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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By the editors of Kiplinger's Personal Finance
| June 7, 2018
Travel prices are flying up as the global economy improves and more people are spending to quench their wanderlust. But you can still find good deals to get away — if you know where to go online first. Here are the best travel sites we've found to help you bag the best bargains on airfares, lodging, car rentals and all your other travel needs. And best of all, almost all of the travel websites are free to use. Bon voyage!
Kayak.com scours hundreds of online sources for the cheapest fare available. The more flexible you are on time and destination, the better your chances of finding a great deal. Search for dates up to three days before and after your ideal travel dates or on any weekends in the next year. And with the site's Explore tool, you can scan a world map for all the places you can reach within a specified per-ticket price range. It also lets you specify your preferred flight time, vacation activities (beach, gamble, golf or ski?) and weather (based on temperatures).
Kayak can also help you bite the bullet and buy your ticket, or not, with its "price predictor," which forecasts whether fares will go up or down. Enter your desired itinerary and the site will return a list of flight options, along with a recommendation to either buy now or wait for a fare drop. But the tool is not omniscient. Predictions appear with confidence rates and are limited to certain cities, round-trip, coach flights and specific time frames depending on your departure and arrival cities.
AirfareWatchdog works best for travelers ready to take off at the drop of a deal. The site has actual people lurking on airline Web sites in anticipation of fare sales. They sign up for rewards programs to snag promotional codes and discount offers that can be passed on to AirfareWatchdog users. Plus, the site includes fares from Southwest, Allegiant and other small airlines that may not appear on bigger search sites such as Kayak. (Also check out HotelWatchdog, which fetches hotel listings that offer great values, meaning they have prices lower than similar nearby hotels, good locations and favorable TripAdvisor reviews.)
The Flight Deal works similarly to Airfarewatchdog. Follow for a curated roundup of cheap fares out of major U.S. cities. You can find commentary about the deals (including tip-offs if the fares drop or disappear) and step-by-step instructions on how to find dates with the lowest prices.
Google Flights is great for comparing multiple airfares. It spotlights itineraries with the best combination of price, duration, stops and more, while map, calendar and bar-graph tools help you explore cheaper destinations and dates.
WhichBudget.com will help you build an inexpensive, overseas flight plan by using local, budget airlines — a great way to save on international travel. Select your overseas starting point, end point or both, and the site will list airlines you've probably never heard of that service each route. For example, if you search for flights from Bangkok to Beijing, you'll get options from China Eastern and Hainan Airlines.
Several major airlines, such as American, AirTran and JetBlue, will refund you the difference, usually in the form of travel credits or vouchers, if the fare falls below what you paid for your ticket. Enter your flight information at Yapta.com, and the site tracks the fares for you. If the price dips below the threshold your specify, Yapta will shoot you an e-mail or Tweet and walk you through how to collect your refund.
Hotels.com lets you search just one site for accommodations at hundreds of thousands of properties. You can find particularly good last-minute deals, which are updated daily. But even advance-travel planners can score big bargains with the site's seasonal sales, destination-specific deals and other special offers. Frequent travelers will appreciate the simplicity of the site's rewards program — for every ten nights you spend at any combination of the program's 100,000 member properties, you'll earn a free night's stay worth up to the average daily rate of your ten nights.
Similarly, HotelTonight is an app that also lets users book hotels at low last-minute rates, while SnapTravel allows reduced-rate, last-minute bookings via text message and Facebook Messenger.
Priceline offers standard online travel agent services. But its Negotiator is uniquely suited to help you haggle for the best bargains on hotels. Select a minimum star class, your dates of stay and preferred neighborhood, and then name your price. You can save up to 60% off published rates, and bids less than $100 a night on luxury lodgings often win — particularly for last-minute bookings.
But here's the catch: Priceline doesn't tell you which hotel you're booking until after you pay, so you won't be sure exactly where you'll end up. Blind booking like this can be particularly risky when you're visiting an unfamiliar area, especially overseas. Note: The site also allows you to Name Your Own Price for flights and car rentals.
If you find yourself faced with a pricey fee after cancelling a hotel room, you may be able to recoup some of your losses by posting your reservation for sale on a site such as Roomer or Cancelon. You’ll set your own price, at least 20% below what you originally paid, and the sites will take a 10% to 15% cut of your sale price. Roomer will take care of transferring the reservations from your name to the buyer’s, but Cancelon requires you to make the switch.
TripAdvisor is the most popular hotel-review site, offering millions of professional and amateur reviews of hotels in the U.S. and overseas. Search for your destination, and the site will return a detailed list of hotels, bed and breakfasts, vacation rentals and other lodging options. You can filter the results to find which hotels are best for value, families, business, romance or luxury.
