These days, it's almost unthinkable to plan a trip without consulting the Internet. Why call an airline to get a price quote when you can hop online and compare all available fares?Committing to a hotel no longer requires a leap of faith, since you can take a virtual tour before you hand over your credit card number.
While plane tickets and hotel reservations still represent the bulk of online bookings, the category has expanded to include cruises, spas, and adventure travel. Indeed, with so many sites out there—and new ones launching every day—it's tougher than ever to know where to start. Which is why we've done the work for you. We combed through hundreds of travel sites, comparing and testing features to arrive at a comprehensive list of the best. So bookmark these sites, and get ready for smarter surfing.
The most popular Internet travel purchase is airline tickets, which make up 77 percent of all bookings made online. Sure, finding a fare you like and buying the ticket should be a pretty straightforward process, but many sites still find ways to complicate it. Several we tried, including Trip.com, require users to build a round-trip itinerary by piecing together separate flight segments. This system often yields expensive options, like a $1,200 round-trip fare from New York to San Francisco, which then prompts the site to suggest other, less expensive alternatives. Hardly the most efficient process. On Uniglobe.com, if you enter "Atlanta" as a destination, you'll then need to specify that you mean Atlanta, Georgia, rather than, say, Atlanta, Nebraska.
After that, Expedia.com is a traveler's dream. The site is easy to navigate, and unlike Travelocity.com, its main competitor, it lets you search for flights without registering. Although Expedia does have multiple search options—including a build-your-own-trip feature similar to Trip.com's—we had the most success with its basic ticket search. On the 10 routes tested, Expedia found the lowest fare five times and was beat out twice by fares that were just a few dollars cheaper and included a layover. Travelocity turned up a $212 round-trip flight from Chicago to Miami, for example, that was $30 less than Expedia's fare but included a stop in Atlanta. For a direct flight, Travelocity's best offer was $90 more than Expedia's.
When you're feeling spontaneous, look no further than LastMinuteTravel.com, which, among the handful of sites that specialize in 11th-hour airfares, consistently found us the most options. LastMinuteTravel does let you choose your destination, but you'll get the best results if you enter your home airport (there are about 50 choices worldwide) and leave the destination blank. For round-trip departures from New York in September, we turned up a $399 flight to Los Angeles, a $372 trip to London, and a $149 fare to Nantucket. Of course, if you're not flying from a major airport, your choices are usually more limited. A search from Cincinnati pulled up a $158 getaway to Fort Lauderdale and a similarly priced flight to Albany. One downside: you can't book your fare on the site. Instead, LastMinuteTravel provides direct links to other sources, like airline home pages and travel agents, to purchase the ticket.
AUCTIONS AND CONSOLIDATORS
One of the great mysteries of the airline industry is ticket pricing. The guy sitting next to you shelled out three times as much for his seat while the woman in front of you landed a fare that's half the price you paid. Deals are numerous and difficult to keep track of. The 10 largest U.S. airlines all offer Internet-only fares; Orbitz.com, a new online booking engine backed by five of them, aims to go head-to-head with the big online booking engines, and will distinguish itself by offering online deals from 28 airlines all in one place. However, the site isn't scheduled to launch officially until next summer.
In its two years online, Priceline.com has attracted legions of fans—and enemies—with its reverse-auction service. If you play your cards right by researching flight availability and the going rates beforehand, you can get fantastic deals, like a $190 round-trip ticket from New York to Las Vegas, about $170 lower than published fares. The catch?The first leg has a two-hour layover in Salt Lake City; the return flight leaves at 6:30 a.m. and stops in Los Angeles. Keep in mind as well that the fare you name doesn't include taxes, and that if Priceline finds the ticket for less, you still pay what you bid. Expedia.com has a similar service, but it has eliminated those two drawbacks.
Luckily, several new companies have joined the fray to provide more flexibility. Hotwire.com puts a different spin on the ticket auction by eliminating customer bidding altogether; instead, the site submits your desired route and travel dates to its airline partners and asks them to bid against each other. With 6 of the top 10 airlines now on board, Hotwire consistently turned up great deals. In our search for six domestic trips (the site doesn't yet offer international fares), it always found the lowest price, often by a large margin. We shaved $142 off published fares from Los Angeles to Newark, and $276 off a trip from San Jose to Dallas. Of course, there's still a catch: Hotwire gives you 30 minutes to mull over the purchase, and only after you enter your credit card information does it reveal the airline, route, and flight times. If that sounds like too much advance commitment, consider Savvio.com, which runs a declining-price auction where the cost drops as your departure date approaches. The site provides, up front, all information about the flight and the number of tickets available; you can track the price and delay your purchase until it reaches the amount you want to pay.
With powerful booking engines, fare-watcher services, and last-minute-deal sites all online, about the only reason to head to an official airline site these days is to check up on your frequent-flier miles. (Even for that, you're better off clicking on Biztravel.com, which can track your miles with 55 separate frequent-flier programs in one place.) Differences among the major airline sites are minimal. Although some are decidedly low-tech—you won't get even basic services such as e-mail confirmations on reservations at Southwest—all do let you check your frequent-flier account balance. Northwest (www.nwa.com), Continental (www.continental.com), and United (www.ual.com) will send your flight information to a pager, Internet-enabled cell phone, or wireless Palm device.
Finding a hotel room online is far more complicated than booking an airline ticket. For one, because you're more likely to care about which hotel you're sleeping in, things like location, room size and view, and special services and amenities often matter as much as price. And if you do want the best rate, remember that hotel pricing can also be quite complex. The rate you get online may vary from the one you get over the phone or from a travel agent—sometimes it's better, sometimes not. And no matter how hard you look on the Net, "some special rates may never show up," says Fiona Swerdlow, an online travel industry analyst with Jupiter Communications.
