Best Travel Websites
Now offering more flexibility, deeper information, and unheard-of prices, the web is still changing travel for the better.
Where once travelers looked to the web simply for last-minute airfares or cut-rate hotel rooms, today the online possibilities are dizzying: you can access your itinerary on pretty much any device, from your laptop and BlackBerry to your iPad and television; immediately tap into the local scene via location-based technology; or instantly share images and videos with 100 of your closest friends on social-networking sites.
During the past year, we’ve scoured travel websites looking for the best of the bunch, from tried-and-true classics to brand-new standouts that are revolutionizing the way we plan and take our trips.
The major booking engines—Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity—all debuted smart new services in an attempt to stay ahead of the competition in 2010. Expedia’s Unpublished Rates feature, for example, offers discounts of up to 55 percent on more than 25,000 hotels. Orbitz’s new hotel search now incorporates everything from street-view images to amenity filters. And Travelocity now offers users “top secret” listings for rooms that are up to 45 percent off rates, revealing the hotel name upon booking.
And, after more than two decades of DIY online booking, we finally have some serious quality filters: membership-only sites and personalized trip planning are making sure your vacation doesn’t turn into some kind of web-special nightmare. Vacationist.com, a free invitation-only site by Travel + Leisure and LuxuryLink, offers members up to 60 percent off top hotels around the world. You can get travel perks with Founderscard.com for $495, and expert travel advice from Indagare.com starts at $275.
A new crop of websites and mobile-based services offers coupons and daily deals at restaurants, bars, and spas in cities across the country. Scoutmob.com posts a new bargain each day; Wahanda.com features great spa promotions in cities throughout the U.S.; and New York City–based Yipit.com aggregates listings from deal sites in one daily e-mail.
Ever ahead of the digital curve, Google continues to offer great ways to help you travel. Google Translate can decode a menu, phrase, or travel site within seconds, and the new Google Voice gives you a free voice-over-Internet phone number that can receive forwarded calls. You can even make international calls from your smartphone at rock-bottom rates.
Some of the best digital travel innovations aren’t even websites. Today, it’s even possible to create your own Wi-Fi hot spot—no matter where you are—using small devices that connect to mobile networks, such as Clearwire’s superfast 4G iSpot and Virgin Mobile’s prepaid MiFi 2200. As an alternative to exorbitant roaming rates, new affordable rental services like XComGlobal's MiFi Global Hotspot give you unlimited personal Wi-Fi around the world for $17.95 a day.
No matter where you go these days, the web can go with you and make travel easier, more affordable, and definitely more fun.
Search for Flights: Kayak.com
Click Factor: Unlike many booking sites, which often list fares that are no longer available, Kayak searches 200 sources in real time so you'll find actual airfares (including all fees and taxes). The variety of customizable filters—airlines and carriers to frequent-flier consortia and arrival times—is unrivaled. You can also set up a daily fare alert and wait for the price to go down. New this year: the Explore feature, which offers a world-map view of fares, makes it easy to pick a destination.
Drawbacks: It isn’t always easy to find a range of fares, since Kayak only spits out what's available in real time. Also, discount carriers such as Southwest Airlines and easyJet aren’t always included as a rule.
T+L Tip: Book your flight through the airline’s site if Kayak offers you that option—it’ll save you a lot of hassle should you need help from the airline en route.
Find Bargain Fares in Europe: Momondo.com
Click Factor: Denmark-based Momondo pulls from more than 800 travel sites around the world, including low-cost, charter, and regional airlines often ignored by the bigger sites. It’s particularly strong in Europe, where it regularly searches local sites such as Lastminute, Opodo, and Thomas Cook, as well as all the regional airline sites. Fare comparison is easy, since results can be presented in a color-coded calendar format with different prices listed for each day.
Make Sure You’re Getting the Cheapest Flight: Yapta.com
Click Factor: Every travel-booking site from Orbitz and SideStep to Bing offers fare-tracking updates, but only Yapta does it for a specific flight at a specific time on a specific airline. So if you absolutely have to take the last nonstop flight out of Paris (Air France 008 at 7:10 p.m.), Yapta will send you an e-mail as soon as the price goes down. If you’ve already bought your ticket and the fare drops, the service will let you know if you’re eligible for reimbursement.
