The Web is an essential tool for travelers, but as booking engines and trip forums evolve and multiply, you have to know where to look—and whom to trust. To help you, Travel + Leisure has assembled the ultimate online guide, from our picks of the top travel Web sites to jargon decoders. Over the next seven pages, you'll find the places and sources we rely on.
Booking Flights (Overall)
Comparing top aggregators (for a definition, see page 108) Sidestep and Kayak, we found that eight-year-old Sidestep's flight tool has a slight edge: A handy matrix at the top of the results page gives an overview of the lowest prices pulled from 600 airlines across 200 sites. And refining the search by departure time or airport is a breeze.
Researching Low-Fare Carriers in Europe
Don't get stuck on the name. This is a great resource for learning about 45 low-fare carriers in Europe. Select your two endpoints (say Rome and Oslo) and learn who can get you from one to the other on a direct flight (Denmark's Sterling Air). Caveat: FlyCheapo only shows you who flies where; for prices and schedules, you'll have to visit the airlines' own sites.
Locating the Best International Airfares
Decide how much you want to spend and when you want to travel, and Getaway Maps will overlay the lowest fares pulled from more than 500 airlines (most of the major U.S. carriers, as well as many international ones) for a select range of cities.
Knowing When to Book a Flight
Buy now or wait for a better price?Farecast uses historic pricing data to help you make an educated decision about whether or not a fare is likely to fluctuate in the coming week. A supplementary service called FareGuard ($10) covers the difference if they tell you to wait for a price to go down and it rises instead. Caveat: Farecast covers only 78 cities, all of them in the United States.
Booking Hotels (Overall)
This two-year-old aggregator scours 159,000 hotels worldwide, and about 10 percent of the places that it turns up have been suggested by real people, so the picks are well-rounded. (Hotels.com only lists 70,000 properties.) New features allow you to sort the listings by location (using Google maps) and view photographs.
Finding Late-Breaking deals on Luxury Hotels
Search hotels by ratings in your city of choice, and the site turns up an impressive mix of reduced rates on rooms at luxury properties. Our recent results: 23 percent off a room at the Biltmore, in Coral Gables, and 15 percent off at the Goring, in London. Caveat: The best deals take digging.
Previewing Menus in the U.S.
With approximately 25,000 restaurants across eight cities, MenuPages makes it easy to plan meals by type of food, neighborhood, price, or random craving (bialys in Philly?). Caveat: Menus may be a bit stale; 3,000 to 5,000 are updated per month. And, unlike at OpenTable (see page 106), you can't book tables online.
Nabbing the Perfect Seat
Preview seat maps—including where to find the power outlets as well as that extra inch of legroom—for 73 models of aircraft on 39 different airlines. Like most airlines these days, the site is no-frills, but you'll never get stuck next to the bathroom again.
Dishing with Global Foodies
An obsessive community of feisty people around the world share secret finds. The site features interviews with experts, videos of local culinary customs (watch how to tie pancetta), and blogs such as the newly launched Tasting Notes.
Customizing an Itinerary
Plan a trip to one of more than 90 destinations from start to finish. Along with all the basics (hotel, restaurant, and entertainment ideas), get tips on what to read before you go. Caveat: They tend to overpack an average day with suggestions.
Planning a Cruise
Research almost anything about 60 different cruise lines and gather advice on everything ship-related—from buying travel insurance to using onboard slot machines. Caveat: Not a booking site, so prices usually aren't listed.
Mapping Routes on U.S. Public Transportation
Decide on your transport of choice, as well as how far you're willing to walk, and get point-to-point directions for five cities. Bonus features: You can see what the trip would cost by taxi and look at panoramic shots of what to expect when you emerge from underground. Plus, there's a new small-screen version for phones and PDA's. Caveat: There are no actual subway maps.
Driving Directions in Europe
Scan information on 4.4 million miles of road across 42 European countries. Maps feature pop-ups with descriptions and pictures of the desired destinations; directions include estimates about what you'll spend on gas; they even tip you off to speed traps. Caveat: It requires an extra step to convert from kilometers.
Creating Comprehensive Maps Worldwide
Simple, clearly designed maps and driving instructions are just the beginning. The standout stuff: live feeds of traffic conditions and street views of major U.S. cities (only slightly creepy); addresses, phone numbers, and Web sites for what you're mapping.
