By MICHAEL SHAPIRO
Published October 30, 2005
St. Petersburg Times
Over the past decade, online travel booking has gone from novelty to necessity, at least for those who want to see lots of options and save some money. And as the author of two books about using the Internet for travel planning, I'm often asked which site is best.
The answer: None.
That is, orbitz.com may turn up the best price on one route, expedia.com on another, and sometimes going to an airline's site is the way to go.
Nor is it all about price: Though you can find a nonstop for $10 more than a one-stop flight, wouldn't you rather pay a bit more to fly directly to your destination?
By making prices transparent and giving travelers the tools to compare, the Net has brought down costs. But that doesn't mean deciding where to book has become easy.
So much has changed since the reservations company named Sabre took online travel booking mainstream when it launched travelocity.com in the 1990s. But one truism has remained constant: You better shop around.
You really don't want to spend three hours online to save $15. But for most people, spending 30 to 60 minutes to save some money, and even read the comments of recent travelers to your destination, is worthwhile.
The key is to have a solid strategy. Many of the sites mentioned here will help you find the bargains. And even the questions posed should help you find the best path, online.
Where's the best place to start?
For flights and rental cars, start your search at orbitz.com. I like Orbitz's matrix, a grid of flight prices sorted by airline and number of stops.
One thing I don't like, though, is that you can't see the fee Orbitz adds to your booking, because the company has chosen to lump that in with federal taxes. Orbitz's fees range from $4.99 to $17.99, but are typically $7 for roundtrip domestic flights.
Next, I check expedia.com and travelocity.com, which charge similar fees for airline tickets, but have less-extensive grids.
As does Orbitz, these sites offer air-hotel packages that may save you money. Expedia also offers lots of information on hotels and often gets low rates from the chains.
What other booking sites should I check?
After checking the Big Three, try sidestep.com, which lists many smaller airlines and discounters.
SideStep searches lots of booking sites, including airline and hotel sites, and sometimes it finds the best deals.
SideStep's new "SmartSort" makes it easy to select flights by price, time, number of stops and airport. Over the past year, these so-called metasearch sites have become popular, so you should bookmark kayak.com, farechase.com, and mobissimo.com, which is a specialist in European flights.
One caution about Kayak: You can enter a specific airport, such as New York's JFK, but Kayak will turn up results from all four airports in the New York area, including inconvenient Westchester County. To avoid this, use the buttons in the left column to de-select airports you don't want to use.
The slider bars on these sites can help you narrow your acceptable price range, flight times and number of stops.
SideStep also gives results for nearby airports and it highlights these in red, so they are easy to identify.
A big plus: FareChase and some other metasearch sites list airlines such as JetBlue that you won't find on Travelocity and Expedia. This is because the airline has chosen to not provide the major search engines with the relevant information.
Should I check airlines' and hotels' own sites?
Absolutely. After using the major booking sites to narrow your choices, do check aa.com or hilton.com, for instance. Airline and hotel sites often offer perks, such as bonus frequent flier miles or a free upgrade to a larger room, for travelers who book on their own sites. Most major U.S. hotel chains now guarantee their best rates will be found on their own sites.
Booking directly at these sites, rather than through a middleman such as Expedia, can often save you middleman fees. But at times, the sheer size of a site such as Travelocity may enable it to negotiate a better rate, so remember the magic phrase: shop around.
Also, some discount airlines - Southwest led the way - don't want to sell their flights through the Big Three. That means the only major online outlet for Southwest tickets is southwest.com.
Do some sites specialize in hotels?
Yes, these range from the behemoth hotels.com, which often charges more than rates listed on the hotels' own sites, to quikbook.com, which is useful for upscale properties but offers just major U.S. cities.
Other sites are handy for regions, such as venere.com for Italy and a few other EU countries, or www.hotelres.com for rooms just in San Francisco.
For vacation-home rentals, see rentvillas.com, vrbo.com or choice1.com.
You can find some of these travel sites - and perhaps a thousand others - at johnnyjet.com. Or use Google or Yahoo to look up hotel sites by your destination.
Are Hotwire and Priceline worth using?
Priceline.com and hotwire.com are like outlet stores for online travel shoppers: They sell flights, rental cars and hotel rooms at a discount, but there's always a tradeoff.
With flights, you must agree to fly on any major airline at any time (except overnight) on the date you choose. With hotels, you pick the neighborhood (such as Midtown East in New York) and the star ranking (three stars, for example).
