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The Best of the Web

It's getting more and more difficult to remember travel before the Internet. Whether you're looking to book a trip or just plan one, chances are you'll spend at least some time surfing the Web. But with so many sites to choose from, how do you know where to go? To get you ready for your next trip to the computer, we checked out all the major sites (and hundreds of minor ones) to find the best on the Web now.

We started by comparing rates for airfares, hotel rooms, and car rentals at the most heavily used booking sites—such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity—to see which delivered the lowest prices. Unlike in the past, this year we found few discrepancies in price. When there were differences, no pattern emerged to suggest when a higher or lower price would appear at any given site. Which means that if you're booking on-line, your best bet is either to try as many sites as you have patience for, or to simply log on to the one whose features you prefer.

In the past year, the leading sites have continued to add bells and whistles, such as one-click cruise pricing at Orbitz and vacation-rental searches at Hotels.com. But a trend has emerged. "It's the year of the hotel on-line," says Jared Blank, travel analyst with Jupiter Research. He expects on-line room bookings to grow from $7 billion in 2002 to $9 billion in 2003. Still, just 16 percent of hotel-room reservations are currently made on-line, and the major sites are scrambling to increase their bookings by offering more properties, discounted rates, search options, and content—good news for consumers. Travelocity recently added AAA ratings, and all the sites have made sifting through search results easier. Hotels.com added a pull-down list of landmarks you can select to find nearby hotels, and it quickly became the site's most popular feature.

The major booking sites have new competition, however. "Hotels are trying everything they can to get customers onto their sites," says Blank, including guaranteed low rates and last-minute deals. The most important Internet launch of 2003 was Travelweb, owned by the hotel chains Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, InterContinental, and Starwood. The site has more than 44,000 properties in its database, including 10,000 that offer special negotiated rates.

Travelweb's prices aren't always consistent with those on the hotels' own sites—even at properties managed by Travelweb's owners. At Intercontinental.com, for instance, we found a weekend rate of $189 a night at the Willard in Washington, D.C. For that same weekend, Travelweb quoted us a rate of $265. (Orbitz, Travelocity, and Hotels.com all offered rates somewhere between the two, while Expedia didn't show any rooms available.) As we reported in our June issue, we typically uncovered the lowest rates at the hotels' own sites, but the big travel sites were also worth checking. You can add Travelweb to that list.

Many sites are pushing packages this year: bundled airline tickets, hotel rooms, and/or car rentals that you put together yourself. You generally have a choice of airlines, flight times, hotels, and rental companies, with one price tag for the entire deal. The sites claim that suppliers are willing to offer better deals because consumers can't see how rates break down in each category. Travelocity, Orbitz, and Hotels.com all launched such packages last summer; Expedia has had them since 2001. In our tests, we did find good prices by using this option. A four-day trip from Boston to Miami, including airfare, car rental, and three nights at the Delano, cost $1,308 when built as a package on Expedia, $72 less than when we priced each component separately. It certainly took less time as well.

Bargain hunters have another on-line ally: flexible searches. If you're not set on specific dates, several sites will let you view a range of prices all at once. Orbitz has three new fare search options for air travel in the United States or Canada: weekend trips (you specify the month you'd like to go, and the site gives you prices for flights leaving Thursday through Saturday and returning Sunday through Tuesday); bonus days (you specify the dates you'd like to travel, and the site gives you prices for up to three days before and after each date); and flexible stays (you specify a month and a time frame—say, two to four or seven to 10 days—and the site gives you a variety of options). In each case, Orbitz returns an easy-to-read chart with the lowest prices for all the combinations of dates. When we tried a weekend trip from New York to Puerto Rico for this month, ticket prices ranged from $287 to $552. Travelocity will do similar searches for both domestic and international flights and over longer periods of time, but instead of a chart showing all the fares, you see the lowest prices first and have to click through multiple windows to view all of your options. At press time, Expedia had plans to introduce flexible searches for international and domestic routes by early September.

Renting a car on the Web is also becoming easier—and a relatively high 39 percent of leisure car rentals are booked on-line. Taxes and fees have always been an unpleasant surprise in this category; depending on the city and rental location, they can add up to 70 percent more to the base price. Travelocity and Orbitz now have "total pricing" for car rentals, listing complete rates by agency and car size, though they don't include optional insurance. At press time, Expedia was planning to add similar calculations this fall.

Once you've booked everything, you can take advantage of one of the biggest time-savers that went mainstream this year: on-line flight check-in. Travelers can now pick or change seats and print out boarding passes with all the major U.S. airlines. Log on to the airline's Web site up to 30 hours before takeoff and you can go directly to the gate at the airport. The service is mostly limited to electronic ticket holders on domestic flights (Northwest also allows it for flights to Europe and Asia), and in a few cases you need to be a member of the carrier's frequent-flier program. American, Northwest, United, and US Airways let passengers who get a boarding pass on-line check bags curbside, but on Continental and Delta you can have only carry-ons.

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