180 currencies from 250 places, updated every minute. The conversion application is easy to locate (unlike that of close competitor Oanda), and you can bookmark go-to conversions. Caveat: Animations and flashing ads create a bit of sensory overload.
Finding Reliable Weather Forecasts
A notch above AccuWeather and Weather Underground, 11-year-old Weather does the best job of delivering the essentials clearly. Get current conditions for 98,000 destinations worldwide, updated every 20 minutes.
Learning About Health and Safety Abroad
A comprehensive resource with recom-mended vaccinations, embassy listings, and crime advisories for 204 countries. (Information is culled from the state departments of the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K.) Also included: tips on local customs and transportation. Caveat: Incomplete listings of doctors abroad. Free registration required.
8 More to Watch
Vayama.com A booking engine that pulls prices from all international flights originating in the United States, including those of low-fare carriers.
Yapta.com Tracks airfares after you book and will send an e-mail about a significant price drop, along with info about how to use little-known loopholes for a refund.
Travelistic.com A compilation of on-the-ground travel videos (there were more than 4,100 at press time) from real people around the world.
Meethalfway.com U.K.-based site, with a soon-to-launch U.S. version, that helps you find a geographic compromise.
Seriouseats.com New York Times writer Ed Levine filters, compiles, and analyzes all the juiciest global food news and opinions.
Airtreks.com Helps you plan complicated multi-leg itineraries without the hassle and expense of one-off tickets.
Dontforgetyourtoothbrush.com Create your own handy before-you-leave checklists.
TheBathroomdiaries.com A seemingly silly, surprisingly useful resource reviewing 12,000 public bathrooms in 120 countries.
When it comes to hotels, everyone (online) is a critic. Andrea Bennett explains how to filter out the noise
Last January, a glowing, anonymously written review of a newly opened New York hotel popped up on TripAdvisor, a Web site where travelers post candid blurbs about hotels, resorts, and restaurants. "The suites offer a distinct refinement, from the comfortable and stylish beds to the wonderful Waterworks bath features," the person wrote. The post, which set off a chain of angry messages among TripAdvisor members in the New York City forum, came on the heels of some negative reviews, in addition to a report that the hotel hadn't yet put doors on its bathrooms. "It has shill written all over it," declared member Voyagereuse. "Beware, all you hotel PR people," hotel-gossip site HotelChatter warned, "Web readers are smarter than you think."
At least we're trying to be. These days, anyone with an Internet connection and an opinion can log on and spout off. More than 24 million people per month post reviews on TripAdvisor alone. So how do you sift through the weeds and get to the trustworthy, substantive information?In many ways, that depends on what kind of Web site you're visiting. Here's a breakdown:
Peer Review Sites
One thing is sure: We like to read other people's opinions, and we're willing to act on them. TripAdvisor's user-generated content has doubled to 10 million in the past year. Seven-year-old IgoUgo, which pairs people's reviews with their profiles (and sometimes pictures), now has 350,000 members. MyTravelGuide, which allows users to rate everything from restaurants to hotels to cultural institutions, has 1.6 million visitors per month. New sites are popping up daily. For example, at Boo, launched in May, you can read a review, check out the reviewer's profile, and then book right from his or her post. Even sites primarily built for booking, such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity, are now soliciting reviews from users.
Social Networking Sites
Your teenager isn't the only one with an online community. A new breed of networking sites is matching up like-minded travelers. It makes sense: people are more willing to trust the advice of those they feel familiar with (if only virtually). So how do these groups form?Several sites use the results of offbeat questionnaires to connect users. At Gusto, a year-old networking/travel site with more than 20,000 hotel reviews and recommendations, visitors answer questions such as: "You're stuck in the middle seat on a plane between two celebrities. Who are they?" TripUp takes a similarly idiosyncratic approach: "What makes for an adrenaline rush?" or "What is your opinion of topless sunbathing?" In June, TripAdvisor added the "traveler network" tool; members can tap into their own e-mail address books (Outlook, Yahoo, Google, and more) and share recommendations with one another. Sites such as VibeAgent and aSmallWorld keep communities exclusive, by remaining invitation-only; as with any secret society, the sole way you can join is by being tapped by a current member. Once you have your log-in, VibeAgent will rank hotels for you based on what your friends recommend. And at aSmallWorld, which is funded in part by the Weinstein Company, the 250,000 members include Ivanka Trump, Quentin Tarantino, and Camilla Al Fayed. Who wouldn't be curious to read their travel tips?
