Deep-discount web travel fares can be a traveller’s dream, or a pain in the pocketbook.
I, for example, got burned after purchasing Via Rail’s special “web escape” train fare, thinking my Detroit Tigers would have home-field advantage in pro baseball’s divisional series playoffs. Three weeks before the start of the October post-season, I jumped on the Via Rail “escape web only” fare from Toronto to Windsor, Ont. - $39 each way, for a $78 total plus $10.14 in HST – compared to the $56 one-way “economy” fare, or $112 round trip, plus the $14.56 tax. Once in Windsor, I planned to take a bus over the Canada-U.S. border into the Motor City.
Short of hitching a free ride, you’d be hard-pressed to beat the web price.
But ahead of my trip, Oakland ended up with a better regular-season record, meaning the Tigers would be in California on Oct. 5 – the day I’d targeted to take in a game. So I ditched the trip to Windsor, and got stuck with the $88.14 in “non-exchangeable and non-refundable” train tickets. Had I purchased the “economy” tickets for $126.56, I could have received a full refund, minus a $20 fee each way.
Booking train, air or other travel is always somewhat of a gamble: you never know if an illness, personal or work emergency or – heaven forbid – a letdown by your sports team will interfere with your plans.
But it’s even riskier buying online promo fares - there are usually catches (the non-refundable one is common), special restrictions and conditions, says Nora Dunn, who gave up her financial planning business in Toronto in 2006 to travel the world “in a financially sustainable manner” as The Professional Hobo.
“Increasing numbers of travellers are turning to the Internet to research and book their trips – it makes them feel like they have more control over the process, and the sentiment is that web rates offer better deals than formerly conventional booking methods, like using a travel agent,” Dunn, 37, says in an email interview from Berlin.
However, she adds, “this is a bit of a fallacy. Although in some cases the web indeed offers the best deals, travel agents have access to aggregate deals that aren't always available online. And using a travel agent also saves you time - a lot of time (which is money).”
Dunn stresses there are other ways to cut costs, for both air and land transportation, and other travel expenses.
“When booking hotels, for instance, it's a little-known fact that rates can be negotiable,” she says. “The best way to negotiate your hotel rates is to call the hotel directly and see what you can arrange. Even if you're standing outside the hotel, make sure you call them for the best rates.”
With the dizzying array of online travel offers, how can you make web booking work your way? Here are five tips:
Book early and rethink risk
The best-deal “sweet spot” is often a few months in advance of travel, says Dunn. “Last-minute deals certainly do exist, but not always. I remember needing a ticket from Toronto to New York City, where I was catching an onward flight. I was watching the rates, but for whatever reason I didn't book the ticket. I waited until the day before, hoping that the prices would drop with less than 24 hours to departure (because sometimes, this does happen if the flight has lots of seats left). Unfortunately the opposite happened, and the prices more than doubled.”
Be budget conscious
Whether you snag a good deal or not, staying on budget will likely make you feel better about splurging on a five-star vacation. “Although we all want the best deal possible, playing the odds doesn't always work,” says Dunn. “Decide what you're prepared to pay for the travel experience you want to book, and when you find that rate, just book it.”
Go to the source
You’re more likely to get the best web deals on airport and hotel websites, compared to online travel agencies and price-comparison sites (such as Kayak, FareCompare and Skyscanner). Dunn notes: “Although some aggregate booking sites can offer (marginally) better deals, if you have a problem with your itinerary mid-trip, these sites aren't very helpful advocates for you, whereas if you book with the airline or hotel directly … they actually have customer service departments dedicated to helping you.”
Look for other savings
Beyond saving on tickets, web booking can cut other costs, says Anne Balans, executive editor of SmarterTravel’s consumer website, giving this example: “When you’re talking about airlines, it’s cheaper to check a bag online than it is doing it at the airport.”
Buy it if you see any trip glitches, “and ensure the reason you may not be going ahead with your travel plans is covered under your insurance policy,” says Balans. “There are also policies out there where you can cancel for any reason, although you have to pay a higher premium for that.”