With dozens of new travel sites appearing every year, it’s hard to keep track of which ones really deliver. William J. McGee of Condé Nast Traveler has put hundreds of them to the test to reveal the ones that will help you save money, travel smarter and enjoy your journeys more:
Best site for booking airline tickets
When to use it: You know where you’d like to fly and want to spend as little as possible to get there. Why we like it: While it doesn’t allow you to book your ticket, Kayak makes quick work of leading you to the Web sites that offer the lowest prices. It casts a wide net and delivers the best combination of itineraries, prices, and ease of use. It also has terrific tools, including filters that allow you to sort results by airline and airline alliances; takeoff and landing times in both directions; number of stops; flight and layover durations; sites searched; and price. On certain routes, a chart with 90-day historical fare data is provided, as well as the cheapest departure dates.
Caveat: Kayak doesn’t provide all the fare options offered by the airlines, so it always pays to search carriers’ own sites before booking through a third-party site.
Tip: If you’re not sure where you’d like to go, the Buzz feature has trip suggestions based on best fares found in recent searches, sorted by categories as varied as “Top Family Resorts” and “Best Nude Beaches.”
Runner up: In our comparison of ten domestic and international itineraries, we found ITASoftware.com provided the lowest fares for seven out of ten routes, with Kayak ranking second overall. So why not name ITA the winner? Most of ITA’s low fares come from cobbling together itineraries on multiple carriers or with quirky connections that only a travel agent can book.
Knowing when to book
When to use it: After you’ve scoured the Web to turn up the absolute rock-bottom fare. Prices change constantly and the cost of that ticket could drop — a lot — tomorrow, or even in an hour. So the key question is when to buy. The Big Three sites (Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz) and Kayak all offer features designed to address this issue, but the most innovative responses have come from new entrants, including FareCast.
Why we like it: It uses historical pricing trends to determine whether a fare is likely to drop soon. The site searches 90 days in advance for the lowest fare on a given route, then advises to “wait” or “buy.” How accurate is FareCast? After a three-month audit, Navigant Consulting found the predictions were correct 75 percent of the time, and users saved an average of $55 per pair of tickets.
Caveat: It currently covers only domestic flights to 24 cities.
Tip: Consider purchasing the Fare Guard service for $10 per itinerary. If you delay buying a ticket because FareCast predicts the price will drop within the week, Fare Guard protects you from paying more than the current price—of course you may pay less if the fare drops.
Runner up: FareCompare.com, which receives fare data from the airlines for flights within, to, and from the United States and Canada, and then posts the prices several hours before they appear on travel agency sites — and sometimes even the airlines’ own sites. Set up a “My Trips” account for alerts on pricing trends and the best dates to book.
Airline reviewsWinner: Skytrax (www.airlinequality.com)
When to use it: Before booking an unfamiliar airline.
Why we like it: A must for aviation geeks and infrequent fliers alike, Skytrax offers user reviews of 560 airports and 545 airlines. The site also evaluates service based on analysis by audit specialists. The seat pitch index alone is worth the visit.
Tip: Read the “Seat Reviews” before choosing your next window or aisle seat.
Runner up: SeatGuru.com. All you need to know about the seat comfort on nearly every major carrier.
Airport and flight information
Winner: Federal Aviation Administration (faa.gov)
When to use it: Before you leave for the airport.
Why we like it: It tells you about delays that the airlines won’t. The FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center (fly.faa.gov) is the definitive source for flight-delay information.
Tip: For further information, use the hot links to the domestic airline sites.
Runner up: Flightstats.com. It allows you to monitor airline punctuality and supplies timely updates.
Security checkpoint wait times: Waittime.tsa.dhs.gov/index.html — the site provides historical records for every screening point at every commercial airport in the United States.
DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division Airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/reports/index.htm— it offers monthly reports on flight delays and cancellations, complaints, mishandled baggage (including pets), and overbooking.
Booking flights in Europe
When to use it: To find great deals on short hops within Europe.
Why we like it: This deep database of low-cost carriers (Ryanair, easyJet, etc.) translates into bargains not always found on other sites. Wegolo searches 75 budget airlines for rock-bottom fares between European cities. Most Americans will feel comfortable on this easy-to-use site: The English-language version features straightforward booking tools and the option of rates in U.S. dollars.
