The Best Travel Sites
- January 24, 2018 - Since this review was published, multiple travel sites have been acquired by giants Expedia and Priceline. In the next couple months, we'll be taking a deeper look at travel sites so stay tuned. In the meantime we've updated this review for concision and clarity.
The Best Travel Sites
The best travel site can be a valuable tool in creating your ideal trip, whether you’re planning an overseas vacation, a business trip, or a weekend road-trip. These websites work like robotic travel agents. Instead of individually going to the dozens of airline websites (or hundreds of hotel websites) to search for your ideal dates and route, travel sites perform all of these searches with a single click.
To find the best, we tested 31 travel sites to see which ones have the tools necessary to match you with your ideal booking, whether you’re only looking to rent a car for a couple days, or if you need to plan your family reunion in Fiji. Ultimately, we found six travel sites whose search capacity, smooth booking process, and discount opportunities elevate them above the rest.
Our Top 6 Picks for the Best Travel Sites
Booking.com’s clean layout and intuitive booking process, in addition to the variety of travel accommodations and planning it offers, boost it into being our top pick. We were particularly impressed by the variety of lodging made available through their search engine — finding anything from five star and brand name hotels to harder-to-find, smaller establishments. Booking.com includes bed-and-breakfasts and homestays in its search results, unlike most other travel sites.
We also liked Booking.com’s mobile app, which has some of the highest reviews for a travel app, and is available on Android, Apple, and WIndows phones. The app utilizes your Booking.com account information to keep track of your recent searches, and also immediately pull up hotels in your area if you’re have a sudden change of plans.
Best for Last-Minute Deals
Priceline earned its spot as one of the best travel sites in large part because of its Name Your Own Price Tool, which can get you a deep discount on your hotel room or car rental. They use a bidding program, where you enter in your location, the dates you want to stay in your hotel or rent your car, and then in the price you’d be willing to pay for that service, per day. If a company accepts your bid, you have your rental. If you’ve bid too low, you’ll be notified immediately that they don’t have an offer for you, and you can either try again 24 hours later, or you can adjust your dates or price point.
Unfortunately, this service is no longer available for airfares (Priceline discontinued it in 2016), and how much you save depends largely on where and when you’re traveling, and what’s available in the area. If you’re trying to book a hotel room near Disneyland over summer break, you might get less of a discount than if you’re vacationing in the North Dakota winter.
Best for Airfare
CheapAir was our top pick for Best Airfare Travel Site for it robust search engine, and excellent comparison tools that make it easy to hunt down the perfect flight for you. In addition to comparing flights for price, time, and airline, CheapAir displays information about amenities, available cabin classes, and baggage policies in a clean, easy to read format. While its hotel and car rental search engines aren’t quite as exhaustive, we especially liked how CheapAir broke the mold by showing us our hotel options on a map. Instead of having keywords like “near the airport” or “near downtown,” we could see the exact street location of each hotel.
How We Found
Travel websites want to find you your perfect trip. To that end, the best travel website will have a robust search engine — one that lets you customize and tailor your search to find your perfect flight, hotel, rental car, or vacation package. In addition, they will search — or “crawl” — through enough websites to present you with an accurate overview of your options. The best travel site will offer the most complete picture, giving you as many options that meet your criteria so you can choose the best option for you.
These companies, whether a giant like Priceline or a smaller company like CheapAir, are either classified as booking engines or aggregators. The primary difference is that with a booking engine, you’ll be able to purchase your travel arrangements through their website directly. Aggregators will do the same work of searching and collecting promising results, but will send you directly to the carrier’s website to complete your transaction. We considered both equally and put 31 of the most popular websites to the test to find out which websites made planning a breeze, and which only added to our frustrations.
Flight and airfare
For each of the four major parts to vacation planning(flights, hotels, rental cars, and vacation packages), we judged each website based on how easily we could plan, search, and arrange our dream trips. For airfare, we searched for sample trips and noted how many customizations we could request, and whether the travel site gave us enough information to make our purchase.
Southwest Airlines doesn’t appear on most travel sitesSouthwest doesn’t allow robots to search its site, so if you’re traveling along one of its routes, you’ll need to search their website directly to compare offers.
Almost every website starts its flight search in the same way: enter your dates, your point of origin and point of destination, the number of passengers, and cabin class, and you’re on your way to finding a flight. A few websites stood out for also letting us select flexible dates, or request for a non-stop flight at this stage. The best travel websites also gave us a chance to further narrow down our options after we received our options, letting us sort the results by price and trip duration, or letting us specify what time we wanted to arrive at our destination and whether we wanted to travel on a specific carrier.
We also gave preference to those websites which made it easy to compare flights, utilizing a chart, or at least small icons to demonstrate what kind of amenities we could expect. CheapAir stood out here for having a detailed comparison chart where we could see not only which flight offered WiFi or live TV streaming, but also how big the seats were (at our chosen class), and how often the flight actually arrives on time.
