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Is It Really Cheaper to Use a Travel Site?

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Unless you’re living large and traveling first class wherever you go, chances are you’re looking to score the best possible airfare, hotel and car rental deals whenever you need or want to travel.

But finding these travel deals can be daunting. You can spend hours searching airfares posted on aggregators, like Kayak, and online travel agent sites, like Travelocity and Orbitz, then comparing them to prices listed on airline and hotel websites, all the while wondering if the deal notification emails you’ve signed up for will send you an even lower rate tomorrow or next week.

Really, it’s enough to make you need a vacation.

While you’re probably never going to know whether you got the absolute cheapest deal available (though our anecdotal research showed that you almost always get a deep discount on hotel-and-airfare combos through online travel agent sites compared to booking them separately through individual hotels and airlines), there are some tricks you can use that can help ensure you get a deal that fits your own personal needs.

If you want to earn maximum airline miles and hotel points…

You can almost always use your airline’s frequent flier or loyalty number when booking on an online travel site, but you’re less likely to be able to use your loyalty number for hotel bookings. So, if that free upgrade to a luxury suite in Istanbul is on your radar, booking directly with the hotel to get those points might be your best bet. One way to work around this is if you have hotel rewards credit card or an airline miles credit card. You might not earn as many points as booking directly with the hotel or airline, but it can help you earn points for future travel. (You can check out the winners of our recent ranking of the best travel credit cards in America.)

If you want maximum flexibility…

If you’re the kind of traveler who wants to change rooms or even hotels midway through your stay — whether because of a problem or just on a whim — booking through a travel site might make things trickier.

Some hotels don’t allow changes on bookings made through a third party, so it’s a good idea to check to see if your chosen booking site will help you.

“Certainly we have heard … from time to time that’s an issue,” Travelocity spokesman Keith Nowak said. “That’s why we put into place our customer first guarantee.” If there’s a challenge at the hotel, Travelocity guarantees they’ll make it right, Nowak said, whether it’s finding a new hotel or correcting a situation at the current hotel.

If you need to travel to specific places on specific dates…

Say you’re booking your own business travel and need to be in downtown Dayton, Ohio, on a specific date and within a two-block radius of your client’s offices. In this case, a tool like Name Your Own Price from Priceline, which lets you choose your price and then finds the cheapest, closest match, but not necessarily on preferred days, may not your best option. Comparison shopping on travel booking sites and your favorite airlines is probably the best way to find what you’re looking for.

If you’re flexible and want a good deal…

This situation is where a site like AirFareWatchdog.com can be your wallet’s best friend. AirFareWatchdog gathers deals and sends you alerts, so if you see something you like you can book it.

“We have a staff of people who look at very many websites and when we find a low airfare we let people know about it,” George Hobica, president and founder of AirFareWatchdog, said. The deals can be so good — like a recent $65 cross-country flight, he noted as an example — you might be enticed to take a vacation you hadn’t planned before.

“Sometimes you didn’t know you needed it, but you see a crazy-low fare like that and you think ‘Well, now I need that,’” Hobica said.

If you find the whole thing daunting…

If you don’t know exactly where or when you want to travel, or if you just find the whole idea of sifting through numerous deals and options too daunting a task, there’s always the option of the old-fashioned travel agent, which really isn’t that bad a deal.

Travel agents by and large have access to the same rates as the online booking sites (sometimes better) and will take care of the booking and planning for you. This may come with a fee, typically $20-$50, but you may find that the convenience of using a travel agent is worth it, and you can make up the expense in other ways. And if you run into any problems before or during your trip they can often help you out with those as well.

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