25 Best Travel Sites

Sean O'Neill
Kiplinger.com
Friday, February 22, 2008; 10:45 AM

Editors note: This story has been updated since it was published in October 2006.

You can satisfy your wanderlust wi thout overspending -- and these top Web sites will help you find the best values in travel bargains. We've personally used each of t hese sites to research and book travel and found them superior to others.

For airfare, lodging and car rentals, we identify wh ich links are best for three different types of traveler. So whether you're pressed for time, looking for the best deal or traveling internationally, you'll find a site to fit your needs. We also identify the best sources to find bargains on cruises and vacation packages.

Airfares

TIME-PRESSED TRAVELER
Kayak.com fetches fares (plus hotel rates and other travel products, if you ask) from more than 140 sources. Click on the best deal, and Kayak.com will send you to a site where you can buy the ticket. If your itinerary is flexible, you can boost your chances of finding a deal by searching for dates up to three days before and after your ideal travel dates. (One flaw: While Kayak.com offer s international flights, we've found other sites offer better international selections .)

Fares for Southwest and ATA aren't shown on Kayak.com and most other Web sites. But at Southwest.com, you can check fares for both Southwest and its partner airline ATA. Use this site as a back stop search if Kayak.com doesn't return a low fare.

BEST-DEAL TRAVELER
Farecast.com predicts whether fares on most domestic routes will go up or down. Enter your itinerary and the site will say if you should buy your ticket now -- or if an even better fare is probably on the way. To make its forecasts, the site anal yzes past fare trends in airline databases and other factors. Farecast also offers predictions for hotel rates in 30 cities.

F rom time to time, airlines will offer unbelievably low fares on selected flights or itineraries. These "fire sale" fares, "blooper f ares" and "price war" fares are unpredictable. In our experience, Airfar e Watchdog posts these bargains faster than other Web sites. To take advantage of these time-sensitive flukes, you must book them right away. This site specializes in deals for flights departing from hundreds of cities and includes fares from Southwest, Je tBlue and small airlines you may never have heard of.

INTERNATIONAL TRAVELER
LowesTravel.com offers international tickets on more than 60 airlines and gener ally a broader selection than rival sites. (The site also offers rental cars and hotel reservations.)

When flying overseas, you'll be sitting in your airline seat for an extended time. Make sure you pick the best seat by reading reviews of seat quality at SeatGuru.com.

Traveling to Europe? Note that trains are often the f astest and cheapest way to travel within and between European countries. Our favorite English-language Web site for checking timetab les and booking one-way, round-trip and multi-stop tickets on European train lines is RailEurope.

FREQUENT FLIER
WebFlyer is t he most useful site for getting the best seat or upgrade for the miles you've earned. See how your miles convert between programs, l earn about changes to your frequent flier program or discover how to max out the value of your mileage awards when you redeem them f or merchandise or services.


Lodging

TIME-PRESSED TRAVELER
TripAdvisor is the most comprehensive and easy-to-use listing of professional and amateur reviews of hotels in the U.S. and overseas, with about 10 million reviews. Its photos of the property and maps of the location are uniquely useful. TripAdvisor doesn't sell rooms, but it lets you compare and book rates sold by Web travel agencies, such as Expedia.com, Or bitz.com and Hotels.com.

BEST-DEAL TRAVELER
Priceline.com offers the best bargains for luxury hotel lodging. You submit a bid on a room after specifying a star class, the dates of your stay and a neighborhood in a metro area. Bids of less than $100 a night on luxury lodgings are often successful. (The site also sel ls airline tickets and rental cars this way.) There are three catches, though: Priceline doesn't disclose the name of the hotel you' re booking until you buy; it doesn't refund your money if you cancel; and it may book you in a hotel at a slight remove from the att ractions most central to you. One more hitch: We don't recommend booking a hotel in an overseas city without knowing its precise loc ation beforehand, so look to other sites to book a room abroad.

Priceline's rates for four-star hotels are usually the best values available from online travel sites. Yet you can boost the chances that you'll submi t the lowest possible winning bid by checking the message boards at Bid dingfortravel.com, where recent Priceline users note their successful and unsuccessful bids.

Priceline and TripAdvisor don't offer bed-and-breakfast getaways. To find B&B's offering discounted rates, sign up for free weekly e-mails from Bedandbreakfast.com. Every Wednesday you'll receive a list of B&Bs offering discounts of typically 20% or more off regular rates for the upcoming weekend in the city, state or regio n you want to visit.

