By Chris Barnett
October 28, 2010 -- Booking a reasonable fare online for the holidays is like trying to beat the dealer at blackjack. He controls the deck, shuffles at will, has nothing but time and none of his own money is at risk.

I bellied up to the Travelocity.com table in the digital casino the other day and lost--a lot of time. The game seemed to be a combination of low-ball and bait-and-switch. And I didn't even get a free cocktail.

For openers, the odds were stacked against me. I was looking for a cheap ticket and a convenient flight from the San Francisco Bay Area to Madison, Wisconsin, so I could celebrate Thanksgiving with the family.

I started off on Kayak.com, the search engine that claims to power its way through most every travel Web site to find three or four prices and schedules that meet your criteria. Kayak's a smart idea and insists it plays no favorites and takes no spiffs to leapfrog a Web site into the final three or four lowest-priced portals. Kayak doesn't charge the passenger a fee for its helpful service, either.

After I punched in my destination city, departure and return dates and preferred travel times, Kayak's search engine came up with four sites: Hotwire, Expedia, Travelocity and Cheaptickets. Of the four, Travelocity had the best fare: $238 roundtrip for a Delta one-stop from San Francisco via Minneapolis and a United one-stop via Denver on the return. The bad news? The first leg of the return flight was on a United Express 50-seat regional jet for 2.5 hours. Brutal. The worse news? I'd have to pay baggage fees, too.

Still, it was the low fare, so I was prepared to buy. But when I began to answer a long list of questions to book the ticket, I was "timed out" by Travelocity.com. The sudden disconnect came after about five minutes of typing and mouse clicking. Honest, fellow flyers, I could not have answered the questions any faster.

Not wanting to lose the fare, I started over. This time, however, Travelocity quoted $406 for the identical itinerary, a sudden bump of $168. I was getting annoyed, but I was tired of shopping. So I continued to click on the myriad of boxes, punch in my address, phone numbers, preference of an E-mail confirmation over a fax and so on.

Suddenly, at the top of the screen, a single sentence started flashing. It insisted that Delta had just raised its rates--to $641 roundtrip--for the exact same flights.

In the space of 12 or 13 minutes, the fare quote from Travelocity.com had nearly tripled.

Now I'm angry. I don't care how "dynamic" airline pricing is supposed to be, these kinds of price changes just don't seem rational or fair--or honest.

I called the Travelocity "Contact Us" number and was connected to a customer service chap named "Edward" in Mumbai. Edward got righteously indignant when I griped about the time I wasted chasing a fare that had almost tripled in minutes. And, of course, Edward stood up for his employer. "It's the airline," he protested. "Travelocity has no control over the prices. It's not our fault."

Frustrated by my frustration, Edward took things into his own hands and keyboard.

"Look, I'll be your travel agent," he said. "I'll manually book the flights you selected and see if I can get you your original fare. And I won't charge you our normal $30 booking fee for doing it."

Fair enough, I thought. But Edward didn't have any better luck than I did. The best fare he could extract for my itinerary was the same $641 roundtrip. He apologized. I thanked him for his efforts.

But 45 minutes on the computer wasted and I still didn't have ticket. So I went back to Kayak.com and plugged in my request again. Surprise! Travelocity was once again one of the four finalists. Its fare? Surprise! The same $238 for the exact same itinerary that it just tricked me with 45 minutes ago.

I had the obvious thought: Travelocity, one of the giants of online travel agencies, was playing bait and switch, Three Card Monte, the old shell game. They'd rigged the tables on me.

It gets worse, too. The next day, I got an E-mail on my BlackBerry from Travelocity.com hawking that elusive $238 fare to Madison. I got the same $238 pitch by E-mail for the next two days. Then the E-mails became more generic, touting a "home for the holidays" theme.

Is this standard operating procedure for Travelocity? Joel Frey, a spokesman for the site, insists that it is not.

"I can assure you bait and switch is not our MO," Frey says. But he also admits that "I don't have an answer on what happened to you." Frey thought it might have been an "older fare" that was still in the system. But how could it be an older fare if it mysteriously disappeared when I tried to book it, only to reappear in another search and in E-mail after E-mail in subsequent days?

In case you were wondering, I do have a ticket for Thanksgiving. I snagged a one-stop roundtrip on Southwest Airlines for a few dollars under $400. No baggage fees. No regional jets. At least an inch or two more legroom than Delta and United. Spirited flight attendants. Leather seats. Cheaper in-flight drinks, too.

So what if the flight goes to Milwaukee? Madison's only an hour away by bus.

ABOUT CHRIS BARNETT Chris Barnett writes about business-travel tactics and strategies that save time and money and help minimize hassles. He is based in San Francisco and has written for a wide variety of major newspapers and national magazines. Barnett on Business Travel is syndicated by Creators Syndicate.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Chris Barnett in the spirit of free speech and to help encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Chris Barnett.

This column is Copyright © 2010 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.