Best Travel Websites and Apps 2011
From easy-to-use hotel booking tools to smart ways to share and edit your photos, these are the best travel websites and apps out there.
As anyone who’s ever tried to wade through page after page of listings in the travel section of Apple’s App Store can attest, the digital landscape for travelers is both excitingly and bewilderingly expansive. In less than 17 years, we’ve gone from being able to book an airline ticket online to telling a Shanghai cabdriver the address of our hotel in perfect Mandarin via a smart-phone app. Now the question isn’t: What travel websites and apps are available? Rather, it’s: Which ones are essential? That’s where T+L comes in. We’ve spent the past few months road testing hundreds of travel sites, apps, and services both new and established—sometimes getting exactly what we needed (such as, say, that corner room with the great view) and other times finding ourselves high and dry in the dreaded last-row middle seat. Here, our picks of the travel sites and apps that will change the way you travel for the better.
Get an Instant Itinerary: mTrip
Click Factor: If you’re traveling to Amsterdam, Chicago, Prague, Vienna, or any of the 28 global cities covered by mTrip, all you have to do is input your travel dates and lodging and what you want to see and do, and the service will instantly calculate a daily, location-appropriate itinerary, complete with reviews, directions, and distances from your hotel. (Each city has its own app for $5.99.) Or just explore your destination with the service’s augmented-reality app, which uses your smartphone’s camera.
Drawback: Reviews of some venues can be scant.
Tip Properly: GlobeTipping
Click Factor: Do you know how much to give a hotel porter in Tuvalu or a waiter in Bermuda? Don’t worry: it’s optional, according to this app’s tipping advice for more than 200 countries, from Afghanistan to Zambia, which make it the most comprehensive of the global tip calculators. Speaking of which, the app includes one, which will factor in tips by percentage and divide the overall bill by number of diners.
Drawback: Specific information for different types of services—housekeeping, spas, taxis, and the like—is uneven.
Know When to Buy: Bing
Click Factor: When it comes to fare predictions, Bing’s travel section is unbeatable, using algorithms and historical data to determine whether an airfare will go up or down—and whether you should wait or jump on that ticket before it’s too late.
Drawback: There’s no dedicated Bing travel smart-phone app—and travel is curiously missing from Bing’s stunning iPad app.
Pick the Best Airplane Seat: SeatGuru
Click Factor: Never be trapped in a last-row, non-reclining middle seat on a flight with no Wi-Fi again. Enter an airline and flight number and SeatGuru calls up a detailed airplane plan, indicating seats that are desirable (emergency exits, those with extra legroom, etc.), average, and simply bad (reduced legroom or recline). It also has reviews of different airline services, as well as quick-scan icons for such in-flight amenities as food, entertainment, in-seat power ports, and Wi-Fi.
Drawback: For accurate results, you have to know the exact departure and arrival times, since airlines tend to swap out planes depending on the time of year.
Plan Your Trip: Kayak
Click Factor: Kayak’s website has become a one-stop shop for everything travel. You can use it to search for airfares and hotel rates, get fare alerts and map real-time deals, and—our new favorite function—manage itineraries with My Trips (just forward flight, hotel, and other travel confirmations to Kayak and they’ll load onto a customized online itinerary). The apps let you search and book on the fly, access information on airports and airline fees, and receive price and fare tracker alerts.
T+L Tip: If your travel plans are flexible, try the Buzz feature on the app, which gives you the best fares for a particular month on a specific route.
(Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad, and Windows Phone 7)
Search for Flights and Hotel Rooms (Without the Agony): Hipmunk
Click Factor: Hipmunk’s intuitive, color-coded bar charts make it easy to scan flights by cost, carrier, length of flight, and itinerary. Results can be filtered by the usual categories (price, number of stops, etc.) and also by “Agony,” which factors in flight length, number of stops, and price. Hipmunk’s site offers a similar approach for finding hotel rooms, delivering results in filterable Google Maps.
Look for Flights in Europe: Momondo
Click Factor: Momondo scours more than 800 sites including Opodo, Thomas Cook, discount airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet, and even high-speed rail networks like the TGV, and delivers the results in an attractive, multicolored design with innovative filtering options. The new iPhone app searches just as many sources for flights, and lets you scroll through different suppliers with the swipe of your finger.
Drawback: Results for domestic flights in the U.S. are hit or miss.
Make the Most of Your Miles: MileBlaster
Click Factor: This Web-based service, which is optimized for mobile phones, is by far the easiest and most comprehensive way to keep track of all your frequent-flier programs (including elite ones) and make sure you use your miles before they expire. For a one-time app fee of $5.99, you also get up-to-date listings, by program, of current bonus offers, plus a trip calculator, so you can see exactly how many miles you’ll earn.
