“a helpful & lucid review site for all things budget” — the new yorker

Cheap Travel Sites Buying Guide

There are hundreds of travel websites offering the "cheapest" prices on airfare, hotels, and car rentals for any destination you choose. Navigating them all is no easy task, however, especially given how much of your hard-earned cash is on the line.

Consumers will find themselves wooed by online travel agencies and meta-search engines, eBay-style bidding and/or opaque bookings, hot deals, top-secret deals, and even deals on deals.

Meta-search engines are especially useful for searching many travel websites at one go, but you'll also have success with other tools. Our picks for best, good, and don't bother travel sites represent a variety of search models and are based on factors such as policies, customer support, and whether the site actually delivers low-cost travel. The results of our research show that Hotwire.com and Bing.com/travel are best travel deal sites; Priceline and Kayak are good cheap travel websites; and Orbitz is one you can afford to ignore.

For the third consecutive year, a 2008 study by J.D. Power and Associates named Hotwire.com the highest rated travel site in terms of customer satisfaction, with Priceline.com close behind. Despite the high rating, our research found that these travel sites attract a large share of user complaints, most of which stem from miscommunication between airlines or hotels and the travel website. User reviews of discount travel websites note the difficulty of holding these third-party intermediaries responsible for errors in an itinerary and stress that you must be very persistent when seeking to correct mistakes. Travelocity.com and Expedia.com, two well-known travel deals sites, garner lower customer satisfaction ratings in the J.D. Power survey, which the survey suggests may reflect fees imposed by airlines rather than disappointment with the sites themselves. We do not include these two sites on our list of best and good cheap travel websites because the information they provide is available through meta-search travel sites like Bing.com/travel and Kayak.com, which we found to be more useful.

According to Forrester Research, Americans spend $86 billion a year booking flights, hotels, and car rentals using travel websites. Major players like Orbitz.com, Travelocity.com, Expedia.com, Hotwire.com, and Priceline.com find low rates on airfare, hotels, car rentals, and vacation packages by having you input your travel information and then searching data supplied by travel providers for the best rates. Some cheap travel websites let you search multiple days in a single search so you can compare prices and then pick the deal that suits your schedule and budget.

To a certain extent, travel deal sites function as an extension of an airline's, hotel's, or car rental agency's website. For example: On a recent search for a flight from Chicago to New York, one budget travel site quoted a $228 round trip; going directly to the carrier's website generated the exact same price. This doesn't mean that cheap travel websites are without benefits. Using a discount travel site lets you search for better deals by, say, flying one airline to your destination and another one back home -- with a carrier's website you can't do that. Travel deals sites also let you make arrangements for lodging and car rentals, giving you the potential for more savings.

Whether you book with a travel deals site or through the provider directly there are several things you should be mindful of. Some flights and hotels might look like a bargain but when taxes and fees are added in, the price might not be so cheap. And airlines have recently started charging extra for carry-on baggage, in-flight meals, extra foot room, and blankets and pillows. Always read all the fine print before booking: it could mean the difference between an OK deal and a great deal.

Travel Websites Reviews

Travel websites reviews are a vital source of information for frugal travelers because they alert you to users' experiences, both good and bad. We read dozens of reviews written by consumers and experts, and even conducted a number of searches on our own before making our picks. Not surprisingly, users' and experts' reviews are hardly uniform. For any given travel website, some users report finding rock-bottom prices while others say better deals were available elsewhere, sometimes on a provider's own site. Similarly, some users report smooth sailing with flight and hotel reservations while others relate horror stories galore, including indifferent or resistant customer service.

Travel Sites Delivery.

According to the J.D. Powers and Associates 2008 survey of more than 7,000 travelers, Hotwire.com beat the pack for customer satisfaction. A travel sites review on Wisebread.com relates the happy tale of booking a four-star hotel in Boston through Hotwire.com and paying a little more than half the "rack" rate. (Remember, Hotwire.com offers opaque booking for hotel rooms, so you don't know which hotel you're getting until you receive a confirmation email.) Another review on Hoteldealsrevealed.com seems appreciative of the $57 deal on a room in a 3.5-star "resort" in Phoenix found through Hotwire.com. Many customers are also pleased with Priceline's "Name Your Own Price" feature, which lets budget-minded travelers find incredibly cheap deals. A review on Betterbidding.com enabled one customer to claim three round-trip tickets from Seattle to Indianapolis, each for $225 plus $40 taxes using Priceline.com's opaque booking; another review shares a bidding strategy that resulted in a round trip between Atlanta and Los Angeles for $300.

