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Travel Sites put the world at your fingertips

Finding the best deals on flights, hotels and other travel arrangements has never been easier, and you don't even have to be in front of a computer. Many travel sites now offer apps for the iPhone and other mobile devices. Hence, travel sites have evolved into much more than a way to find the lowest rates and book your own airline tickets, accommodations, rental cars, cruises and vacation packages. Many sites help you decide where and when to travel as well as the best time to buy. There are also a growing number of travel sites that provide itinerary tracking and travel advice during the trip.

Travel booking sites, such as Expedia.com, Travelocity.com, Orbitz.com and Priceline.com, have been around the longest. These sites eliminate the need for a travel agent by allowing users to research their options by date, city and other parameters, and then book the travel online. Some listings at Priceline.com don't include the price, service provider name and other details, but users can bid below the going rate published at other sites in the hope of snagging a discount of up to 50 percent. There are a few other "blind sites" that offer steep hotel discounts by withholding the name of the hotel and the exact location until after booking. All booking travel sites get mixed reviews from users.

Experts say you should bypass travel booking sites and start with a meta-search site, like the top-rated Kayak.com. Meta-search sites scour the major booking sites along with smaller databases and service provider (hotel, airline, etc.) company sites to find the lowest prices. Search sites also provide fare updates and historical data to help users pick the right time to buy tickets. Once you have found the best option, you link to the booking site or service provider to make the reservation. Meta-search sites make their money through advertising and partnerships, rather than selling travel services.

Even with the large number of travel options available through a meta-search engine, there are downsides. For example, flights on American Airlines, Southwest and some regional carriers are excluded on most sites. For these reasons and more, it's a good idea to look at several travel sites as well as service provider websites before making a decision on which travel option to buy. Booking directly with a service provider, even if the price is slightly higher, may offer more flexibility to make changes or rearrange an itinerary in case of flight delays or cancelations.

Travel sites receive a lot of attention in the media, as most people who travel for business and pleasure use them. The best review source is Travel and Leisure magazine, which updates its comprehensive list of top travel sites each year. Kiplinger.com, a consumer finance site, has an equally exhaustive list; though it is slightly older, it is still very helpful. PC World, The New York Times and WalletPop.com have up-to-date and helpful reviews as well, but their reports cover fewer sites. Other useful resources include BudgetTravel.com, which names its five favorite travel sites based on thousands of searches, and TriponaDeal.com, which provides numerous videos about travel and includes an interesting interview with Arthur Frommer, author of Frommer's travel guides.

We found user reviews for travel sites at Epinions.com and Viewpoints.com. The most recent reviews for booking sites, like Priceline.com, Orbitz.com and Expedia.com, are mostly scathing. User complaints range from price increases during the booking process and errors made by the booking system to poor customer support from overseas agents, no email confirmations and inflexible refund policies. Users who booked hotel reservations through Hotwire.com say the site's hotel rating system awards higher scores to hotels than they earn elsewhere, resulting in accommodations that don't meet expectations. Users warn that renting a car through one of these sites can be disastrous if you don't read the fine-print. Savvy users say to call the service provider directly to verify reservations, payment options and even the proximity of the hotel to key attractions.

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