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12 Ways to Find the Biggest Travel Bargains

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Each week, the Travel section's deals specialist, Carol Sottili, scours travel providers to come up with the What's the Deal? column, a roundup of the best travel bargains around the globe by land, sea and air. But if you'd like to assemble your own personalized travel deals, here's an updated tipsheet on how to find the best bargains.

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Important: The key to finding a true travel deal is comparison shopping, especially when buying a package. Whether you buy from a travel agent, third-party booking site or vacation discounter, always price the components through the originating airline, hotel, rental car firm, etc., to make sure it really is a deal.

1. Check sites that compile travel deals. Well-researched sites include Smarter Travel (http://www.smartertravel.com), Travelzoo (http://www.travelzoo.com), Independent Traveler (http://www.independenttraveler.com), BookingBuddy.com (http://www.bookingbuddy.com), Bookit.com (http://www.bookit.com) and ShermansTravel (http://www.shermanstravel.com). Many will notify you about new offerings by e-mail every week.

2. Check with the so-called big three travel booking sites. Expedia (http://www.expedia.com), Orbitz (http://www.orbitz.com) and Travelocity (http://www.travelocity.com) have deals and special offers that they broker with travel providers. Register with the sites to receive e-mails tailored to destinations that you designate.

3. Sign up for airline and hotel loyalty programs. Many travel providers are trying to lure customers to buy direct by offering exclusive deals. Even if you haven't earned miles or points, the companies will send you e-mails about their special offers.

4. Check discount tour operators. They frequently offer deals on air-and-hotel packages. These include Go-Today.com (http://www.go-today.com), Vacation Outlet (http://www.vacationoutlet.com), Fare Deals Ltd. (http://www.faredeals.com), Apple Vacations (http://www.applevacations.com), Vacation Express (http://www.vacationexpress.com), TourCrafters (http://www.tourcrafters.com), Funjet Vacations (http://www.funjet.com), Gate 1 Travel (http://www.gate1travel.com), Ritz Tours (http://www.ritztours.com), Foreign Independent Tours (http://www.fittours.com) and General Tours (http://www.generaltours.com).

5. Check cruise discounters and cruise specialists. Cruise lines have taken strong control of their inventories, which means there are fewer deep discounts from third-party brokers. But many discounters are fighting back by throwing in extras, such as free shore excursions, shipboard credits and bottles of wine. Icruise.com (http://www.icruise.com) and Ecruises.com (http://www.ecruises.com) are two of the more aggressive specialists. Cruisecompete.com (http://www.cruisecompete.com) is a consortium of nearly 200 cruise travel agencies; post your trip requirements, and members will bid on your cruise. Try http://www.smallshipcruises.com for lesser-known lines.

6. Consult a travel agent, especially if you're interested in an air-and-hotel package or if you're considering a popular resort during peak season. Companies such as Liberty Travel (http://www.libertytravel.com), American Express Travel (http://www.americanexpress.com/travel) and Travel Leaders (http://www.travelleaders.com) frequently have deals and availability. Tripology (http://www.tripology.com) can help match you with an agent.

7. Download software onto your computer that notifies you about sales to specific destinations. These include Southwest Airlines' Ding (http://www.southwest.com/ding), Expedia's Fare Alert (http://www.expediaguides.com/farealert) and Orbitz's Insider Deals (http://desktop.orbitz.com).

8. Check individual airline sites. Many airlines offer special deals to the destinations they fly to, especially in the offseason. Cathay Pacific, for example, offers a Deal of the Month available only through its Web site (http://www.cathayusa.com/dotm). British Airways (http://www.baholidays.com) and Austrian Airlines (http://www.austrianair-vacations.com) often offer good package deals.

9. Check with so-called opaque sites, such as Priceline (http://www.priceline.com) and Hotwire (http://www.hotwire.com), where you get discounts by agreeing to buy before you're told the name of the travel provider.

1. 0Consider renting vacation lodging directly from owners. Rates frequently are cheaper than at hotels, and since the properties usually have kitchens, you can save money on meals. Sites include CyberRentals (http://www.cyberrentals.com), Vacation Rentals by Owner (http://www.vrbo.com), Zonder (http://www.zonder.com) and Rentalo (http://www.rentalo.com). Make sure you quiz the owner beforehand, ask for pictures and check references.

11. Work backward. Instead of trying to find sale fares to your destination of choice, consider places not on your radar screen that pop up on airline sales. Sites such as http://www.airfarewatchdog.com and http://www.kayak.com/buzz allow you to plug in an originating city, and then a list of current deals is displayed.

12. Be flexible. Be willing to travel in the offseason, to fly out of any of the three Washington area airports and to change the dates of your trip to catch a sale. If you want to ski Vail over Christmas, you'll spend a lot more than you would in March. Best days for cheap airfares usually are Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday.

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