Go online to drive down your travel costs

Planning a vacation can be an exciting but expensive process. Once you arrive at your destination, hotels and food costs drive up the price of your stay. But some apps and Web resources can help cut the prices and let you keep more for activities, mementos and in your wallet.

Let's start with hotels, which play an intricate pricing game. The hotel wants to get as much as it can for every room. At the same time, if a room goes empty, it makes nothing on that space. So, the hotels take several approaches. One is to sell blocks of rooms at a significant discount or offer a price cut to online travel agencies, such as Orbitz, Priceline, Hotels.com, Expedia, and Travelocity. They, in turn, sell the inventory to their customers.

But the hotels make a lot less this way because the intermediaries take a sizable chunk of the booking price. Many hotels match prices from these online travel agencies.

So, the first step is to see what's being offered online and then check the hotel's website or app. You should be able to get at least as good a price without having to pay upfront. In addition, you'll usually find a variety of rates. Put in an AAA auto club or AARP affiliation, and you can often get an even better price.

Other apps and websites can also help in the price hunt if you can take more of a chance. HotelTonight offers last-minute deals on unsold rooms. Stayful concentrates on boutique and independent hotels, not chains, and lets users bid up to a month in advance on unsold rooms. With TripBAM, you pick a hotel and then a group of similar ones. The site lets you know when any of the hotels has a better deal and offers to change the reservation so you get the best price for what you consider an equivalent property.

And there's Airbnb, which allows individuals to rent out rooms or even entire apartments directly to others. It can be a great way to save some money, although some areas like New York City are cracking down on what's seen as illegal lodging operations becaue they avoid the inspections and regulations -- as well as taxes -- that hotels must comply with.

Also, if you go the Airbnb route, a sedate stay is best because the company has removed thousands of members for throwing wild parties at the places they stay without letting the owners know.

Meals are the other big travel expense, and Airbnb is also testing a new service for that category: group dinners. A pilot program in San Francisco allows people to host dinners in their home and allow strangers to pay to attend.

Airbnb joins a number of services for would-be chefs, including Mealku, Cookening, EatWith, Meal Sharing and Feastly.

But if you would rather go to a restaurant than someone's home, technology has you covered. Download the apps for Groupon and LivingSocial. Set the location for your destination, see what special deals might be available and get your discounts.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.