On the heavily trafficked London–Paris route, Wegolo had the lowest fare among seven sites for an itinerary one month in advance. That $160 round-trip fare on easyJet was $17 lower than what Kayak posted (ironically enough, for a rate through Wegolo). For a round-trip booking 90 days in advance between Brussels and Madrid, Wegolo’s fare of $115 was $42 lower than most of its competitors.
Caveat: The European Union recently reported that its consumer rights investigators scrutinized more than 400 European travel sites and found about 50 percent needed improvement in one or more key areas: clear pricing, availability, and fair contract terms. (The names of the flawed sites hadn’t been released at press time; for updates, check europa.eu.)
Tip: The site works best the further in advance you book. It came up empty when we looked for a Rome–Athens flight two weeks before departure.
Runner up: Opodo.com; Opodo was also competitive, offering a fare of $121 on the Brussels–Madrid route. The site is sometimes called “The Orbitz of Europe,” since it was founded by that continent’s major airlines.
Booking flights in Asia
When to use it: To save a bundle on flights throughout Asia.
Why we like it: Zuji, owned by Travelocity, is a pan-Asian portal with links to online agencies based in seven countries; the prices found on those home country sites often yield much bigger savings than you’d find anywhere else. For example, for a 14-day advance booking on a round-trip flight from Sydney to Auckland, Zuji’s Australia-based site offered a nonstop fare on Air New Zealand for $370, which was $284 less than Kayak for the lowest rates on the same carrier.
And Zuji’s Hong Kong–based site posted a $195 round-trip Hong Kong–Tokyo fare on Shanghai Airlines, while the lowest fare on Kayak was $564 on Northwest Airlines. To be fair, the Northwest flight was nonstop, while the Shanghai Airlines itinerary included a connection, but for a savings of more than $300, we wouldn’t mind a short stop (Kayak didn’t list the Shanghai flight).
Caveat: Fares are offered in local currencies, so you’ll need to convert. Stick to the English-language portals — Australia, Hong Kong, and Singapore (Zuji has sites for several other countries, but they will pose translation problems for anyone who’s not fluent in at least one Asian language).
Tip: The Zuji Travel Secrets page provides user blogs with opinions on destinations, accommodations, dining, and other areas of interest.
Runner up: Vayama.com performed much better on Asian itineraries than European ones, even edging out Kayak by $28 on the Sydney–Auckland route. The site hosted one million visitors within four months of its launch last June, and promotes itself as being “100 percent focused on international travel,” covering airlines, hotels, and rental car companies in 190 countries. We especially like that it allows access to many foreign low-cost carriers, either through direct links or specialty partner sites.
Last minute travel
There are three well-known players in this arena: LastMinute.com, 11thHourVacations.com, and LastMinuteTravel.com. In our tests, none delivered a lower last-minute fare 48 hours before departure than online travel agencies or travel search engines.
Booking hotels in the U.S.
When to use it: Any time you’re shopping online for a hotel stay.
Why we like it: Hotels.com offers the best combination of rates and functionality of any site we tested. For instance, we found a marina-view room with breakfast at The Dana on Mission Bay in San Diego for $139 per night, $20 less than on Expedia, Orbitz, Quikbook, or Travelocity — or even the hotel’s own site. Sliding toolbars allow you to sort results by price, star ratings, and guest ratings.
Hotels.com has a “no change or cancel fees” policy, but it covers only charges levied by the site, not by the properties themselves. One of the most confusing aspects of selecting a hotel is the very subjective star ratings, since each site uses its own criteria. Hotels.com provides ratings based on reviews by the site’s “experts” and guest ratings based on customer surveys.
Tip: Hotels.com’s Rate Calendar has the best comprehensive pricing comparison six months out.
Caveat: The site has offerings worldwide, but Kayak and Asia-Hotels.com have more options for Asian properties.
Runner up: Orbitz.com's booking tools are just as useful as Hotels.com’s, but a few times Orbitz posted rates for sold-out rooms.
Bidding on affordable luxury hotels
When to use it: Your dates are flexible and you’re looking for posh digs at budget prices.