Hotel companies are harnessing the power of the online world, too. This year, CEO Bill Marriott began his own blog, called Marriott on the Move, which he uses to talk about hotel news such as the company's decision to go smoke-free. Marriott filters reader responses only for obscenities, and after he posted the policy, 180 people added comments, including this one: "You went nonsmoking, I went to Hilton...." This warts-and-all treatment ends up winning trust, says Jason Price, an analyst with Hospitality eBusiness. Corporate sites that people perceive as too commercial or overly edited won't resonate as much, because customers will always "consider the source," he adds. But when the "source" is a real person, we're likely to take the advice to heart. For example, when you visit Sheraton's site, you'll find a globe covered with pop-up amateur photographs and anecdotes shared by guests at Sheratons around the world, such as a mom-to-be who satisfied a craving for spicy food with Indian-style crêpes near Sheraton's Sydney property. Alternately, when we don't know who's talking to us, our suspicions are more easily aroused. Starwood's site, TheLobby, includes advice about activities that generally ties in to one of the company's hotels. From tips on the food of Abruzzi, Italy, to info about getting clothes custom-made in Ho Chi Minh City, the places recommended are generally located near Starwood properties, which could raise questions about the sincerity of the advice. Take this: "Once properly outfitted, guests at the Sheraton Saigon Hotel & Towers might want to drop by the hotel's Wine Bar to toast their new fashions and take in spectacular views of the city." (To further complicate matters, Starwood hired some of its editors from blogs that cover the hotel world, such as HotelChatter and Jaunted, though they no longer work for the site.)
Sorting through the glut of information—and hidden agendas—is no small task. Luckily, many sites are adapting by adding new technologies that help travelers do just that. Like Amazon or eBay, on which buyers can rate a seller's trustworthiness, TripAdvisor, VirtualTourist, and Boo now allow people to comment on the usefulness of a post, and in some cases actually rate the raters' reviews. (On IgoUgo and RealTravel, the sites' editors do the ratings.) Boo also uses algorithms to safeguard against fraud, such as IP- address checks to prevent multiple reviews of a property from one source. TravelPost goes so far as to contact the hotels themselves about the accuracy of a user-generated review. Many sites won't let just anyone log on and contribute. On both Priceline and Expedia, only travelers who booked their stays through those sites may comment on a hotel. This requirement helps weed out people "with an ax to grind," Priceline spokesman Brian Ek says.
So are natural selection, vigilant editors, and the occasional algorithmic intervention enough to police the Web?A European Union-wide overhaul of consumer protection law indicates that the answer is no. When the rules are officially adopted next year, hotels, restaurants, and online shops that post fake reviews of themselves under false identities could get "named and shamed" and potentially face criminal prosecution. However, until a real shakeout happens stateside, expect to do your own scrolling—and screening.
Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity are continuing to innovate when it comes to simplifying the booking process. Here's how:
Expedia The traveler opinions feature sorts hotels by other people's reviews.
Orbitz An insider deals application, downloaded to your desktop, allows you to select up to three potential itineraries (with proposed budgets). They'll alert you with a pop-up tab when the prices match your magic number.
Travelocity Through partnerships with nonprofit organizations such as Earthwatch Institute, GlobeAware, and Cross-Cultural Solutions, Travelocity now makes it possible to plan volunteer vacations; plus, the company awards two travel grants per quarter. (Applications are available on the site.)
A collaborative online effort in which anyone can edit content (such as WikiTravel, for user-generated destination guides you can add to)
A simple tool (world clock, currency converter) that can be downloaded for use on your desktop
Also known as a meta-search engine. A one-stop site for comparing thousands of airfares, hotel rates, and car rentals.
