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by Rudy Maxa for Marketplace

Travelers spend a billion dollars a month on line booking airline tickets, hotel rooms, rental cars, and cruises - that's about a third of all on-line spending according to Time magazine. The newest travel web site is called Orbitz, and our Savvy Traveler, Rudy Maxa, has been following its controversial debut. Here's the question now: Is it really the cheapest place to buy an airline ticket?

Orbitz turned three months old this week, and what sets it apart from its main competitors such as Expedia and Travelocity are its parents. Five airlines - American, United, Delta, Continental, and Northwest - put up $145 million to try and grab on-line sales. And they offered consumers a carrot: Unlike competitors, Orbitz posts airlines' web-only deals. And that saves you from having to check each airline's site individually for last-minute specials.

Other travel web sites cried "foul." They unsuccessfully asked the Justice Department and state attorneys general to require the airlines to make those deals available to them, too. Officials say they're keeping an eye on Orbitz, but no one stopped the site from opening.

Orbitz has already snatched business from other travel sites. I had lunch recently with a Travelocity executive who fears Orbitz is about to eat HIS lunch. Both Travelocity and Expedia posted their first profitable quarters recently, but that was before Orbitz. Now, being able to find web-only fares from all the major airlines in one place is a powerful lure. So powerful that in its first week, Orbitz attracted more hits than any travel site other than Expedia.

But there are a few things you should know before you forsake all others. First of all, you won't find fares from the country's leading, discount airline, Southwest, at Orbitz.com, because the airline sued Orbitz to stop posting its fares. Southwest said it didn't want to become dependent on a web site owned by its competitors to sell tickets. (Keep in mind, you can't buy Southwest tickets at any other travel web site, except its own, either.)

And that's the fear. If Orbitz runs other web sites out of business, the airlines will control what is becoming a very, very important way of selling tickets.

But on the basis of a recent fare search, I predict Orbitz will not crush its competitors. No one web site consistently comes up with the rock-bottom fare. I tried all kinds of itineraries. I checked airline sites as well as Orbitz, Travelocity, Hotwire, and Expedia. The results were all over the map. One might give me a lower fare, but the other offered a more efficient way to get there for only a few dollars more. Airfare expert Terry Trippler of OneTravel.com went searching for a one-way flight from Minneapolis to Fargo, North Dakota.

Northwest and his site displayed Northwest's eight, one-hour, non-stop flights. Orbitz listed a ridiculous 170 scheduled flights, including a couple of three-stoppers that took more than seven hours in one case, 20 hours in another. And just last week, Orbitz publicly conceded its search vehicle for international tickets isn't very sophisticated yet. So the old rule still applies: Shop around. A good travel agent or a hard-working airline reservationist might be able to find a fare you can't on line. Yes, the Internet has made it much easier to comparison shop...but it hasn't eliminated the need to do so.

I'm Rudy Maxa, from the Savvy Traveler, for Marketplace.


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