The Internet is everyone's travel agent, and how good your “agent” is depends on your knowing the best sites that will give you great deals, accurate glimpses of your destination and warnings about the inevitable glitches you'll encounter along the way. The best travel sites do all of that and more:
This puppy hooks you into time-sensitive airline deals too difficult to track on your own. But unlike other airfare search engines, Airfarewatchdog tracks Southwest and JetBlue airlines, cherry-picks from airline websites (which increasingly offer the best buys) and makes sure seats are actually available for the deals they post. Plus, the site's got a great mascot – founder George Hobica's wheaten terrier, Browser. P.S., the site's Twitter feed offers low-fare alerts and prompt answers to questions.
The corporate hatchet man in Up in the Air spent most of his life on the road but never seemed to suffer for it. Of course, he was played by George Clooney. Regular business travellers lose sleep and their cutting edge. I've been through Ambien and melatonin. The best cure I know is CBT for Insomnia, a cognitive behavioural therapy program devised by Harvard Medical School researcher Dr. Gregg Jacobs that you can complete online in five sessions for $29.95.
This new site is the insider's choice for snagging bargain hotel rooms in North America, Mexico and the Caribbean. Free to users, it covers offers from hotel sites, e-mail newsletters, rewards programs and many other sources, taking you straight to the right website for booking once you find the deal you want. Transparency is the site's best feature. You can see right away where the deal comes from, what's required and how much you save (as a percentage of regular rates, not artificially inflated rack rates).
FlightView isn't just a way to find out whether Aunt Bertha's plane from Saskatchewan is going to arrive on time (though it does that better than most airline websites). By providing real-time, state-of-the art information about the status of in-progress flights, it also has become an important tool for government agencies and private businesses that rely on commercial airlines. Check it out the next time Auntie B comes to town.
Since its launch in 2004, Kayak has become the most popular all-around travel site, not least because it's supported by advertising so there's no cost to users. It's a true search engine, not an Internet travel agency. Once you find the flight, hotel, rental car, travel package or cruise you want, you have to go to the source to make a booking.
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But what a search engine. It's clean and simple to use, with special features devised by people who understand the needs of travellers: flexible flight searches showing lower prices on alternate dates and options to and from different airports serving the same destination; downloadable Kayak iPhone apps; and an ingenious tool for itinerary creation called Kayak Trips.
Among aggregator sites that amass leftover travel goods and services, Kemwel is tops for car rentals at rock-bottom rates in Europe, Mexico, Australia and other far-flung places. The site is easy to use; rates are quoted in dollars; sales tax and often liability insurance are included. Your credit card is charged up front and you don't know which rental company your vehicle will come from until you get your voucher. But if you have to make a change, there are real people at Kemwel to answer the phone and e-mails.
If you like boutique hotels with all their sexy little bells and whistles, you should look up Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a young English couple dedicated to finding good sneak-away places for clandestine lovers. They started in England and Ireland but lately have begun offering carefully selected places around the world.
Tired of the confusing and contradictory hotel reviews you find at sites such as TripAdvisor? Check out Raveable, which analyzes and quantifies all available user-generated hotel reviews. For instance, after tabulating about 750 reviews from six sources, the site recently ranked the California Plaza Omni as the third best of 158 hotels in the Los Angeles area. Good and bad points are clearly listed, along with a sampling of customer comments. And there's a terrific customized search mechanism that helps you find everything from rooms with fireplaces to hotels with topless pools.
Ever gotten stuck in a plane seat that didn't recline, had an unretractable armrest or was in a row with a bassinet (where they put passengers with mewling and puking babies)? Details, you tell me? Not on a long-haul flight, which is where SeatGuru comes into play. The site lets you choose the right seat before the wrong one gets chosen for you. With the help of interactive seating charts, you can suss out the best and worst spots on flights operated by more than 100 airlines, taking into consideration factors such as legroom, location of video screens and proximity to emergency exits. And if you have a question, go to the Twitter feed, @SeatGuru, to see what the Gurus have to say about it.
This little site has a world clock that tells you what time it is at any given moment, wherever. Plus, there's a time zone converter to keep you from waking somebody up in the middle of the night.
Susan Spano has been a travel columnist for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times and is now a freelance writer living in Rome.
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