We also read some positive travel websites reviews regarding meta-search travel site Kayak.com. According to reviews on Viewpoints, users appreciate the time-saving one-stop shopping that presents comparative prices on airfare and hotels, allows flexible search parameters, and sends email alerts tailored to your travel interests. Bing.com/travel, a relatively new meta-search site launched by Microsoft in 2009, is well-liked by experts at Wired.com and Techcrunch.com who comment in reviews of the entire Bing site (Bing gives you the rundown on local restaurants, shopping, entertainment, and more) that the travel function is particularly strong, in large part because of the price predictor feature; although some users say they found lower-priced tickets at other sites, one review of Bing Travel on Frugalmonkey.com reports finding good deals on flights to Maui.

Orbitz.com, by contrast is panned in many travel websites reviews. On Measuredup.com, users complain about unequal fares when two of the same flights were booked simultaneously, incorrect names on tickets, hotel reservations that were not fulfilled, and so on. We found additional reports on My3cents.com. from Orbitz.com users about inaccurate itineraries and misleading quotes for rental cars, as well as one review that says the customer was double-charged for a booking to Costa Rica that took five days to resolve and resulted in fees assessed by the customer's bank.

Travel Sites Customer Support.

Because most travel deals sites operate independently from the travel provider, communication with consumers is not always seamless and problem-resolution may be a futile quest. Our reading of travel sites reviews indicates that unhelpful customer support and inconvenienced travelers are the root causes of many consumer complaints. The most common complaint sounds a lot like one posted by an unhappy customer, who writes in a review on Consumeraffairs.com about booking a hotel room in Virginia through Expedia.com only to find himself without a reservation once he arrived and helpless as the hotel and travel website each denied responsibility. Similar customer service issues with Orbitz.com, Hotwire.com, Priceline.com, and many more travel sites are echoed throughout reviews on Rateitall.com. The best advice we can give is to always confirm with the airline or hotel, and get something in writing (print off all confirmation emails and keep them in a safe place) so you have evidence if a problem arises.

Grievances about customer service are rampant in travel sites reviews. Misunderstandings with service representatives, stonewalling requests to change reservations or process refunds, and indifference to complaints about botched reservations or nasty hotels cost travelers money and aggravation. Few travel websites escape such reproach from angry and disappointed users, although Kayak.com fares better than most, probably because as a search engine specializing in travel it doesn't actually make reservations but merely connects you to websites that do. Nonetheless, Kayak.com is praised for its accessible customer support; TopTenReviews.com says the phone extension for the CEO is available on the site and a test run with an after-hours call was routed to the executive's voicemail. Even cheap travel sites that rank high in customer satisfaction sometimes fail to deliver; one traveler writes in a review on Hubpages.com about canned email responses from Hotwire.com that didn't address the issue at hand.

Remember, travel sites just broker the deal and have no control over the delivery or quality of services, although that's no excuse for rude or apathetic responses to problems. So be persistent. And remember, despite hundreds of negative stories on the web related to cheap travel sites, many thousands of frugal consumers fly and stay without a hitch but don't post travel sites reviews.

Review continues below

Comparing Travel Sites Features

There are a variety of features that make a travel website a good or best cheap travel site. No one cheap online travel agency has all the features you need to make an informed decision, so you'll probably want to use a combination to find the best price.

Prices.

First, it's important to know the high season and low season at your intended destination so you can take advantage of money-saving deals during the off-season. Trip Advisors Destination Guide is a helpful resource and Smartertravel.com details the best time of year to fly to wherever.

When looking for the lowest prices, you've got to be ready to travel on days people don't normally fly. Historically, Fridays and Sundays are the busiest days and therefore the most expensive. Try searching for flights mid-week or on Saturdays. Both Hotwire.com and Kayak let you scope out price trends with an interactive 30-day calendar. Most people like to travel just before and after the holidays. Beat the rush, avoid the crowds, and travel on the holiday instead -- you'll save yourself some stress and a lot of green. Also, it's best to book a flight at least seven days in advance for the cheapest rates. Experts note that waiting until the last minute is risky because prices can go up and seats might disappear.

