Booking a cruise is only the beginning of planning your cruise vacation. Unless you live near the home port, you'll need air fare; and it's always nice to book a hotel stay before or after sailing so you can explore your port of embarkation.
True, the cruise line will usually offer you an air/sea package rate as well as optional pre- and post-cruise hotel packages, but that's not to say the cruise line will always have the best prices for these add-ons. In these days of negotiated rates, Web specials and constant fare sales, you might save a significant amount by price-shopping on the Internet for air and hotel before you accept the cruise line's rates.
Two new Web sites owned by the major airlines recently opened up, creating even more air fare competition on the Internet. The first was Hotwire (www.hotwire.com), which airlines use to dispose of unfilled seats. Hotwire is great for finding bargain fares on short-notice trips--if you don't mind the "opaque fares" concept. That means when you look up fares on Hotwire, you won't know which airline or which flights you're on until you've made a non-refundable, non-changeable purchase. In that sense it's similar to the name-your-own-fare site Priceline (www.priceline.com)--but unlike Priceline, there's no bidding: You'll know in advance exactly how much you have to pay.
More recently, the five largest airlines (American, United, Delta, Continental and Northwest) opened up Orbitz (www.orbitz.com), a full-service operation selling air travel (on most airlines, not just the five owners), hotel rooms, rental cars and more. Orbitz competes against online mega-agencies like Travelocity and Expedia, but there's one big difference: When the airlines come out with Web-only fare sales, odds are you'll be able to buy them only on the airline's own Web site and on Orbitz, but not on the other big agency sites. These Web-only reductions can be substantial--this summer, some airlines were offering additional discounts of up to 20 percent off regular "sale" fares for bookings made online.
Orbitz displays fare search results on a single screen, with a table that lists non-stop flights on the top row (with fares in ascending order from left to right); one-stop or single-connection flights on the second row, and routings with two or more stops on the third. Logos across the top indicate which airline offers each fare. Users click on the fare to see details and move ahead with the purchase. The site also offers "last-minute travel alerts" by e-mail or wireless text message if your flight schedule changes.
Among the online travel agencies, Travelocity (www.travelocity.com) and Expedia (www.expedia.com) are the undisputed leaders. Because they are such close competitors, any innovation by one is usually matched quickly by the other. For example, both now offer their own "opaque" air fares, and a growing inventory of negotiated air fares, which are mixed in with published fares when you search, providing a greater variety of pricing options than you'll find on the airlines' own individual websites. Both also have negotiated, discount hotel rates in major cities, also mixed in with regular hotel prices when you search--Travelocity by virtue of its partnership with Hotel Reservations Network and Expedia from its acquisition last year of Travelscape (see below).
Here's one important fact to remember when you're looking for air fares online: If your city is served by the nation's largest low-fare carrier, Southwest Airlines, you won't find its flights or fares listed in search results on any of the above sites. For that reason, it might be worth your while to visit Southwest's own site (www.southwest.com) to see how its fares stack up against the competition.
As for hotel bargain-hunting in domestic and some international port cities, the three best hotel discount sites are probably Hotel Reservations Network (HRN) (www.hotels.com), Quikbook (www.quikbook.com) and Hotwire (www.hotwire.com). Expedia also has lots of specially discounted hotel rates, as does Travelocity, which uses Hotel Reservations Network's special deals.
These sites get many of their rooms the way consolidators get airline seats-they cut their own deals with hotels, taking the responsibility for rooms that would otherwise go unsold. Because they have their own room allotments, some of these sites may have space available when the hotel's own reservations system shows the property as sold out. They all have hotels in a range of quality and price levels.
Hotels.com and Expedia have hotels in scores of domestic and international cities, while Quikbook and Hotwire are mainly domestic in scope at this point. All have plenty of rooms in major cruise departure points like Miami, Fort Lauderdale, New York and Los Angeles. Hotels.com and Expedia also have rooms in San Juan, and in some European departure points like London, Rome, Athens and Nice. As it does with air fares, Hotwire will let you select a quality category, show you its best available price up front, and require you to prepay your stay before you find out which hotel you booked.
Because each company has its own list of cities, roster of hotels, pricing deals and room allotments, it's always best to search around, even among discount hotel sites. For big-city hotels, the best deals from these companies tend to be on weekdays, when you can save up to 60 percent; the hotels may have their own weekend package prices that are better. All are easy to navigate, and all promote their best specials on the home page or one click away.