Three Things to Watch Out for When Booking a Vacation Online

Planning a vacation can be overwhelming if you don’t know exactly where you want to go. After all, the world is a big place with an infinite amount of beauty and culture to explore. When you can basically go anywhere, whittling down your choices can become an arduous task.

Fortunately, the Internet has more than enough online vacation booking sites that can make your task immeasurably easier. They make it easier for you to book anything from luxury digs to a space on someone’s couch, all while letting you compare pricing and other features. But which site — or combination of sites — should you use? And what’s the difference between them?

There are some huge differences among how each type of site operates. Although vacation booking sites come in all flavors, most fall into one of these categories:

  • Vacation comparison sites: Sites like Expedia.com, Priceline.com, Hotels.com, and Orbitz.com offer consumers a one-stop-shop where they can compare lodging options, flights, and attractions.
  • Vacation aggregators: Other sites such as Kayak.com compile vacation and flight data from the major vacation comparison sites to help you find the best value. In other words, they let you compare the offerings of sites like Expedia, Priceline, and Orbitz, so you can find the best deal.
  • Deal sites: VacationstoGo.com and similar sites offer unsold cruise cabins for up to 80% off. Meanwhile, deal sites like Groupon Getaways and TravelZoo offer prepackaged discount vacations and flash deals that are available for a limited time.
  • Direct booking sites: Direct booking sites like Airbnb, VRBO.com, and HomeAway make it easier for consumers to rent vacation condos, homes, and rooms directly from the owner. Couchsurfing.com even lets you reserve someone’s couch for the night – if that’s something you want.

Things to Keep in Mind When Booking a Vacation Online

Sites like Expedia and Orbitz are big, publicly traded corporations that, in the 21st century, essentially operate as the world’s de facto travel agencies. You’re unlikely to get flat-out ripped off, but that doesn’t mean you should let your guard down when it comes to fees, taxes, and other fine print. Meanwhile, other sites carry entirely different risks. Keep in mind these three tips when booking a vacation online:

Compare Apples to Apples

When you’re booking a hotel, it’s important to know what is and isn’t included before committing to the purchase. In some cases, a ton of crazy fees can be added to your nightly rate after you’re about halfway through the booking process, and if you don’t notice, you could end up paying far more than you planned.

Before you book, make sure to look for any “gotchas” that can make your vacation more expensive. Fees to watch out for can include resort fees, excessive Wi-Fi fees, extra-person fees, and parking fees. These can add up quickly and lessen the value of the deal you’ve chosen.

Beware of Groupon and Living Social Deals

Buying a Groupon or Living Social deal for your getaway might seem like a good idea, but is it? Unfortunately, it depends. As ABC’s “The Lookout” discovered during an investigation in 2013, Groupon vacation deals may actually be more expensive than if you had booked a room with a hotel on your own.

Since these deals don’t usually include taxes, it is always wise to price-shop with the actual resort in order to compare final pricing. And since Groupon Getaways or Living Social Escapes are known for tacking on fine print that can make your vacation hard to book, also make sure to check for blackout dates or exemptions.

Know the Risks

I don’t think anyone needs to tell you that booking a night on a stranger’s couch is risky. However, there are other risks that come with direct booking sites that are unique to this particular type of arrangement. For example, you can read countless complaints against VRBO.com on the Consumer Affairs site, some of which include stories of confiscated security deposits, outright fraud, and misrepresented properties.

To reduce your risk as much as possible, always make sure to get everything in writing. Sites like VRBO.com and HomeAway.com also advise that you never send a money order or cash directly to an owner. Instead, use a credit card to book your reservations and make your deposit. Most credit cards offer consumer protection against fraud and will help you fight for your money if you don’t receive the vacation you paid for. Airbnb users don’t pay owners directly; the site handles all the finances, adding one extra (albeit thin) layer of protection.

With so many booking sites out there, vacations are now easier than ever to book. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t pitfalls. In fact, there may be more bullets to dodge than ever.

But while you might have to wade through some not-so-great deals and offers to find a winner, the payoff could be worth it. Just make sure to read the fine print before you take the plunge.

Which vacation booking site is your favorite? Have you ever booked a vacation condo or house directly from the owner?