Watch out for possibly fake reviews from cronies trying to push up their own hotel's ratings or flame their competitors (the site flags some suspicious postings). Ignore reviews on either extreme and focus on those with midrange ratings — they're more likely to be the most helpful. TripAdvisor doesn't sell rooms or offer any actual deals, but it links you to partner sites, such as Expedia, Travelocity and Hotels.com. Click on the "check rates" button and select the site or sites you'd like to try — a new window with results will open for each partner.
To focus on smaller inns or B&Bs, try searching BedandBreakfast.com. It lists extensive details on even the tiniest inns and, after you provide your e-mail address, sends you promotional codes and "hot deals" in your desired location. You can also search for specific amenities, such as a hot tub and fireplace, or find out whether a place is pet-friendly.
Vacation rentals are an especially good value for groups because they generally offer more space and amenities for prices similar to or less than hotel rates. HomeAway offers more than two million rental lodgings in 190 countries, with more than a million worldwide listings across its family of sites (including VRBO and VacationRentals.com). There's also Airbnb with more than three million vacation rental listings in 191 countries.
If you're traveling alone, or with a buddy or two, you can score a great deal staying at a hostel — without necessarily having to join the backpacker and bunk-bed lifestyle you might associate with this budget-lodging option. Many hostels offer more private, hotel-like accommodations these days. Hostelz.com offers nearly 50,000 listings in about 9,000 cities, and includes reviews from professional and real travelers.
For a really great deal, try trading places with other travelers. HomeExchange.com provides the largest network of home swappers, with more than 55,000 listings — about 26% in the U.S. and most of the rest spread throughout the major tourist areas of Australia, Britain, Canada, France and Italy. An annual membership costs $119 and gets you as many swaps as you can manage in a year.
JetSetter is our favorite private-sale site for luxury-hotel deals. In general, these kinds of sites offer invited members exclusive access to deep discounts for a limited time, and they work best if you're flexible about where you want to travel. JetSetter can have 15 to 30 of these "flash sales" available at once – more than similar sites, which usually offer just a handful at a time — and can save you up to 50% off published rates. The sales typically last seven to ten days, or until they sell out.
More adventurous types can arrange to sleep on a local’s couch (or guest bed) for free through Couchsurfing.com. Just create an online profile, and look for available crash pads in your destination.
At CruiseCompete.com, more than 300 travel agencies vie to give you the lowest prices for dates, ports and ships you specify, whether you're booking well in advance or at the eleventh hour. You set up a CruiseCompete account, and they send you their best offers without ever seeing your personal information. Plus, the site has live agents available to guide you through the process through a live chat or by phone.
Hotwire often offers the best published deals on cars by collecting rates from its eight rental car company partners, including Alamo, Enterprise and Hertz.
The site also offers "hot rates" from rental companies that won't be identified until after you've paid. With rental cars, the risk in taking the blind-booking approach is minimal: A minivan is a minivan, no matter which company provides it. (You can also head back to Priceline.com to try bidding for a better bargain on your rental car.)
Hotwire does offer some good prepaid rental car deals in certain international cities, but such bargains are AutoEurope's specialty. Auto Europe offers rentals at more than 20,000 locations worldwide. And if you have any problems with the rental-car provider you're hooked up with, Auto Europe will help you resolve them.
What Yapta does for airlines, Autoslash does for rental cars. It will apply the best coupons and discount codes to your rental, and it will re-book your reservation if the system finds a better deal.
Check XE.com for reliable, mid-market exchange rates. Along with an easy-to-read grid of conversion rates on the homepage and a host of other tools, this site offers calculators for travel expenses, credit-card charges and, obviously, currency conversions.
Trains are often the fastest and cheapest way to travel within and between European countries. Our favorite American Web site for checking timetables and booking tickets on European train lines is RailEurope. But you might be able to catch better deals directly from European railways' sites, if you don't get lost in translation.
FlightStats.com can help you plan a smooth trip by advising you on the best time of day to fly from a specific airport and which terminals to avoid for connecting flights. You can also view live updates of flight delays, and sign up for free e-mail and phone alerts.
If you’re delayed by weather or some unforeseen event, it pays to act quickly. The TripIt Pro smartphone app ($49/year) will send you alerts about cancellations, delays or gate changes on the fly, sometimes even ahead of an airline announcement. Use it to locate alternate flights, find out when better seats are available, get fare refund notifications, track your rewards program points, and more.
At WebFlyer.com, you can see how your miles convert between programs, learn about changes to your frequent-flier program and discover how to maximize the value of your mileage awards when you redeem them for merchandise or services.
To get a professional passport photo you’ll pay about $15, which can add up for a family. Instead, take your photo with your own digital camera, then upload it to ePassportPhoto.com, which will help you size it properly before printing on your home printer. The best part: You can redo your picture as many times as you like.
You never know when an emergency situation will spoil your travel plans. Buying travel insurance from agencies and travel providers, such as cruise lines, is usually a crummy deal because of price markups and restrictions on filing claims. At InsureMyTrip.com, you can compare plans and prices from multiple insurance providers with just one search and narrow your search results by specifying the kind of coverage you need.