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BEST OF THE WEB

54 Online Travel Sites to Bookmark Now

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Sunday, February 3, 2008

Given the weak economy, we've focused our Best of the Web list this year on travel sites that can save you money -- such as the newly merged meta-search team of Kayak.com and SideStep.com. But even if they're not budget-oriented, our picks can help you make the most of that other valuable commodity, your precious vacation time, by helping you find the right destination, activities, lodgings and cruises for your next trip. Here are our top choices for your travel tool kit.

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-- Michael Shapiro

ALL-AROUND TRAVEL AGENCIES

* Orbitz.com: Typically our first stop -- but certainly not our last -- when booking a trip, Orbitz clearly displays flights on an easy-to-read grid, showing airlines, number of stops and prices. The grids for hotels and cruises also make comparisons easy, and Orbitz offers deals on air-hotel and other packages. Orbitz's advanced software has a knack for finding low-cost combinations, such as flights to Europe or Asia that combine two airlines for the best deal. Another nice feature: the "My Trips" tab, an intuitive way to keep track of your recent or upcoming travels. The "Deals" tab on the home page has some good offers, but it isn't easy to find them based on your departure city.

* Expedia.com: Still the 800-pound gorilla of online travel booking, Expedia offers competitive prices on flights, lodgings, cruises, packages and rental cars. There are sections on vacation rentals, deals and activities. But Expedia doesn't always show all options. For example, if you're booking a rental car in Orlando, Expedia only shows its "Preferred" vendors. These don't include Avis or Thrifty, even if they have the best price. (You can select companies not on the preferred list by using a drop-down menu.) That said, Expedia remains a valuable resource for savvy shoppers who know how it works. Another all-around booking agency worth checking: Travelocity.com.

* Kayak.com: The pitch: Search more than 140 sites at once and find the cheapest fares. Sounds good, and it often is, but remember that you should never rely on just one site for the best deal. Kayak searches dozens of airline sites for each flight query. Handy slider bars let you sort results by departure times, return time, layover duration and total time of the trip. You can also select preferred airlines or search only for nonstops. When you query, you can automatically compare Kayak's results with that of other booking sites, including Orbitz and Expedia, and see how they measure up. The site recently merged with SideStep.com (see below), but both sites will remain separate, with improved technology on each.

* SideStep.com: SideStep, now a subsidiary of Kayak.com, scans more than 100 flight and hotel suppliers to find low fares based on your preferences. In our tests, SideStep and Kayak came up with the same results for both nonstop and one-stop flights. We give a slight nod to SideStep because its intuitive matrix comes up automatically, allowing easy comparisons among airlines and by number of stops (on Kayak, you have to click the "Matrix" tab to see this). Both sites have slider bars to narrow results by arrival and departure times, layover duration and total flight time. As with Kayak, you can use SideStep's "chart" feature to see historical fare patterns.

Also helpful: BookingBuddy.com, which links to booking engines from individual airlines to aggregators like Kayak. Enter your departure dates and destination and click on any of the featured options, such as Expedia, Cheap Tickets or Hotwire. We don't see huge value here, but it's a way to avoid retyping your flight info into one search site after another.

BUDGET

* TravelZoo.com: Well-organized and full of bargains, this site may be best known for its e-mail newsletter that highlights travel deals. Use the box on the home page to enter your destination, such as Mexico, and the 'Zoo spits out bargains. Also see AirTreks.com for round-the-world or multi-stop international flights.

* SmarterTravel.com: Editors vet and display deals on flights, rental car, hotel, cruises and vacations, and often offer coupons to get better deals. We've used the site to get a rental car on Kauai for about $20 a day (at Alamo) when other sites were showing prices of about $50 for the same car. And unlike at some other sites, almost all the deals on SmarterTravel exist; they don't mysteriously go up in price when you try to book them. Also see BudgetTravel.com, with features and advice from Budget Travel magazine and up-to-the-minute news on deals around the world.

CRUISES

* Cruise Critic: A definitive resource for cruise reviews and advice, Cruise Critic combines magazine-style features (such as top destinations for 2008), user-generated content (including videos), port profiles and late-breaking news. Click "Destinations" for detailed advice on dozens of options from Alaska to the South Pacific, then go to "Boards" for forums where you can read cruise reviews or post a question. And when you get back, you can post a review or photo to contribute to this lively, cruise-obsessed community. See also the similarly encyclopedic CruiseMates.com and the well-organized CruiseReviews.com.

DESTINATION GUIDES

* Frommers.com: This established guidebook line has placed all its content online, meaning you can get anything that's in the books on this site. The site features everything from detailed destination advice to outspoken opinions from lead blogger Arthur Frommer, who founded the series with "Europe on $5 a Day" a half-century ago. Daily deals and news keep the site fresh, and you can sign up to receive alerts by e-mail as well. Features on top destinations and topics such as "Travel Insurance: Do I Really Need It?" round out the site. Also see Fodors.com, which denotes top picks for restaurants and hotels around the world.

* LonelyPlanet.com: Once a guide for budget-conscious backpackers, LP now has a massive mainstream following. The site has maintained an intrepid attitude and has a vibrant message board. Unlike Frommer's, LP does not put all its travel content online, but you can buy chapters "by the slice" using a service called "Pick & Mix." Rates typically vary from $2 to $7 per chapter, with discounts for buying multiple chapters. Another useful site for off-the-beaten-path travelers: RoughGuides.com.


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