Why we like it: You don’t need to pay a membership fee, and savings can be as high as half off the regular rates. Many travel sites claim to offer discounts on luxury hotels, but we’ve found that Luxury Link delivers the best values on the greatest array of upscale properties worldwide. In our tests, the winning bids on Luxury Link ranged from $146 to $1,966 below the lowest prices available.
Caveat: Bidding takes time and patience.
Tip: Rather than purchasing a package, bid on a room and then buy the extras (meals, wine, golf) à la carte.
Runner up: With AndrewHarper.com, you’ll need to pay $200 to join, but the investment is well worth it. Andrew Harper offers a limited selection of world-class domestic and international properties, some at savings of more than 50 percent. On high-end hotels, this can add up to more than $1,000 for a three-night stay.
Booking hotels in Europe
When to use it: You need a hotel and are particular about the price and location.
Why we like it: Hotels.com, our winner in the U.S. hotel booking category, also comes out on top in Europe. Each time we searched the Web site, it delivered the lowest or second-lowest rate when compared with Euro-hotels.com, HotelsEurope.com, Kayak, and Skoosh. The savings varied widely, but the most impressive deal we found was a room at Rome’s luxury Hotel Eden for $609 per night on Hotels.com; it was $788 on Kayak. Perhaps most helpful is the “view by map” feature, which plots hotels and landmarks on a map so you can see precisely how far you’ll be staying from, say, the Pantheon.
Caveat: Beware the star ratings. Hotels.com rates Paris’s Hotel Lutetia as a five-star property, but Expedia and TripAdvisor give it four stars, and TripAdvisor’s Traveler Ratings average just 3.5.
Tip: Call the hotel directly to see if it will meet or beat the online rate.
Runner up: Euro-hotels.com, the Orbitz sister site, performed extremely well. Its Member Dollars program can be used for future discounts and for award bonuses when you refer friends.
Booking hotels in Asia and the Pacific Rim
When to use it: A good place to begin a search for lodging anywhere in Asia or the Pacific Rim.
Why we like it: The combination of low room rates, terrific search tools, and a wide inventory make for a trifecta. Kayak may be based in Connecticut, but we found that it consistently provided the best rates when we searched for hotel rooms throughout the Asia-Pacific region, although the extent of the savings varied significantly from place to place. In Tokyo, for instance, Kayak’s rates were just a few dollars cheaper than the competition’s. But when we searched for a four-star property in Melbourne, Kayak’s rate of $321 for three nights at a four-star hotel was $84 to $181 less than four other popular sites—Asia-hotels.com, Hotels.com, OctopusTravel.com, and Skoosh.com. It’s worth noting that in our experience, Hotels.com, which performed so well when we searched for rates in the United States and Europe, ranked dead last in the Pacific Rim. The best four-star rate it proffered for a 90-day advance booking in Melbourne, for instance, was $502 — $40 more than the next-highest competitor.
Caveat: Star ratings on hotel booking sites aren’t necessarily reliable, so always double-check with a travel agent or other trusted resource the level of luxury at any hotel you’re unfamiliar with.
Tip: All Kayak rates are listed in U.S. dollars, but when clicking through to book on a different site, watch for a flag that warns you if another currency is being used.
Runner up: Asia-hotels.com is another site in the Orbitz family, Asiahotels.com handles more than 70,000 bookings a year at 4,000-plus hotels and resorts in 24 countries across Asia and the Pacific Rim. The site turned up some impressive but wildly inconsistent savings, so the need to shop around remains essential. For example, Asiahotels.com performed well in Tokyo (three nights at the four-star Grand Hotel Tokyo for $486) but was $141 more expensive than the best rate we could find in Melbourne.
Rental cars in Europe
When to use it: If you’re looking for a good price on a great selection of cars.
Why we like it: Kemwel has a broad selection of vehicles, and combines easy-to-use booking tools and low rates. For instance, it offered a luxury vehicle (a Mercedes E-280) for $1,085 for a three-day rental in Venice, which was the lowest price among eight sites we compared. In addition, options abound with Kemwel; unlike some U.S. sites, it gives a choice of vehicles within a particular car class. We searched for a premium vehicle in one city, for example, and were offered seven alternatives on car types and prices, including a Mercedes C-Class, a Volvo V70 wagon, and a BMW 5 Series.
