In a day and age when airlines are filing for Chapter 11 and Internet firms are pulling their names off football stadiums they used to sponsor, you'd hardly expect that combining travel with the Web would be a formula for success. But surprisingly, it is: the on-line travel industry has flourished in the past year. Internet sales will generate $26.5 billion this year, according to PhoCusWright, a research firm in Sherman, Connecticut. That's a 22 percent jump from 2001.
Why are Web-based travel companies bucking the trend? For one thing, thrift-minded consumers are likelier than ever to shop around, for which the Internet is ideal. Leisure travel is bouncing back while business travelers, who are generally less likely to book on-line, are sticking closer to home (though more and more are looking to the Web for savings). Sites are also becoming increasingly sophisticated, offering easy navigation, quick downloads, dependable privacy policies, and a wide range of choices.
Travelocity, Orbitz, and Expedia continue to dominate the booking arena, with most of their business coming from airline sales. But they are strengthening their focus on cars, cruises, hotels, and packages. In addition to the Big Three, hundreds of Web sites (if not more: a recent Google search for "travel booking" returned 46,800 results) are vying for pieces of the cyber pie. There are sites dedicated to last-minute, luxury, and adventure travel, and every other niche you can imagine.
Sounds great, but when you sit down at the computer, it can all seem pretty overwhelming. Which is best for you—Expedia or Orbitz, Site59 or Trip.com, LuxuryLink or Hotwire? The answer depends on your particular needs. Maybe you know exactly when you want to go but have a tight budget. Maybe you're looking for a hotel recommendation. Maybe you just want to get out of town—fast. Here, our picks for the best sites for a number of scenarios.
You know in advance where you're going and when.
Straightforward, inflexible, no research required: this is the kind of trip that's perfect for planning on-line. You need a hassle-free booking engine that won't distract you with superfluous offers but will provide a range of airlines, flights, and prices.
For any given search, the cheapest fare or the most convenient routing could show up on Orbitz.com, Expedia.com, or Travelocity.com. It's wise to check all three, but if you have to choose one, it should be Orbitz. For North American itineraries, it consistently offers the most choices, including many Web-only specials (Orbitz's "most-favored-nation" status with the six major airlines that own it has been called anticompetitive, but it can mean great savings). The "matrix" at the top of the screen neatly organizes domestic fares by airline and number of stops. But the list of 200-plus flight options just below renders meaningless the term high-speed connection. We say, Show us the matrix and let us go from there.
Conveniently, Orbitz lets you look into alternative airports within 25, 50, or 100 miles of your destination. We recently found a $187 round-trip from New York to Miami on US Airways, via Charlotte; a nonstop on Delta to Fort Lauderdale was only $135. The site also contacts you by cell phone, fax, or PDA with last-minute updates—say, if your flight is late.
Travelocity has a few tricks up its sleeve: it lets you hold itineraries for 24 hours, skip a few steps by using an "express buy" option, and exclude up to three airlines from a search—such as the one that consistently loses your luggage. Both Expedia and Travelocity allow you to choose your seat from an easy-to-read diagram (your selection is requested for you, but not guaranteed). Orbitz asks only, "Window or aisle?"
You're going way off the map.
Fares and itineraries for international bookings tend to vary more widely among the Big Three than they do on domestic flights: there are a greater number of airlines to choose from and fewer special fares. Again, it's worth shopping all three. But we like the fact that Travelocity was able to book us to such far-flung cities as Calcutta and Lagos, Nigeria. Orbitz didn't recognize Calcutta and found a more expensive flight for Lagos; Expedia found a Calcutta fare $600 higher than Travelocity's, and almost sent us to Lagos de Moreno, Mexico.
You want one-stop shopping and you're not choosy about where you stay.
Expedia's Book Together and Save feature lets you arrange hotels, ground transportation, and tickets for everything from theme parks to walking tours before you even select your flight. It's convenient, but the quality of hotels on offer can be inconsistent and you can't search by name. A request for an itinerary to Jamaica, for example, returned a list of 55 properties, from the mass-market Hedonism II to the more exclusive Jake's.
