Travel-site features

Whether you have specific travel plans or need help deciding where and when to go, travel sites are an easy way to explore your options. By entering travel dates, location and other parameters, you can quickly see the prices from numerous service providers. Although searching is easy, reviewing all the options can still be very time consuming, especially if you have flexible travel dates. In the case of vacation packages, experts say to take the time to price the components (flight, hotel and rental car) separately to make sure you are truly getting a package deal.

Industry experts agree that no single travel site always has the lowest prices. If you want to find the absolute best deal, start with a meta-search site that includes hundreds of other travel sites. Although meta-search sites link to booking travel sites, you might conduct the same search at these sites individually to see whether you get the same results. One shortcoming of travel sites is they often exclude regional airlines; therefore, Time magazine recommends checking the airport website to identify regional carriers that might offer more affordable flights.

If you are looking for a better deal than you can find through those methods, Priceline.com gives users the option to bid on travel. Especially for last-minute travel plans, service providers may accept bids up to 50 percent below published prices. The downsides to bidding are you don't know the service provider or travel details until after it's booked, and sales are typically final (no changes or refunds). Hotwire.com, Expedia.com and Travelocity.com also offer steep discounts without revealing the service provider until after the travel is booked.

Experts say you shouldn't overlook service provider sites, because there are never any fees for booking online (although airlines are among the companies that may charge a fee for reservations by phone). In addition to having the most flexibility to make changes after booking, these companies may offer better customer service. Many negative user reviews of third-party booking sites say they got the run-around from off-shore agents.

Experts and users offer the following advice about using a travel booking site:

  • Sort search results by price. Search results don't necessarily appear sorted by price. The default sort order may list preferred providers first. Check prices on additional pages and look for the option to change the sort order.
  • Remove traces of previous searches. Because pricing is dynamic, two people conducting the same search may get different results. Experts say you may need to reset browser settings or delete "cookies" to ensure that you are getting the lowest fare. You might even conduct the same search with two different browsers.
  • Sign up for fare alerts. If you aren't ready to book, many travel sites allow you to sign up to receive daily or weekly fare updates via email. Experts also say airlines tend to announce sales on Tuesday, which makes it a good day to start looking for cheap flights. A few sites also offer price alerts on hotels.
  • Contact the service provider. To avoid unforeseen problems, you may want to contact the airline, hotel or rental car company to review policies before booking, or at least read the policies posted at the website. For example, airlines charge different fees to make a change or check baggage, hotels might require deposits and rental car companies might not accept debit cards.
  • Understand the fees. Although major travel sites advertise "no fee" to book flights, it's important to read the fine print. There may be a fee for flights with multiple carriers, hotels, blind bids, international trips, package deals and in certain other situations. Note whether the prices in the search results include taxes and fees, because some sites don't reveal those charges until you begin the booking process.
  • Review policies and cancellation clauses. Even if the booking site advertises "no fees to make changes or cancel a reservation," you will be required to pay fees that the service provider charges. In the case of booking nonrefundable travel, it can be nearly impossible to cancel or make changes, especially on bidding travel sites.
  • Notice changes in pricing. No price is final until the travel is booked. ConsumerReports.org says it's not uncommon for fares to jump in price, have hidden fees or become unavailable when you begin the booking process. Verify the price through every screen in the booking process, especially after entering a travel voucher.
  • Verify the email confirmation is correct. Carefully review all the details in the email, because it may be difficult to make last-minute corrections. When purchasing a package deal, make sure you have a confirmation number for each component. If you don't receive an email confirmation, call the company to make sure the travel was booked.

Sites for travel planning

There are a seemingly endless number of travel sites that provide information other than finding and making reservations. If you're looking for travel advice and reviews, Frommers.com and Fodors.com are good places to start. Arthur Frommer says user-generated review sites are "virtually useless," because of estimations that up to half of the recommendations are fake. However, TripAdvisor.com's reported 40 million user reviews get the attention of experts. Travel and Leisure magazine says that despite its problems with planted posts, "the sheer volume of posts helps highlight the odd fake review." Reviewers can also post photos, adding some credibility to reviews. CNN.com agrees with this summation, saying "after reading and disregarding the ones that seem off or biased, you get a decent sense of what to expect in a hotel."

While perusing the reviews at TripAdvisor.com, you might want to try out the search capabilities. Users can search for flights or hotels, plus restaurants and vacation rental properties -- something other major sites don't offer. Travel and Leisure commends the ability to adjust airfares so they include checked baggage and in-flight services you plan to use. The site offers fare drop alerts and apps for the iPhone, Android and Nokia mobile devices.

Experts recommend TripIt.com for travelers who need help managing their itinerary. This site consolidates your travel plans into one master itinerary, which is then accessible from a computer or mobile device as well as easily shared with others. After signing up for this free service, you forward all your confirmation emails for flights, hotel and other reservations to TripIt.com. They assemble the master itinerary and add useful maps, directions and weather information. The site also sends a text or email reminder as check-in times approach.

To avoid landing the worst seat on a flight, experts recommend paying a visit to SeatGuru.com. This site provides color-coded seating charts for more than 700 specific planes that identify the best seats in green, the worst seats in red and seats with potential drawbacks in yellow. The best seats might have more legroom and power ports, while seats with potential drawbacks might have a narrow width, limited recline, tray tables in armrests or no floor storage. This site also has comparison charts by airplane type that show seat width and pitch as well as in-flight services.

Kiplinger.com recommends Airfarewatchdog.com for information about last-minute deals on airfare. The site has employees actively searching for airfare sales and passing the promotional codes and discount offers onto Airfarewatchdog.com users. Another bonus: "the site includes fares from Southwest, JetBlue and other airlines that may not appear on some search sites like Kayak and Bing." Travel and Leisure magazine agrees that because humans, not just webcrawlers, are actively searching, they may uncover Web-only fare sales. The site's employees are also continually verifying seat availability for the airfare sales it lists. The site sends you nearly instantaneous email alerts about these deals, and you can sign up to receive alerts for certain departure cities, destination cities or city-to-city fares.

Travel Sites Runners Up:

Momondo.com

5 picks by top review sites.

HotelsCombined.com

3 picks by top review sites.

Airfarewatchdog.com

2 picks by top review sites.

Bing Travel

2 picks by top review sites.

Mobissimo.com

2 picks by top review sites.

Dohop.com

2 picks by top review sites.

HomeAway.com

2 picks by top review sites.

TripIt.com

2 picks by top review sites.

SeartGuru.com

2 picks by top review sites.

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