By Carol Sottili
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 4, 2007
So how popular has the Web become as a source for travelers?
For the first time ever, Internet bookings this year will account for more than half of all U.S. travel bookings, according to a recent report from independent travel research firm PhoCusWright. Last year, U.S. online travel bookings totaled about $85 billion.
By 2011, $128 billion in travel will be sold online in the United States, according to a report by JupiterResearch. Everyone wants a piece of the action, and the onslaught of new travel-related sites is daunting.
We've pored over the newcomers, taken a fresh look at the old-timers and come up with our own, admittedly subjective, list of the best and brightest, from A to Z.
Airports. Looking for detailed info on airports across the globe? Go to the World Airport Guide ( http://www.worldairportguide.com/) for the lowdown on transportation, location, hotels, facilities and parking for more than 200 airports. Perhaps most valuable are links to each official airport Web site.
Honorable mentions: For the latest on security issues, http://www.tsa.gov. For local airport info, http://www.bwiairport.comand http://www.mwaa.com. For current airport delays status, http://www.faa.gov/passengersand http://www.flightarrivals.com. For extensive lists of hotels near specific airports, http://www.airnav.com.
Bookings. New sites for booking airline tickets, hotel stays, car rentals, etc., seem to launch daily. But I find myself going back to Kayak ( http://www.kayak.com)/, a meta-search site that doesn't book directly but sends you to other sites to buy. Kayak does a good job of scouring the Web for all available options, although I wish it wouldn't lump our area's three airports together when you request results for just one. Kayak also publishes fare trend graphs and tracks fares that its users are finding in its Kayak Buzz section.
Honorable mentions: Don't forget the all-purpose booking sites. I gravitate toward http://www.orbitz.com, especially if I want to book flights and hotels, buthttp://www.travelocity.comis a close second. For meta-search sites, also tryhttp://www.sidestep.comand http://www.cheapflights.com. For third-party all-purpose booking sites, http://www.expedia.comand http://www.cheaptickets.com. Newer sites that focus on fare trends include http://www.farecast.comand http://www.farecompare.com.
Cruises. For updated cruise news, including the latest norovirus outbreaks and details on who has gone missing from which cruise ship, I head to Cruise Critic ( http://www.cruisecritic.com)/. The site includes extensive reviews of about 265 ships, thousands of reader reviews and good articles on various cruise-related topics for the major lines.
Honorable mentions: Cruisemates.com (http://www.cruisemates.com) offers similar content to Cruise Critic. Also, the Cruise Lines International Association (http://www.cruising.org), official rep for 21 cruise lines, offers an easy-to-use search engine and helps find certified travel agents. The http://www.cruisecompete.com site allows you to ask numerous travel agents to price your cruise requirements.
Driving. When it comes to driving directions and maps, Mapquest ( http://www.mapquest.com/) is still the gold standard. A fun new feature allows you to string together as many as 10 destinations. You can also access Mapquest on your Web-enabled cell phone or PDA. The site also includes a world atlas and extensive foreign country maps.
Honorable mentions: A new site in the beta testing phase, http://www.trippish.com not only gives directions but tells you what the weather will be like. For European driving directions, go to http://www.viamichelin.com, while http://www.freetrip.com is an accurate, simple-to-use mapping site with minimal bells and whistles.
Ecotourism. The site of the nonprofit International Ecotourism Society ( http://www.ecotourism.org/) allows travelers to search for tour operators, travel agents, hotels and transportation providers that are members of the organization and have signed a code of conduct promising to adhere to ecotourism standards.
Honorable mentions: Look to nonprofits that work on environmental issues. Conservation International runs http://www.ecotour.org, which details approved ecotourism destinations in developing countries including Guatemala, Panama and Ghana. Audubon Naturalist Society (http://www.audubonnaturalist.org), the National Audubon Society (http://www.audubon.org) and the Nature Conservancy (http://www.nature.org) offer ecotourism trips.
Frequent fliers. Frequent-flier expert Randy Petersen runs several sites devoted to the topic. Best overall is Web Flyer ( http://www.webflyer.com/), which offers extensive details on most loyalty programs. The site also reviews and ranks the programs and posts the latest frequent-flier news, such as United's recent decision to set a stricter expiration policy.
