Take Off by Amy Marr
Sure, you can buy a ticket to almost anywhere in the world with just a click or two. But getting the best deal requires more than just a laptop; you need a strategy. No single site brings up the lowest fares every time, so do a thorough search and assess your options before you buy. You can cover the bases quickly by checking at least one of the online travel-agent sites (Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity), along with one or two travel search engines and a bargain-shopping site. Finally, check the airlines' own Web sites; buying direct often yields a frequent-flier bonus and 24-hour risk-free cancellation policy.
The Big Three // Online Travel Agents
The titans of Web travel offer direct booking (with service charges of up to $6 per ticket) on many, but not all, airlines and can bundle airfare with hotel and car-rental reservations. Each has its strengths.
EXPEDIA boasts a range of impressive planning tools, from maps and weather forecasts to activity arrangements (you can sign up for a day of shark diving or skiing when you pick your flight).
ORBITZ offers the broadest selection of fares (and searches the most car-rental agencies) with side-by-side flight comparisons, plus travel-delay updates sent right to your cell phone or PDA.
TRAVELOCITY includes taxes and fees in its price listsno surprises at checkoutand is tops for customer service, with agents available by phone 24/7 for booking (or assisting travelers mid-trip).
Go Trolling // Scanning the Web
These search engines check more than 100 sites (select airlines, ticket consolidators, and travel agencies) then redirect you for your final purchase: Kayak.com features user-friendly graphics and a helpful search option for "open-jaw" travel (fly into one city, out of another). Mobissimo.com excels at international travel, though it sometimes lists fares only, meaning more clicking for specifics (like times and number of stops). SideStep.com looks for deals from 585 airlines (including discounters like JetBlue, whose fares can't be found on the big three sites).
Run for the Money// Last-Minute Deals
www.Travelzoo.com's editors cherry-pick global airfare bargains and send out weekly-update e-mails every Wednesday. Try www.Site59.com for North American and European package deals, bookable two weeks to three hours before departure. www.Skyauction.com lets you bid on unsold travel inventory, including airfare, package vacations, and cruises worldwide.