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New Tools on the Web's Best Travel Sites

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.

-- 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.

· Priceline.com

What you already know: This decade-old site's dominance is in part traceable to those ubiquitous William Shatner commercials and its "Name Your Own Price" catchphrase, not to mention the very real discounts it offers consumers, particularly on hotels. Everyone knows how the site's most popular features work: When you're looking for lodging, you specify which city you're going to, which neighborhood you want to stay in, which star rating the property should have and what you're willing to pay. Then you spin the wheel and see what the site comes up with. It's not uncommon for winning bids to come in at less than half of a hotel's rack rate.

What you might not know: Late last month, the site launched the Travel Ekspert, a blog edited by Priceline veteran Brian Ek (http://www.priceline.com/travelblog). It is clearly a sales tool for the site and still a bit thin on content, but the goal seems to be to bring real news of travel bargains -- many of which often are gone in a flash -- as it breaks. The blog aggregates travel news, offers RSS feeds and provides a virtual meeting place for Priceline fans to talk about, well, how much they love Priceline. Ek's recent analysis of the hotel situation for today's Super Bowl game in Tampa was no doubt invaluable to Pittsburghers and Arizonans scrambling for last-minute accommodations, and his access to insider info makes this Priceline offshoot worth watching.

· Expedia.com

What you already know: The big kahuna among Internet travel agencies, Expedia offers deals on every aspect of the travel experience, from flights to cars to cruises to packages. Fast and comprehensive, this site is a major reason travel booking has become a commercial success on the Web, and its user-friendly design is a big part of Expedia's appeal. The site also boasts a large and well-trained customer-service staff, a human element that many of its competitors can't match.

What you might not know: It sounds like an exclusive club, but Expedia's Elite Plus program is available to anyone who books 14 nights at a hotel through Expedia during a calendar year. Once you've done that, you're automatically eligible for membership. Elite Plus travelers pay no cancellation or change penalties (which can be quite steep). They also get priority treatment with customer service, and Expedia will allow rebooking at no charge if hotel prices drop after your original booking. For more information, visit http://www.expediaeliteplus.com.

LODGING

· Hotels.com

What you already know: With its selection of 70,000-plus properties, this lodging site sells rooms at hotels of all sizes, types and price ranges. The fact that it casts a wider net than other aggregators -- listings often include hostels -- means that Hotels.com is particularly valuable in places where lodging costs for national chains can be astronomical (New York City comes to mind). But it is also quite a user-friendly, if not particularly attractive, site, and bargains can be found.

What you might not know: Guest-generated hotel reviews have become a mainstay of the Web and can make or break a property's reputation, but not all are created equal. While well-known sites such as TripAdvisor say their reviews are authentic, the fact is, there's no way of knowing for sure. (What's to prevent a hotelier from, say, submitting glowing reviews of his own property or vilifying the property of a competitor?) To post a review at Hotels.com, however, a reviewer must have booked and paid for a room through the site itself, and the stay must already have occurred.

· Quikbook.com

What you already know: Hotels.com may have a larger inventory and a presence in lots more cities, but Quikbook is the place to go for smaller properties, boutique hotels and other off-the-beaten-lodging options in the most popular destinations. More than 1,000 hotels are served by Quikbook, including the Standard in downtown Los Angeles ($124 a night) and the Inn of Chicago near that city's Magnificent Mile ($79). Another noteworthy feature: Most of Quikbook's hotels do not require payment in advance, and changes and cancellations can be made without penalty.

What you might not know: For travelers visiting cities that Quikbook doesn't feature, the site recently launched Hotel Marketplace, a search engine that gives you access to 55,000 more properties from the Quikbook home page (http://www.quikbook.com/hotelmarketplace.asp). The discounts aren't as good, and lodging tends to be of the chain sort, but the biggest difference is that properties booked at Hotel Marketplace require advance payment. In all other cases, Quikbook should be your first stop; don't miss the drop-downs that allow you to customize your search, locating properties that are, say, hip, historic, smoke-free or green.

BUDGET

· FareCompare.com

What you already know: Every day, this site collects data and pricing information for more than 500 airlines worldwide, giving its users up-to-the-minute information on fare sales and more. (Among the airlines it features is Southwest, whose schedules and fares are not available from aggregators such as Expedia.) But perhaps FareCompare's best feature is its thorough analysis of the data it receives, data it uses to give stats on which month is the cheapest for flights, for instance, from Washington to Sydney (yup, it's this one) and which is the most expensive (October). Free e-mail alerts also ensure that FareCompare users are among the first to hear when airlines drop prices.

What you might not know: Rick Seaney is FareCompare's chief executive, not to mention one of the country's foremost airfare "geeks," as his quite entertaining blog puts it (http://www.rickseaney.com). One thing's for sure: He's a true expert on the subject. Then again, you can be, too. All you have to do is spend some time clicking through Seaney's charts comparing airline practices with regard to fees, frequent-flier-mile redemption and more. Supplement that knowledge by perusing the site's seemingly endless list of tips on the ins and outs of cheap fares, and soon you'll be as transfixed by airline pricing as Seaney is.

CRUISES

· CruiseCritic (http://www.cruisecritic.com)

What you already know: There's nothing like a site patronized and run by fanatics, and this compendium of traveler reviews, ship specifications, message boards and the like is justly celebrated within the cruise community. It should absolutely be the first stop of any first-time cruiser, although seasoned veterans who revel in cruise-line minutiae and gossip about the industry will no doubt love it, too. After sifting through the mountain of information on the site, you should have an excellent idea of which ships and itineraries are for you, data that you can take to other sites -- Cruise.com being a good example -- for the best deals on booking.

What you might not know: Cruise Critic is really like an online club, although one that anyone with a passion can join for free. Most of the site is available without signing up for membership, but some of the most intriguing areas are not. We particularly like the Roll Call section of the message boards, in which future cruisers can make contact with others who will be on the same sailing. There, members can trade information about the best cabins, best dining opportunities, best excursions, etc., not to mention plan onboard meetings with their newfound friends.

TRAVELER REVIEWS

· TripAdvisor (http://www.tripadvisor.com)

What you already know: Twenty million. That's the staggering number of traveler reviews of hotels, restaurants and other areas of tourist interest on this enormously popular nine-year-old site. All you need is the name of a hotel (more than 270,000 have been reviewed) or a destination to start your research. As for the reviews themselves, anyone can write in and opine about a property or attraction anywhere in the world, and those reviews (and the numerical rankings reviewers generate) can be a good way to get your bearings before visiting an unfamiliar destination. As pointed out above, there is no way for TripAdvisor to guarantee the impartiality of the reviews it receives, but many properties have such a volume of reviews, you're bound to get a reasonable idea of the vox populi if you read long enough.

What you might not know: TripAdvisor is great for people going places, but it's almost as fun for people going nowhere. First, there are the reviews, of course, including delicious compendiums compiled by editors, such as the Dirtiest Hotels of 2009. (Bloodstained mattresses? Mushrooms growing in the carpets? Yikes!) Armchair travelers will also love the Traveler IQ Challenge, in which contestants are judged on their ability to find famous places on a map (it's more entertaining than you might think). TripAdvisor also has a frequently hilarious blog in which it draws attention to some of the stranger reviews it has received of late. There's also a link to a TripAdvisor partner, Travelpod (http://www.travelpod.com), which enables you to quickly and easily create your own travel blog, a place where all of the Internet can come and read your trip diary, ogle photos and enjoy uploaded videos.

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