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Your guide to low-cost online airfare to Florida

Today it's possible to check flight availability, search for the best fare, book your own flight and in some cases, even choose your seat on the plane - all at the click of a mouse.

There used to be a time when vacationers picked up the phone, called their travel agent and kept their fingers crossed, hoping for a great deal on a flight. If you were lucky enough to get a discounted rate, that was wonderful. If you had to pay full fare, well, you weren't going to cancel your vacation over it. Just as computers have changed the way the world operates, they've also turned Joe Traveler into an armchair travel agent. Today it's possible to check flight availability, search for the best fare, book your own flight and in some cases, even choose your seat on the plane - all at the click of a mouse.

The advantage, of course, is the ability to compare air fares offered by several different companies within a very short time span. There's no phoning around, no automated messages to contend with and the information is right in front of your eyes.

There's no waiting for the travel agency to open at 9 a.m. and no cursing when you realize they closed at 5. When you wake up at 2 a.m. with an urge to fly to Orlando, you simply fire up the computer and book your flight online. Thanks to easy-to-follow instructions, the Internet helps you access virtually the same airline timetables, ticket prices, routing, seating information and restrictions details as a professional travel agent.

But anyone who's ever surfed the 'Net knows that it can be a time-consuming process - unless you know exactly what you're searching for. That's why we've come up with this handy, concise list of Web sites that promise low airfares to many popular destinations. Though a computer isn't a substitute for a knowledgeable travel professional, it can give you - the consumer - the inside track on where to find some really great prices.

Keep in mind that a well-designed online travel site should let you access the same information you'd receive from a travel agent. This includes finding and booking flights; comparing prices, seats and routings; researching destinations; tracking flights in progress; offering information about discounts and incentives; and keeping consumers updated on travel news and events.

This online travel agency provides discounted travel prices on everything from all-inclusive vacations to one-way flights. It also lets users sign up for free, customized weekly e-mail that alerts travelers to last-minute, low-cost fares. Its Fare Beater feature automatically searches for lower priced flights on similar days and routes.

If your travel plans are flexible, then Airtech may be able to find you an incredibly low fare. The only catch: you have to give Airtech a several-day travel window which means this service only works if you don't have to travel on a specific day.

Cheap Tickets Inc.
Discounted airfare is the name of the game at this Web site. There's great potential for low rates, but availability may be limited.

Best Fares Magazine Online
You have to pay a subscription fee to get access to the best bargains on this site. In the meantime, visit the Free section for deals on discount airfare.

Here's a chance to get a 20-per-cent discount off most major airlines' published fares, with price reductions on both domestic and international flights available. Though it offers deals on last-minute getaways and cruises, its primary focus is discount airfares.

New Sites
New sites are coming online all the time...you may also want to try http://www.travelscape.com/ or http://www.orbitz.com

We decided to test drive these budget Web sites. We began searching for flights from New York to Tampa using two different scenarios - one as a single passenger arriving and departing on a weekend and another as a single passenger traveling midweek. Both trips involved one-week stays.

It took 1travel.com just a few minutes to drum up several flight options, though many required a stopover. The lowest price midweek was about $220 US for a return flight. A weekend flight came in at approximately the same rate.

We had better luck with Lowestfare.com. Both the midweek and weekend non-stop return flights were priced as low as $172. Even more surprising was the fact that both flights still had seats available. (Availability is often a problem on flights offering the lowest prices.) The Lowestfare.com Web site also listed special fares for departures from selected cities throughout the U.S. One deal offered a one-way ticket from Chicago to Orlando for $101.

For comparison's sake, we tried the same search on the American Airline's site. The price difference was startling - one-way flights started as low as $89 and ran as high as $524, with every price imaginable in between.

A random search on the Web uncovered two other sites - economytravel.com(an international airfare consolidator) and intelliTRIP.com. Both sites deal in international travel and offer simple-to-follow instructions. After a quick search, we found direct flights to Tampa midweek for about $270 US per person and about $220 return for a weekend flight through economytravel.com. IntelliTRIP.com asks for your travel information, then searches several different airlines until it comes up with flights that match your criteria. Next it lists each flight in order from lowest to highest fare. For both the midweek and weekend flights, the best price was $235 for a return flight with no stopovers.

I HEAR $250 - WHO'LL GIVE ME $275?
Another option for the very flexible traveler is the online auction. Participants actually place a value on airline tickets and if the offer is accepted, you're on your way. This can be a great way to save some money but, unfortunately, you can't plan your vacation until the bid is accepted.

This lets users bid on an array of travel items, including airline tickets. You'll be notified by e-mail if your bid is accepted.

This is a fantastic site that offers a unique way of purchasing airline tickets, particularly for those who know their air fares. In the simplest terms, users submit a reasonable price for an airline ticket, then Priceline searches for an airline that can offer that flight for your price. You have to submit your credit card number up front. Be aware that if Priceline finds a suitable flight, they'll go ahead and purchase it for you.

Priceline will contact you by e-mail if your bid is accepted. Expect to wait an hour for domestic flights and up to 24 hours for international flights before your purchase is confirmed.

If you want to invest in an excellent guide to travel, consider Travel Planning Online for Dummies by Noah Vadnai. Following the same formula that other "Dummies" books have adopted, Vadnai uses simple, easy-to-understand language, tips, reminders and warnings in this wealth of travel information. In his guide, he recommends four major online travel agencies that have distinguished themselves from the rest of the pack. They are:

www.expedia.msn.com - owned by Microsoft and recommended for its ease of use and design

Internet Travel Network
www.itn.net - which also serves as the booking site for many of the most popular travel sites on the Web, including CNN and American Express

Preview Travel
www.previewtravel.com - considered America Online's travel agency

www.travelocity.com - this descendent of easySabre, the first online booking site, is one of the best known agencies on the Web.

Each of these four sites allows consumers to safely transmit credit card and personal information to the site, employs travel agents available by calling a toll-free phone number, and allows users to store a "travel profile" which catalogues personal preferences such as airport, airlines and whether you fly for business or pleasure.

Here's something to keep in mind: Many Web sites also let travelers book hotels and car rentals, making travel planning easier than ever.

Many people are justifiably concerned about submitting credit card information over the Internet. According to Travel Planning Online for Dummies, you shouldn't run into any problems as long as the site is encrypted. Both Netscape and Internet Explorers browsers show whether a site uses encryption.

On Netscape 3.0 and 4.0, look for a chain or padlock in the bottom left-hand corner.

On Internet Explorer versions 3.0 and higher, look for a lock in the bottom right-hand corner. If the locks or chains are not broken, then you can be assured that you're connected to a secure server and your information is safe.

There's no question that searching online for low airfares takes a little time. There are so many factors to consider - flight availability, last-minute bookings, dates of departure and more. All it really takes is a little practice. The more you use these unique sites, the easier it is to find the cheapest flights around.

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