('är 'es-'es 'fe-d)
RSS stands for "really simple syndication," a way to automatically receive updates (e.g., last-minute fares) from your favorite sites
30 percent of travel plans made using the Web by Americans in 2006
23 percent of all hotel rooms booked online in the U.S. in 2006
36 percent of all flights booked
50 percent of car rentals
5.5 million The number of Americans who changed their hotel reservations in 2006 based on another traveler's Web review
32 percent of people who search for travel ideas online but ultimately book offline because of credit card-security concerns
62 percent of Americans ages 18-26 who have a destination in mind when doing research online
83 percent of people ages 51-61 who do
90 percent of people ages 62 and up
Sources for stats: Jupiter Research and Forrester Research
"Because I often report from Third World countries, I want to know about things like security, population, income, and politics, and the U.S. State Department's Web site has all of the most current information." —Ann Curry, coanchor, Dateline NBC and news anchor, Today
"I love to check out collectibles in the destinations I'm traveling to before I go. On eBay you can actually search by ZIP code, so I get ideas about what I might find in the area." —Ross Klein, president and CEO of Starwood Luxury Brands Group
"I always look here first for restaurant reservations. It allows me to answer two questions at once—"Where should we go?" and "When can we get a table?"—without making a call or worrying about what time it is in the destination. I like the site so much, I invested in it!" —Danny Meyer, president, Union Square Hospitality Group
Diane Pernet (aShadedViewonFashion.com)
Diane Pernet's blog attracts 160,000 readers a month with reports and commentary on all things fashion. The former designer and European style arbiter also recently launched a traveling fashion film festival, "You Wear It Well."
9 a.m. Diane needs new business cards, so we meet at Stern Graveur, the centuries-old engraver to, among others, Jean Cocteau and several kings of Morocco. "If Madame Stern doesn't like you, she won't help you." Pernet whispers.
11 a.m. Off to the atelier of furniture designer and Comme des Garçons perfumer Christian Astuguevieille. "I had a coup de coeur over a chair Christian made out of gilt cotton rope that I saw at a boutique in Bilbao," Pernet says. "I knew we had to meet."
12:30 p.m. Ben Gorham is in town from Stockholm to present his new collection of five scents, so we have a sniff at the Hotel Bourg-Tibourg, in the Marais, followed by lunch à trois at teahouse Mariage Frères.
3 p.m. "It's only here that you'll ever see me try on colors," Pernet says as she models an exquisite 1950's panther topcoat in Sixth Arrondissement Ragtime. "This is the best vintage store in Paris."
4:30 p.m. Pernet lists private sales on her site. Since Anne Valérie Hash is preparing one, we survey the racks at her showroom, which glitters with 19th-century mosaics and mirrors. "Sure, there are some days I spend more time in front of the computer." Happily for us, today was not one of them.
Pernet's favorite blog: ShowStudio.com.
Ben Leventhal (Eater.com)
Erstwhile VH1 producer and longtime urban foodie Leventhal blogs about New York's cliquey restaurant scene, posting reports of openings, closings, feuds, and partnerships on the two-year-old Eater. "We don't do reviews," he explains. "Eater is about picking heroes—and villains—and tracking their stories."
5:30 p.m. Leventhal is a pavement-pounder. After scouring New York's neighborhoods for hints of change, he'll hit up as many as five new restaurants and bars in an evening. Our first stop is Morandi, Keith McNally's newest bistro in the West Village. "When I find a chef or owner who's passionate, the energy of the place is intoxicating," Leventhal says.
6:15 p.m. We hop a cab to PDT (Please Don't Tell), an East Village speakeasy accessed from a faux telephone booth inside a hot dog shop. The cocktail menu was created by mixologist Jim Meehan (of Gramercy Tavern). Leventhal makes a point of keeping up with his moves.
7:45 p.m. Join nightlife impresario David Rabin in Chelsea for a tasting at Sueños, owned by chef Sue Torres. Leventhal introduced the two, and now Torres is slated to run Rabin's latest venture, Los Dados, opening at the end of July.
10 p.m. Back to the West Village, where Harold Dieterle, a winner on Bravo's Top Chef, has opened Perilla. "You get a real sense of tone just by observing the bar." We claim front-row seats.
12 a.m. Cap off at Resto, a Belgian bistro, for a crispy pig's head sandwich (available off-menu)—our third meal of the night. "I guess I'm hardwired to explore," Leventhal says.
Leventhal's favorite blog: VillageVoice.com/blogs/food.
Jean Snow (JeanSnow.net)
Canadian expat, design aficionado, and freelance writer Jean Snow spends most mornings sifting through hundreds of e-mails and RSS feeds (see left) about new art exhibitions, design shops, and pop-culture happenings. Afternoons, he hits the sidewalks to see them for himself.
3 p.m. "The new trend is for artists and stores or cafés to collaborate," Snow explains. On the fifth floor of an office building in Aoyama, we visit A to Z Café, a joint project of Pop artist Yoshitomo Nara and design firm Graf Media.