Compare Flights: Insidetrip.com
Click Factor: Insidetrip.com assigns a rating (1–100) to the overall desirability of a flight based on three hard-to-find-in-one-place criteria: speed (overall travel time; on-time arrival percentage; security-line waits), comfort (legroom; fullness of flight; age of aircraft), and ease (lost-bag rankings; connection time; departure gate location).
Make the Most of Your Miles: Webflyer.com
Click Factor: From the skinny on which airlines are most likely to give you elite-status upgrades and the amount of miles you’ll get for a particular flight to the conversion rate for transferring miles between programs, WebFlyer will help you earn and redeem your miles wisely. The network also offers mileagemanager.com, a $15-per-year online service that tracks your various memberships and alerts you when miles are about to expire.
Drawback: Because of a dated design, browsing is a bit of a multiple-windows chore.
Pick the Right Seat: SeatGuru.com
Click Factor: On SeatGuru, you’ll find 700-plus seat plans for nearly 100 airlines around the globe, with the best and worst seats color-coded in each section. Every flight is backed up by user reviews, too, so you can get specific feedback on, say, whether or not there’s a cupholder or if the noisy location near the galley is going to keep you awake. Also useful are the comparison charts with information on in-flight amenities (video screens; Wi-Fi; power outlets).
Drawback: You can’t actually choose your seats from the site, though you can book a specific flight via TripAdvisor.
Stay on Top of Airfare Deals: Airfarewatchdog.com
Click Factor: Unlike other travel-planning hubs, airfarewatchdog.com’s staff of actual humans searches for and finds the best deals (all bookable with a couple of clicks) and posts them as soon as they go up, making sure to filter out any that are already sold out. Plug in your departure city, and the site will provide an instant list of special deals, along with handy information such as restrictions and minimum-stay requirements. The site also compiles a daily list of the 50 best fares around the world.
Drawback: Deals are only for flights originating in the U.S. and Canada.
T+L Tip: Subscribe to the site’s newsletter and get e-mails announcing new deals as soon as they go live.
Track a Flight: Flightaware.com
Click Factor: The most user-friendly site of its kind, FlightAware has a simple, color-coded layout that lets you plug in your flight number or itinerary and instantly get a live, interactive map showing the exact location of the plane. Additional information includes how much time has elapsed since the plane left the gate and actual departure and arrival times. You can search by airport, which has the added bonus of pulling up a live map that shows the location of all the flights coming in and out of that destination. You can also sign up for e-mail or text-message alerts for a specific flight.
Drawback: As with other tracking sites, FlightAware has less accurate data for European routes.
Find Your Way Around an Airport: iFly.com
Click Factor: iFly is the Web’s most exhaustive guide to 679 airports (409 of them international). Need to get those postcards postmarked from Miami before you get on the plane? iFly will tell you where the nearest airport mailbox is. It also provides information about today’s weather, average delay time, in-terminal restaurants and stores, parking, rental cars, and wait times for security.
Drawbacks: Some listings are outdated and maps are a little hard to read.
Find Great Values on Luxury Properties: Vacationist
A T+L partnership with travel-auction guru Luxury Link has deals on upscale hotels around the world. Recent sales at Mexico’s Villa Zihuatanejo and the Elounda Mare Hotel, in Greece, offered rooms for less than $175, a 25 percent savings from listed rates. Membership, which you request via e-mail, is free, and the site posts two seven-day-long sales per week.
Score a Cut-Rate Room: Priceline.com
Click Factor: The Name Your Own Price feature of this dotcom-era pioneer of travel deals is still the best place to score a luxury room: choose the neighborhood and star ratings you'd prefer, enter the price you’re willing to pay and your credit card information—and then bid away. If your bid is accepted, your credit card is charged and the room is reserved. If it's too low, you won’t be charged and can try again. The same functionality goes for airfares and car rentals.
Drawback: Unless you’re willing to downgrade your request by resetting the filters (e.g., fewer stars), you have to wait 24 hours to bid on the same hotel again.
T+L Tip: Forums like betterbidding.com can tell you what hotels Priceline tends to use in different markets, so you can try selecting certain neighborhoods in a particular city to get the hotel you want.
Find Out What a Hotel is Really Like: TripAdvisor.com
Click Factor: With more than 35 million user-generated reviews—featuring text, guest-uploaded photos, and percentage of positive recommendations—TripAdvisor is a great prebooking resource. A typical hotel profile has lots of options, including reviews (sortable by date, ratings, and even type of traveler), rates, information about other hotels in the same neighborhood, and special discounts. Plus, the site recently partnered with flipkey.com to add a section on vacation rentals.
