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New Tools on the Web's Best Travel Sites

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

When it comes to some of the Web's most popular travel booking sites, everything old apparently is new again. In part an attempt to respond to a changing travel market, in part an attempt to spruce up their brands, some of the biggest sites have launched cool new apps, while others have bells and whistles you might not have noticed. We took a fresh look at some of the Web's old standbys, finding that the best just keep on getting better.

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-- Scott Vogel

ALL-AROUND TRAVEL AGENCIES

· Kayak (http://www.kayak.com)

What you already know: This search engine, dating all the way back to 2004, is still one of the best ways for travelers to comparison-shop on the Web. It doesn't sell tickets to anything but redirects patrons to more than 140 sites whose information Kayak aggregates. Its justly celebrated filters allow you to customize results according to such factors as what time of day you'll travel (for flights), which amenities you'll need (for hotels) and what trip duration you're looking at (for cruises).

What you might not know: One of the site's most fun features is Buzz (http://www.kayak.com/buzz), which may win the prize for the Web's best vacation idea generator. Let's say all you know is that you want to go someplace warm in February and you want to leave from the Washington area. You go to Buzz, plug in a few bits of data and wham: Kayak does some creative brainstorming for you. Sure, you'll hear about great deals to Miami, but for a few bucks more you could be on the next plane to San Juan. Buzz, in short, can be a great tool for out-of-the-box vacationing.

· Hotwire (http://www.hotwire.com)

What you already know: Probably the second-best online gambling experience a travel nut could ever have (after Priceline), this site is still known primarily for its hotel deals, although no one should rent a car without checking Hotwire first. As with Priceline, for hotel deals you choose a location and the star rating you're looking for. The site then generates a list that tells you everything about the various properties offered (amenities, price, etc.) except the hotel's name. (Armed with that information, incidentally, you can often figure out which property is being offered by Hotwire or Priceline by searching databases at sites such as BetterBidding.com.) The hotels often are members of major chains, and discounts can be substantial.

What you might not know: "One upside of the downturn is that we have some of the most amazing travel bargains in years," reads a statement on the home page of Hotwire offshoot TravelTicker (http://www.travel-ticker.com), a new site that, like Priceline, aims to help consumers sift through the avalanche of bargains that a depressed economy has wrought. (And you needn't book through Hotwire to get them. A recent offer of $129-per-night rooms at Manhattan's swank Hudson hotel involved clicking straight through to the hotel's Web site, while an offer of $69 rooms at Miami Beach's Whitelaw Hotel led to BookIt.com.) Well produced and logically organized, Hotwire's TravelTicker offers dozens of ideas for bargain vacations, and that's just on the site's home page.


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