For travelers, Web searching used to mean scrolling through a few major booking sites and a handful of user-friendly hotel and airline pages. Now, the choices are dizzying. To make your life a little easier, we've picked the top 28 sites you need to know.
When it comes to travel, the Web continues to grow. New search engines like Kayak.com are sprouting up, and older sites like Hotwire.com are expanding capabilities. To find the best the Internet has to offer—from adventure tours to wireless hot spots—we sifted and searched through hundreds of travel-related sites, looking at their user-friendliness, functionality, and even aesthetics. Below, the sites you should bookmark immediately.
Adventure A travel agency and tour operator founded in 1999, iExplore.com lets you book thousands of tours worldwide and provides extensive details on each. We like the ratings on difficulty, comfort, and exclusivity, too.
Airline Seats It's not just for airplane geeks: seatguru.com's cabin diagrams (listed by aircraft for 30 carriers) cover legroom, ergonomics, entertainment options, power outlets, and armrests.
Airports Turn to worldtravelguide.net for plenty of info on all the major airports, including maps, transfer options, nearby hotels, driving directions, and even shopping and dining facilities.
Auctions Our choice for discounted air, hotel, cruise, and rental-car rates is Hotwire. For hotels, it provides the greatest amount of background information—star rating, customer reviews, price, and neighborhood—without actually revealing the property's name until you book. Last year, the site expanded to include European hotels and time windows for airfares.
Budget Airlines In recent years, dozens of low-cost carriers have taken wing from Europe to Asia. Find a comprehensive list, arranged by route, on whichbudget.com.
Camping For a searchable directory of campgrounds, try woodalls.com, which also includes a database with details on destinations, along with services, directions, and ratings.
Cooking Classes You'll find the largest number of links to culinary classes and tours at cookforfun.shawguides.com, which allows you to browse by date, location, or area of interest, from American Regional to Wine.
Cruises Online agent icruise.com makes searching for a cruise easy, whether it's by destination, departure port, sail date, cruise line, or specific ship. The site also has telling photos and lots of ship details, including member reviews, tipping policies, and dinner seating times.
Ecotourism Wondering how to travel while supporting environmentally friendly policies?The eco-minded certification group Green Globe 21 lists participating hotels and tour companies online at greenglobe21.com. The program, founded by the World Travel & Tourism Council, is one of the most rigorous around.
Electronics To figure out which electrical adapter or phone plug to use, or to find a list of international codes for calling into and out of every country, kropla.com is a good resource.
European Trains We found the widest selection of rail tickets, from single fares to multi-country passes, on raileurope.com. Last year, the site added real-time booking, so you can reserve a seat on a specific train for point-to-point trips, rather than buying an open ticket first and reserving later.
Health Clubs Looking for an indoor pool near a particular address?There are 7,000 fitness centers, spanning 74 countries, listed at healthclubs.com.
Hotel Reviews Although the big-three travel agent sites do have hotel customer reviews, tripadvisor.com's collection is still the most comprehensive, with 3 million reviews of more than 200,000 properties and attractions, plus links to guidebook reviews and candid user photos. You can also search by popularity, price, and neighborhood—but you can't book here.
Last-Minute Travel For a wealth of information on last-minute airfares, plus hotel, car-rental, vacation-package, and cruise prices, we like smartertravel.com. And if browsing through this busy site gets too cumbersome, just sign up for the free weekly e-mail.
Loyalty Programs It would be hard to pack much more detail on airline, hotel, and car loyalty programs into webflyer.com. The site has opinionated ratings and reviews; it also lets you track multiple programs and stay up-to-date on promotions.
Maps The smoothest interface for driving directions and addresses is at maps.google.com, which offers the option to view regular maps or satellite images. Unfortunately, it's mostly focused on the United States—although London maps are also online.
Pet-Friendly Find more than 25,000 hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, campgrounds, and beaches that accommodate pets on petswelcome.com. The site allows you to make reservations online, but still advises calling the hotel to double-check its pet policies.
Photos For storing and organizing vacation photos, flickr.com is our pick. Not only does it make uploading easy, but it plugs users into a giant community of shutterbugs who share photos with one another. (Each photo is organized by subject, like "durian" or "Eiffel Tower," so it's simple to search.) The site permits you to upload 20 megabytes of photos a month free, but after that, it's $24.95 a year.
Search Aid Our favorite one-stop destination for competitive hotel and car-rental prices is Kayak, which launched last year. The site quickly searches more than 100 Web sites, including discount agents and hotels' own sites. The results page is somewhat bare-bones, but there are multiple ways to sort through listings, and clicking on each one gets you more details and booking info.
Spas The well-organized spafinder.com, with a database of 3,000 spas around the world, allows you to search by spa type, location, and more than 150 specialties and therapies, from acupressure to yoga classes. Other features include a glossary, articles, and new spa listings, updated monthly.
Theme Parks For everything from news to reviews to safety data, themeparkinsider.com has the details on nearly 70 theme and amusement parks worldwide. The reader opinions are especially useful, with ratings from 1 to 10 on attractions, restaurants, and hotels for each park.
Traffic Reports We prefer Google's maps (see "Maps"), but if you're heading off on a weekend getaway, maps.yahoo.com is the only site with live traffic, speed-limit, and construction updates, so you can avoid that tractor-trailer incident on I-95. Plus, the new interface, although still in beta testing, is fairly sleek and easy to use.
Travel Advisories If you are concerned about safety, check travel.state.gov for official travel warnings and country-by-country consular information sheets that brief travelers on everything from political news to medical facilities to road conditions.
Vacation Rentals With a hefty database of 17,000 vacation rental properties in the United States and Canada, resortquest.com just unveiled a redesigned Web site in February, which offers interactive maps, advanced search functions, and more details on each property.
Wireless Internet Access At jiwire.com, you can easily search more than 100,000 wireless hot spots—both paid and free—in 117 countries, by zip code or city. On the road?Narrow the search to hotels. You do have to scroll through a sponsored listing or two before you get the results.
As airlines and hotels draw customers to their own sites, the major online agents—Orbitz, Travelocity, and Expedia—are fighting back by offering improved features and functionality. In testing, we've found that no single site consistently comes up with the best price for hotels, cars, and flights, but each does have its strengths. Here are a few of our picks by category.
Customer Service All three sites have upgraded lately. Here, Travelocity has made the strongest push, training employees to help customers with everything from canceled flights to missing rental cars to hotel rooms that fall short of expectations.
Price Comparisons For flight, hotel, and package prices, Orbitz has the clearest and most intuitive interface by far. Its matrix display makes it easy to compare airfares by airline and number of stops, and hotel prices by star rating and neighborhood. If you're looking for a hotel and flight package, you can view your options and savings on one page.
Customer Reviews Unlike at other sites, only guests who have booked their stays through Expedia can review a property for the site, and opinions stay online for just a year, ensuring that content remains unbiased and up-to-date. And Expedia isn't lacking for content: it has more than 80,000 hotel reviews.