Internet travel companies such as Expedia have made a fortune pulling in small amounts of cash from lots and lots of consumers. But plaintiff lawyers might get the last laugh by dinging them with lots and lots of small damages in class actions.

Attorneys suing several online hotel brokers believe they're on the brink of a breakthrough in litigation over minor charges on customers' bills. San Francisco firm Gutride Safier expects to get a class certification order any day now in one such case against the company that operates Hotwire, a travel booking Web site.

Online travel booking sites hold a big piece of the lucrative hotel business.

At the end of 2006, online bookings accounted for about 40 percent of all hotel reservations, said James Butler Jr., a Los Angeles-based attorney who chairs the global hospitality group at Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro but is not involved in the litigation. (Butler noted that industry data doesn't differentiate between reservations made through third-party Web sites, such as Hotwire, and sites operated directly by hotel chains.)

"The stakes could be huge," Butler said. "We're talking about billions of dollars of bookings."

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