Sunday, December 8, 2002

Check around for best travel deals


Customer service important for online booking

By Rhonda Abrams
Gannett News Service

This is the first of a two-part series on making travel reservations on the Internet. This week: Tricks and Tips. Next week: a review of 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 online travel service that I decided to use this as an opportunity to discuss the ups and downs of booking travel online.

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 online 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, and 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. I waited on hold for 47 minutes and still couldn't reach anyone. Finally I sent an e-mail to the address provided.

I called again the next day. Once again, I couldn't reach customer service.

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.

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."

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).

• Click around. No one site seems to consistently offer the best fare.

• Try other routes. Using a nearby airport or breaking one long trip into two shorter ones may be much cheaper.

• 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.

• Last-minute limit. Some sites won't book flights within one to five days of travel.

• Check nontravel 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.

Rhonda Abrams 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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