Honorable mentions: Petersen also runs http://www.flyertalk.com, for those who want to talk to others about frequent-flier programs, and http://www.insideflyer.com, a subscription-based magazine and Web site for the miles-addicted. Athttp://www.frequentflier.com, you can download software for consolidating your loyalty program information, while http://www.milemaven.comis a good place to go for information on mile promotions.
Guidebooks. It's difficult to pick a favorite in this crowded field because each one gears itself to a different demographic. But my pick for general info is Frommer's ( http://www.frommers.com/); the site offers all the basics (how to get there, best time to travel, hotels, sites, restaurants, etc.) plus good entries on recommended destination-geared reading and recommended hotels in categories such as "best for a romantic getaway" and "best historic hotel." It books trips through http://www.travelocity.com/.
Honorable mentions: At http://www.fodors.com, you'll find all the basic info plus quirky features; its London guide, for example, includes articles on a trip to Abbey Road and "Arts for Free." Backpackers will find plenty to like about http://www.lonelyplanet.com.
Hotels and other lodging. One of the most comprehensive sites is Hotels.com ( http://www.hotels.com/), which says it offers rates from more than 70,000 properties worldwide. The 15-year-old site sorts properties by name, star rating, price and its own picks, and it contains detailed info on each hotel, with map locations. It also now states total charges with taxes before you enter credit card information. Users who feel uncomfortable booking online can get the same deals by calling its toll-free number (800-246-8357). Weak points: Its condo/vacation home rentals are thin, and you must prepay.
Honorable mentions: If you're interested in quainter or more upscale lodging within the United States, try http://www.quikbook.com, which recently added shortcuts that allow users to search for smoke-free hotels and green hotels. Go to http://www.searchparty.com for downloadable software that compares hotel prices from various sources, including most major hotel sites. Register with http://www.hotelbook.com for offers on independent hotels. To locate rent-by-owner properties, try http://www.vrbo.com, http://www.cyberrentals.com or http://www.forgetaway.com, recently launched by the Weather Channel.
Insurance. Several sites that compare travel insurance options allow you to see prices, to compare coverage and to buy, all in easy-to-use formats. But QuoteWright ( http://www.quotewright.com/) is a cut above only because users can easily locate the policies' fine print; the site, for example, explains under "trip cancellation" who would qualify as a family member in case of emergency. It includes results from all the major companies, including Travelguard, Access America and CSA Travel Protection.
Jets. It may not be the most useful site, but a new player, Flight Explorer ( http://www.flightexplorer.com/), sure is fun. Install its software and you can view a specific flight in 3-D with satellite maps beneath it. Want to know what city, or even what block, it's flying over right now? Just zoom in. Who knew that United Flight 209 from Washington Dulles to LAX flew directly over Vermilion, Ohio? The site also has more useful functions, including the 15-day on-time performance record for specific flights.
Honorable mentions: For checking out airline seating before you get stuck next to the bathroom, try http://www.seatguru.com, http://www.seatexpert.com and http://www.lovemyseat.com. For rankings, ratings and opinions on the airlines, airline lounges, airports, etc., go to http://www.airlinequality.com.
Kayaking, hiking and the great outdoors. The venerable Gorp ( http://www.gorp.com/), now part of the Away.com family of sites, is the best starting place, especially for articles on outdoor destinations from Nepal to New York. Its weekend city escapes pages are especially useful for urbanites; for instance, there are 11 articles for the District, including "Paddling the Potomac" and "The C&O Canal." It requires registration for using some areas of the site, but it's free.
Honorable mentions: Check http://www.iexplore.com if you're more adventure-oriented; it sells trips and focuses on organized adventure tours. The Appalachian Mountain Club's site (http://www.outdoors.org) is a welcome resource for those looking for cheap huts, lodges, cabins and campgrounds. It costs $49.95 a year (two-week free trial), but http://www.trails.comgives access to 30,000 outdoor trail maps.
Last-minute. Look for packages to a wide array of destinations on Site59 ( http://www.site59.com/), one of the few sites truly devoted to last-minute deals. For example, a recent three-night air/hotel package from Washington to San Diego departing just three days later was $731 for two people (including all taxes); priced separately, the same deal would have cost $1,396.
