With winter break just a few weeks away, a plethora of travel Web sites offer students air travel home for the holidays.

The cheapest airfares are usually available on Priceline.com. It has a bit of a tricky ticket-buying process, but the money saved can be well worth it.

To buy a ticket from Priceline, a customer specifies departure and arrival airports and dates to travel and names a price. He or she enters a credit card number, and then waits a few minutes to find out if the offer was accepted.

The tricky part is in the flight times. Unlike the traditional way of buying tickets, in which the customer can choose from a number of options for flight times and airlines, Priceline decides those things. The only guarantee is that flights will be between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. If Priceline accepts an offer, it charges the credit card and then reveals the flight times and airlines. After that, it’s too late to change anything.

A similar process is used at Hotwire. Just as is the case with Priceline, Hotwire customers don’t find out flight times until after they’ve bought their tickets. The difference is that Hotwire reveals prices beforehand, rather than having customers name their own prices.

For those who prefer to have more control over their travel ? and are willing to pay extra for it ? there are more traditional sites. Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz are the three most popular.

Orbitz is a newcomer to the industry this year. Although it was created by the five largest airlines in the United States, it claims to offer unbiased options and fares.

Checking Orbitz’s fares against those available on Travelocity or Expedia seems to prove those claims true. In fact, Orbitz’s fares are often lower than those available on the competing sites.

Orbitz’s advertising emphasizes its number of flight options, but there is no evidence that it offers any more choices than Expedia or Travelocity.

Expedia and Travelocity both give lists of fares with dates that they are available ? a useful feature that Orbitz lacks. For a student who doesn’t know if Sunday, Monday or Tuesday is the cheapest day to return to UR from break, Expedia and Travelocity make that easy.

Expedia also has a feature called “bargain fares,” which work similarly to the Hotwire site.

A drawback to the three sites is that they don’t offer flights on “discount” airlines like JetBlue and Southwest. Online reservations for those airlines are available only at their own Web sites. Southwest doesn’t serve the Greater Rochester International Airport, but a cheap fare on a flight out of Buffalo might be worth the trip.

An additional benefit for traveling students is the Student Advantage card. It costs $12 for a year’s membership, and saves a customer $25 on every round trip booked on Priceline.

Bock can be reached at dbock@campustimes.org.

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