have a foreign counterpart (Expedia.co.uk), do not always have the same inventory. Shopping for duplicate itineraries on "sister" sites will not necessarily produce identical results.
Perhaps the most vexing consideration when booking on a foreign site is foreign currency conversion. The WebWatch study used conversion rates from www.x-rates.com for the actual dates of the transaction, though McGee notes that sometimes the charge may not be posted until several days later. That means the conversion rate may vary from what you thought you were getting.
Also consider the foreign currency conversion fees that many credit card issuers tack on. They can add 1% to 4%, depending on the card issuer, and that can sometimes negate any savings.
"For some people the language issues and currency conversion issues are going to be too much trouble," McGee said.
He suggests using a U.S. website to book a flight to a major European hub, such as London or Brussels, then booking flights from there using a European site such as Opodo.com or on one of the European low-fare airlines sites. (To see which European low-fare airlines serve what destinations, try www.which budget.com.)
Contact Gilden at www.theinternettraveler.com.