The glut of online travel sites, apps, and services can often be more distracting than helpful. Which one is going to find you a clean yet affordable hotel room, or the most convenient air travel itinerary, or the cheapest car rental? And once you've done all your planning, which apps and services are going to truly help you keep track of all your plans?
There isn't one travel site or service to rule them all. I'm an advocate of taking advantage of the different areas of expertise that each of them has. Here are some of my favorites and the areas in which they excel.
Why write this story now? Because January is the time most people start planning their vacations, believe it or not. It's also a great time to get early deals (or set up price alerts) on travel for later in the year. So now is the perfect time to get a grip on all that the various travel sites have to offer.
Kayak is one of my favorite sites for searching for flights, hotels, and car rentals. It really excels, though, at finding complicated air travel.
Say you need to find a multi-city trip and have specific times of day that you need to travel as well. Kayak has superb filtering tools that handle all these permutations with ease, and while giving you complete visibility into how those filters will change your price.
Kayak's other indispensable feature is its price alerts. If you search for a trip, either on exact dates or flexibly across a few weeks, you can ask Kayak to send you emails daily or weekly with updates on the price of the ticket. Or, you can set up the system so that it only emails you when the price hits a point that's acceptable to you (to do that, you have to edit the price alert and enter a max price).
Google Flights is the site I hit when I just want to get a quick and dirty price on a flight. For example, what would it cost to fly roundtrip from New York to Tokyo in May, and roughly speaking, what dates will win me the best price?
Orbitz is one of those sites that I've found reliable for more than a decade. My first booking with the site was in 2002, according to my Orbitz account history. These days, I see Orbitz's strong suit as hotel bookings, for two reasons. First, Orbitz filters hotel search results really well, automatically prioritizing "value," which can include the quality of the hotel, price, and location. You can change the parameters, of course, to find something dirt cheap near the airport or whatever your specific needs are, and Orbitz generally points you in the right direction.
The second reason Orbitz is great for hotel booking is because the site has a relatively new loyalty program that gives you credits toward hotel reservations. Any time you pay for flights and hotels on Orbitz, you're rewarded with "Orbucks" that translate directly to dollars and can be redeemed immediately.
I've also noticed in the past few months that Orbitz offers free cancellations on some hotel bookings. Love it. In the past I've often booked rooms directly through the hotel for more rather than taking a slightly better deal on Orbitz because I didn't want to pre-pay and risk having to deal with a cancellation nightmare (booking directly with a hotel usually lets you cancel up to 24 hours in advance). Having free cancellation in addition to a great Orbitz hotel deal is super convenient.
Hipmunk is the site you need when you want to included non-hotel accommodations, such as hostels and apartment rentals, in your search results.
Another aspect of Hipmunk that I love is its ability to generate heat maps of a place based on qualities you might find in different neighborhoods, such as which are hot for shopping or nightlife.
Those heat maps are tremendously helpful when booking accommodations in a new city.
Mobile travel apps help you
- change your itinerary in a pinch,
- review your travel documents before you check in to a flight or hotel, and
- find nearby services and attractions.
For changing your itinerary, I recommend the mobile apps for all the travel search sites mentioned earlier: Orbitz, Kayak, and Hipmunk (Google Flights doesn't have any mobile apps).
When it comes to saving travel documents, I have my own system for where and how I save everything from itineraries to confirmation numbers to maps and directions in my smartphone. (You can read about it on page two of this article about vacation planning.) My setup uses the Evernote iPhone app and my to-do app of choice, Awesome Note, which I sync together to result in two copies of all my travel documents: one local on my phone and the other in the cloud.
You may not need such a complex setup, but you should have a backup of everything. One copy could simply be in email, although long, formatted emails (as travel documents often are) can be difficult to access and read quickly on a mobile phone. TripIt (for iPhone, Android, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry) is an app and service designed to handle just such a job.
TripItconnects to your email to automatically collate all the travel plans that it finds in confirmation emails. The service can identify flight, hotel, and car rental reservations, as well as OpenTable bookings. If you use TripIt, you'll automatically have a more readable backup of all your documents, automatically organized and sorted for you.
For finding services, nearby attractions, and directions, you can rely on any standard map app of your choice, such as Google Maps or MapQuest, but that will fall short if you're traveling in an area where you don't want to (or can't) use an Internet connection on your phone, such as when you'd have to overseas roaming rates. City Guides, Offline Maps, also known as Stay.com's mobile app, is one of the best app I've seen for serving this purpose. You can explore travel destinations around the world with the app and cobble together a loose itinerary for what you might want to see, do, and eat nearby. But more importantly, the app has maps that you can save offline, an invaluable resource.
Another app I like, but which has limited use, is GateGuru. It helps you find your way around airports all over the world, with maps and user-written reviews of restaurants, cafes, and services. If you're stuck in an unfamiliar airport, you can use GateGuru to find food based on your terminal location, and even read reviews posted by other users to help you steer clear of duds. GateGuru also has an included arrival and departure board for many airports, which can be handyas long as you have an Internet connection. Pretty much everything in GateGuru requires the Internet. Hardly anything's available offline.