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Start with a search engine travel site

Search engine travel sites pull data from other major travel sites to find the lowest prices on airfare, hotels and sometimes other travel services. Because they are more comprehensive, most experts recommend starting your research here. Experts and users also say they appreciate the predictive data that these sites offer, which helps travelers pick the cheapest time to travel and buy.

Once you choose an option that looks good, you can link directly to the booking site offering that particular rate. Experts warn that the prices shown on these aggregator sites don't always hold up when you click through to book it. Alternately, you can try to get the same rate directly through the website of the airline, hotel or other service-provider.

Kayak.com is cited by a significant majority of reviews as the best travel search engine, though SideStep.com, which is owned by Kayak.com, has identical search capabilities. Kayak.com says it searches more than 200 travel sites, primarily through Orbitz.com, Travelocity.com, Priceline.com, Hotwire.com and other aggregator sites. You can set search parameters to include surrounding airports and flexible dates as well as a preference for nonstop flights. BudgetTravel.com says Kayak.com is easiest to use, and the fares hold up when you click through to book a flight. The New York Times applauds the baggage fee calculator, which makes it easy to see the total cost to fly.

Kayak.com has some nifty features that help users make flight decisions. A fare history chart shows the lowest and average fares found during the month of departure, so you can consider how arrival and departure dates might affect the airfare. Another chart shows the lowest fares over the past 90 days, so you can judge whether it's a good time to buy. If you aren't sure where you want to go, the "Explore" link brings up a world map showing roundtrip airfares. You can customize the map by activity, temperature and a host of other criteria.

Kayak's system lets you receive daily or weekly pricing updates via email or Facebook. The fare alert can be set up for exact or flexible travel dates and shows the best fares by airline. The hotel alert shows hotel prices in your destination city for the dates entered. You can narrow down the list by selecting a minimum star rating and/or maximum room rate.

Yapta.com is a meta-search engine that specializes in just flights and hotels. The flight search is powered by Kayak's search engine and has an identical user interface, search parameters and fare-history charts. However, Yapta's hotel search capability has more parameters than what's available at Kayak.com. Users can search by hotel name or chain, star rating and amenities. Travel and Leisure magazine recommends Yapta.com for its pre-booking flight tracking capabilities. Unlike Kayak.com, which tracks all flights for a given timeframe and route, Yapta.com only sends you a fare alert if the price changes for a specific flight on a specific airline. The downside to this system is you won't receive notification about other flights or airlines that may now be lower.

Experts also recommend Yapta.com for travelers who want to pursue a refund if the fare drops after booking a domestic flight (international flights don't offer refunds). You can sign up to receive an email alert if the fare drops by more than applicable re-booking fees, which are $75 - $150 for most airlines. Yapta.com says it has saved its members more than$250 million to-date. For tickets purchased directly from the airline, Yapta.com will walk you through the airline's refund process. (For nonrefundable tickets, the difference in price will be given in the form of a credit or voucher, which must be used on a future flight and within a certain timeframe.) If you purchased the ticket through a third-party booking site, your only recourse is to contact that company and abide by their policies.

Microsoft's Bing Travel (formerly Farecast.com) searches for flights and hotels. Stacy Rapacon at Kiplinger.com says Kayak.com still finds the lowest fares "the majority of the time," but Bing Travel uniquely makes a recommendation to buy now or wait for the fare to drop on each flight. According to The New York Times, "predictions are offered between 75 top domestic markets and from the United States to some major European destinations." ABC News found the site to be fast and also praises the fare prediction feature.

If factors like travel time, comfort and ease are more important than finding the lowest airfare, Travel and Leisure recommends InsideTrip.com. This site doesn't just search for flights, it assigns a TripQuality score, from 1 to 100, for each round-trip or one-way itinerary listed in the search results. We didn't find any reviews comparing this site's fares to other major search engines.

Experts say Denmark-based Momondo.com is worth a look for international and, surprisingly, domestic flights as well as hotels. Arthur Frommer, author of the well-known Frommer's Travel Guides, says you have a good chance of finding a cheaper fare through Momondo.com because it searches sites and regional airlines that other major search engines ignore. (The website says it searches more than 700 travel sites.) Travel and Leisure magazine says this capability makes it best for finding cheap flights in Europe.

Momondo.com is recommended over Kayak.com for hotel searches by travel writer Jason Cochran at WalletPop.com, a consumer finance site. Cochran says "results appear marked on a map of your destination city, a head-smackingly simple innovation that puts this one at the top of the list for ease of use," though that feature is also available as an option on a number of other travel web sites, including Kayak.com. The prices, when compared to Frommer's top choice of HotelsCombined.com, held up more often after clicking through to the booking site, according to Cochran. HotelsCombined.com, however, won the contract to power Yahoo's hotel search.

Other options for finding flights in Europe are Dohop.com and Mobissimo.com, according to Time magazine. However, BudgetTravel.com.com says Dohop.com doesn't work nearly as well for flights departing from the U.S. Dohop.com says it searches an impressive 600 airlines and 300,000 hotel properties as well as rental car companies. TriponaDeal.com also recommends Mobissimo.com for international flights, but we didn't find any expert endorsements for the site's other types of travel searches.