(Android, Nokia, iPhone/iPad)
Find a Cruise That’s Right for You: CruiseCritic
Click Factor: Whether you’re looking for a five-day, family-friendly tour of the Caribbean or an intimate classical-music cruise in Europe, you’ll find the most comprehensive user and editor reviews of ships, cabins, and ports of call at this website. Cruises are searchable by a range of criteria: price, region, lifestyle (singles, gay, family, etc.).
Drawback: Why no mobile app?
Snag a Deal on a Room: Priceline
Click Factor: This 13-year-old website’s name-your-rate feature is still the best place to get a deal on rooms around the globe. Just enter your travel dates, price, and credit card information, then pick the neighborhoods and quality levels you want. If your price is accepted, your reservation is made. If it isn’t, there’s no charge, and you can bid again. It works the same way for car rentals and airfare.
T+L Tip: You have to add or remove filters each time you place a bid within 24 hours, so start broad and then narrow down. You can hone your bidding strategy at BetterBidding.com.
Drawback: Unlike other travel-booking sites, it doesn’t let you accrue any miles or points.
(Android, iPhone, iPad)
Find Out What a Hotel is Really Like: TripAdvisor
Click Factor: With more than 45 million user-submitted reviews and pictures of more than 474,000 properties around the world, the TripAdvisor site is a required stop for anyone researching hotels. Thanks to integration with Facebook, travelers can now read reviews from Facebook friends. The iPad app uses GPS to help you find nearby hotels, or you can enter a destination and get a ranked list, plotted for you on a Google Map.
Drawback: As with any user-submitted setup, some reviews should be taken with a grain of salt, but you can check the veracity of a write-up by contacting the poster directly.
(Android, iPhone, iPad, Nokia, HP WebOS, Windows Phone 7)
Get the Room You Want: Room 77
Click Factor: Nice views and proximity to (or distance from) the elevator are just two of the criteria you can select on Room 77, which uses official hotel data, visitor reports, and geographic coordinates to find the best accommodations for you. You’ll also find virtual room views via Google Earth and floor plans for thousands of hotels.
Book a Last-Minute Room: Hotel Tonight
Click Factor: Ask any traveler who has been stranded at an airport in the middle of the night: finding a last-minute room can be an expensive hassle, since most hotel reservation services are closed by midnight. This new app can book you a room as late as 2 a.m., often at reduced rates. To make things simple, just three hotel results pop up on any given search. The app is available for 13 cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, and more are being added every month.
Drawback: The service is a mobile-only app, so while you can technically access the site from a computer Web browser, you won’t be able to book.
(Android, BlackBerry, iPhone/iPad, HP WebOS)
Score a Private Room or Apartment: AirBnB
Click Factor: Now in 181 countries, Airbnb offers 110,000 owner-rented apartments, houses, and rooms—often for less than you’d pay for a hotel. Each property gets a slideshow, and both rooms (and guests) are reviewed by users. If for any reason you’re not pleased, you can get your money back, since payment isn’t made to the host for 24 hours after you check in.
T+L Tip: Rate hosts after each stay—it will raise the status of your profile and make you a more attractive candidate.
Find a Place for the Whole Family: HomeAway
Click Factor: Focused on privately owned vacation rental properties, HomeAway—along with its sister sites VRBO and VacationRentals—is a great first stop for group travelers. The more than 250,000 properties on offer are particularly strong in popular destinations such as Cape Cod and Paris.
Drawback: City listings are uneven—a search for apartments in Tokyo yielded only 11 results.
T+L Tip: HomeAway’s Carefree Rental Guarantee protects you if the property is double-booked or drastically different from what was advertised.
Trade Your House: Luxe Home Swap
Click Factor: Exchange your place for an apartment in Palm Beach, Florida, or a hacienda in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Membership is $159 a year for as many swaps as you’d like, and the site makes it easy for you to contact owners and confirm stays with a digital contract.
Drawback: You do have to swap your house in order to stay somewhere else, so be prepared to make your place guest-ready.
T+L Tip: Check with your home-insurance provider to make sure you’re covered for guests.
Keep Busy During a Long Layover: iFly
Click Factor: The most comprehensive airport guide online offers advice on what to do while you’re waiting, whether you’re looking for dinner, a manicure, or a quick tour of your locale. It also has parking information, ground delay updates, and hotel listings for nearly 700 airports around the world. Downloadable maps mean you don’t have to worry about accessing plans while roaming internationally.
