WASHINGTON - Just about every Internet travel site these days purports to offer a system that tracks airfares and that signals you when a fare matches your ballpark price.

Sounds wonderful. But can these alerts replace the proven system of poking around the Internet on multiple sites before settling on - and booking - the right flight? We tested five popular sites, and while some perform better than others, there was one overriding result: We'd use them to save time and point us in the right direction, yet none could totally replace a few solid hours of self-directed hunting. Here's how the alerts stack up.

Expedia's Fare Alert

» READ MORE: www.expedia.com

How it works.

Must be downloaded, and works only with Windows XP. When it finds a fare that meets or beats your price limit, a small window pops up briefly to notify you. Double-click on the icon that looks like a ball of yarn to see the latest low fare between your chosen cities.

What we liked.

It's easy to check whenever the mood strikes. Also, automatically checks for flight-and-hotel packages.

What we don't like.

Can't search for specific dates. Covers only 46 domestic airports, although the list keeps increasing. Can designate only one city pair.

Grade

D+ (but shows promise)

Farecast's Farecast Alerts

» READ MORE: www.farecast.com

How it works.

When you do a search between cities, Farecast.com gives you the option to create a Farecast Alert. Search can be set up by specific dates, with departure and return two to eight nights apart, or for weekend-only fares (Friday-Sunday). Can request daily or weekly e-mail notifications or be alerted when fare drops to a specific amount. Can request it to send alerts indefinitely, or by specific date or number of months.

What we liked.

Most technically sophisticated alert system of the bunch. Comes with lots of extras, including prediction of whether fare is going to rise or drop, plus a graph showing historic fare trends. Weekend searches also available. Very accurate.

What we didn't like.

Searches limited to 80 domestic cities including San Juan, Puerto Rico. Trip length request must be eight days or shorter.

Grade

B+

Kayak's Buzz Alert

» READ MORE: www.kayak.com

How it works.

Once a search between cities is set up, Kayak.com offers an option to "get fare alerts for this search." The site scans its database for fares between those cities found by other users who have visited the site recently, then reports the lowest results via e-mail. Search can be set up by month, but not by dates. Can request daily or weekly e-mail notification.

What we liked.

System is flexible. Can search by type of flight (nonstop or connecting).

What we don't like.

Results are not fine-tuned. Fares are basically a hodgepodge of the search results from fellow site users, giving you only a broad idea of what is out there during a given time period.

Grade

C+

Travelocity's FareWatcher

» READ MORE: www.travelocity.com

How it works.

You can plug in as many as 10 city pairs and request Travelocity to send an e-mail if the fare goes up $25, down $25 or below a certain price. Can ask it to keep tracking for three months, six months, until a specific date, or indefinitely.

What we like.

Can look for foreign cities.

What we don't like.

Too generic. Can't request specific dates.

Grade

C

Orbitz's Deal Tracker

» READ MORE: www.orbitz.com

How it works.

Offers both an online and downloadable version. Once you find the online version (small line on bottom of screen), you can request a pair of cities and ask it to look for your target price based on specific dates or weekends. You also can have it search for up to three days before or after your chosen dates. Can request nonstop flights or narrow the search to specific airlines. E-mail is sent when target price is found.

What we like.

Downloaded version is very accurate, easy to check (small clickable icon rests in system tray) and can search for flight-and-hotel packages. Foreign cities are searchable on both types.

What we don't like.

Online version is sometimes balky. A recent request for nonstop and connecting flights between Washington and San Diego displayed only nonstop results, which were $134 more expensive than connecting flights.

Grade

B

With the dollar worth less than half a British pound and about two-thirds of a euro, an American needs to pinch pennies in Europe.

EuroCheapo.com

helps shave hotel costs in two dozen cities, including New York.

What's hot.

The prices - rooms starting at $80 in London; in Paris, $72 for a place advertised as a three-star. It has tools for budget travelers, such as train and bus guides.

What's not.

The site says it has a team of editors who research the recommendations, but you have to wonder what their standards are. Some listings are hostels, and a few picks were panned by users on TripAdvisor.com.

- Vani Rangachar,

Los Angeles Times

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