In the old days, you called your travel agent when you wanted to plan a trip. Today, you can do it yourself. Thanks to the Internet, you can book your entire vacation, from airfare to hotel accommodations, with just a few clicks on your computer keyboard.
Popular travel booking sites like Expedia, Travelocity and Priceline have turned every household into a virtual travel agency. They make it easy to instantly compare prices on airfare, lodging, and car rentals and then make your own reservations. Joining these big, well-known sites are a lot of newer, lesser-known travel booking sites, such as Bookingbuddy and Kayak.
Planning your trip on one of these sites could potentially save you money -- up to 50 percent or more. But with so many different travel booking sites available, how do you know which ones offer the best deals, and which ones are just a waste of your time?
Although travel booking sites offer different services and prices, the definition of a "good deal" ultimately depends on what you want. If you're looking for a five-star hotel at two-star prices and you're not picky about which part of town you'll be staying in, then a name-your-own-price site will probably work well for you. On the other hand, if you want more control over where you stay, then you might prefer a Web site that lets you pick hotels and flights before comparing prices.
In this article, you'll see some of the most popular travel booking sites, and you'll learn how to find the ones that will give you the most bang for your travel buck.
Choosing a Travel Booking Site
Are you ready to make your reservation, but unsure which travel site to visit first? Here are some tips for choosing a travel booking site that best fits your needs.
- Know what you want. Do you want to plan an entire vacation at once? The big travel sites, like Expedia and Travelocity, are one-stop shops where you can get airline tickets, hotel accommodations and rental car reservations quickly and easily. They're good places to start -- to get a feel for the types of hotels and airfares available -- but they may not always get you the cheapest rates. If you're looking for a bargain, visit a site like Kayak, which lets you search rates on hundreds of different travel booking sites simultaneously. Or, if you just need a hotel, airfare or rental car, you may save more money on a specialty site like Hotels.com, RentalCars.com or CheapFlights.com.
- Consider ease of use. The best travel booking sites are clear and easy to navigate. When you click on a link, it should take you where it promises -- not get you lost in cyberspace. The Web site should save your information as you search, so that you don't have to re-enter your travel dates 20 times in a row. Some sites even go a step further, letting you save your itinerary and favorite places.
- Look for hidden fees. Some travel booking sites will add their own fee when you make a reservation, or they may not include taxes or other charges in the price they quote you, which means you may not be getting as much of a deal as you thought. Read the terms very carefully before you book to see how much, if anything, extra you'll be paying. Thanks to the economic slump, travel sites like Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity have dropped their airline booking fees (which ranged from $5 to $12); some sites, like Kayak.com, say they don't charge any booking fees at all.
- Check into customer service. Does the travel booking site stand behind its services? What will they do if you find a cheaper rate elsewhere (some sites have price guarantees that will pay you back the difference), or if your trip doesn't go as planned? The site should have its customer service phone number or e-mail address, as well as its cancellation and other policies clearly posted.
Searching on Travel Booking Sites
Every travel booking site is a little bit different, but generally the search process is the same. You type in your travel parameters (location, departure and return dates, number of travelers), and the site generates a list of options sorted by price, rating or whatever other designation you specify. The types of parameters you can request depend on the site. For example, most sites will let you look for only nonstop flights or refundable fares when you book airline tickets.
Most general travel booking sites let you buy airline tickets and make hotel and car reservations à la carte, or bundle them into complete travel packages. Buying a packaged vacation should save you money, but that's not always the case. You have to do a little bit of creative cost comparison and add up the individual prices to make sure you're actually getting a good deal.
As you're booking your vacation, some sites will give you more information than others. Expedia, Travelocity and sites like them will let you pick your exact hotel, flight and rental car company, but Hotwire and Priceline won't provide you with the final details until you've punched in your credit card number. Although they'll tell you the hotel's general location and star rating, you won't get the hotel's name or address until you enter your credit card information.
A few sites won't sell you the trips themselves, but they can help you narrow down the best deals on other travel booking sites. Kayak lets users put in their destination, and it instantly searches the rates on hundreds of other booking sites so you know which one will give you the best deal. Click on the option you want, and you'll be linked with the site where you can buy it. Fly.com and Momondo offer a similar service, but they compare airfares.
On the next page, you'll see how some travel booking sites let you name your own price, but this great deal comes with a catch.
Travel Bidding Sites
How often do you get to name your own price? How often can you stay in a four-star hotel on a one-star budget, or get a luxury car for the price of a subcompact?
Thanks to travel bidding sites like Priceline, you can select the general travel options you want -- such as your location, length of stay and minimum star level. Then you name your price and put in your credit card number. If the computer finds a deal that matches what you're looking for, you're on your way.