Honorable mentions: At http://www.lastminutetravel.com, you'll find deals -- some of them exclusive to the site -- that are expiring in the near future; a recent offering at the Oasis Cancun shaved more than $100 per night off the hotel's rate. If you enjoy bidding, http://www.skyauction.com is a good alternative.
Motorcoaches. At GotoBus.com ( http://www.gotobus.com/), you get buses covered from several angles. Book discounted scheduled service between the District and several cities, including Richmond, Philadelphia and New York. Or find sightseeing bus tours in New York, Hawaii, Los Angeles, etc. Or identify vacation motorcoach tours. The site can be squirrelly; a recent request for bus vacations in South America elicited a response offering orders of soft yellow noodles ($4.95 small portion, $6.95 large).
Honorable mentions: For short sighteeing tours by motorcoach, try http://www.grayline.com, and go tohttp://www.trailways.com for info on longer tours. For scheduled service, seehttp://www.greyhound.com or http://www.chinatown-bus.com.
National Parks. I have to go with the official site of the National Park Service ( http://www.nps.gov/). It's one of the better government-run Web pages, with extensive info about every national park, national monument, recreation area and historic site, including directions, hours of operation, lodging options, fees, etc.
Honorable mentions: The National Park Foundation (http://www.nationalpark.org), the Park Service's private charitable partner, offers tips from park rangers and visitors, and info about kids' programs. For a list of tour operators and vacation ideas for visiting the parks, go to http://www.seeamerica.org. The National Parks Conservation Association (http://www.npca.org) has a good section on marine parks. For Canada, try http://www.parkscanada.ca.
Oxygen and other special needs. The nonprofit Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality ( http://www.sath.org/) has an extensive list of tour operators and travel agents that specialize in general disabled travel, plus travel for the deaf and for the blind. The site offers links to other travel sites for the disabled, as well as articles on cruising and links to individual airline policies.
Honorable mentions: Head to http://www.disabledtravelers.comfor info on specialty travel agencies, including cruising and adventure. At http://www.dialysisfinder.com, you can search for dialysis centers by Zip code. Also, try http://www.gimponthego.com, http://www.access-able.com and http://www.mossresourcenet.org/travel.htm.
Packages. The U.S. Tour Operators Association ( http://www.ustoa.com/) represents nearly 140 tour operators, which must meet standards that include being in business under the same management for at least three years and carrying a minimum of $1 million in professional liability insurance. The site allows searching for tours by destination, activity and "vacation personality" (escorted, independent or special interest/adventure). Articles include "Ten Ways to Avoid Disappointment on Your Next Vacation" and "Choose the Tour That's Right for You."
Honorable mention: At http://www.infohub.com, you can search for tour operators by travel category. The site also offers lists of private tour guides.
Quibbles. If you care about fellow travelers' experiences, Trip Advisor ( http://www.tripadvisor.com)/ features more than 5 million customer reviews of hotels, restaurants, attractions and vacation packages. It ranks hotels based on reviews and posts average prices. It also compares prices from major booking sites, including Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz. The site's recent upgrade is a "My Trips" function, which allows you to create personalized folders with trip details, photos, hotel ideas, etc.
Honorable mentions: The sites http://www.wheretostay.com, http://www.eopinions.com and http://www.travelpost.com all offer reader rants and raves. The Better Business Bureau (http://www.bbb.org) is also a good resource.
Restaurants. The site for the Zagat Survey ( http://www.zagat.com/) offers info, reviews, menus, etc., from restaurants across the United States and Europe; cities are especially well represented. Can search by neighborhoods, cuisines, ratings, etc. Also includes fun articles, such as best restaurants for Valentine's Day dinner (five got the nod in Washington, including Asia Nora and Rasika).
Honorable mentions: At http://www.dinesite.com, with similar content to Zagat.com, you'll find some good search categories, such as restaurants that serve Sunday brunch. For restaurant reservations, hit http://www.opentable.com.
Special deals. For sheer simplicity, Travelzoo ( http://www.travelzoo.com/) is tops. Every Wednesday morning, it e-mails the top 20 deals of the week. It can search for car rental, air deals, cruise bargains, vacation deals and lodging specials, and it also offers a news desk, which posts deals as they're announced.
