T+L's Top Travel Websites of 2009
T+L put hundreds of travel websites to the test to uncover the top 45 you need to bookmark before planning your next trip.
Search For Flights
Click Factor: Even as its competition grows, Kayak remains the most functional and flexible airfare-search site, compiling data from more than 200 online sources. The site is particularly good for trip planning: it allows you to search a whole region, such as the Caribbean, Europe, or Asia, and (with the Buzz tool) you can see the best fares that other Kayak users have turned up for upcoming weekends or a given month. Kayak’s filter options make it easy to find the combination of price, schedule, and even airline alliance that suits your needs. We also like the new baggage-fee calculator.
T+L Tip: For the best deals, we advise looking for fares here and then going directly to the primary source to book.
Predict When to Buy
Click Factor: Formerly farecast.com, this site is now backed by Microsoft and works and looks better than ever, forecasting whether fares on major domestic routes will go up or down. Its easy-to-use seven-day Price Predictor gives research-backed recommendations about whether you should book now or wait until fares drop. (See “Fare Forecasting” for a closer look.)
Drawback: It searches only half the sources that Kayak does and occasionally doesn’t transfer you directly to the purchasing page. You may have to reenter your search criteria after it sends you to the airline or online travel agency, which can be frustrating.
Ensure You’re Getting the Lowest Fare
Click Factor: Of the scores of websites offering best-price guarantees, Orbitz distinguishes itself with the most comprehensive program: should another customer book a cheaper fare after you’ve booked yours, you will be sent a check for the difference automatically. (See “What’s New at the Top Booking Engines” for information on Orbitz’s Hotel Price Assurance program.)
Runners-up: Both expedia.com and priceline.com offer similar services for airfares, but require on-their-toes travelers to do price research of their own: if you find a less costly flight than your original within 24 hours of booking, you may contact the website for a refund of the difference and a $50 coupon to put toward future bookings.
Book Low-Cost Carriers Within Europe
Click Factor: With low-cost carriers still proliferating across the Continent, Wegolo searches 75 different airlines serving more than 700 destinations. It works best for advance bookings, but can do last-minute searches as well.
T+L Tip: Click on “price” to get a breakdown of the taxes and fees you’ll pay, which, on certain flights, can be as much as (if not more than) the ticket itself.
Find Bargains in Asia
Click Factor: Travelocity’s Asian affiliate links with online agencies in six countries, often yielding bigger savings than you’ll find outside Asia. It even performs flexible international searches: up to three days before and after a specific date on business- and first-class fares.
T+L Tip: Zuji excels at finding fares within Asia; if you’re looking for flights to the region, try searching on itasoftware.com to get an idea of when the best fares are offered, then do a final check and book through Zuji.
Perform Flexible-Date Searches
Click Factor: Orbitz, Cheaptickets, and many other online aggregators actually run on Ita Software’s platform, and, frankly, it’s easier to perform a flexible-date search here. You can look by weekend or over the span of one month. The site digs up special fares that even the airlines’ own reservations agents don’t know about. It breaks down all the components of the price, so you’ll see base fares separate from taxes and fees. It also alerts you to tight layovers.
T+L Tip: Since you can’t book on the site, keep the fare code it gives you handy: You’ll need to reference it when you call the airline to buy your ticket.
Receive Fare-Sale Alerts
Click Factor: This human-powered site separates itself from other, less intelligent ones by searching where most don’t (including for Web-only fare sales) and alerting you to deals virtually the second they happen. Bonus: the Airfarewatchdog team hunts down promo code deals, including those on Southwest Airlines and Allegiant Air, calculates the discount, and lists the fares one by one. And unlike many online travel agents, a team of actual people is constantly verifying seat availability; if it’s no longer available, the site won’t list it.
T+L Tip: Read Airfarewatchblog for more ideas on searching and great insight into airline travel in general.
Track a Flight
Click Factor: Created for aviation buffs, this sophisticated tracking site is also remarkably consumer-friendly: Just plug in an airline and flight number, and it’ll show you on a live, animated map exactly where the plane is. It also has great weather updates and a function that allows you to type in an airport code and see all the flights that are coming and going. Just for fun: Want to see every Boeing 737 in the air over the United States? Look it up here.
Drawback: The service area is limited to the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, and the United Kingdom. If you’re tracking a flight originating from outside those places, Flightaware will pick it up only when it enters the area.
Make the Best of a Layover
Click Factor: The most comprehensive airport guide online, it has terminal maps, layover ideas, restaurant information, ground transportation, and even security checkpoint wait times at 400 domestic airports.