Here's the catch -- you'll pretty much be flying blind. Sites like Priceline.com won't tell you exactly which flight you'll be on or what hotel you'll be staying at until after you pay. That means you could wind up with a long layover in Minnesota on your way to Hawaii, or a hotel in a less-than-desirable neighborhood. Not knowing where you're going before you pay can be a risky proposition, especially if you're traveling to a city you've never visited. And once you've booked on a site like Priceline, your itinerary is binding and nonrefundable. But if you're adventurous and flexible, you can enjoy the feeling of knowing that the guy in the room next to you probably paid double what you did. (Priceline also offers a traditional booking option to accommodate travelers who like to know exactly what they're getting before they plug in their credit card numbers.)
Other travel bidding sites follow the eBay auction model (and in fact, eBay has its own travel auction section), in which travelers vie against one another for the cheapest tickets. Skyauction lets consumers place bids on airline tickets, hotels and even all-inclusive vacation packages. The winner gets the trip. Sometimes bids start as low as $1. Auction travel sites give you more control, because you can see ahead of time what you're buying. The downside is that you have to spend a lot of late nights watching the auction clock tick down and hoping you don't lose out on that trip to Fiji to someone with faster fingers.
Tips for Using Travel Booking Sites
Here are a few tips to help you make the most of your online vacation search:
Be flexible. The looser your travel schedule, the better the deal you can get. If you're willing to travel last minute, you can take advantage of bargain-priced airfare and hotel accommodations as travel sites scramble to get rid of unsold inventory. Airfare Watchdog helps travelers who are willing to fly at the drop of a hat take advantage of deep discounts, while LateRooms.com finds last-minute international hotel rooms at up to 70 percent off their original prices.
Look for deals. Don't settle for the first price you find -- not when the Internet makes it so easy to comparison shop. A hotel that's $220 on Expedia might only be $124 on Cheaptickets or vice versa, because each site is dictated by the site's inventory and vendor relationships. Sometimes travel booking sites don't have the cheapest rate after all, and you can save more money by going directly to the hotel or airline's site. A number of sites, like Hotwire, will hunt down the best bargains for you. Kayak will search hundreds of sites simultaneously so you don't have to. Yapta will not only let you know ahead of time when prices drop, but it will also alert you of price decreases after you've purchased your ticket so that you can get a refund or credit of the difference. Signing up for e-mail alerts from your favorite travel booking sites can help you take advantage of great deals as soon as the price drops.
Get rewarded. Many travel booking sites will pay you back for using them to plan your trips. Book 10 nights through Hotels.com, and you'll get a free one-night stay worth up to $400. Expedia's rewards program gives travelers "Thank you points" for booking with them. Every dollar you spend is worth a point, which you can save up to use on free travel or gift certificates. cFares.com charges a $50 annual membership fee, but in return they'll give you rebates on airline ticket purchases, which can really add up if you're a frequent traveler.
Read the fine print. Before you hit "send" and instantly relay your credit card information to the travel site, make sure you're clear on its policies. Does the site charge booking fees? If so, how much will be added to the cost of your trip? What other fees will you have to pay? Will the site refund your money if you have to cancel your trip? If so, what is the cancellation fee?
For more travel information, see the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Cheap Ticket Links. "How to use different ticket sites to find low airfares." May 10, 2006.http://www.cheapticketlinks.org/airguide/.
- Consumer Reports. "Consumer Reports WebWatch Examines Hotel Booking Sites." April 24, 2003.http://www.consumerwebwatch.org/dynamic/press-release-examine-hotel.cfm.
- ConsumerSearch. "Travel Sites: Reviews." Updated May 2009.http://www.consumersearch.com/travel-sites.
- Gross, Matt. "Booking a Flight the Frugal Way."http://frugaltraveler.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/16/click-it-and-ticket-booking-a-flight-the-frugal-way/?pagemode=print.
- McCartney, Scott. "Paid Placements Hit Travel Booking Sites." The Wall Street Journal, November 9, 2004.http://online.wsj.com/article/SB109995384806268105.html.
- Mittermair, Caroline. "Top Most Popular Travel, Airline Tickets, Best Hotels, Car Rental, Airfares, and Vacations Websites." CEOWorld Magazine, April 1, 2010.http://ceoworld.biz/ceo/2010/04/01/top-most-popular-travel-airline-tickets-best-hotels-car-rental-airfares-vacations-websites.
- Rapacon, Stacy. "28 Best Travel Sites." Kiplinger.http://www.kiplinger.com/printstory.php?pid=3033.
- StarREVIEWS. "Travel Reservations Website Reviews."http://www.starreviews.com/travel.aspx.
- Tuttle, Brad. "Five great travel booking sites." CNN.com.http://www.cnn.com/2009/TRAVEL/traveltips/06/02/travel.booking.sites/index.html.