Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series on making travel reservations on the Internet. This week: Tricks and Tips. Next week: Rhonda reviews the leading online services.

When a company gives you truly bad service, wouldn't you like to tell the world? I recently received such bad treatment from an on-line travel service that I decided to use this as an opportunity to discuss the ups and downs of booking travel on the Internet.

This week I'll provide general on-line booking tips and tricks. In my next column, I'll review the leading on-line travel services.

I travel a lot on business. I've used - or checked -- all the major travel sites: the airlines' Web sites, Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, Hotwire, etc. Overall, I've been pretty satisfied.

Most people judge an on-line travel service by:

  • availability of low fares
  • ease of use
  • overall look-and-feel.

Remember one other critical factor: customer service. Sooner or later, you'll have a problem -- flights cancelled, trips rescheduled. You're going to have to deal with the travel service rather than the airline.

If they don't offer adequate support, you'll have the kind of problem I had with Cheaptickets.com, owned by Trip Network, which also owns Trip.com.

The morning after I booked a flight I realized I had made a mistake on the time. I immediately called Cheaptickets, which announces they're open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A salesperson told me only customer service could deal with a ticket once booked. I waited on hold for 47 minutes and still couldn't reach anyone in customer service. Finally I sent an E-mail to the E-mail address provided.

I called again the next day. Once again, I couldn't reach customer service. Once again, I spoke to a salesperson who couldn't help me.

Finally, the third day, I reached a customer service supervisor, who said no one could help me. Why? Because I failed to contact them within 48 hours of booking! I explained I'd spent two days trying to reach them. I could pay for the ticket or challenge the charge with my credit card company!

Moreover, this supervisor told me they have more than 2000 E-mails backed up and a typical time on hold is between 20 to 40 minutes.

When I spoke with Kate Sullivan, Manager of Corporate Communications for Trip Network, she was apologetic. "There was no excuse for this kind of treatment. It's substandard to the kind of customer service we try to provide?The volume we're experiencing is very unusual for this time of year."

However, Cheaptickets was the exception. I've used many travel services successfully. Whatever online site you use, here are a few tips and tricks:

  • READ carefully: Some sites automatically include neighboring airports (e.g., Newark for New York, Baltimore for Washington, DC). Make certain you're going where you want, when you want.
  • Click around: No one site seems to consistently offer the best fare. Some sites have arrangements with travel consolidators or other discounters.
  • Try other routes: Using a nearby airport or breaking one long trip into two shorter ones, may be much cheaper. For instance, booking one roundtrip flight from San Francisco to San Juan, Puerto Rico (via New York) was hundreds of dollars more expensive than booking two separate flights (SFO-JFK) and (JFK-San Juan) though I was on the same flights!
  • Check the""vacation packages": On Expedia, I once booked a flight, hotel, and car rental to Houston cheaper than the flight alone.
  • Get a seat: I can usually get a good seat when I book on the American Airlines site. When I book through a third-party site, I may not get a seat assignment at all. You can call the airline for a seat assignment no matter what service you use. Watch out for nasty surprises: United Airlines won't allow seat upgrades on some discount Web fares.
  • Last minute limits: Some sites won't book flights within one to five days of travel. You can often find last minute fares cheapest on the airlines' own sites.
  • Check non-travel sites: As a Costco member, I can often get cheaper car rentals at Costco.com than on a travel Web site.
  • When you find a great fare, grab it! It may be gone next time you check.

Finally, be patient, especially on a dial-up connection. This all takes a long time. I sure miss my old travel agent!

Copyright Rhonda Abrams, 2002

Rhonda Abrams writes the nation's most widely-read small business column and is the author of The Successful Business Plan and The Successful Business Organizer. To receive Rhonda's free business tips, register at www.RhondaOnline.com.