It's been a rough year for online travel sites, with the bursting of the tech bubble coinciding with the travel downturn following 9/11. Some of the most promising sites of yesteryear, such as Biztravel.com, no longer exist, while others have scaled back. But Darwin was right: The fittest have survived, and some sites, like Expedia, have broadened their offerings and are better than ever.
The shakeout has made the Internet a slightly easier place to navigate for the travel consumer, but the array of offerings can still be dizzying. The sites below and the accompanying sidebar on travel tools provide a good starting point for online planning.
All-Purpose Booking Sites
With a strong menu of booking tools for flights, lodging, rental cars, cruises and packages, Expedia has become one of the leading booking sites. However, some of its tools are misleading; its Fare Compare feature, for example, sometimes lists deals that disappear when you try to book them. Ditto the site's Fare Calendar. The Vacation Packages section has some nice deals, but some are no cheaper than air and hotel purchased separately.
Created by five major U.S. airlines, Orbitz features deals previously available only on airline sites. Though it's been dogged by antitrust complaints and federal investigations are ongoing, no evidence has emerged to lend credence to the charges. Orbitz's top feature is its fare matrix, making it easy, for example, to compare the price of a one-stop on Delta with a nonstop on US Airways. So far the matrix display is available primarily on routes in North America and Mexico -- more international routes should soon be added. Orbitz also provides hotel and car bookings, but air travel is its strong point. Downside: A $5 fee is assessed on ticket purchases.
Travelocity features an accessible design and some attractive deals. Like Expedia, Travelocity brokers some of its own rates with travel providers; however, its selection of hotel deals and air-hotel packages isn't as strong as Expedia's. Its Fare Watcher feature can be customized to show bargains to your favorite destinations. One caution: When booking a flight, avoid the Featured Airline banner, which leads to fares for that airline only -- and it may not have the lowest fare. Click "Search All Fares" to see prices from multiple carriers.
SideStep isn't a Web site, but it's included here because it can turn up some good deals. It can be downloaded from www.sidestep.com and works only on PCs (not Macs) by linking to airlines' reservation systems. It occupies the left third of your browser and can compare fares while you're searching Expedia and other booking sites. Downside: Its broad view of destinations. For example, if you're looking for a flight to New York, SideStep includes the airport in Islip, Long Island.
Budget Booking Sites
The Web's largest reverse-auction site, Priceline offers bargains on flights, hotels, cruises and rental cars. Pick from a number of variables (hotel quality, car size, airports, etc.) and bid what you're willing to pay. Priceline then searches its inventory to see if any travel suppliers will accept your bid. The tradeoff: You can't choose the precise flight times, airlines, hotels or rental car companies. Shop around at other sites, then bid at least 20 percent less at Priceline. If your bid is rejected, you often get a chance to up it. Priceline can be a good alternative when you don't qualify for other discounts, especially if you have to travel on short notice. Priceline also books vacation packages, letting you select the hotel (but not air travel times) before bidding.
(Use www.biddingfortravel.com in conjunction with Priceline. Thousands of Priceline users reveal how much they paid for their tickets, so you can make more informed bids. Tips and strategies round out the site.)
Like Priceline, Hotwire masks airlines/flight times, hotels and rental car companies until after you commit to buy. The major difference is Hotwire shows prices up front, so there's no bidding. Check Hotwire, then bid lower at Priceline -- but shop around to ensure that you're getting a good deal. Note: Hotwire and Priceline can be better for hotels and rental cars because less flexibility is required compared with flights, where you may depart anytime between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Though not as easily navigable as the top booking sites, OneTravel offers deals such as White Label Fares, for flexible bargain hunters. Savings Alert is a weekly e-mail of deals. Bonus: Rules of the Air instructs you on your rights in disputes with airlines.
As one of the country's largest discounters, CheapTickets often has good deals on flights, but sometimes its fares are substantially higher than those found elsewhere. It can be maddening to use, as it sometimes shows fares that turn out to be unavailable. It's often easier to simply call the company's toll-free line. Note: The Travel section has received reader complaints about this firm, and complaints have been filed with the Better Business Bureau.