Priceline.com, the auction site, recently began pushing packages to 1,300 destinations in North America and Europe. Unlike its airfare-only model, you can choose your hotel before you bid. The site promises rates as much as 20 percent below Expedia's, but so far the choices seem limited. Priceline had only 15 properties available in Los Angeles during a recent test run, none of exceptional quality (Expedia, by contrast, had almost 500). And while Expedia had rooms available at the Hôtel de Crillon and the Prince de Galles in Paris, Priceline had rien.
You've got your airline tickets, now you need a room.
If you'd rather book hotels separately, don't set your heart on rock-bottom prices—or an easy ride. Discount hotel sites are increasingly popular, which is helping to hold rates down. But the big chains are becoming savvier about managing their prices, developing airline-style fare structures. That means an independent site will often have rates and inventory different from those at a hotel's call center or even on its own site—and any of these could have the lowest price. A recent search for a room at the Bellagio in Las Vegas left us dizzy: we found a rate of $379 at Hotels.com, while Bellagio.com told us nothing was available. We got a room for $229 by calling the hotel directly.
Hotels.com and Quikbook.com are consolidators that buy rooms in bulk—mostly in North America and Western Europe—and resell them on-line. Hotels.com is somewhat simpler to use, with bookings completed in a matter of minutes, but frustratingly, it doesn't provide the phone numbers of the properties if you need additional information. Quikbook does; it also carries ratings based on staff visits, doesn't require prepayment, doesn't charge for changes, and is easier on the eyes.
Still, either site could have the better price (a room at the Delano in Miami Beach was recently $26 less on Hotels.com), more choices (Hotels.com offered us 19 kinds of rooms at Chicago's Hotel Burnham; Quikbook had only two), or greater availability (Hotels.com didn't carry anything at Boston's XV Beacon; Quikbook did). Before you book, call the hotel directly to check for anything cheaper and to confirm important details, such as view and amenities. Hotels.com recently described a "double" room at the Time hotel in New York as having two double beds, but a call to the front desk revealed it to be a paltry 140 square feet, with only one double bed.
If you're not happy with the options on these two sites, there are others. Edinburgh-based All-hotels.com handles a whopping 60,000 properties—including inns and B&B's—around the world. The just-launched TravelWeb.com brings together the formidable forces of Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Six Continents, and Starwood and promises access to real-time inventory (the site was not available for us to evaluate in time for this article). London-based Andbook.com is geared to European business travelers, and has an impressive range of properties—everything from Doubletree to Kempinski to the Luxury Collection—and locations.
You're on a tight budget.
If price is your main concern, and you're willing to fly at odd hours, try the auction sites. For domestic trips, Priceline and Hotwire.com deliver essentially the same goods. Both let you name the amount you're willing to pay but reveal the details of your itinerary only after you've punched in your credit card number. Both also promise a departure between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. unless you're more flexible. Both have partnerships with 30 major airlines, though some are represented only on one or the other. Neither lets you earn miles or upgrade. The main difference is comfort level. On Priceline, if your bid is met by an airline or a hotel, you're charged automatically. Hotwire is less rigid: it gives you a choice of prices first—but no other particulars—and then lets you decide whether to continue. Our advice: See what Hotwire turns up. If you like it, book it. If you think you can do better, give Priceline a shot, bidding slightly less than the Hotwire offer.
Luxurylink.com, as its name suggests, auctions high-end hotel stays and packages at discounted prices—mostly off-season. On a recent search, bidding started at $1,550 for six nights at the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro (retail value $3,390); $5,520 for a 10-day Caribbean cruise for two on Crystal Cruises (versus $9,185); and $6,234 for a 13-night Wildlife Safari trip for two in Kenya and Tanzania (versus $10,390). The catch? Flexibility: though you'll know the range of departure dates in advance, you can't check availability for a specific date until you've paid.
