Let these 5 sites search for cheap airfare while you do other stuff

If it weren't for the airlines, travel would be pretty fun.

But the chore of travel starts long before you reach the benign hostage situation at the airport. It begins when you peck away at the keyboard, plumbing tedious, confusing airfare booking sites.

The more browser windows pop open and the more you sit through animations that assure you each site is searching for the best deal for you, the more you realize it's very easy to miss out on a deal simply because you're overwhelmed by the process.

A few sites, though, do the legwork for you. As long as you have a future trip in mind, you can easily program them to keep tabs on the going rate for it, and they'll get back to you when the getting is good.
Some alert you the old-fashioned way: e-mail. (OK, "old-fashioned" is relative here.) Some can be told to let you know through RSS or a "feed," which is essentially an ever-updating page filled with headlines of things, collected for your quick perusal. And some will tweet you, which isn't as naughty as it sounds.

Given a choice between e-mail and RSS, I always pick RSS, because that can be more easily ignored when I'm not planning travel. Most browsers and e-mail programs can handle an RSS page. If you don't know how to use one yet, perhaps it's time to bone up, because they can save you money if you load them with some of these helpful airfare sites.

* Kayak Buzz's "Top 25 Cities" feature tracks cheap rates from America's 25 busiest airports, which covers most people in the country. Tell it the city you want to leave from, and on the resulting page, you can either sign up for e-mail alerts or, my preference, a custom RSS feed. You bookmark the feed page (or subscribe to it in any RSS reader) and then, usually twice a day, you'll get a batch of hot round-trip airfares.

Click on one that piques your interest (say, "LGA to DFW $141 Oct 6 -7 on Delta"), and you're delivered to the page on Kayak that shows not only that fare, but also all the competing airfares for the same flights, just so you know you're getting the best deal.

Or can just pick one route and track that by e-mail. Either way, you can tell Buzz the maximum price you'd ever be willing to pay for a flight, and it won't deliver results to you if it's higher. (Don't go too low, or you may never get results.) The dates of validity range from next week to about three months down the road.

* FareCompare's real-time e-mail alerts do exactly what they say: e-mail an alert the minute an airfare you want goes down.

It can be as simple as that, but this is one slick site, so you have the option of making it more complicated, too. You can search only for one particular airline, or a class of service, and you can request an alert whether a price goes up, down, or both, and by a dollar amount you set.

If there's a down side, it's that you have to specify a certain airport, so for cities with choices (Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, etc.), you have to spend more time setting up all your alerts.

If you're on Twitter, it will also send what it calls "Fly From" tweets. Plug in your home airport, follow it, and get regular airfare alerts in your tweet stream, along with an idea of how much cheaper the deal is compared to recent purchases for that route.

There's a down side to this, too: You get word of all kinds of flights, and not just the ones that you're interested in. But the site is still another excellent tool for your money-saving toolbox.

* The whole point of Airfarewatchdog.com is to track airfares and notify you by e-mail or RSS. In fact, the sign-up form is on its home page. You can choose airfares leaving from a city, or going to one (the latter's not that helpful, since only one of the resulting list is bound to pertain to your location -- who cares about reading all the deals to Des Moines if you have to leave from Kansas City?).

If you'd rather receive notice by RSS, click the little orange square that looks like it has a pictogram of a satellite dish in it. Then bookmark the page that comes up.

A typical alert might read: "Minneapolis, MN $118 RT No min. stay, Nonstop flights, Travel bet. 1/5/10 and 2/11/10 (Sun Country Airlines)." The Web site scans the airlines' rolls of prices all the time, and after it sends you notice, you click to go to a booking page and find out if that airfare is still available.

As you can imagine, it helps if you're on top of your e-mail, because the lowest fares can sell out quickly once sites like these find them and tell everyone about them.

* Yapta, too, is designed specifically to e-mail you when prices come within range. This one lets you pick a specific flight on a specific date -- say, a trip you'd like to take over Thanksgiving in November -- and lets you track price drops as the date approaches.

It will also let you know when a flight is available for booking with frequent flier miles, as well as when an airfare you have already purchased drops below a level at which it would be worth your time to request a refund from your airline, including the service changes that airlines levy to do it. Yapta also does hotels.

The only complicated thing about it, it seems, is the gibberish name. It stands for Your Amazing Personal Travel Assistant. Go to it and bookmark it, and you'll never have to remember it again.

* Although the Web site it's attached to isn't my favorite and can be confusingly byzantine, Travelocity will let you plug some dream flights in its FareWatcher Plus system.

You pick a home airport or city and then load up to 10 destinations into the site. Pick whether you want to be alerted when prices go down by $25, go up or down by $25 (useful for knowing when rates are on the rise so you can jump in before they go too high), or drop below a threshold that you set.

You can also choose whether you'd rather find your deals on the Travelocity site or if you'd like an e-mail instead. These days, the Web site isn't charging a booking fee, either.

It's not so good on international destinations. For example, it wouldn't deliver rates for London or Cape Town, South Africa unless I did an old-fashioned search. But for domestic rates, the gratification is more instant.

To use all of these sites and minimize the strain on your life, I suggest that you set up a free, Web-based e-mail account (Hotmail, Yahoo Mail) to use just for these deal alerts. That way, if you're not going somewhere soon, you can just delete the messages without cluttering up your regular in-box.

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