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.
-- Michael ShapiroALL-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.
* RickSteves.com: The expert on travel to Europe brings his engaging personality to this wide-ranging site. Beyond guidebook-style info, there's the Graffiti Wall forum, where travelers swap opinions, and audio streams of Steves's radio show. Another excellent site for Europe-bound travels: Durant Imboden's EuropeForVisitors.com, with country guides, hotel recommendations and travel articles. The monthly magazine Travel News is packed with timely updates.
* About.com/travel: Experts showcase their advice and link to other resources on the topic. There are pages for just about every popular destination, from China to Las Vegas. A handy menu in the left column links to the most popular travel pages. The site also features pages on topics such as theme parks, golf and honeymoons/romantic travel.
* Viator.com: Many travelers spend hours researching airfares and hotels but don't plan what to do once they get there. Viator solves that problem by showing dozens of activities for popular destinations. The site can help you avoid getting shut out of must-sees and can save you time by helping you skip the long lines. Choose a destination, such as France, and see top picks, deals and tips for what to do, including a Versailles bicycle jaunt and a Paris pastry- and chocolate-tasting tour.FREQUENT-FLIER
* WebFlyer.com: Frequent-flier guru Randy Petersen keeps his eye on bonuses and other deals for mileage junkies. Airline and other loyalty programs are rated by Petersen and his staff; use the "Head2Head" feature to compare them. The MilesLink newsletter keeps members up to date. And the robust discussions at the site's related forum, FlyerTalk.com, make this one of the best all-around destinations for frequent travelers to get advice. Also see the excellent FrequentFlier.com and MileMaven.com; the latter is especially useful for finding mileage bonuses.HIDDEN PROVIDERS
* Priceline.com: This site's almost irresistible premise of "naming your own price" for hotels, airfares, car rentals, cruises and vacation packages has lost a bit of its luster during the past few years of full flights and crowded hotels, with less inventory to offer. (Bright side: If the economy continues to tank, the days of the $40 hotel room may return.) To bid for hotels, you select the city and neighborhood, then enter your price. If Priceline has a hotel in its database willing to accept the price, you get a room. We prefer Priceline's bidding feature for hotels rather than flights: We like to fly when we want (with Priceline, you have to accept departures at any time of day), but if we can get a three-star hotel for $68, we don't really care if it's a Radisson or a Sheraton. Wondering how much to bid? You can now see winning bid amounts in 27 cities on the site, but check the sites BetterBidding.com and BiddingForTravel.com for more detailed info, such as hotel names and failed bid amounts. Note: Priceline also offers standard travel booking, similar to Expedia and Orbitz.
* Hotwire.com: Similar to Priceline, but you don't bid. Hotwire shows, for example, a three-star hotel (without displaying its name) near the San Francisco airport for $59 a night; you decide whether to book it. All fees are shown before booking. Hotwire also shows the list price ($95 for this hotel), but bear in mind that "rack rates" are often higher than most guests pay.LAST-MINUTE
* Lastminute.com: This easy-to-use site, which features the content of the now-defunct Site59, has some great last-minute getaways, especially if you're willing to go offseason. The day we checked, a three-day weekend in Madrid, booked on five days' notice and including hotel and round-trip air from Washington, was going for $485 per person double -- including all taxes and fees, a refreshing approach. Also see SkyAuction.com, where you can bid on eleventh-hour trips.LODGING
* Hotels.com: With more than 70,000 properties worldwide, from big chain hotels to tony B&Bs, this site is worth checking before booking a room. Hotels.com offers a "Price Match" guarantee: If you find another rate within 24 hours that's lower, the site will refund the difference. The site also has reviews from guests. Use the slider bars at the top of each results page to narrow your choices by price, star ranking and guest rating. If you book here, it's advisable to confirm your reservation and preferences directly with the hotel.
* Quikbook.com: Specializes in boutique properties and deals at hotels that aren't filling up. The site features more than 1,000 hotels in more than 100 cities, and its interface is easy to use. Pick a city and a neighborhood (optional) and Quikbook turns up rates, such as $90 a night at Las Vegas's Luxor hotel (average rate is $120 to $140). Especially good deals are highlighted with the "Quikpick" tag. Check the hotel's location carefully: When we searched for a New York City hotel, Quikbook coughed up properties in Brooklyn -- true, it's in the city, but not where most visitors to New York want to stay.