If you're loyal to a particular hotel chain, do check out its official site: every company from Days Inn to the Four Seasons is online, and many offer special Web deals. Large chains, such as Starwood and Marriott, allow you to search across their separate brands with one query, and display hotel and room details as well as proximity to local attractions. But if you want to search among different hotels in a particular area, head to Travelocity.com. Its database of nearly 48,000 hotels is easy to use and often lists the same information you'd find at the hotel company sites. In our tests it also did the best job of showing a variety of special rates—including discounts for eligible groups (AAA members, senior citizens), credit card deals, and time-sensitive offers from the hotel—and offered specially negotiated rates with many properties.
AUCTIONS, CONSOLIDATORS, AND LAST-MINUTE DEALS
Priceline.com began auctioning off hotel rooms not long after airline tickets, and Expedia.com purchased hotel consolidator Travelscape.com earlier this year in part to provide an inventory for its new hotel-auction feature. While you can save a bundle (in our tests, as much as 60 percent) by naming your price for any hotel room in a particular city, you're taking a big chance. And although both Priceline and Expedia allow you to narrow your search by selecting a class of hotel, neither gives you much guidance in navigating their arbitrary rating systems (what, exactly, constitutes "three-star"?). Similarly, none of the last-minute-travel sites impressed us. LastMinuteTravel.com did find us a $159 room at the Boston Back Bay Hilton at the height of the fall season, but in every location we checked, its offerings drew primarily from the same three hotel groups: Hilton, Holiday Inn, and Radisson.
Our advice?When price is an issue, try a consolidator. Hotel Reservations Network (www.hoteldiscount.com) stands out for its broad selection, ease of use, and savings ($276 at the Mondrian in L.A., for example, compared with $310 from the hotel). With the recent addition of 15 destinations, HRN now has rooms at 2,000 hotels in more than 75 cities across the United States, Canada, and Europe. Select a destination on the home ;s exact location, its type, and the price.
Lonelyplanet.com brings its "less fluff, more hard info" philosophy to the Web with in-depth cultural and historical background on destinations as varied as Croatia and Toronto, although it tends to be light on hotels and restaurants. (For $19.99, you can also download one of 16 Lonely Planet guides to your Palm Pilot and get updates from Citysync.com.) Information on well-traveled destinations—Rome, Hawaii—is searchable at Fodors.com, and you can customize and print out your own personalized guides sorted by location and price.
You'll find up-to-the-minute listings and reviews on Citysearch.com, which provides hotel, restaurant, nightlife, shopping, and entertainment information for more than 77 cities (mostly in America but a handful abroad). Through its partnership with Ticketmaster, Citysearch also provides a convenient way to purchase tickets to events.
If you've got a personal digital assistant, you can log on to Vindigo.com and sync your PDA to get free information on what's happening in Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and San Francisco.
Looking for something different to do on your next trip?Whatsonwhen.com tells you where to find the aurora borealis, that traveling DalÌ exhibition, or just about anything else that's going on in 21 cities on six continents. For U.S. events, also try Culturefinder.com—its 350,000 listings contain detailed arts and ticketing info.
Zagat has been pointing travelers in the right direction for years with its series of handy, pocket-sized guides. Zagat.com gives you access to more than 20,000 restaurant reviews with comments from local diners in all major U.S. and international cities.
Although some online food sites (such as Opentable.com) focus solely on restaurant reservations, Foodline.com goes one step further by providing original content from food critics, recommendations based on your mood, menus and recipes from restaurants in 25 cities—and a booking engine for real-time reservations. If you want a second opinion, click on the links to Zagat.com or Citysearch.com and you'll go directly to their reviews of your selected spot.
Never be lost again with Mapblast.com and Mapquest.com. Both provide everything from door-to-door driving instructions to local Yellow Pages. For city guides to go along with your maps, head to Mapquest; Mapblast has more-detailed live traffic reports and maps that are a bit easier to read. Looking for satellite and searchable atlas maps?Log on to plasma.nationalgeographic.com.
Worldclimate.com is the farmers' almanac of the Web; its historical rainfall and temperature data can help you plan your trip at the best time. When you're interested in up-to-date information for specific places, skip Weather.com (three-day forecasts) in favor of Accuweather.com, where you'll find 10-day forecasts for 55,000 cities worldwide.
TRAVEL AGENTS ONLINE
The Internet was supposed to be the undoing of travel agents, but when it comes to planning a trip from start to finish, it's clear that for many consumers an agent's expertise still has value. In a classic case of fighting fire with fire, agents are now using the Web to sell vacation packages and attract new customers. Our picks for the best travel-agent sites:
Vacation.com A nationwide network of more than 24,000 agents, it lists hundreds of vacations, searchable by region, price range, and type. When you find one you want, the site hooks you up with a travel agent near you.
Byebyenow.com The most visually appealing site, it has interactive videos and 360-degree virtual tours of featured destinations, properties, and cruises, so you can see what you'll get before you book.
Virtuoso.com Your link to 5,000-plus travel specialists who arrange everything from diving expeditions in Fiji to luxury cruises of the Falklands. Fill out a member profile and you can view what's on offer. For full-scale vacation planning, however, you'll need to communicate directly with one of the agents via e-mail or over the phone.
If you're looking to buy a full-scale vacation package, your best bet is still a travel agent. few travel web sites we found do an adequate job of providing information and recommendations.
euro-vacations.com, which sells good customizable trips (only in europe), and travelocity.com, whose thorough descriptions of trips let you compare offerings—when you've found a trip you like, you book from the tour operator