Navigating Discount Travel Sites
To land a vacation that clicks with you and your budget, you’ll need to plan and book your trip through a few sites, taking the best of what each has to offer. Here are more specific directions.
To plan your trip: google.com/flights.
Best for: Finding an affordable destination.
Winning features: When you’re not sure where you want to visit, head here. On a map, the tool pinpoints the cheapest flights from your home airport to domestic cities, so you can instantly surmise that flying to Phoenix will cost less than flying to Denver.
Weak spots: Google is still adding destinations to its database, so there are some smaller airports that may not yet appear in its results.
To plan your trip: bing.com/travel.
Best for: Deciding when to buy a ticket or book a room.
Winning features: If you’re not a frequent flyer, it can be hard to tell whether a ticket price is higher or lower than normal. This site’s “price predictor” analyzes past data to tell you whether you should buy now or wait for the price to drop.
Weak spots: The price predictor is available for only some flights (but most major U.S. and Canadian cities are accounted for); the rate indicator, which tells you whether a room rate you’ve been quoted is typical for the hotel, is limited to 30 U.S. cities.
To plan your trip: hipmunk.com.
Best for: Comparing air and train travel.
Winning features: Hipmunk lets you sort flights by cost, duration, departure or arrival time, or level of “agony” (think multiple connections or a super-pricey ticket). When applicable, it also includes Amtrak in the results—a boon for those who like riding the rails.
Weak spots: The site has an offbeat way of displaying results: It presents each flight as a bar stretching from departure to arrival time. Some people may find this difficult to decipher.
To plan your trip: kayak.com.
Best for: Flights.
Winning features: An elaborate filtering system lets you narrow results to eliminate overnight flights, small planes, and specific airports and airlines, so you can maximize your comfort and minimize anxiety.
Weak spots: You won’t find prices for Southwest Airlines here. (That budget carrier sells tickets only on its own website, Southwest.com.)
To plan your trip: orbitz.com.
Best for: Hotels.
Winning features: Search by neighborhood or hotel chain. A special viewing option lets you peruse lodging choices on a map, which makes it easy to tell which ones are closest to the sights on your list.
Weak spots: It displays the average rate for the span of your stay rather than the cost of each night. The total cost, with taxes and fees, appears only when you start to book your room.
To plan your trip: travelocity.com.
Best for: Car rentals.
Winning features: The results include prices from up to 14 car-rental companies worldwide. The site also displays deals beyond the airport counter, since the best bargains are often off the beaten path.
Weak spots: Like many of its competitors, Travelocity doesn’t let you “price out” add-ons, like insurance and GPS. And it displays only pretax rates prominently, so you’ll have to look closely to find the final price.
To plan your trip: homeaway.com.
Best for: Rental homes.
Winning features: More comprehensive and easier to navigate than its competitors, this site lets you search more than 290,000 properties by price, number of bedrooms, or location type (for example, waterfront view).
Weak spots: Some of the homes’ availability calendars aren’t kept current (a note in each listing says when the schedule was last updated); you must call or e-mail some property owners for pricing.
To plan your trip: cruisecompete.com.
Best for: Cruises.
Winning features: Choose a cruise and, within a few days, the site’s network of 400-plus travel agencies will search for the lowest price they can offer for it. Most customers receive five to seven quotes via e-mail; these may include perks like cabin upgrades.
Weak spots: Since prices generally aren’t published on the site, you could spend a lot of time looking at cruises that are well beyond your budget. This site works best if you have a sense of the costs of different types of cruises.