The Best Travel Site
- February 28, 2018 - Since this review was published, multiple travel sites have been acquired by giants Expedia and Priceline. We’ve updated our testing methodology and our review to make sure we're recommending the best websites to help plan your perfect vacation. Our old favorites, Booking.com, Priceline, CheapTickets, and Expedia, are joined by Kayak and Hipmunk as the best travel websites.
The Best Travel Site
The best travel site should 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 asking you to go to the dozens of airline websites and 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 looked for websites which could search for a variety of bookings, and tracked prices and user experiences focusing on flights, rental cars, and hotels, and bring us back the best services at the best prices.
Most travel sites scored solidly average: Their designs aren’t eyesores, but they didn’t impress us with cheap prices or user-friendly features and navigation. Our six favorites represent the best in price and navigation, and should be your first stops for planning your dream vacation — whether it’s a quick weekend getaway, or a months-long global excursion.
Booking.com is our top pick for Best Airfare Travel Website — consistently finding cheap prices and offering the most filters when looking for a hotel. Whether you’re looking for the cheapest flight, or exactly the right hotel room, Booking.com should be your first stop. Your car rental needs are best served elsewhere, however, and the website is generally more ad-laden than our other top picks.
Priceline's signature Name Your Own Price tool qualifies it as a great car rental site. You might be able to save on your rental with a little patience and luck. However, we wouldn’t recommend it for airfare — it tends to be on the expensive side for plane tickets.
Kayak's clean layout was a favorite with testers. It also scored big points for having the best flexible dates tool of any website we tested — letting us choose whether we wanted to look just at one day before and after our ideal dates to track down a better price, or if we wanted to look at the whole month. We were consistently impressed with its presentation, whether searching for airfare, hotels, or rental cars, and Kayak also scored fairly well for price. Kayak’s primary downside is that it’s a search aggregator more than a booking engine — you’ll have to go through to a different website to actually booking your arrangements.
A booking engine (like Booking.com or Expedia) searches for results and lets you book your travel arrangements directly on your site. Fare aggregators (like Kayak and SkyScanner) will display flights available, but typically will redirect you either to the airline’s home page, or a booking engine site to place your booking. It can be hard to directly compare the prices of results on a fare aggregator — there might be additional fees once you get to the booking website itself — so we gave slight preference to booking engines, which tend to be more upfront about price.
CheapTickets easily tied first place for the best car rental site — along with its parent company Expedia. With an impressive number of filtering options and low prices, both websites make it easy to find the perfect car rental. The two websites are almost identical — though Expedia adds a “recommended” sorting feature to search results in addition to CheapTickets’ “total price” and “distance.” CheapTickets was slightly more expensive than Expedia on average, but the difference was usually so slim, we gave slight preference to CheapTickets overall.
Hipmunk scored high points for presentation and makes it easy to compare hotels and plane tickets with clear grids and intuitive icons. It scored solidly average for price, never overcharging us compared to the competition, and frequently found some of the least expensive flights and car rentals. However, we weren’t fans of the car rental page, which features a hard-to-navigate grid layout.
How We Found the Best Travel Sites
There are dozens of travel websites, but we’d like to get one thing straight right the bat: Most of them are owned by just two companies. Expedia and Booking Holdings (formerly known as Priceline) “control 95 percent of the online travel-marketplace.” Granted, it might still be worth your time to check multiple websites that belong to one parent company. But knowing that the space is essentially owned by two companies might make it easier for you to narrow down which websites you want to check out individually, and which ones can stay unclicked in your bookmarks folder.
To find the best travel site, we surveyed more than 500 travelers to find out what features matter most. The overwhelming response? Price. That was the No. 1 answer, whether you’re looking for flights, cars, or hotels. Based on the remaining responses, we knew the best travel website also needed to provide a variety of options for any given dates, be able to handle some flexibility either in dates or with amenities, and have some sort of vacation browsing feature. After all, planning a vacation is hard work, and sometimes it’s nice to have someone do most of the legwork for you.
We started by gathering almost every travel site we could find. We excluded ones that were aimed at international customers — if you read and write French, you might be able to get a better deal on a room by searching “hôtels à Paris” into Google France, but if you don’t speak French, that’s an uphill battle just to save a few euro a night.
More than half of our survey respondents said that they primarily use travel sites to search for airplane tickets. Rentals were another popular answer, as were vacation packages — grouping together an airfare, hotel, and car rental combo to save money. So we required our websites to be capable of handling airfare, car rentals, and hotel rentals.
This left us with 29 travel websites — a mix of well-known giants like Expedia and Priceline with smaller companies Hipmunk, CheapAir, and Skyscanner. To find the best, we evaluated each website based on its ability to find low prices for both flights and car rentals, plus presentation. The best travel site should be able to find the cheapest prices, and display them with enough information for us to make informed decisions about which flight, hotel, car rental, or trip is best for you.
AirTkt, Booking.com, Bookit.com, Cheap Air, Cheap Flights, CheapFlightNow, CheapTickets, CheapOAir,Expedia, FareBuzz, FlightHub, Hipmunk, Hotwire, JustFly, Kayak, LastMinuteTravel, Liligo, Momondo, OneTravel.com, Orbitz, Travelocity, Priceline, ShareTrips, SkyScanner, Smart Fares, StayDriveFly, TravelOPod, Travomint, WhichBudget.com
The best travel site will find the cheapest airfares, and display multiple flights in an easy-to-compare manner.