- Cabin Class
- Flexible Dates
- Flight Price
- Flight Time
- Non-Stop Flights
- Number of Travelers
- Specific Dates
Lodging and Hotels
We followed a similar process as we compared how well each travel site handled a variety of hotel searches. While all of websites let us search for hotels, how our results were presented and whether we could sort and filter through our options impacted how easy it was to find the one hotel that best fit our needs.
We preferred websites where we could sort our results in multiple ways. Booking.com excelled here. When you complete your search, you’ll initially be given results in order of “Top Picks for Groups” or “Solo Travelers” or “Families”, depending on how many travelers (and their ages) are in your group. From there, we could sort by price, other customer reviews, the number of stars Booking.com assigns each hotel, and by distance from downtown — so we didn’t have to wade through hotels 20 miles outside the city that were cheap just to find the one next to the convention center.
Like airlines, the more details we saw, the happier we were, and this was especially true when it came to hotel amenities. Instead of signing up to stay at any hotel, we could refine our search for wants like if swimming pools or attached restaurants, and needs like airport shuttle services and whether pets are allowed. We appreciated websites which respected our smallest desires by making them searchable, doing the legwork so we didn’t have to call up each hotel and ask if we could bring our cat along.
- Airport Vicinity
- Exact Dates
- Hotel Chain
- Hotel Price
- Number of Rooms
We evaluated each travel site’s rental car section with a similar critical eye for how easy it was to find the right car for the dates we wanted. Each website began in a similar place: we specified the city or airport we want to pickup our rental car from, whether we needed to drop it off at a different location, and what dates we were searching for. Most websites then let us choose the type of car we wanted to rent, anywhere from economy to luxury, or mini-vans or SUVs.
The best car rental sites also let us narrow down our options by what car rental company we’d like to use — allowing us to build up or spend any reward points we’d gained through their loyalty program. Additionally, they would give us multiple options for filtering our results, and would let us enter discount codes to see what adjusted prices could look like.
- Airport Proximity
- Car Type
- Discount Codes
- Rental Company
- Rental Price
- Reservation Dates
Most of our travel websites offered vacation packages in one capacity or another. Whether you’re browsing to get ideas for a potential trip, or are actively hunting for your next winter holiday, the best travel site should make it easy both to browse through fun options and hunt down your idyllic getaway. In addition to being a resource to scout trips, travel sites can bundle your airfare, hotel, car rental, and sometimes popular activities to give you a reduced rate for all three. Even if you’re only booking a flight and hotel, travel sites will typically offer you a discount compared to booking directly through the airline’s and hotel’s pages separately.
We particularly liked travel sites which grouped their packages by theme, which can vary from family vacations, romantic getaways, and adventure travel. It can make trip planning easy — so long as you’re going to one of the “getaway” destinations offered. We also preferred travel sites that had a dedicated cruise section. These websites would allow us to search by destination, cruise length, and cruise line, before filtering down to when we wanted to leave, and our departure port’s location.
- Travel Packages
- Cruise Dates
- Cruise Length
- Cruise Line
- Cruise Rating
- Departure Port
We also looked into whether it was possible to sign up for an account with each travel site. Being a member not only means having access to emails for price alerts and last-minute deals, it can unlock special members-only promotions. A few travel sites have rewards programs as well, where you can earn travel discounts or benefits by booking through them. Like using an airline’s rewards credit card to earn airmiles, by purchasing vacations, flights, hotels, and rental car arrangements through a travel site can earn you in-site credits to spend on future travel. Most companies offer some sort of online account, however, and you’ll want to investigate the details of your rewards before committing to one travel site.
We gave bonus points to companies that made their sites easily accessible, no matter what device we were using. These mobile tools can be used just like their desktop webpages, with the added convenience of storing your entire trip on your smartphone.
- Create Account
- Email Price Alerts
- Member Promotions
- Android App
- Bookings via App
- iOS App
- Itinerary via App
- Itinerary Updates via App
- Mobile Deals
- Mobile Search
- Windows Phone App
Finally, we looked at the different ways that each travel site could save us money. Special promotions are common, and are a good place to start if you’re trying to find a good deal. Coupons are rarer, as only a few companies offer them. And while we appreciate “low-price guarantees,” the fine print that comes attached usually means that only a few people would ever qualify to receive them.
A few websites will offer either a bidding service or offer “hidden” deals. Priceline earned its fame for its Name Your Own Price tool, which allows people to bid on their travel arrangements. Depending on whether a company is willing to meet your price, you can reduce the cost of your travel with small — and sometimes large — discounts for car rentals and hotel stays.
Other websites will offer hidden or anonymous deals, where they can offer particular plane tickets, hotel rooms, or rental cars at a steep discount — in exchange for you not knowing the exact details of your flight, lodging, or rental. For hotel rooms, the travel site will often still show you pictures, give you customer ratings, and let you know the general area your hotel is in, so you’re not going in completely blind. But this service also allows luxury hotels to sell off rooms at a steep discount without letting the whole world know that they can sell their rooms at a reduced rate.
- Last-Minute Deals
- Low-Price Guarantee
- Rate Comparison
- Special Promotions