Runner-Up: GateGuru (app only)
Manage Your Trip: TripIt
Click Factor: Every travel-booking site worth its salt now offers the itinerary-management features that TripIt pioneered, but few include such extras as integrated frequent-flier and loyalty-point trackers (you’ll need to get the Pro version for $49 per year). You can share itineraries with other members and post your itinerary on Facebook. TripIt will also integrate your itinerary with iCal or Google Calendar, as well as dozens of other travel apps, including FlightTrack Pro and Taxi Magic (which helps you with taxi and limo bookings). You can now add and amend plans on the iPhone, iPad, and Android apps.
(Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad)
Stay Social While You Drive: Aha Radio
Click Factor: No other car-optimized app can read you a text-to-speech mix of news from NPR and CNN, real-time traffic information for your route, and the latest Facebook and Twitter updates. Press the mic button and record an audio message that can be posted on your Facebook wall.
Drawbacks: As of now, it doesn’t play music, and draws from limited news and talk-radio sources.
Get Turn-By-Turn Directions: Google Maps
Click Factor: Create a route traveling by car, foot, bike, or public transportation—all of which can be sent to others via e-mail or text message via your desktop. On the app, you can also zoom in on your directions on either a road map or with a satellite view. Maps show graphic overlays for traffic, and Wikipedia entries of specific locations.
Drawback: On Android phones, the app works best with GPS turned on, which can run down your battery in as little as two hours.
(Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad)
Find Out if Your Flight is on Time: FlightTrack
Click Factor: If you want to know if your or a friend’s plane is delayed, FlightTrack is the best way to get travel updates. Enter your flight number and receive gate information and departure times, real-time flight maps, and a delay forecast based on historical stats. Delayed passengers can also search for alternate flights—and contact the airline right from the app—as well as access seat plans from SeatGuru. It costs $5 extra for FlightTrack Pro, which offers the flight-alert and delay-prediction features.
(Android, BlackBerry, HP WebOS, iPhone, iPad)
Find the Nearest …Anything: Yelp
Click Factor: The most comprehensive of business-search sites is Yelp, which lists nearby restaurants, hotels, banks, etc., via your phone’s built-in GPS. Contributed by other users, each listing features an address, phone number, pictures, reviews, and a map with directions. Yelp now works in Canada and some European countries.
Drawback: As is the case with most crowd-sourced services, Yelp is riddled with errors—it’s only as good as its users, so make sure to flag anything you find that’s incorrect.
(Android, BlackBerry, HP WebOS, iPhone, iPad, Windows Phone 7)
Find the Best Philadelphia Cheesesteak: Foodspotting
Click Factor: This location-based service lets people recommend specific dishes and share images, reviews, and thumbs-up or -down ratings. There’s a website, but we like the app, which sends you images of notable meals near you. Users can also employ the service to find the best dishes at a particular restaurant and access guides from the likes of Anthony Bourdain.
(Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, Windows Phone 7)
Speak Like a Local: Rosetta Stone TOTALe
Click Factor: The renowned Rosetta Stone language-learning system is now fully online and even has an iPhone app so you can practice your phrases in more than 30 languages (Arabic, French, Russian, Turkish, etc.) while waiting in an interminable security line at the airport. Rosetta’s format skips formal grammar lessons in favor of computer-game-like repetition, in which you hear questions and answer them by clicking on pictures and responding, conversationally, into the mic.
Drawback: Starting at $179, this system isn’t cheap, and you need headphones and a mic to make it work.
Translate on the Go: Google Translate
Click Factor: If you need to ask, say, for more towels in Turkish or Haitian Creole, just press the app’s on-screen mic button and speak a phrase. Google Translate will deliver both a text and audio version in one of two dozen different languages (text-only translations are available for 34 more, Afrikaans and Yiddish included). Translations are surprisingly workable, especially for such basic phrases as “May I have a cup of coffee?” Best of all? It’s completely free.
Drawback: The computer-simulated voices on the apps are generic, especially when compared with the various personalities available from for-pay competitors.
Stay in Touch: Skype
Click Factor: This Internet telephone service lets you make unlimited free audio or video calls via your computer or mobile phone to other Skype users. You can also make inexpensive calls to outside phones—for as little as 9.2 cents per minute to landlines in India, for example.
Drawback: You can’t make calls with Verizon’s Skype app over Wi-Fi.
(Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad, Windows Phone 7)
Share Your Pictures: Flickr
Click Factor: Flickr remains the easiest, quickest, and most versatile way to show off your photos—and now it handles video, too. Users can share on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other sites by simply clicking on the appropriate icon and adding captions and titles if they want. Other conveniences include easy uploading via a dedicated e-mail address and smart-phone apps.
T+L Tip: It’s worth shelling out $25 per year for a Pro membership to get more than the standard 300 megabytes of images or two video uploads per month.
(iPhone, Windows Phone 7)
Update: Android vs. iPhone/iPad
When it comes to travel apps, which operating system has the edge?
Android: Though Android offers more than 200,000 apps in its market, many are of the me-too variety, developed and released after an iPhone success—except, unsurprisingly, for Google apps. On Android, the free Google Maps Navigation offers full turn-by-turn, text-to-speech directions with street names, Street View mode, and walking directions (not so on the standard iPhone or iPad apps).
Apple: Apple can claim more than 400,000 apps, with most of those created first for the iPhone (including magazine and newspaper apps that still work only on the iPhone or iPad). Exclusive video-calling apps like FaceTime ensure you can make free calls to others with iPhones or iPads, while the superb in-phone camera and camcorder apps, such as iMovie, make capturing and sharing your vacation on-the-fly easier than ever.
Update: Hotel Sites
Travel + Leisure’s own members-only site, Vacationist.com, gives you serious discounts at luxury hotels acoss the globe. For unique, under-the-radar boutique properties, try MrandMrsSmith.com, which is soon launching an iPhone app that will let you book right from your handset, with an iPad app to follow. Or, try polling fellow travelers online with Gogobot.com, a new social travel network that lets you pose questions about any destination or venue to your Facebook and Twitter friends, as well as other Gogobot members. To avoid buyer’s remorse, prescreen your hotel at Oyster.com, which provides reviews that can be quite revealing (you can compare official hotel website images with reviewers’ snapshots). Scared of bedbugs? Raveable.com now lets you search by destination for hotels that have had bedbug reports within the last 12 months.
Three Ways to Find a Hot Spot
Wi-Fi never seems to be available where you need it. Here, a few tips on creating your own connection.
USB or Bluetooth: Every carrier sells USB devices that give your laptop online access via 3G and 4G mobile networks, usually for about $40 per month. With the app Tether (from $30), you can use your BlackBerry or Android smartphone to get your computer online. Be mindful of how much you surf, especially if your plan has data limits or you’re traveling internationally.
Smartphone or Tablet: Some Android and iOS phones and tablets have built-in features that allow travelers to use their devices to create hot spots for up to five gadgets. On most Android phones and tablets, look for the 3G Mobile Hotspot setting and follow the prompts. Average cost: $20 monthly for 2GB of data.
Portable Hardware: The Clear Spot ($99) personal hot spot allows up to seven devices online, while Virgin Mobile’s Broadband2Go MiFi 2200 ($150) offers unlimited data for $50 per month. If you’re going overseas, rent a MiFi device from Xcom Global ($18 per day). The connection can be used with your laptop, smartphone, and tablet.
Update: Major Booking Engines
Expedia: The site’s recently launched location-aware Expedia Hotels iPhone app lets you find and book accommodations near you. Expedia is also now partnering with Groupon to deliver flash-sale hotel deals to subscribers, with plans to extend the service to cruises, car rentals, and other travel services.
Orbitz: In November 2010, Orbitz launched iPhone and Android apps that offer a suite of all-in-one features: you can search and book hotels, flights, and car rentals; manage and access your itineraries; check on your flight status; and find out gate and baggage information. The new iPad app covers hotels, with more functionality on the way.
Travelocity: A smart redesign of the home page means that you automatically get the latest deals from your local airport, as well as information on travel topics trending on Twitter. Updates to the app (for Windows Phone 7, iPhone, and, coming soon, Android and iPad) include access to the site’s Top Secret Hotels feature, which offers Hotwire-style, unpublished discounts to mystery hotels that are revealed only after purchase.
I can’t get enough of DesignTripper.com. The reviews and photos of beautifully designed hotels, inns, and houses around the world have inspired me to hit the road and rethink my aesthetic back home. —T+L news editor Amy Farley
Can’t make head or tail of your frequent-flier program? Don’t worry: The vocal travelers on FlyerTalk.com have already sorted it all out and are ready to advise you—on that and any other travel topic you can imagine. —T+L associate editor Jennifer Flowers
I try to use public transport, and rely on the HopStop app for directions. It works even better with the Exit Strategy NYC app, which maps all the exits in New York subway stations. —T+L director, editorial product development, Peter J. Frank