Neither site allows you to change your reservation, and usually no refunds are granted. Make sure your plans are firm before booking at these sites.
Unless you don't mind flying any time during the day, you'll probably find these sites more valuable for booking hotels, vacation packages and rental cars than for booking flights. Priceline and Hotwire have lots of rooms at relatively low prices, and rental cars in major cities for as little as $20 per day, plus fees.
How do I know what to bid at Priceline?
When you bid on a hotel, Priceline offers bidding guidance - but be aware that Priceline typically suggests you bid more than is necessary.
This is because Priceline retains the difference between a customer's bid and what the hotel is willing to charge, so it is in Priceline's interest to get you to bid too high.
Two sites - biddingfortravel.com and betterbidding.com - offer city-by-city advice on what to bid. These sites offer general advice and have postings from thousands of Priceline users about what bids were accepted and rejected, as well as what hotels the bidders actually got.
A recent BiddingForTravel post showed a successful bid of $69 a night at Chicago's four-star Sheraton Tower. That doesn't guarantee you would get the same deal, because prices vary with occupancy levels. But it does give you an idea of what bid might get you into that property.
Some ultra-low rates like this are only offered for multiple-night stays.
Are guidebook sites worth using or should I buy the book?
Yes and yes: Use sites such as fodors.com but also buy the books. Guidebook sites such as lonelyplanet.com and ricksteves.com add value to their books by offering updates and breaking news from the destinations they cover.
For instance, Steves writes a monthly report about Europe, and his "Graffiti Wall" has tips on 100 topics ranging from best walking shoes to flying within Europe. But do buy the book: An investment of about $20 can add much to your trip.
Other sites worth checking for the latest cultural events are timeout.com and citysearch.com.
Where can I find reviews of hotels, restaurants and attractions?
Tripadvisor.com, the most thorough review site, combines excerpts from guidebooks with comments from recent travelers. It ranks the top hotels and B&Bs and offers reviews of various attractions. You can look for hotel reviews by price, neighborhood or star ranking.
TripAdvisor also lists the top 10 attractions and restaurants in each city, and you can click to see reviews beyond the top 10. Rounding out the offerings on this site are recent articles from newspaper and magazines, sorted by destination. You can book hotels on the site, too.
Once you return from your trip, you can post your own review at TripAdvisor.
Other sites where you can read reviews are hotelshark.com for hotels, fodors.com for hotels and restaurants, and cruisemates.com for cruises: click on reader reviews.
Expedia and Travelocity also post consumers' hotel reviews, as do hotelmotelreviews.com and hotelscoop.com.
Some of these sites are now posting consumers' pictures of hotels, to back up their comments.
Where can I find trip reports from other travelers?
Online trip journals and photos are superb for learning about destinations. Among the best sites for reading these journals are bootsnall.com, virtualtourist.com, and igougo.com.
An excellent forum for adventurous travelers is Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, thorntree.lonelyplanet.com, which has dozen of discussions, both by destination and theme (On Your Bike, Responsible Travel). I also enjoy reading travel literature at worldhum.com.
How can I log on while traveling?
Many travelers have moved beyond hunting for Net cafes or trying to dial up by phone. Instead they use Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) to log on without being plugged in.
Most laptops newer than 2 years old include a Wi-Fi card that hunts for the wireless signal. The concept is similar to a cordless phone: Just as phones no longer need to be plugged into the wall, computers can access a wireless signal to connect.
These signals are provided at locations ranging from airports to hotels to Starbucks. At some places you have to pay to use this service; other places, including some campgrounds, libraries, airport lounges and hotels, offer Wi-Fi for free.
To learn more about Wi-Fi or to find free access points, see jiwire.com and wififreespot.com, which list access points by state.
Should I ever use a travel agent?
Of course. If you're planning an African safari adventure or a trip to Bhutan, an agent can make all the difference. Most agents now charge fees for their expertise, which is fair because they can't usually survive on commissions paid by travel vendors such as airlines or cruise lines. These commissions have been cut substantially in recent years.
A basic rule here might be: The more complex and/or expensive your travel, with multiple connections or destinations, the more you should turn to a travel agent.
But if you're just booking a routine trip, save the agent's fee and do it yourself.
Michael Shapiro is the author of Internet Travel Planner Globe Pequot.
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