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.