Travel offers adventure, relaxation or access to vital business contacts, or even a combination of all three. At one time, travel agencies were the way to plan your trip. Now, you can plan your trip online, compare prices and book your travel plans.
The best online travel sites ensure you get the most for your money within your budget. They also help you make the most of every minute when you are on vacation. These sites make it easy to quickly organize every facet of your trip: flights, lodging and any short trips in between. The best sites allow you to combine different aspects of your trip into packages (e.g., hotel and car rental) for convenience and savings.
Booking your vacation online isn’t completely risk free. Some dishonest companies create legitimate-looking websites with official-sounding names, but instead of booking your travel plans on your behalf, they take your money, leaving you out of pocket and without a reservation.
This is why user reviews, especially those from TripAdvisor, are valuable, because you see if other travelers have had a negative experience using a particular online travel site. It is also wise to ask for and review an online travel agency’s policies, especially its policies concerning cancellations, booking fees and refunds before booking your trip.
This buying guide will help you find reputable travel sites that do a good job of helping you book a flight, hotel accommodations or car rental. In fact, the best travel sites help you book all of the above, plus other fun adventures, like a cruise or event tickets. That’s where online travel sites shine. They can become a virtual travel agent that works with impressive speed to find deals – even steals – for your entire vacation.
Best for Booking Vacation Packages
A good travel site offers competitive pricing on flights, hotels, car rentals, cruises and more. Seasoned travelers prefer companies that simplify the booking process, especially those that offer specific packages.
Easy to Navigate: Priceline
Priceline is a well-known online travel site that focuses on all aspects of your vacation – not just on flights or hotels. Priceline lets you book cruise vacations, too. Its website is easy to navigate, and you have several options to find great deals for flights or hotels using the Name Your Price tool.
Another option is that Priceline can pick a flight or hotel for you. With this last feature, you are shown the details of your vacation after you have made and paid for your reservations. If you prefer to be in the driver’s seat over your vacation planning, Priceline offers competitive rates and transparent policies.
Mix and Match Options: Travelocity
Travelocity is a good choice for online travel reservations. It allows you to mix and match options so you are not locked into a traditional flight+car+hotel vacation package.
Instead you can book a flight and a hotel, a flight and car rental, or a hotel and car. Travelocity maintains partnerships with hotels, airlines and cruise lines all over the world to help you plan a detailed vacation.
Best for Booking Airfare
Probably the biggest reason travelers use online travel sites is to book flights. These services give you an easy way to compare prices, itineraries and perks between multiple airlines. The best travel websites list as many details as possible as part of your search, including baggage fees and any refreshments provided as part of your flight.
Book Flights Online: Orbitz
Orbitz works directly with airlines to help you quickly find the type of flight you are looking for. It has several filters so you can narrow your search by number of stops, departure and arrival times, and flight class.
The Flexible Date search looks for tickets within three days before or after your preferred date, which may give you even better rates for your flight. Each flight listing gives a full itinerary with transfer locations, time, terminal and length of your layover. Orbitz is upfront about everything – a rarity in an industry known for obscuring important details.
Best for Booking a Hotel
Zeroing in on the perfect hotel room, in the perfect area, for the perfect price is invaluable. The best travel booking sites list luxury and value hotels so you can quickly find a place to stay in your desired price range. Sorting by amenities and local attractions is helpful if you have special needs, such as traveling with a pet, or you need to be close to an event center or local attraction.
Book Hotels Online: Hotwire
Though you can book flights and car rentals using Hotwire, this online travel agency excels at finding the cheapest hotel prices through its search engine. You can filter your search by proximity, star rating and by facilities that offer accommodations for disabled guests. It features guest reviews from TripAdvisor so you can read feedback from past guests.
Best for International Travel
If you want to travel overseas, it is especially important to book your reservations with a reputable company that will not only find you good deals on airfare but will locate accommodations in the best areas of the city you are visiting. Unless you have good connections, you often don’t know if the hotel you’re considering staying at is in a good neighborhood, close to popular attractions or near public transportation points, such as metro stations and bus stops.
Book International Travel: AirGorilla
AirGorilla is one of the oldest online travel sites and, while its homepage has some cosmetic issues, it also has an abundance of reservation help, especially for international travelers. You can find accommodations for bed and breakfasts. You can also reserve airport parking spots or rent a cell phone or GPS unit. It partners with other sites so you can book international rail tickets or reserve adventures, such as safaris and tickets, for other attractions.
Best Deals and Loyalty Programs
It is possible to invest in vacation clubs, travel insurance and travel credit card rewards programs separately, but many travel booking sites have their own rewards programs and insurance offerings.
Exclusive Deals: Expedia
As an Expedia+ member, you qualify for several rewards and, Expedia lets you earn and use frequent flyer miles points through your airline and credit card reward points along with your Expedia rewards points.
Exclusive deals are available for members only. You have the option of redeeming rewards points for travel or donating them to St. Jude Children’s Hospital to help children with cancer. Expedia has a price guarantee for hotel bookings that will pay you $50 if you find a cheaper rate on another online hotel booking site for the same reservation within 24 hours of booking your accommodations through Expedia.
Book Event Tickets: CheapTickets
CheapTickets offers good value for flights and hotels, and it provides all of the information you need in an easy-to-use interface. This travel site has a tab dedicated to event tickets, including concerts and plays. CheapTickets offers deep discounts and includes some last-minute deals if you want to book a quick getaway.
You can always access travel booking sites using your phone’s internet service, but an app is nice. Many apps are user friendly and make it easy to book a trip with just a few taps of your thumb.
Easy to Use App: CheapOair
CheapOair has plenty of tools to help you book your flights, hotels and car rentals for both domestic and international travel. You can also use the Flexible Dates feature to find cheaper airfare or accommodations.
Within the Traveler Tools section on its website, you can request special accommodations if you are traveling with someone who is disabled. Its mobile app is one of the easiest to use and lists additional discounts and travel alerts. CheapOair, however, charges hefty fees, especially if you cancel your plans.
Most Transparent Online Agency
One of the biggest considerations travelers using an online travel agency should keep in mind are costs and fees, especially if you have to make changes or cancel your trip. Sometimes it is the hotel, airline or car rental agency that assesses the fees, and the booking company simply passes it on. Other times it is the travel service that charges these fees. In other situations, it may be both. When using an online travel site, take the time to read the fine print, particularly the cancellation policy. The best online travel agencies list their cancellation policies on their websites and disclose fees and processing costs.
Clear Policies & Fees: Orbitz
Orbitz is very transparent with its policies. In the reservation summary for hotels and car rentals, Orbitz clearly shows whether or not free cancellation is available (which is usually up to 24 hours before you check in or pick up the car).
If you book a flight through Orbitz, you can cancel or reschedule for free within 24 hours of booking. After that, Orbitz charges a $30 fee in addition to fees charged by the airline. While this may be pricey and while you cannot control certain events, Orbitz clearly spells out it policies and fees, so you know before you make your reservation.