Honorable mentions: A new feature at http://www.hotwire.com is a geographically targeted "Travel Ticker" that's e-mailed every two weeks. Also, try http://www.independenttraveler.com, http://www.smartertravel.com, http://www.shermanstravel.com, http://www.cfares.com and http://www.priceline.com. All of these sites do a good job of scouring the Web for travel deals, and you can sign up on each one to receive e-mail deals notifications.
Tourism. Seems as if every city, county, region, state and country has an official tourism site, doesn't it? Find them all on the Tourism Offices Worldwide Directory ( http://www.towd.com/), which offers links to 1,421 tourism sites worldwide.
Honorable mentions: The European Travel Commission (http://www.visiteurope.com) is an umbrella group that represents tourism agencies for 34 countries in Europe, from Austria to the United Kingdom. The Caribbean Tourism Organization runs http://www.doitcaribbean.com, with info on 31 Caribbean destinations.
Urban. The site for the travel guide series Time Out ( http://www.timeout.com/), the bible for urbanites, offers detailed info on 117 cities from Abu Dhabi to Zurich. The well-written entries describe best restaurants, bars, nightlife, shopping, hotels and events. But it's not always up-to-date: The New Orleans entry, for example, makes no mention of Hurricane Katrina.
Honorable mention: The Online City Guide (http://www.olcg.com) is hit or miss: It offers good articles on recreation, for example, but visitor information is thin.
Vaccinations. For the official word, go to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( http://www.cdc.gov/travel), where you'll find health information for specific destinations, vaccination recommendations, updates on disease outbreaks and articles on such topics as mosquito and tick protection. It includes a list of travel medicine clinics.
Honorable mentions: The International Society of Travel Medicine (http://www.istm.org) has a list of travel vaccination clinics, while http://www.tripprep.com serves up more info on destination-specific health information. Check with the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (http://www.iamat.org) for the lowdown on travel risks.
Weather. You watch it on TV (admit it), so you might as well heed the Weather Channel ( http://www.weather.com/) online as well. Along with its frequently updated forecasts for both domestic and international destinations, the site features video, historical data on vacation spots, airport and health info and skiing/golf conditions. The "Travel Smart" index includes a vacation guide and driving advice.
Honorable mentions: For the official word on U.S. weather, plus a top-notch hurricane center you can check frequently in season, go to http://www.noaa.gov. Also consider http://www.accuweather.com and http://www.wunderground.com.
Xenophobes. If even thoughts of lands with no hamburgers leave you in a cold sweat, do your homework before grabbing your passport. Start with the official word from the U.S. State Department ( http://www.travel.state.gov/). The scary stuff includes travel warnings, public announcements, a fact sheet on avian flu and an article on spring-break safety. It also includes practical details on document requirements for traveling abroad, which countries require visas and how to get a passport.
Honorable mentions: For a more global view, try http://www.worldtravelwatch.com and the United Kingdom's Foreign & Commonwealth Office (http://www.fco.gov.uk). For rules about what can and can't be taken into the country, go to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel. For security travel products, http://www.corporatetravelsafety.com.
YOUTH. Students and everyone else 25 and younger have a friend in the travel agency STA Travel ( http://www.statravel.com/). It offers modest discounts on airfares; a round-trip ticket on British Airways from Dulles to Heathrow was recently priced at $476, while members of the general public were paying $498. Anyone can purchase tickets, but only students and people 25 or younger get discounts. Site also offers package deals, car rentals, cellphones, hostels, etc.
Honorable mentions: Check http://www.studentuniverse.com, another travel agency geared to students (and college faculty). You must have a university e-mail address to get its deals, which are similar to those offered by STA Travel. Another youth-oriented site, http://www.wanttravel.com, offers bookings plus the latest clubbing news.
Zoos. Make sure you have some time set aside if you go to Zoos Worldwide ( http://www.zoos.worldwide.de/). Its collection of live video feeds from zoos across the globe is addicting. The site also offers links to zoos, aquariums, animal sanctuaries and wildlife parks.
Honorable mentions: To find an accredited zoo or aquarium near you, search at http://www.aza.org/findzooaquarium. For info on our own Smithsonian National Zoological Park, go to http://www.nationalzoo.si.edu. For those who want serious debate on the pros and cons of zoos, http://www.goodzoos.com.