3:30 p.m. An Agnès B. store across the street is touting a collaboration with California-based illustrator Shepard Fairey. "In Tokyo, the boutiques are almost galleries themselves, they're curated so meticulously," Snow says. Holding his camera at his waist, he discreetly takes a few shots of Fairey's paintings. "Japanese are very press-shy."
4:30 p.m. "I also find out about openings through magazines," Snow says. At the bookstore Nadiff, Snow picks up Paper Sky, OK Fred, Casa Brutus, and Pen.
4:45 p.m. The Ginza, known for expensive shops, also has a clutch of graphic-design galleries. We stop in at the Ginza Graphic Gallery; it's filled with creative product packaging and far-out typography.
6 p.m. On the seventh floor of the Matsuya department store, between women's nightgowns and stuffed animals, the tiny Design Gallery has a show of humorous print ads. "This is one of the things I love about Tokyo," Snow says. "You just never know where you'll find something really cool."
Snow's favorite blog: BoingBoing.net.
If you come across an online review that looks too good to be true, it might be. Below, our annotated guide to parsing ginned-up praise.
By Scott Brown
In all my years on this earth, I've never experienced affordably elegant serenity that even comes close to the (1) affordably elegant serenity of the Hotel Potemkin Villa. I first stayed here on a family and business trip I took for work and pleasure. The Potemkin met (2) my broad range of needs, no matter what they were! The concierge helped me navigate the city and environs, from fine restaurants to snazzy shops.
What's more, the fabulous (3) accommodations were spacious and our delightful suite was fitted with all the latest and greatest amenities: If those walls could talk, they would say, (4) "We're made of carbon-infused NoRot mold-resistant drywall and studs attached with nails, not glue."
I remember turning to my wife and (5) 2.5 children and saying, "How affordably elegant and serene is this, you guys?" They answered (and I remember this like it was yesterday): "Surprisingly affordable, considering the fine (6) Kiehl's products on offer in the spotless, spacious bathroom with Moroccan babytooth tile*****." My six-year-old, Trudy, added, "This blows so-called luxury hotels of comparable price out of the water."
I can't say this enough: this property reeks of affordable elegance and fine Kiehl's products.*
*We exaggerate, of course. But only a little.
(1) Beware ad-copy clichés. Nonindustry people do not talk or think this way.
(2) Watch out for vague praise. An actual guest is more likely to mention a particular event.
(3) Industry jargon alert! No real guest is going to deploy this kind of argot.
(4) If it's a feature only a hotelier would know about, chances are it's the hotelier praising it.
(5) The poster, like a campaign speechwriter, is trying to be excessively average.
(6) Unnecessary name-checking, although increasingly common among civilians, is still a sure tip-off.
Ever wonder what an African festival sounds like?Or wanted to hear a street musician in Lisbon?Tune into these ten one-minute audio clips recorded in cities throughout the world, and be transported.
Rome beats Milan 2-1 in a football game at Milan's San Sira stadium. Recorded by Stephen Piccolo. Listen to the audio.
A sunrise boat ride on the Ganges, along the shore of the holy Indian city, Varanasi. Recorded by Tara Anderson. Listen to the audio.
A local woman sings Fado, a haunting strain of Portugese folk music, near the Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon's Alfama district. Recorded by Kurt Tidmore. Listen to the audio.
The notes of a private piano lesson mingle with the buzz of cicadas south of the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, Japan. Recorded by Samantha Van Gerbig. Listen to the audio.
In Benin, West Africa, an ice cream vendor's horn cuts through the din of a Voodoo Festival. Recorded by Lena Strayhorn and Chris Miller. Listen to the audio.
Two Chinese operas are performed in neighboring houses one evening in San Francisco's Chinatown. Recorded by Thomas Sturm. Listen to the audio.
A local man plays a wooden crank organ in the quaint main square of Warsaw's old town. Recorded by Sean O'Neill. Listen to the audio.
Wind blows off the sea and through the World Wind Organ—strategically placed cluster of hollow bamboo pipes—in Vlissingen, the Netherlands. Recorded by Michiel de Boer. Listen to the audio.
In the Turkish city of Konya, during the holy city of Ramadan, children play while a nearby mosque broadcasts a Qu'ranic recitation. Recorded by Matthew Sansom. Listen to the audio.
An organ reverberates through a cathedral in Siena, Italy, on a summer day. Recorded by Michael Peters. Listen to the audio.
To listen to hundreds of other audio clips—or to submit your own—visit the contribution-based One-Minute Vacation project at oneminutevacation.org.