Drawback: Some major international airports aren’t represented (why Bahrain and not Dubai or Abu Dhabi, for example?) and some tips are discouragingly generic, such as layover ideas for Paris-Charles de Gaulle International Airport: “Go to the Information Center.”
Pick the Best Room
Click Factor: Like seatguru.com, which guides fliers to the best seats on airplanes, this site gives travelers the scoop on the specific hotel room to request based on view, noise level, size, and even the quality of the bathroom. (For instance, request an odd-numbered room in the MGM Grand’s 100 Wing for the best view of the Las Vegas Strip.)
T+L Tip: Keep checking back on the site, which is quickly growing: At press time, it had reviews for 500 hotels in 27 cities, with a new city scheduled to launch each month.
Choose a Hotel by Feature
Click Factor: How has a six-month-old hotel review site already amassed more than 35 million opinions? By collecting them from other sites, such as TripAdvisor, Yahoo!Travel, and VirtualTourist. Raveable aggregates reviews and—even better—uses them to highlight each property’s pros and cons and create roundups of hotels by special feature, such as “Hotel rooms with Jacuzzi.” It also helps your search by separating hotels into categories such as “romantic,” “kid friendly,” or proximity to nearby attractions.
Drawback: Though Raveable’s ratings seem authoritative, don’t forget that they’re based on averages of both biased and unbiased reviews. As you would with TripAdvisor (see below), take the time to read the actual reviews.
Hear What Hotel Guests Really Think
Click Factor: With 100 percent user-generated reviews of roughly 70,000 hotels around the world, TripAdvisor is not only helpful but also highly entertaining. Sure, it’s had its problems with planted posts, but its 11 million members can generally sniff out a rat, and the sheer volume of posts helps highlight the odd fake review. Plus, we love the unvarnished room photos posted by users. Nothing says romantic honeymoon like putting pics of your petal-strewn bed online for the world to see.
T+L Tip: You may know it for hotels, but don’t discount TripAdvisor for flight searches. It now has a fees estimator, which accounts for extra charges for baggage, in-flight headphones, and onboard alcohol and snacks.
Score Last-Minute European Hotel Deals
Click Factor: Look no further for last-minute bargains on hotel rooms, especially in popular European destinations. We love the deeply discounted rates on four-and five-star properties in the United Kingdom available through the site’s Secret Room (the names of the hotels are revealed only after you book).
T+L Tip: Hold on to the reference code LateRooms gives you; you’ll need it to get the marked-down rate when you call the hotel to book.
Locate Your Dream Villa
Click Factor: HomeAway is the one-stop shop for rentals, with the largest selection of rent-by-owner properties—more than 185,000 apartments, houses, and villas around the world. The site makes searching easy: You can look for special features, such as pet friendliness, proximity to the beach, and Internet access. Plus, HomeAway now offers up to $10,000 protection against fraud and deposit loss.
Drawback: Some properties are lacking user feedback since the site is still amassing reviews.
Get the Skinny on a Rental
Click Factor: Majority owned by TripAdvisor, this new vacation-property site is gaining a reputation for its user reviews. Though it’s still growing, the site already has more than 90,000 listings, most reviewed by former renters.
Drawback: Although the site’s North American and Caribbean coverage is extensive, its international listings are more limited.
Organize Your Trip
Click Factor: Forward your electronic travel confirmations to this personal travel organizer, and its Itinerator will gather them into one place, create an itinerary, and add helpful extras, such as maps, weather forecasts, events listings, and other travel information. The site’s social-networking feature will alert you if there’s a chance you could bump into a friend using the service (and with similar travel plans).
T+L Tip: Most of Tripit’s features are free, but for an annual fee of $69, you can add mobile alerts about cancellations and delays, create an inner circle to share your details with friends—or your assistant—and keep track of loyalty points. There are many ways of accomplishing these things at no charge via other Web services, but you pay for the convenience of having them all in one place.
Score a Real Package Deal
Click Factor: Launched in late 2008, Dealbase compiles package deals from thousands of hotels, newsletters, rewards clubs, and online travel agencies, and then pulls apart their components, pricing them à la carte to let you know how much you’re really saving.
Drawback: More deals, please! This valuable service only covers the United States, the Caribbean, and Mexico. But it’s expanding internationally before the end of the year.
Search for Activities and Experiences
Click Factor: The booking engine’s interactive Experience Finder compiles ideas for hotels, tours, activities, and events for 30 destinations (major U.S. cities, plus Bangkok, Barbados, Cancún, Hawaii, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico). The portal is intuitive and easy to use—we love the built-in almanac on the events calendar page—and is a great source of inspiration even if you don’t know where you want to go.