Drawback: Reviews may include the occasional hotel-generated plant, but a profile system for each user makes such posts easier to filter out.
Pick the Perfect Room: Tripkick.com
Click Factor: Tripkick scours hotel specs to help you select a room based on size, location, amenities, noise level, and other criteria. It’ll also help you pick hotels for their proximity to train stations, subway stops, and key locations—perfect for business travelers with early-morning meetings.
Drawback: While there’s an impressive mix of domestic and international destinations, from Denver to Dubai, certain major cities, including Berlin, Shanghai, and Tokyo, are still missing from Tripkick’s lineup.
Select a Property That's Right for You: Raveable.com
Click Factor: This site aggregates information about and reviews of properties from across the Web—including TripAdvisor, Citysearch, and Yahoo Travel—and then summarizes them into pithy pros and cons. It also ranks properties against other hotels in the same city and provides excerpts from user reviews. You can also search properties based on popular features or keywords—such as hotels with in-room Jacuzzis, free parking, swim-up bars, or a location near, say, the American Girl store.
Drawback: The site only covers domestic properties.
Bid for Your Stay: Luxurylink.com
Click Factor: T+L Vacationist.com partner Luxury Link tops other auction sites when it comes to the breadth and variety of properties, trip categories, and package deals. You can score three nights at the W Barcelona for $939 (normally priced at $2,187) or a 12-night transatlantic Silversea cruise in a Vista Suite for about $9,000 (that’s 60 percent off the list price). Get even better deals with “mystery auctions” that start at a mere $1 and rise in increments of $1 (the only information provided is the country in which the deal is offered and some of the luxury amenities included). If the suspense of an auction is too much, you can also buy set packages for $1,500 or less.
T+L Tip: The fine print varies on each deal—watch out for added fees, taxes, and cancellation costs.
Manage Your Vacation: Tripit.com
Click Factor: After you book a flight, hotel, or car rental, just forward your confirmation e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and the service will input the information into an online itinerary for you. The site also sends you text or e-mail reminders to check in (which you can do from the site itself) and, for premium subscribers ($69 per year), updates on any flight delays or gate changes. You can easily add restaurant reservations and other excursions to your itinerary and share your trip information with fellow travelers, LinkedIn contacts, Twitter followers, and Facebook friends.
Drawback: If you change your flight or hotel reservation, you have to manually remove it from the site.
Outsource Your Planning: Zicasso.com
Click Factor: Just fill out an online questionnaire that briefly details the trip you’d like to go on—for example, to take a family of seven to Iguaçú Falls and Patagonia for one week—and within two business days you’ll get price quotes and sample itineraries from up to three travel companies (all vetted by Zicasso). Then simply contact the travel company you like and fine-tune the trip via e-mail or phone. There’s no obligation to purchase, and you pay the travel company directly.
Find a Luxury Villa: Homeaway.com
Click Factor: The site has more than 230,000 properties, many of them high-end—some rentals are by owner, others by property managers. The reach is global, with listings available on six continents. Check out HomeAway’s sister sites, vrbo.com (for more U.S.–based rentals by owners only) and vacationrentals.com (for deals on beach houses, ski chalets, and other leisure properties). All three sites are covered by HomeAway’s Carefree Rental Guarantee up to $1,000 for free (additional coverage available for $49).
Arrange a Last-Minute Affordable Rental: AirBnB.com
Click Factor: Not only do you get images, amenities lists, guest reviews, and information about the hosts but AirBnB also provides a user-friendly search mechanism (cities, dates, property type) to help you find exactly what you’re looking for. At press time, AirBnB had apartments in 6,757 cities in 156 countries, with more being added every day. Since you’re paying by credit card, your payment doesn’t go to the hosts until 24 hours after you’ve checked in and approved of the space. Deals are impressive: a recent search yielded $52 for a night in a large studio for two, with high-speed Wi-Fi and use of two bicycles, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district.
Drawback: Some hosts request nonrefundable deposits, which are handled outside of AirBnB, so check reviews before you send any money in advance.
T+L Tip: Make sure you see lots of pictures and read reviews before you book—if you have a question, use the messaging system to get more information directly from a prospective host.
