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Go Online to Plan a Great Vacation

Help ensure that your vacation is a memorable pleasure, instead of a never-to-be-forgotten nightmare, by doing the necessary research.

Missed out on a summer vacation this year? Take heart: With cooler weather and smaller crowds, autumn is a great time for a vacation getawayand you can find some terrific travel deals online. Whether you want to book a two-week European adventure or a simple weekend in the country, here are some tips to help you plan a thoroughly refreshing retreat, without breaking the bank.

Shop around: The Web has so many travel-related websites that you may be tempted to avoid the bewildering throngs of newer sites and use an old standby like Expedia or Travelocity. But you'll benefit from taking a few extra minutes to compare prices at four or five (or more) sites.

For example, Orbitz rankled users recently by displaying the most expensive hotel-room options higher in the search results of iOS users, apparently reasoning that fans of Apple's pricy hardware would be likelier to shell out for higher-end digs.

To help you with booking a flight, sites such as Kayak compile search results from various major travel sites, simplifying price and itinerary comparisons. But those big travel sites may exclude budget airlines such as AirTran, JetBlue, and Southwest, so visit company-specific sites, too.

If you're in no hurry to depart, you can rely on a price-watch feature (available at many travel sites) to notify you when fares drop. Bing Travel has a Price Predictor that advises you whether to buy your ticket now or wait, based on whether fares seem likely to rise or fall.

Be flexible: Are you willing to travel during midweek, land in a slightly less convenient airport, or stop off in Detroit for a few hours? The more flexible your travel plans are, the likelier you are to secure a good deal. Most of us can't change our schedules to suit the pricing whims of the travel industry, but a little inconvenience can yield a big payoff.

Sites like Hotwire and Priceline serve up excellent bargains to adaptable travelers. You plug in the basics of when and where you want to go, and (if you're bidding on a price) how much you're willing to payand the site offers deals that match your parameters. You won't know your airline, your flight itinerary, or your hotel until after you pay for the deal. If you specify a four-star hotel in midtown Manhattan, however, that's what you'll get.

Read the fine print: "Travel" and "surprise" often go badly together; so before you book, make sure that you've checked the relevant policies on cancellation, rebooking, and refunds. Some sites, such as Travelocity, offer low-price guarantees and 24/7 customer support if you like a little extra reassurance.

Other popular sources of travel bargains include social networking sites such as Groupon Getaways and LivingSocial Escapes. These sites issue vouchers that you can redeem for travel to a multitude of domestic and international destinations. The prices look irresistible; but before you book, make sure that you understand exactly what your payment covers. Watch out for sneaky fees (some users have complained of unexpectedly steep taxes and "cleaning fees" charged at checkout), blackout and expiration dates, restrictions on number of travelers and transferability, and other hidden gotchas.

Ask questions: Groupon maintains Q&A links where users can post questions directly to ho­­tels. It's a good idea to peruse these in case other travelers have raised questions that you may not have considered. Post a question or two to check the response time, or contact the hotel directly. Also, check reviews at such sites as Trip­Advisor for trends and common complaints. Finally, find out what the hotel's regular rates are, and ask whether it offers any other promotions that may suit your travel needs.

Don't wait: Travel costs are capricious. Planning a vacation carefully involves covering a lot of details before you pack your bags; but if you wait too long, you may have to trade in a Caribbean beach resort for a backyard lawn chair.

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