"Trick the Traveler" is a game airlines, third-party booking sites, even some retailers seem to get better at every year.
Reading up on canal tours in Amsterdam is more fun than spending hours checking air fares, but careful sleuthing - the travel equivalent of eating your vegetables - is the best way to guarantee you'll have a good trip without getting tripped-up.
A few ideas for smarter travel in 2016:
-Check the cost of flying to your destination from various airports. If the difference is great enough, it might be worth the effort to get to and from an alternate airport.
It's almost always less expensive to fly to Europe out of Vancouver International Airport in British Columbia then out of Seattle, 150 miles south. Credit the high demand among Microsoft, Starbucks, Boeing and Amazon.com business travelers coupled with Delta's growing dominance of the Seattle market. A check on a mid-April round-trip to Rome, for instance, showed fares of $661 on Delta and $630 on British Airways out of Vancouver vs. $1,339 on Delta and $1,005 on British out of Seattle. Bus, train and shuttle connections make getting between the two cities inexpensive and fairly easy. Long-term parking is available at a reasonable price for those who would rather drive.
Small, discount airlines provide cheap and easy transportation between cities in foreign countries, but be aware of extra fees not disclosed in initial fare quotes. I booked a flight between Saigon and Taipei on AirAsia recently, only to find out right before I paid that there would be an extra $30 charge for using a credit card (How else would you pay online?) as well as a $50 fee to check a bag. And here's an interesting twist: AirAsia's website kept rejecting my credit card, so I booked the flight on Expedia which showed a price that was $50 higher but included a "free checked bag.''
- Double-check the info found on meta-search sites. I used to rely on Kayak.com as a comprehensive source for comparing air fares. I find it less reliable now that it's owned by Priceline which competes with the airlines for bookings. Too often I've found Kayak searches failing to show some fares, fare classes and routings listed on the airlines' own websites. Faster and easier to use is Google Flights which includes all available flights in its searches.
Airlines can play tricks on their own sites, of course. I'd been tracking an Asia fare on Delta for weeks at $934 when I saw it rise to $1,200 at 8 a.m. one morning, then fall back to $934 a few hours later.
- Think before you take that upgrade. Delta now includes its Delta Comfort + (more legroom, better snacks, better movies) in the free upgrades available to premium frequent flyer members. This means that instead of being bumped up to business class, some frequent flyers likely will end up in a Comfort + seat, with no guarantees that it won't be a middle seat. I'll keep my reserved aisle seat in regular Economy, thank you.
- Opt out of offers to convert the price of foreign credit card purchases to U.S. dollars: This is a legal scam called dynamic currency conversion, and it's spreading among retailers, tourism organizations and ticket sellers who cater to travelers. Use a credit card to pay for a coffee at Amsterdam's Schipohl Airport, and the machine will prompt you to choose between processing the charge in dollars or euros. Choose euros to avoid a 3 percent "conversion'' fee pocketed by retailers for the service. That's on top of a 1-3 percent foreign currency transaction fee many banks charge credit card users. I was offered this "choice'' when purchasing a tram pass at an Amsterdam tourism office (an otherwise convenient service) and at the Galeries LaFayette department store in Paris.
- Beware of booking fees: Airbnb isn't the only site to tack on a non-refundable booking fee (6-12 percent) to the price of a room rental. HomeAway, acquired last year by Expedia Inc., will introduce a "travelers fee" for online bookings starting in the second quarter of this year. The fee, expected to average around 6 percent, will apply to reservations made on the popular Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO), owned by HomeAway. These are on top fees paid by the property owners.
Book accommodations directly when possible (Many B and Bs and small inns list their rooms on Airbnb at a higher price than you'd pay by booking directly), and avoid paying any non-refundable fees.