T+L Tip: Don’t miss the downloadable Travelocity Toolbar, which has deals, driving directions, language translations, time zones, a currency converter, and flight status reports.
Save Money on Gas
Click Factor: Reported and updated by regular drivers, the site lists stations and their gas prices (for all fuel grades, including diesel) by state, city, or ZIP code. The interactive Trip Cost Calculator helps drivers plot their route according to which places have the best fuel prices for their vehicle type.
Drawback: Because of its dependence on “real people” to report prices, coverage can be spotty.
Navigate the Roads
Click Factor: Google Maps remains hands-down the most functional and accurate mapping tool on the Web: just type in an address and get a location or driving directions. Even better, use the My Maps tool, which lets you customize maps with virtual tacks to note the places you want to stop along the way—great for long road trips. Google’s Street View feature, a 360-degree, eye-level view of the street, gets better every day, and you can find it on Google’s Android platform and Apple’s iPhone.
Drawback: Bear in mind that for developing countries, you’ll find major arteries, but sometimes not specific addresses.
Cruises & Specialty Travel
Find the Cruise That’s Right for You
Click Factor: This comprehensive site picks apart virtually every sailing on the seas, with pictures, authoritative editor reviews, good last-minute deals, and news updates. Travelers can search by port of call, departure city, date, and cruise line.
T+L Tip: Use the site for researching cruises, but when it comes to booking, look to a travel agent. On most cruises, the best staterooms are reserved early through agents.
Bid on Luxury Hotels
Click Factor: If your travel dates are flexible, you can find deals of up to 65 percent off at luxury hotels around the world. The best part: there’s no membership fee to use the site.
T+L Tip: If you don’t feel like bidding, use the Buy Now feature.
Advice & Resources
Decide Where to Eat in the U.S.
Click Factor: Yelp has grown from a Bay Area site into a nationwide resource (with additional presence in Canada, Ireland, and the United Kingdom), giving establishments up to five stars based on ratings and reviews from its avid visitors, which number 25 million a month. The site’s restaurant coverage is extensive and full of off-the-beaten-path recommendations.
Drawback: Reviews can be patchy in some cities.
Runner-up: opentable.com, where reviewers must have made a reservation to write about a restaurant.
Read Practical/Thoughtful/Zeitgeisty Travel Stories
Click Factor: The new online newspaper’s travel section runs up-to-the minute travel headlines, unusual stories (an essay on hotel reviews as social commentary), exclusive book excerpts from writers such as Alain de Botton, and interactive travel maps.
T+L Tip: Check out the site’s regular Sunday travel scorecard that follows print newspapers’ travel sections.
Find the Perfect Travel Book
Click Factor: This online bookstore brings order to the world of travel publications. While you can find much of what’s here on Amazon, Longitude takes a more neighborly attitude toward travel reading, recommending “summer reads,” “neglected classics,” “food & wine”—all organized geographically. The site’s “essential reading” list narrows the most useful reads for each region to four or five picks, helpfully grouping them at the top of the page.
T+L Tip: Can’t find what you want? Call the store. Longitude can special-order your book and its well-traveled staff can recommend books for any trip.
Seven sites that every globe-trotter should keep handy.
Subway and bus directions for eight domestic (New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C., among others) and two international (Paris and London) cities.
T+L’s currency converter of choice, covering 164 different currencies.
Public restroom locations for more than 120 countries.
Travel advisories covering everything from civil unrest to health concerns.
Lists phone numbers for more than 100 domestic and international airlines.
Comprehensive subway maps for 250–300 cities worldwide.
Searchable database of more than 9,000 worldwide airport codes.
Twitter Travel Watch
Don’t get put off by all the useless chatter out there. We give you five globe-trotting Tweeters whose travels are worth following.
The venerable NBC journalist writes about newsworthy events that affect travelers (flu news, hurricanes, earthquakes).
If you’re looking for adventure getaway ideas, the celebrated cyclist provides plenty of inspiration by chronicling his trips, such as a recent family hike up Aspen’s Ajax Mountain.
Whether she’s eating at Brasserie Lipp, in Paris, or shopping at Ganesh Handicraft Emporium, in Udaipur, India, the fashion designer reviews her favorite spots worldwide.
When the British chef isn’t posting cooking tips, he’s offering great advice on where to eat around the globe. A recent find: Vij’s, in Vancouver.
The artist and pop-culture icon gives the inside scoop on edgy exhibitions (“See This Sound,” a group art show in Linz, Austria) and discusses volunteer travel projects she’s involved with, such as Workcamp, in Iceland.
