Summer's almost here. It's time for my annual ritual of dreaming of all the places I wish I could go.

Thanks to the Internet, I can search for a flight to paradise from my windowless office, even if I lack the cash and the time to take the trips.

Frequent travelers are no doubt familiar with the online travel agencies such as Expedia Inc., Cendant Corp.'s Orbitz and Sabre Holdings Corp.'s Travelocity.com -- the ones that have given traditional travel agents more free time to, well, travel.

Lesser known are the travel search engines that check multiple sites at once and can uncover Web specials and airlines that the big three online agencies might miss.

I checked out four of them -- FareChase from Yahoo! Inc., Kayak.com, Mobissimo and SideStep Inc. -- as I searched for 11 imaginary trips through Labor Day.

The search engines typically gave me the best fares. That's because the agencies add a service fee -- Orbitz charged $6.99 for a recent trip to San Francisco, for instance -- while the search engines usually take me to airlines' Web sites without fees. In many cases, the agencies' fares are only a few dollars pricier after the fees are added.

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