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Cheap Travel Sites Buying Guide

There are hundreds of travel websites offering the "cheapest" prices on airfare, hotels, and car rentals for any destination you choose. Navigating them all is no easy task, however, especially given how much of your hard-earned cash is on the line.

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Consumers will find themselves wooed by online travel agencies and meta-search engines, eBay-style bidding and/or opaque bookings, hot deals, top-secret deals, and even deals on deals.

Meta-search engines are especially useful for searching many travel websites at one go, but you'll also have success with other tools. Our picks for best, good, and don't bother travel sites represent a variety of search models and are based on factors such as policies, customer support, and whether the site actually delivers low-cost travel. The results of our research show that Hotwire.com and Bing.com/travel are best travel deal sites; Priceline and Kayak are good cheap travel websites; and Orbitz is one you can afford to ignore.

For the third consecutive year, a 2008 study by J.D. Power and Associates named Hotwire.com the highest rated travel site in terms of customer satisfaction, with Priceline.com close behind. Despite the high rating, our research found that these travel sites attract a large share of user complaints, most of which stem from miscommunication between airlines or hotels and the travel website. User reviews of discount travel websites note the difficulty of holding these third-party intermediaries responsible for errors in an itinerary and stress that you must be very persistent when seeking to correct mistakes. Travelocity.com and Expedia.com, two well-known travel deals sites, garner lower customer satisfaction ratings in the J.D. Power survey, which the survey suggests may reflect fees imposed by airlines rather than disappointment with the sites themselves. We do not include these two sites on our list of best and good cheap travel websites because the information they provide is available through meta-search travel sites like Bing.com/travel and Kayak.com, which we found to be more useful.

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According to Forrester Research, Americans spend $86 billion a year booking flights, hotels, and car rentals using travel websites. Major players like Orbitz.com, Travelocity.com, Expedia.com, Hotwire.com, and Priceline.com find low rates on airfare, hotels, car rentals, and vacation packages by having you input your travel information and then searching data supplied by travel providers for the best rates. Some cheap travel websites let you search multiple days in a single search so you can compare prices and then pick the deal that suits your schedule and budget.

To a certain extent, travel deal sites function as an extension of an airline's, hotel's, or car rental agency's website. For example: On a recent search for a flight from Chicago to New York, one budget travel site quoted a $228 round trip; going directly to the carrier's website generated the exact same price. This doesn't mean that cheap travel websites are without benefits. Using a discount travel site lets you search for better deals by, say, flying one airline to your destination and another one back home -- with a carrier's website you can't do that. Travel deals sites also let you make arrangements for lodging and car rentals, giving you the potential for more savings.

Whether you book with a travel deals site or through the provider directly there are several things you should be mindful of. Some flights and hotels might look like a bargain but when taxes and fees are added in, the price might not be so cheap. And airlines have recently started charging extra for carry-on baggage, in-flight meals, extra foot room, and blankets and pillows. Always read all the fine print before booking: it could mean the difference between an OK deal and a great deal.

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by Maralyn Edid (Google+ Profile)

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