Caveat: Kemwel doesn’t always turn up with the lowest prices, and bargains vary from location to location, so it’s imperative to shop around.
Tip: A handy feature on the site allows you to price one-way rentals in countries throughout Europe.
Runner up: Kayak.com outperformed Auto Europe (autoeurope.com) on price consistently yet barely — by a dollar — but also provided more rental choices.
When to use it: Before you head anywhere that doesn’t use the greenback.
Why we like it: It’s simply designed and easier to use than other currency-conversion sites.
Runner up: Oanda.com. Among the site’s many helpful travel tools are currency cheat sheets — printable wallet-size conversion charts customized for your destination. You can even program it to include credit card fees for overseas purchases.
Maps and directions
When to use it: Whenever you’re driving stateside.
Why we like it: Aside from the invaluable zoomable maps and door-to-door directions, the site has other great features, including a list of gas prices at nearby stations (updated daily) and a calculator that tallies how much gas money you’ll need for the drive.
Caveat: New streets can take a while to make it into the database.
Tip: To plot to or from an airport, insert the three-letter airport code in the “Place Names” box.
Runner up: RoadTrip Wizard (travelocity.roadtripwizard.com) lets you map your trip and book hotel stays along the way.
Driving directions in Europe
When to use it: You normally rely on MapQuest, but you’re on the other side of the Atlantic.
Why we like it: Given that this site has detailed, zoomable maps available for 42 European countries, we couldn’t imagine setting out for a European road trip without first consulting it. The site is easy to navigate and provides directions to and from popular destinations even if you don’t know the address. It also highlights the hotels and restaurants tested and recommended by Michelin inspectors along your route.
Caveat: Road names are often the official versions and may not match what’s on the actual street signs.
Tip: Set your preferences to display directions that avoid tolls and congestion charge zones, or to find routes that stick to the main freeways or meander on the back roads.
Rental cars in the U.S.
When to use it: Before checking any rental company’s branded site.
Why we like it: It has various tools that allow you to quickly discern all your options. Car rental pricing is a competitive business, so it’s important to first use a search site to review the going rates. We found that Travelocity nudged out the competition by providing rates equal to or lower than any other online travel agency or travel search engine, and by being the most user-friendly: It offers 14 rental brands and 30 search options, including ten types of SUVs and trucks, six kinds of vans and wagons, and five types of specialty cars. It also posts promotions from the rental companies that often lead to even better deals. Best of all, we appreciate that Travelocity — unlike some other sites — doesn’t give preference in its results to companies that it has marketing agreements with but which may not provide the cheapest rates.
Caveat: There are no one-stop shops for rental cars.
Tip: Once Travelocity has found a price you like with a particular rental car company, always check that company’s own Web site to see if it is offering an even lower rate.
Runner up: Rental-car companies’ branded sites. Much as we liked Travelocity, we often found even better rates on the rental-car companies’ sites. For example, a three-day rental of a luxury car from Thrifty in Honolulu was $221 on Travelocity but $202 on Thrifty’s site.
Winner: U.S. State Department(travel.state.gov)
When to use it: Before planning or booking foreign travel and for general information on countries and important safety and security issues.
Why we like it: It tells you what the tourism boards won’t. Want to know where Uncle Sam thinks it’s too dangerous for us to travel? Looking for updates on heightened tensions along the Eritrea-Ethiopia border? It’s all on the State Department’s travel page.
Caveat: Information isn’t always up-to-date.
Tip: Always confirm travel documentation requirements with the consulate or embassy of the country you’re planning to visit.
Runner up: Foreign & Commonwealth Office (fco.gov.uk) — Britain’s equivalent of our State Department is another excellent source of information on safety concerns abroad. Its advice on where it is and is not safe to travel is often more specific than the State Department’s.
Best site for weather
Winner: NOAA (noaa.gov/wx.html)
When to use it: Before you walk out the door to drive or fly anywhere.
Why we like it: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration site is the definitive source for real-time and extended domestic forecasts.
Runner up: AccuWeather.com, which tracks international weather data and gives forecasts and updates for foreign airports and cities.
For more great travel tips and information, visit Condé Nast Traveler online.