Is Booking Over the Web Worth the Trip

A look at how online travel websites measure up

its 800 number. Also, if you find a lower price on a similar vacation within seven days, AmEx will beat it. But there are no discounts for cardholders, and it cannot store credit card numbers from one screen to another. Prices for vacation tours are fixed, and any changes are extra.

One drawback to online services is that they generally search only for fares for the exact time and day you plug in. “In the long run, users are getting very little savings. You actually save more with an agent,” says Hal Salfen, director of consumer affairs for the International Airline Passengers Association. “Unlike a travel agent, who will check around, these services offer limited options.”

Bill McCoy, executive editor of Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine (, which also offers an online list of travel deals, agrees. “It may be cheaper to fly out on a Thursday instead of a Friday, or during the afternoon rather than morning, or [have] a Saturday stay-over. The online service won’t consider that,” says McCoy. “A good agent will.”

Some site promotions can be misleading. A few advertise fares “as low as … ,” but when you actually sign on, those fares are typically unavailable. Good Morning America host Charles Gibson recently shared on-air an on
line ticket snafu he experienced. He had his credit card charged three times the amount he thought he was paying. Such mishaps can even happen to online veterans. When booking a Los Angeles-to-Atlanta round-trip, Shelton mistakenly selected a fare nearly $100 more than the lowest available. “I booked one for $375 instead of $279,” recalls Shelton, who does not buy full-fare tickets online. “I’m at the premier level in most frequent-flier programs, so I get great service and I’m prone to change these tickets at the last minute.” Last-minute changes aren’t typically allowed with online travel agencies. “What you book is what you buy,” Salfen points out.

As with all major purchases, it’s best to comparison shop and research before buying. Also, go through your own travel checklist of questions and concerns before you buy: Is the ticket refundable? Can you make changes without incurring additional fees? Are you clear about the exact fare you’re paying? Are credit card numbers secure? If you’re uncomfortable with punching in credit card information, can you phone it in? Is there a contact number, preferably toll-free, to call in case of a problem? Are you able to reach the online service anytime, or are the hours of operation limited? Is the service associated with a nearby travel agent? Can you use your frequent-flier miles to book or upgrade? Will you get a confirmation e-mailed to you? How will your ticket arrive, by express mail or as an e-ticket (electronic ticket)? Are you happy with the airport, both for the departure and the return?

According to the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, the only “way to find the best deal online is to sign up for every e-mail notification list and periodically check the top agencies and

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