A cautionary parable: Recently Tom Waits came out of hibernation to play a few shows at New York's Beacon Theater. Fortunately, the company handling ticket sales was selling them online--but a note on its site warned that the first several rows of seats would be sold only over the phone. Only God knows the number of days left before Crazy Uncle Tom's desiccated larynx finally crumbles and wafts away; choice seating seemed paramount. Certain sentimental fools (ahem) went for it, braving nearly 90 minutes of long-distance busy signals. Others bought seats on the Web in about five minutes. It turned out the price was the same and the seating advantage by phone was about two rows.

In this case, the seller was Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.com). If you buy tickets online, whether for yourself or as gifts for others, eventually you, too, will come face to face with this uber-ticket outlet. The official D.C. United site links to Ticketmaster, as do those for the Capitals, Wizards and Orioles. Shows at MCI Center, the Warner Theatre, the 9:30 Club, the Birchmere, Nation, the State Theatre and other concert venues all rely on Ticketmaster as well.

ProTix (www.protix.com), Ticketmaster's closest competitor, concentrates on the theater and concert market. Wolf Trap, Ford's Theatre and GWU's Lisner Auditorium use ProTix. The Washington Performing Arts Society uses a third agent, TicketWeb (www.ticketweb.com), for most events. The Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Institution and Arena Stage use their in-house box offices for online sales. Studio Theatre, Olney Theatre and many smaller venues have no online ticketing.

It's instructive to compare the "handling" fees for a mid-price $27 ticket. TicketWeb demands a $2.25 surcharge, while ProTix charges $3.50--but TicketMaster adds separate charges of $4.50 and $2.05, a total of $6.55. What about in-house service? Well, a $28 "Shear Madness" ticket purchased directly from the Kennedy Center site (kennedy-center.org) shoulders a $5 handling fee. Either way, you pay for convenience, just as you would over the phone. The real discounts are generally available only at specific walk-up outlets (for instance, Ticketplace at the Old Post Office Pavilion), and the best seats to most theater events are usually found at the venue's box office (my Tom Waits saga notwithstanding).

Then there are ticket sources with a different sort of surcharge. For instance, the Redskins site may not mention tickets, but dozens of online resellers would be glad to meet your needs, if you've got a hefty credit limit. Expect premium prices. And use prudence. Most are quite reputable, but reselling laws vary by region--and remember that credit cards, though open to fraud, build in some consumer protection.