Fare jumping is one gotcha to look out for. It's when you click on a great deal, and the site says it's no longer available. It happens on all the major sites. On Expedia, a flight we found from Miami to Montego Bay, Jamaica, suddenly rose by $40. On Travelocity the price of a hotel room in Chicago suddenly rose by $110. Also, a flight from New York City to Tokyo on Orbitz, jumped by $29. Don't fall for the juicy rate online until you click through to book it.
Look out for added fees. Many travel products include taxes, fees, and surcharges. But not all are posted, so you might not find out about them until you get to the hotel or airport.
Go to the travel provider's website for free information to avoid surprises. One we found: Most major airlines now charge for phone reservations. Booking online might not be free, either. Spirit and Allegiant levy fees for booking on their sites. Call if fee information is not available online.
Pay attention to the price of package deals. When you book a flight online, you're asked whether you'd like to add a hotel room or rental car. But be aware packaged deals aren't always bargains. Take the time to price a package's components. Also check out DealBase, which does the math and lists good and bad deals.
Price guarantees aren't always a guarantee. Ads promise you'll get the lowest rates or you get a refund. But we found so much fine print that we concluded that claiming a refund is a long shot. You're much better off doing your own comparison shopping and using tools found at sites like Bing and Yapta to find the best times to book. Ignore price guarantees and find the best deals on your own.
Dynamic pricing basically means that different people might get different prices online for identical searches. When we searched for fares using two different browsers - one that accepted "cookies," which track your online footprints, and one that did not - there were cases where we received additional lower fares by losing the cookies. In one case an omitted fare was $718 less. To avoid dynamic pricing erase traces of searches by resetting the browser preferences and deleting cookies, or use two different browsers to check prices.
Major travel sites sometimes make it difficult to find the lowest prices. If you search for a car on Expedia, for example, no initial sorting tool allows you to see all rentals in price order. You must either choose "Preferred Vendors" or select a rental brand from a list of seven preferred companies or a separate list of eight more companies. Only after you've reached the second booking page can you re-sort via the "Car Price View" to see all prices. If you don't re-sort, it's easy to assume the first page of listings includes all choices. When we searched Expedia for cars on several days in 10 cities, the best deals were omitted from the initial listings most of the time. In one case, Expedia listed Budget first at $75.50 for a two-day economy rental car in Duluth, Minnesota, when Alamo, National and Avis rates were $12.04 to $20.75 less. To avoid this pitfall don't book until you've reset search preferences to find all the deals. Also visit sites of individual travel vendors if they're missing.
For more information on avoiding common travel-site gimmicks and other consumer topics, click here.
Jody Rohlena & Erika Wortham