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Do Your Research, Then Be Flexible

By Erik Torkells and Brad Tuttle
Budget Travel
Sunday, January 13, 2008

As part of their July "How to Travel Now" feature, our colleagues at Budget Travel magazine put together a nifty list on how to plan a trip, which we excerpt here. For the rest of the mag's "How to Travel" tips, go here.

1. The best advice is lots of advice. Clip newspaper and magazine articles. E-mail friends, friends of friends and even like-minded strangers (via message boards) for advice. Ask for tips from bloggers who specialize in destinations. Check out user-review Web sites like TripAdvisor. Don't rely on any single source; look for a consensus.

2. Flexibility pays off. When it comes to booking a flight, being flexible with dates used to mean doing a lot of data entry. Flexible-date searches at Travelocity, Kayak and many airline sites now make it a snap to see how much you'll save by changing your dates.

3. Think outside the hotel-room box. Renting a house, condo or apartment -- or swapping homes -- may be better, especially for groups. The Internet has made locating such non-hotel options a million times easier. Three vacation-rental Web sites: VRBO.com, HomeAway.com, VillasIntl.com. Three home-swapping sites: HomeExchange.com, HomeLink.org, Intervac.com.

4. Someone has to pay the tennis pro's salary. When you stay at a hotel, you're essentially paying for all the services offered -- gym, water sports, concierge, tennis courts -- even if you never use them. So figure out what's important to you and what you can do without.

5. Pick the right guidebook. Browse to check that the research isn't stale and that you trust the writer's sensibility. Time Out is reliable for big cities, and Lonely Planet is still best for off-the-grid trips.

6. Call a travel agent when you're planning a complicated trip, traveling with a large group, going on a cruise, hoping for advice on the destination. Always ask: Has the agent been there?

7. Scout from above. Use Google Earth's cool satellite images to gauge the exact distance between the hotel you're considering and the beach, a highway, the Eiffel Tower, the subway, Chernobyl . . . .

8. The best price is out there somewhere. And there's no one simple way to track it down. Start with meta-search engines such as Kayak and SideStep, which scour multiple sites for flights, hotels, cruises and car rentals. Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia are good for getting a feel for what's out there -- though they often don't search all airlines, and they tack on service fees.

9. Keep hunting. Think like a bloodhound: Prices for car rentals and hotels fluctuate, so never give up sniffing out a better deal. When you locate one, snap it up -- and cancel the old reservation. Just make sure the cancellation policy won't bite you in the rear.

10. Call hotels directly. Certain special rates are sold only by phone; others only online. Note: Cancellation policies for these can be strict.

11. Know thy neighbors. For cruises, tours and other group experiences, ask who'll be joining you -- how mature they are or aren't, whether everyone will already know each other, and so on. For hotels and resorts, make sure there's not a wedding or a convention during your dates. For cruises, check out CruiseCritic.com.

12. Why packages can be major bargains. To fill rooms and seats, hotels and airlines will resort to rock-bottom prices. For obvious reasons, they don't like to publicize these rates, so they sell a certain number of rooms or seats to companies that bundle them in packages. That way, no one knows exactly what the airfare or hotel alone costs. Here are a few things to bear in mind before you buy a package:

* The only way to know whether it's a deal is to see what it costs to book separately.

* Don't trust the packager's hotel description or star rating; research the hotel. If you don't like the one being offered, you can usually upgrade.

* Ask about the flight's times, connections, airline, and change and cancellation policies.

* Extra nights are often available at a ridiculously low rate.

13. Buy drugs. Get and fill prescriptions for sleeping pills and medicine for traveler's diarrhea. At some point in your travels, you'll be extremely relieved that you did.

14. Silverjet! Eurofly! Zoom! It seems like there's a new airline every day, and because they don't show up in booking engines, figuring out who flies where is a headache. Bookmark DoHop.com: It lists which carriers serve an area.

15. Third-party bookers often get second-class treatment. Wrong as it is, hotels are nicer to guests who seek them out than to those who come via a third-party booking engine. Whenever possible, book directly. If you see a low rate elsewhere, ask the hotel to match it. Hotels will almost always undercut any middleman -- which isn't all that difficult, when you consider that booking engines tack on fees.

16. In case of emergency. Old rule: Bring a photocopy of your passport with you. New rule: Scan your passport and e-mail it (and your itinerary) to yourself and to someone you trust.

17. So much for Tuesday after midnight. For years, many "travel experts" have theorized that some weeknight or another was when airlines released fantastic deals, but that's hogwash.

18. "Garden view" equals parking lot. Words can lose their meaning, and your definition may differ from someone else's. A few words and phrases you should cast a gimlet eye on: boutique (when describing hotels), centrally located, charming, chic, garden view, low-fare (for airlines), luxury, quaint, recently renovated, romantic, stylish, suite, villa, walking distance. Plus: Hotel rating systems aren't worth a whole lot. What makes a hotel four-star vs. three-star can be something as silly as a phone in the bathroom.

19. The proof is in the picture. If a hotel or condo doesn't post photos on its site, ask for images to be e-mailed. But don't assume photos are entirely trustworthy. Images shot with fish-eye lenses make rooms seem bigger than they are; or the hotel may send a photo of a room that's better than the one you reserved.

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