PITTSBURGH — To see the world, surf the Web.
In the past couple of years, the Internet has become a primary source of information for computer-savvy travelers. Travel-related sites have grown so big and sophisticated that they represent one of the few areas where online commerce is already beginning to flourish.
The best news for consumers: You can use the Internet to save money on air fares.
Although several Web sites offer access to bargains, two of them stand out, according to the Monitor's small-scale tests: Travelocity and Expedia.
Travelocity (www.travelocity.com) is affiliated with American Airlines' reservations system, the SABRE Group, which many travel agents use. The service is free and offers a wide range of airlines, not just American. With Travelocity, you find the best rates by going to the "Travel Reservations" page, choosing "Flights," and asking for the best three itineraries.
Make sure to pick price as your most important criterion, plus whether you're interested in a round-trip ticket.
On one of our three tests - a quick business trip from Pittsburgh to South Bend, Ind. - Travelocity found a $663 round trip that left in two days and returned the same Friday. That's not a great fare, but no other online service could beat it.
What's nice about dealing with a computer is that you're never wasting a live travel agent's time. So we played with alternatives: different times and even other destinations within a couple hours' drive of South Bend. Travelocity found a $650 rate to Chicago. The $13 savings wouldn't be worth the extra driving time, but at least we knew we weren't missing a great fare.
Our next test trip was a week-long jaunt from New York to San Francisco with a month's notice. Travelocity and Microsoft's new Expedia site (expedia.msn.com) posted the same $341 fare as the lowest available.
We preferred the Expedia interface, but were more impressed by the flexibility of Travelocity. For example: both New York and San Francisco have several regional airports. Travelocity allowed us to query flights to and from all regional airports to get the best fare. Expedia did the same in New York, but we had to specify San Francisco, Oakland, or San Jose.
Our final test was a month-long trip to Paris from Dallas for the fall. Expedia was the best of the lot with a $799.77 round-trip fare on United. Travelocity came in second with $834.25 via Northwest or United.
On a third travel service, called Internet Travel Network (www.itn.net), the computer seemed unwilling to list the same airline going and returning. This almost certainly boosted its final "low" price: $1,045.80.
The lesson: Even in cyberspace, it pays to check around. On a recent booking from St. Louis to New York, we got a low $293 quote from a travel agent, checked it with Travelocity and Expedia, and found a similar flight for $287. Granted, $6 isn't much savings, but it sits better in your pocket than with an airline.
Another big advantage to researching air fares on the Web is automatic fare watching. Suppose you know several weeks or months ahead of time where you want to travel. Instead of buying tickets right away, several sites, including Travelocity and Expedia, allow users to plug in their destinations and track price changes.
For more than a month, we've used Travelocity to track the price of two trips. Since then, the service has alerted us to five fare changes for flights between Pittsburgh and Chicago, ranging from $302 all the way down to $88 for a round trip ticket! We got three alerts to fare changes for round-trip travel between St. Louis and Paris, ranging from $578 to an unbelievable $138. But the low fare was long gone before we called in.
Other sites offer similar services, including TravelWeb (www.travelweb.com), Yahoo! Travel (www.yahoo.com/Recreation/Travel), and Preview Travel (www.reservations.com). But they didn't combine the broad service and the ease of use of Travelocity and Expedia.
For the true penny-pincher, consider buying airline tickets from wholesalers, known as "consolidators."
One online consolidator is 1travel.com (www.1travel.com). Travelers send in requests by electronic mail. Response time - about one business day - is not as speedy as other travel services listed here. And the company has been overwhelmed with requests. But it can save a bundle. Our New York-San Francisco trip came in at $310.