Before you die, you must see the Great Wall of China (or the Sydney Opera House, or the Taj Mahal)—but not if it costs too much.
Travelocity's Dream Maps let you see what's available at the price you want to spend. Designate your departure city, price, and region of choice, and you could luck out. One recent Dream Map offered us a fare from Miami to Athens for $538 on Austrian Airlines with a stop in Vienna; a Dallas-Delhi flight (with multiple connections) turned up for $1,118 on Northwest and Air India. For each, we had to be very flexible with our dates.
Travelocity's Fare Watcher will monitor up to five routes of your choosing and alert you by e-mail when the fare goes below your designated level. SmarterLiving.com compiles airfares from Expedia, Trip.com, SkyAuction.com, and Hotels.com, as well as individual airlines and hotels, and sends e-mail notices tailored to your departure city. All you need to do is wait for your destination of choice to show up.
You want something completely different.
Adventurous sorts should head to iExplore.com, which promises more than 3,000 trips worldwide from more than 130 tour operators. You can search by destination, price, length, activity, and level of difficulty. After specifying two weeks in September in the Caribbean, we were offered four trips, one monitoring turtles in Barbados, another a cultural-exchange trip to Cuba. The broader your parameters, the more selection you'll have.
It's Tuesday and you already know you're going to need a weekend away.
Site59.com supplies Travelocity and Orbitz with last-minute deals, so it's no surprise that all three sites recently had the same package on offer: a four-night stay for two at the Sonesta Beach Resort on Anguilla, including airfare from New York, for $1,459. (Booked separately, the airfare and room would have set us back an additional $400.) However, Site59's choices are concentrated in North America and the Caribbean. The last-minute sales on SkyAuction.com are more varied but generally require a seven-night stay.
At RCIHolidayNetwork.com you can do a Resort Quick Search by specifying the month, location, and length of stay. Success will depend on the season: in summer, you're more likely to find something for the coming weekend in the Caribbean than in the Mediterranean.
Is there anybody out there?
For all its functionality, the Web will always lack one thing: human contact. But recognizing the occasional need for interference—if a user gets lost on a site or has complicated vacation plans—both Travelocity and Expedia have 24-hour help lines. These will aid you in navigating the site and purchasing your tickets (Travelocity charges $5.95 for air bookings). Orbitz's operators offer only customer service. None of the sites is reliable in a crisis, such as a canceled flight. Bottom line: if you crave personal interaction—or someone to assist you in an emergency—use a travel agent.
Best of the Rest
Air Couriers Sign up at Courier.org ($45 registration) to carry shipping documents and fly on the cheap.
Airline Food Airlinemeals.net contains the musings and tray-table photos of a Dutch graphic designer obsessed with cabin cuisine.
Airports Airwise.com lists shops, restaurants, and transportation options for more than 60 airports worldwide, plus industry news and flight schedules.
Cruises On Cruise411.com, you can book sailings on 28 lines, search for last-minute deals, and view pictures and deck plans.
Ecotourism Find news, tour operators, and links to conservation organizations on Ecotourism.org.
Electric & Phone Kropla.com's comprehensive listings of electrical and telephone systems worldwide help you figure out which plugs to pack.
Frequent Fliers Everything you need to know about mileage you can find at Webflyer.com, including program rules, double-mile promotions, and tools to keep track of your miles.
Health Clubs Fitforbusiness.com lists hotels with the best athletic facilities in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, and Australia.
Internet Cafés More than 4,000 Internet cafés in 149 countries are listed on Cybercafes.com.
Maps Mapquest.com has the most comprehensive driving directions and road maps for North America and Europe.
Opinions Tripadvisor.com compiles reviews of North American and European destinations from guidebooks and other travel publications.
Spas Make reservations worldwide at Spafinder.com and read articles from its sister magazine.
Travel Advisories The U.S. State Department's travel warnings and information sheets on every country in the world are at travel.state.gov. Supplement them with the British versions at fco.gov.uk, which are more comprehensive and less politically fraught.