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How to snag travel deals online

I just got an exciting e-mail from my travel agent, who also happens to be my lawyer, contractor, spiritual advisor and father-in-law. He was letting me know he booked our family's February cruise to the Caribbean on the Norwegian Pearl.

He's really good at this stuff. He managed to get us a $175 room credit to spend on the ship or shore excursions, and got my daughter's ticket free (she would have been considered a full-paying customer on Carnival).

He does his homework, so I never have to worry about any missed fine print or bank-draining gotchas. Nothing is worse than thinking you've got a smoking deal, only to run into restrictions or hidden fees.

If you're not lucky enough to have a travel agent as good as mine, keep an eye out for these money-grubbing gimmicks when booking travel through online aggregators. The tips were compiled by Consumer Reports' ShopSmart magazine:

*Don't believe a low fare until you've officially booked and received it. Rates on travel search sites can jump drastically from the time your search results appear to the time you click on a fare.

ShopSmart found a flight from Miami to Montego Bay, Jamaica that rose by 40 percent. The price of a Chicago hotel room on Travelocity suddenly soared by $110.

*Go directly to the Web site of the provider you're booking travel with -- whether it's an airline, hotel or car rental company -- to be sure there are no hidden fees. Taxes, fees and surcharges are often tacked onto whatever you're booking, but they may not be as obvious to find as you would expect.

*If you book a travel package online -- booking a flight plus a rental car, for example -- double-check the prices independently. Packages are not always the least expensive way to go.

*Take price guarantees with a grain of salt. Some sites promise to give a refund if their price isn't the lowest available online. But those guarantees are knee-deep in fine print. If you find a lower price on a site other than the one you booked with, your chances of actually getting a refund are slim.

*Outsmart "dynamic pricing." Dynamic prices are set at the highest amount a seller thinks you'd be able or willing to pay. To overcome it, reset your browser preferences, delete cookies and use two different browsers to check prices. This will keep previous searches hidden.

*Some sites bury the bargains, hoping you'll book the cheapest one they've listed. Expedia.com doesn't offer an option to sort the results by price anywhere on the initial search screen. To get around that, reset your search preferences.

When searching through your results, you also might notice key travel providers are missing. Check with those providers to see what their rates are.

e-mail: schristmann@buffnews.com or call MoneySmart at 849-4612. Follow the Diva at www.Facebook.com/DiscountDiva

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