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ONLINE BUSINESS

Booking Travel on the Internet

Rhonda Abrams picks her top sites to book travel through.
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Note: This is the second of a two-part series on making travel reservations on the Internet. This week: Rhonda reviews the leading online services.

I travel a lot on business, and I've tried most of the leading Internet travel services, as well as using a number of airline sites. In my last column, I shared some overall tips for booking travel online. In today's column, I offer my personal score card on the various services.

One note, first: if you're price conscious, always check a number of different sites. No one site consistently offers the best prices, especially if you want to choose your flight times.

Here's my score card:

Expedia (www.Expedia.com): Consistently the best experience, if you combine availability of low fares and service. It's fast, easy to use and to compare prices. You can store your own information (seat and meal preferences, etc.). But the proof of an online company is how they handle customer service. I've had to call Expedia on a few occasions, and I could always reach a real person in a reasonable amount of time and get the issue resolved reasonably. Expedia is also particularly good on hotel and vacation package deals. My first choice.

Airline sites: The most reliable but often the most expensive. If you book through an airline's own Web site, you eliminate the third-party provider, so if you have a problem, only the airline is involved. That can make it easier to make flight changes, get refunds, etc. Also, the airline sites arenít covered with annoying popup ads.

Unfortunately, the airlines rarely have the best fares, even for their own flights. A few exceptions: low-fare, last minute, weekend travel is often available only on the airlines' sites, and they sometimes offer specials. Often, you can also get bonus frequent flyer miles by booking through an airline's site.

I use American Airline's site (www.aa.com) the most, and find it easy and useful. My colleague uses United (www.United.com) and likes it, but I wish they'd have a better way to check flight status. Both low-fare carriers, Southwest (www.Southwest.com) and JetBlue (www.Jetblue.com) have easy to use sites with highly discounted fares.

Hotwire (www.Hotwire.com): Cheap fares -- often the cheapest -- but you've got to be very flexible. Here's how it works: you enter the day you want to fly and destination. Hotwire comes back with a price -- BUT they don't tell you the airline or flight times.

I don't use Hotwire, but my brother does. He says he usually is given the first flight of the day; since there are only two airlines in his city, he knows which airline he's likely to fly. He's also had a good experience with Hotwire's customer service; my sister-in-law was traveling when her mother died. She easily got through to Hotwire customer service, and they were very accommodating. Here's another Hotwire tip: I have a friend who uses Hotwire regularly to book LUXURY hotels very, very cheaply.

Travelocity (www.Travelocity.com): I've never booked on Travelocity. But I know others who've used it without problems.

Orbitz (www.Orbitz.com): First you see a fare, then you don't. Orbitz is owned by a consortium of airlines, so they're supposed to have the best fares. I've checked Orbitz many times, but when I've gone to book a flight -- after filling out the forms and credit card information -- the fare has increased. Good fares disappear from Orbitz fast. I no longer trust the fares I see on Orbitz, so I generally don't waste my time with this service.

Priceline (www.Priceline.com): This is the one that Captain Kirk promotes. You put in a price you're willing to pay, and Priceline lets you know if an airline is willing to take you. My colleague was happy when he booked a hotel on Priceline, but I don't know anyone who's booked a flight.

Cheaptickets.com and Trip.com (both owned by the same company): My first -- and last -- time using them was a disaster. Their customer service was basically unavailable. They call themselves "the best kept secret in travel." I suggest we keep it that way.

In many ways, of course, doing business with an Internet travel site is like doing business with any "bricks-and-mortar" company. When you use one or two regularly, you'll get comfortable with them and come to know their strengths and weaknesses.

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.

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