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Email|Print| Text size + By Richard P. Carpenter
Globe Staff / December 21, 2003

How do they do it?

How do travel providers such as Go-today.com, VirginVacations.com, EuroVacations.com, and Octopus.com offer such incredibly low prices, usually over the Internet, for air and hotel packages to Europe and Asia? Look at some of these prices: Six nights in Rome for $459, five nights in Fiji for $849, five nights in Hong Kong for $699, six nights in Prague for $749, five nights in Beijing for $599.

Such offers cross my desk daily, but the most prolific sender of news releases is Go-today, which offers tour packages to the Americas as well as Europe, Asia, and the Pacific. So I posed the ''How do you do it" question to the company's CEO, Paul Barry. His reply, via e-mail:

''By working with our airline and land partners worldwide, we have negotiated huge volume discounts. These prices have been passed on direct to the consumer, using the Internet as the means of promotion and fulfillment.

''Just as with wholesale clubs like Costco, we may not offer everything all the time, but when we have it, it's an unbelievable travel bargain."

That may be, but even bargains can have costs that are not always readily apparent, and the lowest-priced trips may not be for everyone. Here are a few questions to consider when an attractive offer has you salivating:

Departing from where? That lowest price dangled before your eyes may be for a flight originating somewhere other than Boston. For instance, the $599 Beijing price cited above was good for trips starting in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. The price from Boston was $794.

How direct is the route? Never assume you will be flying the most logical route. A recent $499 London-Paris combo trip, for example, would have you traveling from Boston to Washington, then London. The return from Paris would go first to Munich, then to Boston. This doesn't always happen, but it can, so check the route. You can often fly a more direct path, but usually for more than that low price you saw in the ad.

What about those fees? Airline departure taxes and fees, surcharges for weekend flights, fees for booking by phone rather than the Web, and the like can easily add $100 or more to the cost of your trip. Since most offers are based on two people traveling, the solo traveler will have to shell out more, often a third to a half more. Not all such information is boldly displayed on the site or in the ad, so always read the fine print -- and read it thoroughly.

How small is small? On most websites, you can click on the name of the hotels offered for more information. Sometimes rooms in the hotels included with the lowest-priced packages are described as small. Believe it. Although her room wasn't part of any of these offers, a well-traveled colleague delights in recounting how at a bed-and-breakfast near Galway, Ireland, her roommate had to sleep with her suitcase on the bed because there was nowhere else to put it! Your room will almost surely be bigger than that, but don't expect lots of space or fancy decor. You can usually upgrade to a hotel with bigger rooms, but you will pay more.

What about location? Will you be near the heart of the city or at least within reach of public transportation that you feel comfortable taking? With the lowest price, you may or may not be. The aforementioned colleague reports getting a hotel in an excellent location in London at a low package price. But when she looked at the offer a while later, a hotel in a more inconvenient location was listed, the first hotel apparently having filled up. That is a good argument for acting swiftly once you've decided to go.

Can you cancel? Here's another reason to scour the fine print. The words ''nonrefundable" and ''nonchangeable" frequently appear there, although some sites do let you know in large print. Many companies offer cancellation insurance, but that, too, adds to the cost.

There are other ways the price may go up -- booking tours that are offered on a site, for example. But even with some added costs, you'll be paying far less than you would have just a few years ago. And if you are the type who wants to explore some of the world's great destinations and are not daunted by the prospect of a small room, an indirect flight, or a less-than-central location, you may well find yourself agreeing with Go-today's CEO that you got an unbelievable bargain.

Not by Web alone Not every Europe deal is on the Internet only. Liberty Travel, which has offices on land as well as in cyberspace, has rates starting at $299 a person for three nights in London, including round-trip air on American Airlines, accommodations, and breakfast daily.

(The fine print: There are restrictions and blackout dates, and airport taxes and local departure taxes are not included.)

Call 888-271-1586 or visit www.libertytravel.com.

Cheap, but . . . Consumer WebWatch, which is affiliated with the respected Consumer Reports magazine, has just published an in-depth report on booking flights, hotels, and car rentals online. Priceline and Hotwire -- known as opaque sites because, among other things, they don't name the plane, hotel, or rental-car brand until you have made a purchase -- ''provided the highest number and percentage of lowest rates," according to the report. But ''both conceal key details of the trip, both offer nonrefundable bookings, both always charge booking fees, and both usually do not provide loyalty program miles or points." The report added, ''Two non-opaque websites posted impressive numbers without requiring these trade-offs. Orbitz ranked second overall by providing lowest fares and rates 20 percent of the time [compared with 47 percent for Priceline and 19 percent for Hotwire]. And Quikbook, which only sells hotel rooms, led the non-opaque websites in providing the lowest hotel rates."

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