Consider an alternative to hotels: Condo-apartment rentals. Vacation rentals generally offer more room an d amenities for the same price as hotel rooms. Plus, their kitchens can spare you from having to dine out for every meal. The best s election of rental lodgings we've found is at HomeAway.com

INTERNATIONAL TRAVELER
LateRooms.com emp hasizes last-minute bargains at hotels abroad. You know the name of the hotel before you pay, and rates are quoted in the local curr ency. The site offers a currency-conversion calculator to help you figure the prices.

Here's a tip: When you pay your hotel r oom bill on checkout, beware if the clerk offers to convert your bill into U.S. dollars. Resist this offer because hotels usually of fer less-favorable exchange rates than ATMs or your credit card. What's worse, if your credit card charges you a fee (typically 1% o f the bill) for currency conversion, your credit card company will likely still require you to pay the currency-conversion charge -- even if the hotel has done its own currency conversion. In essence, you'll be double charged.


Car Rentals

TIME-PRESSED TRAVELER
Orbitz fetches car rental rates and displays them in a matrix that is uniquely easy-to-understand. The site also discloses total pricing, including all taxes and fees, unlike many rival sites. The site also sells other travel products, such as plane tickets and hotel rooms).

BEST-DEAL TRAV ELER
Hotwire has the best deals for domestic car rentals offere d by Avis, Budget and Hertz. Hotwire lets you specify the dates, type of car and pick-up location. Then it fetches rates. You'll fin d out which company is offering your nonrefundable rate after you've paid. But at least you know the rental will be with one of the nation's three best-known rental car companies. (Hotwire also sells hotel rooms, airline tickets and other travel products in the sa me blind-booking format.)

INTERNATIONAL TRAVELER
Auto Europ e is a rental-car rate wholesaler that specializes in pre-paid international rentals. It returned better rates than other on line booking sites (for comparable vehicles) when we recently searched for cars in England, Greece, Ireland and Spain. Plus, this co mpany staffs its customer-service hotlines (toll-free internationally) 24-hours a day.

Be wary that the rental-car chains -- separate from Auto Europe -- may attempt to tack on bogus charges. You may not be expecting additional charges on your credit card b ecause you have already prepaid through Auto Europe. But you should eye your credit-card bill after an overseas trip. If unnecessary charges appear, Auto Europe will assist you in disputing them. (You can also face this problem when you book directly with the rent al-car company, particularly if the company is not headquartered in the United States.)

If a hassle-free trip is worth paying a few extra dollars to you, we recommend you book with an American name-brand car company, such as Avis or Hertz. (You may book eith er through AutoEurope or directly through the company.) Foreign-owned car rental companies often bungle the reservations of American travelers, either by not having the requested cars available on arrival or by adding on surprise charges to the final tab, accordin g to our anecdotal staff experiences and reports from other media.

When traveling overseas, considering paying a few dollars m ore a day to rent a device that offers driving directions using voice prompts. For example, Hertz has wide coverage in Europe and of fers a GPS driving module for about $12 that will give you voice-over, turn-by-turn directions to your destination. (See a list of available countries.)


CruisesCruiseCompete offers discounts of up to 25% off standard cruise rates. At the site, dozens of travel agencies vie to give you the lowest prices for dates and ports you specify, whether you're book ing well in advance or at the eleventh hour.

CruiseCompete offers discounts of up to 25% off standard cruise rates. At the site, dozens of travel agencies vie to give you the lowest prices for dates and ports you specify, whether you're book ing well in advance or at the eleventh hour.

Cruisemates is th e most useful cruise-review site. We especially like its advice columns, which are written for people of different ages and interests.

Quick vacation packages

Lastminute.com (formerly Site59.com) does the best job of putting together last-minute vacation packages. It offers the easiest way to book a trip as early as 14 days before you go or as late as three hours before departure on domestic trips. (Tip: When we've loo ked for packages for major holiday weekends, we've found deals here as early as 17 days before departure.)

Luxury Link offers discounted package stays in online auctions. You must, however, be fl exible about your travel dates: You pick the dates from a limited range only after you pay.

Other helpful resources

Travel insurance. Buying travel insurance from Web agencies or providers, such as cruise lines, is usually a c rummy deal because of price markups and restrictions on how the policy claims can be filed. The best value policies we've found are those sold directly by the leading travel insurance company, Travel Guard.

Airport parking. To save money at airport parking lots, visit the aptly named AirportDiscountParking.com, which will direct you to the bargain lots.

National pa rks. For a value vacation, consider a national park. You'll discover tips on how to stretch your dollars on your next stay by vi siting the US Parks site.

© 2008 The Kiplinger Washington Editors