* Laterooms.com: With travel across the Pond getting ever more expensive, this specialist in European hotel rooms is worth checking. Inventory is updated daily by member hotels, so deals abound, especially on short notice and during the low season. Note that you book directly with the hotel (guaranteeing with a credit card), making it less likely that the hotel can't find your booking when you arrive. We found several options for a winter stay in London at upscale hotels for less than $200 a night. When results come up, click on the hotel's name for more details and reviews from fellow travelers.
* BedandBreakfast.com: With a vast inventory of B&Bs in the United States and around the world, this site is valuable for finding small-scale lodgings like the Inn at Cranberry Farm in Chester, Vt. Search by city, state or region. You can book on the site for many of the B&Bs listed; for others you must go to the inn's own site and book there (or call). The site includes maps, reviews and details, including architectural style and year opened. And if you're so inspired by what you see that you want to buy an inn, you can check the list of B&Bs for sale.
* VRBO.com: This site (Vacation Rentals by Owner) lists more than 94,000 vacation rentals around the world, with hundreds of choices in such hot spots as Hawaii. Select a U.S. state or foreign country to browse the properties, then select a region. The site's design is a bit retro, but all the information is there, including price, number of bedrooms and baths, pictures, and either a "book it" link or contact information for the owner. Some properties have calendars showing availability. This isn't the prettiest site -- the inability to sort by price is one deficiency -- but the volume of listings makes it the one to check for vacation rentals. Another useful site with lots of listings: Cyberrentals.com.MONEY
* Oanda.com: This currency converter can tell you just how much your dollar is worth in more than 100 countries worldwide. As discouraging as this can be these days, it's good to know so you don't get ripped off. You can also print a handy, wallet-size "cheat sheet" listing current rates that show, for example, one euro is worth $1.49, two euros are worth $2.97 and so on. There's also a history link here, so you can see what those euros were worth when you spent them, a valuable tool for expense reports. Another good site for currency conversion: XE.com.OUTDOOR/ADVENTURE
* Away.com: The destination guides here are superb and feature stories such as "Adrenaline Nation," showing the best places -- organized by region -- for raising your pulse. Other features offer recommendations for more sedate trips, such as a section on family road trips. Also see the similarly extensive GORP.com and the National Park Service site, http://www.nps.gov.RESTAURANTS
* OpenTable.com: With online booking for thousands of restaurants, this site lets you make your reservation before you go. OpenTable is plugged into restaurants' reservations systems, so the inventory is up-to-date. The site shows "most popular" restaurants, but note that these are chosen by those using the site. For restaurant reviews, see CitySearch.com. Zagat.com is also useful, but the most-detailed reviews are available only to paying members.TRAVEL COMMUNITY
* BootsnAll.com: People love to talk about where they've been and share advice, and sites have sprung up to serve them. The easy-to-navigate BootsnAll targets young, independent travelers, with links to hostels and low international airfares. But the heart of the site is the BootsnAll Community, with well-trafficked message boards and "Ask an Insider," where you can get advice from an expert or someone at your destination. Two more excellent communal sites: VirtualTourist.com and Igougo.com.TRAVELER REVIEWS
* TripAdvisor.com: This site provides advice and recommendations from fellow travelers -- more than 5 million reviews at last count -- and uses those reviews to rank hotels and attractions by popularity. However, the site's organization is clunky, so use the "Browse by Destination" box to zero in on your destination. Rankings, based on consumer reviews, help you find the most popular hotels for a destination. You can also upload images, so the whole world can see that hotel's cracked sink or stained ceiling. While some reviews are suspect, the sheer volume of reviews generally makes it possible to trace trends. Use the map on the home page to document your wanderings visually. Travelers also speak out at HotelChatter.com, WhereToStay.com and TravelPost.com.TRAVEL SITE DIRECTORY
* JohnnyJet.com: An extensive directory of travel sites by category. Some sites are a bit dated, but there are still hundreds of useful links. Sign up for the weekly newsletter to follow Johnny's global peregrinations and links to stories in newspaper travel sections.WIRELESS CONNECTIONS
Michael Shapiro is the author of "Internet Travel Planner" (Globe Pequot) and "A Sense of Place" (Travelers' Tales).