Swap for a Stylish House: LuxeHomeSwap.com
Click Factor: A worldwide house-swapping site that’s aimed at the design set, Luxe Home Swap has everything from one-bedroom apartments to sprawling houses. Looking for a two-bedroom apartment next to the Tate Modern in London? No problem. How about four bedrooms in a village near Lucca, Italy? For a membership fee of $159, it could be yours for a week.
T+L Tip: A lot of the listings are second homes, so you don’t necessarily have to arrange a simultaneous swap.
Shop Around for the Right Cruise: Cruisecritic.com
Click Factor: Whether you're looking for a cruise that's luxurious, romantic, tailored to families, or fitness-focused, this site will give you the download through comprehensive reviews by editorial contributors and more than 50,000 user-submitted critiques. You'll find extensive information about every cruise ship that’s currently sailing—it even allows you to browse through cabin photos and deck plans before you book. You'll also get alerts on the latest deals and guides to ports around the world.
Get Free Driving Directions: MapQuest.com
Click Factor: It’s a tough choice between MapQuest and Google Maps, but MapQuest gets the edge thanks to a recent redesign that makes it just a bit easier to use. The new all-in-one box lets you search not only by address but also by the name of the hotel, attraction, or town. MapQuest offers loads of extra on-map listings—gas stations, lodging, restaurants, and airports—all of which are easily activated by clicking on the icon at the top of the map.
T+L Tip: If you plan to make the same trip more than once, you can save routes in a My Maps folder.
Share Your Pics: Flickr.com
Click Factor: This photo site from Yahoo showcases big, pretty pictures and has lots of useful features such as a map that automatically shows where your photos were taken and the capability to add keyword tags and comments about photos. A personalized home page displays photos chronologically in a “photostream” and allows you to create additional pages, such as “sets,” “galleries,” and “favorites.” You can upload easily from Flickr to Facebook, and there is an option to automatically notify your Facebook friends when you’ve updated Flickr. Plus, you can order prints from Flickr through Snapfish and choose to allow other users to print your photos.
Post Your Videos: Vimeo.com
Click Factor: Everyone’s a director on video-sharing site Vimeo, and a famous one at that. You create a profile—the basic version is free, but a more advanced option with unlimited albums costs $60 per year—which features videos on your home page, plus includes comments from your friends as well as stats about you. You can also choose to have Vimeo updates appear in your Facebook news feed.
Create a Photo and Video Blog: Posterous.com
Click Factor: A supercool, brand-new, ridiculously easy option for blogging neophytes, Posterous lets you post photos or videos without registering simply by e-mailing them to email@example.com. The site will send you a URL by return e-mail, which you can then circulate to your friends, who also won’t need to register to view your post. If you opt to use the “autopost” function, the site will automatically upload photos directly to Facebook or Flickr, make posts into Twitter updates, or paste them onto existing personal blogs.
Find a Local Business: Yelp.com
Click Factor: The original word-of-mouth user-generated review site for everything from local restaurants and spas to nearby ATM’s, hardware stores, and pharmacies, Yelp now has more than 12 million write-ups to offer travelers. While international coverage was previously a weak point, in the past year Yelp has launched sites in Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, and the U.K.—so, if you speak French, you can search and evaluate potential dinner options in Nice, Bordeaux, or Paris.
Drawback: Since Yelp relies on user reviews, listings can be out of date. Be sure to call first.
Learn (or Brush up on) a Language: Livemocha.com
Click Factor: Livemocha combines online lessons (flash cards, videos, multiple-choice questions) with live conversation and lessons with native speakers. The entire process takes place online—make sure you have your Webcam, headphones, and mic working on your computer. More than 35 languages, including French, German, Italian, and Spanish (basic courses are free; active courses from $19.95 a month).
T+L Tip: Sign up for language exchange—where you help others learn—and you may earn free lessons of your own.
Share Your Trips with Friends: Facebook.com
Click Factor: The social networking site has thousands of apps, but some of the best and most popular revolve around travel. Dopplr will post a map with your travel route on your Facebook wall (viewable only to those you designate). Meanwhile, Where I’ve Been—which shows all the places you’ve visited on a map that runs on your Facebook page—lets you compete with others for bragging rights on who’s traveled to the most places (as well as solicit and share tips on destinations).
Drawback: Adjusting your privacy settings—who gets to see your trip information automatically—can be complicated.