The Best Travel Sites

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We all have our favorite online travel planning and booking websites, but why stick to just one? With two of the biggest names in travel about to merge—Priceline is set to acquire Kayak—now is the time to get to know the different travel sites that are available and what each of them does best.

You know the usual suspects: Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity. It’s understandable if you confuse the rate cubes of one site with the matrix layouts of another. If you’ve only ever used one site, the others all kind of blend together. But they are different. The question is, “How?” Which one has the best hotel-airfare combo deals? Which is best for booking multi-city flights? And do any give you the most flexibility in searching for low fares?

While all the major travel sites tend to use a similar template, individual features vary tremendously. Take Priceline.com’s Name Your Price, Travelocity’s Secret Hotels, and Orbitz’s DealDetector. Priceline lets you bid whatever price you please, as long as you’re willing to then sit back and wait for some airline to hopefully take you up on the offer. Travelocity names the price for you, but not the hotel. Kayak has wonderful airfare tracking features, which work wonders for those of us who plan ahead.

In terms of raw functionality, Travelocity is the scatterbrained innovator of the group, though Orbitz or Expedia aren’t slouches by any means. Kayak, as a metasearch engine, does less than its peers, but has more capability, including the ability to prowl competitors’ rates. And, for risk-taking bargain hunters, Priceline is the only site to bring bidding to hotels, cars, and flights.

Finally, for price, you really can’t go wrong. Try searching the same parameters across any of these travel reservation sites, and they lowest fares almost always come up within a few dollars of the others. But if you’re flexible in your travel dates and times, Google Flights will do the quickest job of helping you determine when is the ideal time to fly to save more than just a few bucks. You just can’t make the purchase directly through Google.

Travelocity, Expedia, and Priceline.com will reimburse you if you drop them a line (by phone or email) citing a better deal, but Orbitz automates the process and looks for you, one reason it secured the Editors’ Choice among the bunch.

FEATURED IN THIS ROUNDUP

Expedia

Free
If you’re booking a trip online, chances are Expedia.com is one of the your first stops—and with good reason. Founded 15 years ago by Microsoft, used by tens of millions of consumers, and stocked with everything from car rentals to cruises, Expedia is a trusted one-stop shop. For international packages in particular, deals abound. And despite its longevity, Expedia boasts a friendly and modern website, an excellent mobile app for iPhone users, and partnerships with sites you know and love, including TripAdvisor, Hotwire, and Pronto. Expedia hasn’t quite innovated to the extent of some of its competitors, but this does not diminish the fact Expedia is a fine choice, worthy of its leadership position in Internet-based travel reservations. Read the full review ››


Google Flights

Free
It’s no wonder the first name in search delivers near-instantaneous travel results in Google Flights. Go to google.com/flights to search for the roundtrip destination of your choice, and get lightning fast results. You can optionally open a bar graph, too, that shows how the price of the flight changes if you’re able to book your inbound and outbound flights on different days, helping you save money. There’s one catch: Google Flights doesn’t offer any purchasing options directly, so you’ll have to link through to the airline’s website in order to book your tickets. Read the full review ››


Kayak
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Free
When shopping for a deal on a deadline, Kayak’s the place to go. Because the site aggregates deals from online travel agencies, hotel chains, and competitors Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline.com, and Travelocity, you know you’ll be getting the aerial view of what’s available for flights, hotels, car rentals, and cruises. It’s also fast: Not only does Kayak preview pricing before you click search, showing you ideal days to fly to save money, it also returns results quicker than less comprehensive competitors. When it comes to purchasing, however, you have to link out to another site, similar to using Google Flights. Will this change after Kayak is acquired by Priceline? Possibly. But for the time being, Kayak doesn’t sell directly to customers, which means it doesn’t offer any pricing guarantees. Read the full review ››


Orbitz

Free
What began as an online reservation site focused on flights has, over ten years, exploded into a constellation of services from hotels to events, cruises to car rentals. In addition to satellite brands—CheapTickets, HotelClub, and ebookers— today’s Orbitz has drawn other innovations into its orbit. Flex Search takes Travelocity’s flexible travel dates to the next level. DealDetector automates Priceline.com’s (Free, 3 stars) Name Your Price. And while everyone—other than Kayak (Free, 3 stars)—offers some kind of low-price guarantee, Orbitz is the only site to both send updates based upon recent searches and automate price protection with Price Assurance. When it comes to booking online travel, no competitor can match Orbitz’s breadth of services or depth of customer focus. Read the full review ››


Priceline.com

Free
Priceline.com brings casino-style flair to online travel reservations. Whether booking a hotel, flight, or car rental, you have the option to pass, by using the traditional online reservation system, or shoot for the moon, by Name(ing) Your Price for up to 60 percent off the top, though you won’t necessarily know which airline you’ll be flying until after the purchase goes through. Add a clean interface and mobile apps and Priceline looks like a fresh face with plenty of tricks up its sleeve. Aside from Name Your Price, however, Priceline comes up a bit short: Expedia delivers search result quicker, Travelocity does a better job building experience-based vacations, and Orbitz is cleverest when it comes fare updates and price protection. But after it joins forces with Kayak, its search component could become a heck of a lot more useful. If or until that happens, Priceline.com’s strength is low prices for those who like to spin the air carrier roulette wheel. Read the full review ››


Travelocity

Travelocity helps you spend money as easily as it helps you save it. That’s no complaint. When it comes to concocting innovative ways to plan and book a vacation, Travelocity is the most innovative online travel reservation site I’ve used. As with its competitors, Travelocity makes it easy to bundle flights, hotels, car rentals, and activities for savings; however, Travelocity stands out for the size of its online toolkit: You can search for ecologically-sustainable hotels and hybrids (Travel for Good), build a vacation around a theme (ExperienceFinder), or travel daringly by booking a mystery hotel for a marked down price (Top Secret Hotels). There are plenty of ways to access those tools, from a cross-platform desktop app to a deal alert add-on for Internet Explorer to mobile apps for iPhone and Windows 7 Mobile. Read the full review ››


By Jill Duffy, PCMag


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