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FROM SHINE.COM:

There’s nothing worse than anticipating a much-needed getaway, traveling all day to get there, and discovering it’s a dump—for $300 a night. It’s why the whole vacation-planning process makes me nervous: With so many sites and so many choices, how do I know I’m getting the best deal? (I happily turned the job over to my husband, Steve, who doesn’t mind trolling online for days.) So what do the experts recommend to make the process easier and rewarding? Here’s how to get the best prices with the fewest clicks, plus backup sites to help you feel better about your decision.

1. Become an expert well in advance. George Hobica of airfarewatchdog.com suggests signing up for e-mail alerts and online news-letters. It’s the best way to familiarize yourself with destinations and prices. “All the travel sites do things a little differently,” Hobica says, “so sign up for several, and check them daily.” (A dedicated Gmail or Yahoo e-mail address will cut down on the spam in your main e-mail account.) In other words, for now, keep your mind open and your wallet closed. Yapta.com and bing.com are the best, Hobica says, but also try orbitz.com, kayak.com, shermanstravel.com, smartertravel.com, travel-ticker.com, and travelzoo.com. And don’t forget to ask friends on Twitter and Facebook for their tips.

2. Decide on a few destinations. Now that you have a better sense of what’s out there, you want to work backward. Barbara Messing of travel-ticker.com explains, “Don’t fixate on one place. Let the deal be your inspiration.” Her team combs the Internet for deals that offer reductions of 40 to 60 percent. One recent example: the four-star Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa Valley wine country for as low as $109 a night (a 45 percent savings), with a wine tasting for two and 20 percent off spa treatments. “Dealhounds” on airfarewatchdog.com scour the Web all day for the latest and best deals.

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