By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/20/2010 9:40:39 AM ET 2010-07-20T13:40:39

As a former airline employee turned independent Internet entrepreneur, Christopher Muise brings a both-sides-now perspective to the current state of air travel.

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In his former life, Muise typically flew non-rev, i.e., for free, one of the standard perks for those in the industry. Recently, though, he booked his first seat in 13 years as a member of the flying public and got a rather unpleasant surprise: “I had to pay a fee to choose my seat, something I’d never had to do before.”

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But instead of getting mad, Muise (and his associates) got to thinking: “What if we created a website where consumers could go and find all of the ancillary fees they might encounter, combine it with fare and schedule information, and come up with the true price of their travel?”

The result is TruPrice.net, one of several travel websites that have launched recently. Each one targets a different niche in the business; together, they hold out the promise of clearer prices, better deals and a more enjoyable travel experience. And while none are destined to become the next Google — which, by the way, is still being coy about its $700 million purchase of travel-data provider ITA Software — the sites below are up and running now.

TruPrice
The airlines collected $1.8 billion in ancillary fees during the first three months of this year and their 2010 haul will almost certainly top the $7.8 billion they took in last year. Even more galling, all those add-on fees make it all but impossible to know the actual price of a flight before you buy your ticket.

Interactive: Congress takes aim at extra airline fees

Enter TruPrice (www.truprice.net). Debuting in June and now in beta testing, the site covers 13 U.S. airlines, lists 39 separate fees and automatically recalculates those apples-to-oranges base fares according to who charges for what services and amenities. While you currently have to do your initial flight-search elsewhere, the company is pursuing efforts to incorporate fare and schedule information into the site itself.

InsideTrip
While TruPrice focuses on the true cost of flying, InsideTrip (www.insidetrip.com) compares the relative quality of the flights themselves. “You wouldn’t think of booking a hotel without looking at the star or diamond rating,” says founder and CEO Dave Pelter. “That’s what we’re doing with flights.”

To calculate its flight ratings, the site analyzes 12 factors in three categories: speed (number of stops, on-time stats, etc.), ease (connection time, lost-baggage ranking, etc.) and comfort (legroom, aircraft age and type, etc.) and returns a TripQuality score on a 100-point scale. “It’s like your old elementary-school report card,” says Pelter. “If you got a 92, you felt pretty good; if you got a 59, you were probably in for a world of hurt.”

AutoSlash
Discount codes and coupons can be a great way to cut car rental costs — if you can ever find the right code for the right rental without killing an hour or two. AutoSlash (www.autoslash.com) promises to do the work for you, automatically applying the appropriate discounts to rentals from 12 major providers.

Due to contractual constraints, the discounts don’t show up while you’re searching, but rather, on your confirmation e-mail. And, more to the point, the site will continue to monitor your booking and alert you to any subsequent price drops so you can rebook and lock in even greater savings. When was the last time a rental car company did that?

Stash Hotel Rewards
Like earning loyalty points for your lodging, but hate staying in cookie-cutter chain hotels? If so, check out Stash Hotel Rewards (www.stashrewards.com), a free service that’s like Hilton HHonors or Marriott Rewards for independent boutique hotels.

The site, which launched in May, offers five points for every dollar spent at participating hotels. The property roster is still a bit thin — 76 hotels (some still “pending”) in 57 cities, with up to 200 expected by year end — but there are deals to be had at one-of-kind properties from Key West to Kirkland, Wash. Rates, and therefore points, vary by property and date, but it’s easy to earn free stays after just five nights, with no blackout dates.

Off and Away
The premise is simple — luxury hotel stays at huge discounts — although the execution involves some effort. At Off and Away (www.offandaway.com), users purchase packs of $1 bids and use them to bid on auctions for stays at one or two select properties per day. Things can get intense, especially when the countdown hits two minutes at which point each new bid adds another 30 seconds to the clock.

Winners can get some amazing deals — two nights at California’s Solage Calistoga resort recently went for $110 — while losers can apply their non-winning “funds” toward non-auctioned stays at some 50,000 hotels. As founder and CEO Doug Aley puts it, “If you’re going to spend $200 for a hotel room anyway, why not spend that $200 trying to win an absolutely amazing hotel experience?”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

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