25 Best Value Travel Sites
by Sean O'Neill
Find the best bargains in air travel and cheapest rates for car rentals, hotel rooms and vacation packages, whether you travel in the U.S. or internationally.
You can satisfy your wanderlust without overspending -- and these top Web sites will help you find the best values in travel bargains.
You find more bargains if you search multiple sites, and Travelzoo's SuperSearch is the perfect place to start. The site doesn't sell tickets itself. Instead it uses the customer feedback it has collected to direct travelers to the search engines deemed most useful for a particular itinerary. Type in your travel plans, and the site generates a short list of links to online travel agents, such as Travelocity, Orbitz and Expedia, as well as individual airlines' sites. (But note that it doesn't include discount carrier Southwest Airlines.)
Ready to buy today? Consult Airfare Watchdog, a Web site run by travel journalist George Hobica that every morning posts fare sales offered by airlines. The deals, usually limited to departures from about 30 domestic cities, often disappear quickly, so you'll have to book them right away to take advantage.
Also go directly to the Web sites of Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways, which don't submit their fares to Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity.
For international flights visit LowesTravel.com, which offers tickets on more than 60 airlines.
If you're flying between countries within Europe, you may save by flying on discount airlines, such as Ryanair and Germanwings -- the European equivalents to Southwest Airlines in the U.S. For a list of the discount airlines that serve Europe, visit the travel advice Web site Attitude Travel. Note that these airlines are best for traveling between countries, not within countries. For travel within countries, consider traveling by train. You'll find itineraries and pricing at Rail Europe.
One tip: Any time you schedule multistop flights through a booking agency, be careful to allow sufficient layover time to navigate unfamiliar international airports. Layovers of more than an hour are generally advisable, but online travel sites will often let you buy tickets for flights with connections you can't reasonably make. At chokepoint airports, such as Paris's Charles de Gaulle, it's a good idea to allow a 90-minute layover.
The best bargains for lodging can be found through Hotwire and Priceline.com. The hitch: They don't disclose the name of the hotel you're booking until you buy. (They also sell airline tickets and rental cars this way.) The rates offered for four-star hotels are usually the best values. Our gripe is that neither site refunds your money if you cancel.
At Priceline, you submit a bid after specifying a star class and a neighborhood in a metro area. You can boost the chances that you'll submit the lowest possible winning bid by checking the message boards at Biddingfortravel.com, where recent Priceline users note their successful and unsuccessful bids.
If you prefer to know the name of the hotel before you pay, your best bet is an online travel agent. Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity offer comparable deals on hotel rooms for most destinations. But many hotels offer special Internet-only rates on their own Web sites, so be sure to check a hotel's own site after you have searched at your favorite online agency.
For international travel, check out LateRooms, a British-based site that has last-minute bargains at 50,000 hotels in countries such as Canada, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. It quotes rates in the local currency but offers a currency-conversion calculator to help you figure the prices.
If you pay upon checkout at an overseas hotel, the clerk may offer to convert your bill into U.S. dollars. Resist this offer because hotels usually offer less-favorable exchange rates than you can get at ATMs or on your credit card. What's worse, if your credit card charges you a fee (typically 1% of the bill) for currency conversion, the card will likely still require you to pay the currency-conversion charge even if the hotel has done the currency conversion on its own.
For bed-and-breakfast getaways at discounted prices, sign up for free weekly e-mails from Bedandbreakfast.com. Every Wednesday you'll receive a list of B&Bs offering discounts of typically 20% or more off regular rates for the upcoming weekend in the city, state or region you want to visit.
The big three online travel agents (Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz) present car-rental information clearly, and we've found they're equally skilled at fetching low rates. But, as with hotels, the best deals are with Priceline.com and Hotwire. These two services do not disclose the name of the rental-car company until you buy. Still, you at least know you're booking through a respected chain: Priceline brokers cars from only five companies -- Alamo, Avis, Budget, Hertz and National. And Hotwire rents cars from Avis, Budget and Hertz.
Priceline lets you specify dates, type of car, pick-up location and the price you're willing to pay. If a rental car company accepts your bid, Priceline will reserve the car. Note that, as with hotels, once you book your reservation, you can't cancel for a refund.
Hotwire also lets you specify the dates, type of car and pick-up location. The site then fetches rates. Select the rate you're willing to pay, and Hotwire will book you with the company of its choice.
If you plan to rent a car abroad, first take a look at Auto Europe, a rental-car rate wholesaler. This Maine-based company returned better rates than other online booking sites (for comparable vehicles) when we searched for cars in England, Greece, Ireland and Spain. Plus, this wholesaler staffs its customer-service hotlines (toll-free internationally) 24-hours a day.
Be wary that the rental-car chains -- separate from AutoEurope - may attempt to tack on bogus charges. You may not be expecting additional charges on your credit card because you have already prepaid through Auto Europe. Eye your credit-card bill after an overseas trip and use Auto Europe to dispute any unnecessary charges. (You can also face this problem when you book directly with the rental-car company.)
Most cruises are still booked through traditional travel agents. Yet CruiseCompete offers discounts of up to 25% off standard cruise rates. At the site, 166 travel agencies vie to give you the lowest prices for dates and ports you specify, whether well in advance or at the eleventh hour.
The most useful cruise-review site is Cruisemates. We especially like its advice columns, which are written for people of different ages and interests. For example, parents looking for a cruise that will entertain their teenagers can turn to the advice column and message board run by teenager Dan Polulak. a frequent cruise-goer.
In many cases, you can score the best bargains when you book airfare, hotel rooms or cars as part of a package.
Site59 does the best job of putting together last-minute vacation packages. It caters to travelers planning just a week in advance of departure.
The best custom vacation packages are offered by the top three online travel agencies: Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity. These sites now let you choose which hotel, flight and rental cars you would like to combine, rather than offering packages where the individual parts are already chosen for you. You may see big price breaks with these vacation packages because airlines, hotel chains and rental-car companies like to bury discounts in packages that don't break out the prices and spark a price war.
If you long for a luxury resort package, you can place a bid at Luxury Link, which offers discounted stays. You must, however, be flexible about your travel dates: You pick the dates from a limited range only after you pay.
A travel newsletter can help you stay on top of vacation deals. SmarterTravel.com can send free newsletters directly to your inbox.
Buying travel insurance from Web agencies or providers, such as cruise lines, is usually a crummy deal because of price markups and restrictions on how the policy claims can be filed. The best value policies we've found are those sold directly by the leading travel insurance company, Travel Guard.
To save money at airport parking lots, visit the aptly named AirportDiscountParking.com, which will direct you to the bargain lots.
Frequent fliers may want to sign up for the free newsletter from the Travel Insider, a consumer advice Web site. The newsletter is useful for frequent fliers who travel about once a month or less.
Students on the go can find bargains at StudentUniverse. The company negotiates with major providers in the U.S. and abroad, such as United Airlines and BritRail, to provide discounted travel. The site offers impressive deals on rail travel and hostels, but be aware that the domestic airfares they offer are often higher than those offered by the major travel Web agencies.
For round-the-world airfares, you'll often find the best prices at Airtreks. The site provides has an online calculator for estimating to cost of multistop trips.
One more tip
After you search for fares on a travel Web site, clear the cookies, or data files, that the site adds to your Web browser. Keeping cookies sometimes means you'll pay more for travel. Say, for example, you visit a Web travel agency and view or purchase a $100 plane ticket from Chicago to Omaha. The next time you visit that site, you could be quoted a higher rate than the lowest available because of your searching and spending history. Find detailed instructions for deleting cookies under the "Help" option in your browser menu.