Booking hotels is a little trickier. Hotels consider several factors when setting prices that airlines can disregard, like new entrants to the market (i.e., new hotels opening up), the local business climate, and tour operator bookings. But in general, the same principles that guide your search for cheap airfare should serve as a guide for cheap hotel bookings. The Travel Insider is a good resource for understanding the ins and outs of hotel bookings.

As you search for the best price on multiple budget travel sites, you'll probably find that several offer the same price for a particular trip. Bear in mind that some travel deals sites hide or obscure taxes and fees, which causes the stated price to appear lower than what the total actually is. Expedia.com, Orbitz, and Travelocity.com put the all-inclusive price underneath the first price given.

Search Methodology.

There are a few different methods cheap travel sites use to search for the best price. The traditional, or industry standard, is to collect data from airlines and hotel companies and post the results all in one place so you can compare deals; Orbitz.com and Travelocity.com use this approach. While it's certainly possible to find bargain deals this way, it's a good idea to use other discount travel sites that employ more complex search methods. This may seem challenging to the novice traveler, but in the next few sections we'll break down the information into bite-size cheap travel expertise.

Experts across the board advise bargain hunters to use a travel deals site, like Bing.com/travel, Kayak.com, or Skyscanner.com, that employs a meta-search strategy for finding the cheapest flights, hotel rooms, and car rentals. These meta-search travel sites aggregate data from numerous travel deals sites simultaneously and filter the best deals based on your parameters. You can't book your trip directly from the meta-search results but a link takes you to the site where you can buy a ticket, reserve a room, or rent a car. Industry experts at Kiplinger, the Washington Post, and PC World agree that Kayak.com is among the most comprehensive of the meta-search travel sites; this cheap travel website claims it pores over more than 400 travel sites for each search.

A recent addition to the meta-search category is Bing.com/travel, a Microsoft product. The major difference between Bing.com/travel and Kayak.com is Bing's "price predictor" feature, which informs consumers if prices on a particular route are expected to rise or fall so you know whether to buy tickets now or wait. Bing.com/travel accomplishes this seemingly magical feat by using complicated algorithms to predict price trends. According to an independent audit sponsored by the company, the price predictor has an accuracy rate of 74.5%. The downside to Bing.com/travel, according to Kiplinger, is that it searches fewer sites than Kayak.com and sometimes transfers you to the homepage of the booking site instead of the purchasing page so you have to input your itinerary again and initiate another search.

Another kind of search is the "opaque" or "blind" method that was pioneered by Hotwire.com. Founded in 2000 by six major airlines, Hotwire.com began by offering incredibly discounted airfares by masking the identity of the airline and the time of the flight. Hotwire.com no longer hides the airline name but still employs the opaque method on hotel bookings. Priceline offers an opaque booking option for both flights and hotels using its "Name Your Own Price" feature, which unveils the identity of the supplier only after your bid is accepted.

Booking.

Any good cheap travel site should have a search function that lets you search a wide variety of airlines and hotels several months in advance or even for the next day. A good discount travel site should also have a flexible booking feature that lets you search multiple dates and airports at once (New York City, for example, has three major airports -- JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark); if you only search for flights to one airport you may miss out on cheaper fares to a nearby airport. With the exception of Priceline.com, all the travel deal sites we researched afford customers flexible search options.

A related feature on many travel deals sites is package booking. Booking flights, hotels, and car rentals on the same site at the same time can save you a lot of money. You won't find package booking on meta-search engines like Bing.com/travel, but you will find it on cheap travel sites like Priceline.com and Expedia.com, both of which specialize in vacation packages.

Direct booking is when you book directly with the provider; in other words, you go to the website of a provider (airline, hotel, or rental car company), search availability and prices, and buy a ticket or make a reservation. You can trace any deal you find on the web back to its source (i.e., the provider), so if you see a deal you like, it's not a bad idea to check the website of the carrier or hotel to see if it offers the same price without the booking fees that some budget travel sites charge. Most providers have email lists you can join for updates on travel deals, which sometimes trump the deals you find on cheap travel sites; your inbox might fill up quickly but it's a small price to pay for early warning about travel bargains.

Opaque Booking.

While many cheap travel websites offer similar deals, opaque booking sites like Hotwire.com and Priceline.com let frugal travelers book unpublished rates without knowing who the provider is. Opaque booking benefits all parties: you (the traveler) get a great deal -- big discounts on flights, hotels, and car rentals -- and travel providers maintain their regular customer base through traditional sales while filling up airplane seats, hotel rooms, and cars with people who wouldn't normally book their services.