Addiotional reporting and writing by Lisa Cheng, Jennifer Flowers, Bree Sposato, and Sarah Storms.
We asked our online editing team to share where they go for travel advice—and a little amusement.
Rich Beattie, Executive Editor
At travelmuse.com/inspire, you can customize your trip by entering a theme, luxury level, home airport, number of people traveling, and desired budget and distance.
blogs.reuters.com/oddly-enough includes off-the-wall travel photos and fun news roundups.
Sign up with tripchill.com to receive travel alerts via your mobile phone, including flight-delay updates and reminders of where you parked your car at the airport.
Ann Shields, Senior Editor
been-seen.com, a travel and design blog from the owners of Puerto Vallarta’s Verana hotel, is full of compelling reasons to hit the road.
Musician and artist David Byrne’s blog, journal.davidbyrne.com, follows his musings on art, politics, and design. The site has great photography, too.
strangemaps.wordpress.com posts rare maps—some real, some fictional. A recent entry revealed the first road atlas of Britain, drawn on several scrolls of paper in 1675.
Adrien Glover, Deputy Editor
The contemporary art-and-design blog mocoloco.com keeps me up-to-date on lesser known events and amazingly cool new products from around the world.
Every week on joesnyc.streetnine.com, digital photographer Joseph O. Holmes posts an image of New York street life—a Chinatown cook, out for a smoke; a crowded museum bench.
A ridiculously fun time-waster, titanicawards.com is full of quippy entries, photos, and surveys on such topics as which nation produces the world’s rudest tourists or has the most crowded beach.
The recently launched Airline Fee Chart summarizes what carriers are charging for certain services, from extra baggage and seat selection to meals. Plus, the site now partners with TripAdvisor’s SeatGuru to provide detailed aircraft seating maps (so you can book the spot with the most legroom). For those who prefer to travel by car, the new Drive Gateway tool allows users to search for road-trip ideas using three “trip length” options: full tank (151–300 miles), half tank (76–150 miles), or quarter tank (up to 75 miles).
When searching for a hotel, you can get the per-night cost breakdown (base rate; taxes; fees; total price) up front, along with 360-degree street-level views of the property, thanks to added Google technology. The site’s Hotel Price Assurance policy monitors the room cost of the property you’ve booked until your day of departure; if another Orbitz customer reserves the same hotel at a lower price, you’ll get a cash refund for the difference.
A redesigned, more intuitive home page has an easy-to-use toolbar that lists hotel and flight deals, as well as real-time pricing updates. And now, if you buy a package and another customer later books at a lower price, Travelocity will pay you from $10 to $500.
Looking for an unvarnished opinion on a hotel or restaurant? Here are five sites that offer the inside scoop.
More than 11 million members worldwide share their opinions on hotels, restaurants, and activities in more than 70,000 cities.
Best For: Honest and uncensored remarks.
The online version of the guidebook posts member comments along with editorial reviews of restaurants and hotels.
Best For: Tailored advice from a long-established source.
Globe-trotters on treks from Mongolia to Moldova share personal experiences, photos, and recommendations in the form of journals.
Best For: Ideas and insider tips for jaunts to off-the-beaten-path locations.
This meta search engine generates its own property rankings based on data aggregated from TripAdvisor, Travel Post, Virtual Tourist, and other review sites.
Best For: Users wanting to compare opinions from various sites.
Paid reporters offer in-depth analysis of hotels in popular destinations, with hundreds of photos and breakdowns of service, rooms, and location.
Best For: No-nonsense, lengthy reviews that give you the overall picture of a place.
The ability to predict when airfare is at its lowest is the holy grail of online booking engines—and bing.com claims to have found it. To test the accuracy of the site’s seven-day forecasting technology, T+L tracked a mix of 30 domestic and international routes for one week. The bottom line? An impressive 87 percent of the time, Bing made the right prediction on whether to buy our ticket or wait, saving us $260 in one case. We did find serious bugs in the site’s Fare Alert e-mail system, which is supposed to notify users of price drops: while it worked well for some testers, others received only sporadic warnings. Below, a look at some of our searches.
T+L Test Cases
Asheville, N.C., to Miami
Original fare: $277
Bing recommendation: Buy
Result: The price climbed to $461 on day three.
Vancouver to Montreal
Original fare: $666
Bing recommendation: Wait
Result: The price dropped to $406 on day four.
Denver to Honolulu
Original fare: $947
Bing recommendation: Buy
Result: The price dropped to $552 on day two, but was only available via Fare Alert.
Newark to Amsterdam
Original fare: $653
Bing recommendation: Wait
Result: The price climbed to $699 on day seven.