Internet vacation booking: tips for do-it-yourself travelers.

   OK, I will not get into rather trivial situations, such as when you end up in Toledo, Ohio instead of Toledo, Spain, or accidentally switch departure and arrival destinations or overlook the fact that the connecting flight arrives and departs from different airports. I will treat you with the respect you deserve as an educated adult and experienced traveler. And I certainly will not dare to dispute the fact that, for people who prefer to handle their own travel arrangements, the Internet is the greatest invention of our time. As with any great tool, however, the Internet is meant to be used with care, because too many things in the process can go wrong. And according to the Murphy’s known law, if they can, they do – believe me I have such a collection of desperate calls for help and horror stories of booked-it-on-line spoiled vacations, that I’ll be able soon to write my own book. So here is the excerpt from my future “Manual for Using the Internet to Book Your Own Travel.”

  Check all passenger names twice Before you press the “Purchase” or “Complete” button on your screen please check all passenger names one more time. Then check them all again. No, I do not doubt that you remember your name. It’s just that some on-line sites assume for some reason I never understood that all passengers traveling with you have the same last name and pre-fill it for you. Though it does save a few seconds of your time, for which I’m sure you are eternally grateful, it often creates more trouble than good. And if a ticket has been printed with the wrong name, it is not an easy task to convince the airline reservation agent that it’s not your fault. To fix the problem, the airline will gladly charge you a $150 change fee or even force you to buy a new ticket. In an industry where every dollar counts, the exact-name rule is the government’s gift to cash-starved air carriers.

  Reconfirm your hotel booking If you are frequently on the traveler forums, you’ve seen it under the ‘I hate Travelocity” or ‘I hate Expedia’ subject line in slight variations: one finally arrives at the hotel lobby after a long and exhaustive flight only to find out that the hotel does not have the reservation. To add insult to injury, it’s 11 pm and hotel is completely sold out for two weeks to come. The reason for the ordeal is that an online booking engine and a hotel’s computer do not talk to each other, so the Internet travel company has to fax your information to the hotel where somebody supposedly enters it manually into a chain’s reservation system. Human intervention creates plenty of opportunities for all kinds of errors, if they don’t forget to enter it altogether. So after you’re done with the online booking process, call the hotel to verify, and then call again two days before your arrival to confirm that your reservation is still in the system.

  Review hotel cancellation policy Last year, you were able to cancel your hotel reservation two days before arrival without any problem, so you assume that you have a freedom of doing it again should your plans change. Well, please read the hotel cancellation policy carefully, as not only do the different chains have different policies, but each hotel can basically establish their own and change it depending on…anything, from time of the year to the stars’ position in the sky. And if they have it written on the hotel’s website somewhere, no matter how inhumanely small font they’ve used, you may be charged for the entire reserved stay if you don’t cancel within the requirements of the individual hotel’s cancellation policy.

  Watch for double booking It’s important when you are making an arrangement online to be fully aware of what you are seeing and purchasing, especially when navigating the unfamiliar site. Sometimes you think you are comparing the price quote when in fact you are clicking the purchase button. Then, not realizing that the first purchase went through, you buy the same package all over again: there is no online feature that would prevent you from doing that. And if you done it and extra reservation need to be cancelled… see the paragraph above about the hotel cancellation policy. So when uncertain, wait for an e-mail confirmation before attempting the transaction for the second time.

   Insufficient connection time is money…sometimes a lot Airline connection times can occasionally challenge common sense. Forty five minutes – perfectly valid connection time on every travel site – isn’t nearly long enough to get to another terminal and board a second flight even under normal circumstances. If your original flight is delayed – which happens too often than we can all bear – you might want to start your training for running the race now. Should you miss the connecting flight, you are at the second airline’s mercy. If they treat you as a no-show, they can charge you a change fee for the next available flight ticket or even force you to by a brand new ticket for the full price. When you see cheap air fare on the internet, consider the connection time carefully. I would strongly recommend at least two hours for the domestic flight and three hours for the international or more than one stop trip.     

   Scrutinize a cheap deal offered by an unknown company What can be sweeter for the enthusiastic traveler than finding on the internet “the deal” or, putting it in civil language, a “long dreamed about” package at a stunning price? Well, forgive me for raining on your parade, but we all know too well that every service or product is cost justified – there is a reason that a particular program is “cheaper” – and that reason is often not the one you are prepared to experience. Now, what if the hotel in the photo looks nice, the tour sounds exciting and the price still so tempting? Check the agency or the tour operator behind the offer thoroughly. It must be a financially stable, reputable company. Any great deal will be spoiled if you call the office a week after the final payment to be informed that this phone number is disconnected. Be especially aware of the foreign service providers. They usually require upfront payment and if they will not deliver what they promised, there is no court you can take them to. More, sometimes they are honest people with good intentions, but the local equipment and service standards might be quite different from what we got used to in USA. That can jeopardize not just your vacation money, but your health and even life. So please compare the risk and price benefits wisely: all things considered it might be less expensive to go with a well-known and reliable company.

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