Opaque booking sites function differently for hotels and flights. To book a hotel using Hotwire.com or Priceline.com, enter your destination and dates of arrival and departure and then choose an "area" and star rating for lodging. In New York City, for example, you might choose a three-star hotel in the theater district or a four-star hotel in SoHo; one traveler reports on Betterbidding.com of booking a three-star room near one of the main gates to Disney World for $29 a night. But this system is not for the faint of heart. In exchange for a discount deal on your hotel, there are no refunds, exchanges, or changes allowed. Although travel sites reviews say Hotwire.com and Priceline.com deal with reliable hotel chains, choosing the "area" for your hotel requires that you be familiar with the layout of the city, especially for international travel. Some "areas" may look conveniently located on a map but in reality may be far from central attractions. Also note that if you want a room for two adults, Hotwire.com and Priceline.com will guarantee a room that fits two adults but won't guarantee it has two beds; you're on your own to work this out with the hotel after you've booked.

Hotwire.com uses opaque booking only for hotels, but Priceline.com uses it for flights and car rentals, as well. Priceline.com augments its blind booking approach with its "Name Your Own Price" feature, which lets you state how much you're willing to pay for the service you want. Priceline.com claimed in a 2009 article in The New York Times that this feature lets you save up to 40% on airfare, 30% on car rentals, and 50% on hotels. But there are limits on how often you can bid on the service you want and you must change some aspect of the itinerary, such as the number of stars for a hotel or your travel date, if your bid isn't accepted. Expert reviewers at Budget Travel say a good starting bid is 50% of the listed price, which you can find using any cheap travel site like Expedia.com or the travel provider's website; winning bids posted on message boards at Bidontravel.com, Betterbidding.com, Gogreentravel.com, and Yelp.com also provide some price guidance. Remember, Priceline.com doesn't reveal the name of the airline or the time of your flight (the cheap travel website won't book flights before 6am or after 10pm, however), the hotel, or the car rental agency until your bid is accepted and your credit/debit card is charged. If you're okay with a little uncertainty, Priceline.com can save you a lot of money.

Recently, Travelocity.com has ventured into the opaque booking market with its "Top Secret Hotels." As with Hotwire.com, you name your dates and destination, click on an area, and up pops a list of three- and four-star hotels with very low prices. On a recent search for hotels in Orlando, FL we found four-star hotels for $45 a night, double occupancy.

Hotel Ratings.

A common complaint voiced by users and experts alike is that the hotel rating system used by cheap travel websites is not exactly industry standard. Indeed, most cheap travel sites set their own criteria for awarding stars to hotels, and USA Today provides a good rundown of the differences among travel website hotel ratings. Just remember when reserving a room, especially through an opaque booking site, that a three-star hotel on Travelocity.com may earn four stars on Hotwire.com, and vice versa.

Travel Sites Fees.

Travel deals sites' policies change almost daily regarding booking fees, and most of the key players, including Hotwire.com and Travelocity.com, don't charge a fee for published flights. Hotels and car rentals are a different story. The booking fee will only be apparent in your grand total and is usually lumped in with the taxes or something equivalent to a "service charge" section; state and city taxes vary so it may be difficult to figure out the service charge.

Returns, Cancellations, Exchanges.

Return, cancellation, and exchange polices vary widely among cheap travel deals sites, but the common thread is that you can't modify the reservation without incurring a penalty from both the travel provider and the cheap travel site. In some cases, particularly with the opaque booking at Priceline.com and Hotwire.com, you flat out cannot modify the reservation. Sometimes, however, you can get a refund if you find lower published fares or rates. Hotwire.com has a "Low Price Guarantee" that awards a refund of double the amount of your stay and Priceline.com has a "Big Deal Guarantee" that promises to match the lower rate for the exact same flight, accommodations, or car rental and give you $25 plus a $50 coupon towards the next vacation package booked on the site. Terms and conditions are heavy for both of these programs, so don't expect this to be an easy exchange. And, as always, carefully review the refund and exchange policy of any cheap travel site or provider site before buying and contact the company directly if you have questions.



email Sign up for our
Free Newsletter
In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Travel Sites
  2. Discount Travel Sites Features Comparison Table
Cheapism.com on Facebook
 
Pinterest
Subscribe