Major Travel booking Sites

Although reviews say that meta-search engines -- particularly Kayak.com -- are the best places to start, Orbitz.com, Expedia.com and Travelocity.com can sometimes yield lower rates on flights, rental cars, hotels, cruises and virtually any combination thereof, including complete vacations. For some, finding the absolute lowest price may not be as important as the simplicity of turning to the same site every time you need to book travel, because you are familiar with the user interface and policies. The top three booking sites do offer subtle differences and  experts don't name any one as the top choice.

The three major booking sites work the same way to search for flights -- you start by entering departure and arrival airports and dates. Travelers with flexible dates can include flights up to three days before and after at Travelocity.com and one day before and after at Orbitz.com. Expedia.com doesn't have a flexible dates search, but you can view a fare calendar for many major U.S. cities. All three sites allow you to narrow the search results to nonstop or refundable flights as well as to a certain airline or class of ticket.

These sites also allow you to search for hotels and other types of travel, which may be discounted when purchased as a package. For example, Expedia.com advertises savings of up to $450 when booking a flight and hotel together. Experts warn, however, that you should always price components of a vacation package separately before buying to ensure you are truly getting the best overall price. Hotel searches begin by entering the city and dates, and allow you to narrow the results by price, star rating, customer rating, amenities and other preferences. The default sort order is rather ambiguous -- either the site's "picks" or the "best value" -- but the criteria can be changed to price or other objective criteria. Optionally, you can view all the properties plotted on a map at all three sites.

Experts say there's no single site that always delivers the best airfare, but you may prefer the features of one over the other, or find one to be less clunky to use. For example, Expedia.com and Orbitz.com display flights on a single page, and it's easy to scroll through the options. Expedia.com and Travelocity.com display the departure flights first, and you have to select one before you can see the return flights. Expedia.com, however, does let you switch to a view of round-trip itineraries, which is the only option offered at Orbitz.com. The cheapest flights are listed first, but you can re-sort by duration or departure time (and sometimes other criteria).

Most booking sites advertise "no fees" for flights; however, restrictions, such as using a single carrier at Orbitz.com may apply. Experts say to be on the lookout for nonrefundable fees charged on other types of travel or when booking by phone. Additionally, the site may say it doesn't charge to cancel or change a reservation, but it's likely that the service provider does. Wary users should familiarize themselves with the policies of the service provider, just in case an itinerary needs to be changed or a trip unexpectedly canceled. Some prepaid services are simply nonrefundable.

All three major booking sites offer price guarantees, but ABC News says the fine print makes it seem like "claiming a refund is a long shot." Expedia.com challenges customer to find a better price online. Those that do and call customer support within 24 hours of booking will receive a refund for the difference plus $50 credit for use on future travel. Travelocity.com offer the same deal, but extends the guarantee on prepaid hotel reservations (excluding "Top Secret Hotel" deals) up until the day before check-in. Orbitz.com only offers a price guarantee on designated hotel and rental car rates, but there's no time restriction. For flights and hotels, Orbitz.com also automatically tracks prices after booking and mails you a refund if a customer books the same travel at a lower price. Travel and Leisure magazine says this price assurance distinguishes Orbitz.com because the customer doesn't have to do anything.

Airfare tracking options are another key consideration; otherwise, you have to continually check back at the site to see whether prices have changed. The Orbitz DealDetector allows users set a target price and then sends an email alert if the fare drops to that price or lower. Experts like Travelocity's FareWatcher feature, which sends subscribers an email when fares drop more than 20 percent to any of up to 10 selected destinations you select. Expedia.com doesn't offer fare alerts but will send email updates on deals. Additionally, its Trend Tracker feature plots prices for hotels and flights over a two-year period, so you can identify less expensive times to go.

Lastly, if accessing a travel site from a mobile device is a top priority, don't overlook what apps are available for download. TripAssist is Expedia's free app for the iPhone. Travelocity.com also has a free app for the iPhone, and Orbitz.com offers apps for either the iPhone or Android.

If all you need to book is a room, the more than 130,000 properties at Hotels.com far surpass those at other booking sites. Kiplinger.com recommends Hotels.com for good bargains with planning or last-minute trips. PC World says "the site has won our trust with dependable, friendly 24-hour phone assistance." After searching by city, landmark, hotel, address or ZIP code; you can narrow your results by price, hotel rating, guest rating and other criteria as well has change the sort order to your preference.

Hotel.com reservations are typically paid for at check-in or check-out, depending on the hotel's policy, but rooms with a "Price Match Guarantee" must be paid for at the time of booking and may be nonrefundable. If you do find a lower price online after booking and pre-paying, Hotels.com will match the price and refund the difference right up to the property's cancellation deadline. Although Hotels.com won't charge you to cancel or change your itinerary, you should carefully review the specific property's policy.

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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