We dive deep into plane tickets in our review of the best airfare site. But in short, the best travel site needs to be capable of giving us the lowest price — that means consistently finding flights at low prices (relative to their competitors) and presenting those flights in a way that makes it easy to compare. To find the best, we tracked prices, flights, and airline information across all our websites over the course of several weeks, while taking notes about the user-friendliness of each website.
We dinged websites for being cluttered with popups, or constantly reminding us to just call them for a better deal. On the other hand, we gave points to websites that gave us detailed information about our flights. We liked travel sites that warned us when we were signing up for a bare-bones ticket where the airline would charge us for every bag we brought with us and wouldn’t let us choose seat.
Similarly, we loved websites with flexible dates — especially if we’re bargain hunting and haven’t completely set our schedule. Kayak was our favorite here, with flexible dates that ranged from one to three days of flexibility, or flexible month — where you can compare prices across a longer period to see what week you should request off for your summer vacation.
We didn't ask for that.Several websites failed to impress us when they put flexible dates at the top of our regular search, without us asking for them. We had to pick through the dates and times of each flight just to make sure we’d arrive at the place and time we wanted.
Most travel sites hit right around the same price; for our New York to Los Angeles roundtrip ticket, the majority of prices circled around $313 - $325, depending on the day. We took away points from the websites which consistently charged us more money for the same ticket. This included websites like LastMinute Travel, Liligo, Momondo, and (to our surprise) Priceline.
However, we were really impressed with two of Priceline’s sister brands. Booking.com consistently found the cheapest tickets, in addition to winning the prize of finding the overall lowest price for our test data. Kayak also did really well. We didn’t see any huge savings with Kayak, but Kayak never gave us any extraordinarily high ticket prices, either. By contrast, Momondo flipped between offering a great price of $304 for our flight on day, and then $366 the next.
To be fair, “huge savings” usually meant a ticket that was $9 - $18 less than the bulk of competitors — at most around 5% of the ticket price. If you’ve been searching around for a great deal, and most travel sites bring back prices in the same general area, you might save a little bit by digging deeper, but you won’t be missing out on a whole lot.
The best travel site will also track down the perfect car rental — whether that means the cheapest price or a specific car.
To find the best car rental site, we went through a similar process, evaluating them both for finding the best price as well as for their usability. Most of the websites that scored poorly for usability in airfare sites didn’t do any better here. We were surprised, however, to see Booking.com do worse for car rentals than it did for airfare. No matter how many times we tried to find a car for rent in Seattle, Booking.com couldn’t even find us the most basic of cars.
We were particularly surprised to find that almost every travel site found the exact same car, for the exact same price, repeatedly.
The cheapest car available for a two-day rental could be ours for $133 — with a few notable exceptions. FlightHub, JustFly, Momondo, and Farebuzz all charged at least $140, either for the same car, or for a “mystery car” that we’d find out upon booking what type it was, and who were renting from.
Additionally, two websites found what appeared to be cheaper prices than the standard $133: Liligo and Kayak. Initially, we were excited to see that Liligo had found the car for $89 — until we went through to their partner website to complete the booking and the price hiked up to the same $130 - $140 range. On the other hand, Kayak had found the booking for $123, but because you booked directly through Fox Rent a Car, and not through Kayak itself, the reservation was non-refundable. All of our $133 reservations included free cancellation — so while Kayak was technically cheaper, it was a little deceptive about price. This inconvenience meant Kayak didn’t make it into our top picks for car rental.
We also evaluated their other services: hotels, cruises, and pre-planned vacations.
After evaluating airfare and car rental, we were left with eight of the best travel sites: four from Expedia (Expedia, CheapTickets, Orbitz, and Travelocity), three from Priceline (Booking.com, Kayak, and Priceline), plus the lone independent site, Hipmunk.
From here, we evaluated our top picks based on the other services they offered. All of our websites could book a hotel room, but we gave extra points to Booking.com and Kayak for having the most filtering options. Both could filter via ratings, amenities, and free items included (like breakfast or WiFi), and we liked Kayak’s “Ambience” filter, which ranked hotels based on anything from romantic, family, business, luxury, or boutique atmospheres.
Bon VoyageIf you’re looking for a travel website that can help you find the perfect cruise, you’ll want to skip Booking and Hipmunk. The other six will be able to find cruises for you and give you options to sort by duration, destination, and room type, among other features.
In terms of other services like booking cruises and offering suggested trips, these websites were fairly similar. Of the eight, only Booking.com and Hipmunk didn’t offer cruises. Booking.com and Hipmunk were the only two travel sites to not have a section dedicated to suggested trips. Booking.com does have a list of popular cities towards the bottom of their page, but this only redirects you to the hotel booking section of its website.
By contrast, we particularly appreciated Kayak’s approach to suggested trips. You can look at trips recommended for families, for a romantic occasion, for a luxury experience, or for a fun budget trip. We also liked its “Explore” feature, which allows you to enter your starting location and play around with trip ideas based on price, time of year, and duration of the trip. To narrow down your options, you can enter the dates you’d like (either specific or general, like Summer 2018), the maximum price you’d like to spend on a flight (up to $2,000), and how long you’d like your flight to last.
The travel sites we found should be your go-to when searching for the best price or the best deal in making travel arrangements. Because there are so many similarities among websites owned by either Booking or Expedia, we've grouped top picks into those two families (plus Hipmunk) to help you better understand their differences.
Our Picks for the Best Travel Site
Booking Holdings Sites
Booking Holdings is one of two giants in the travel website industry. We found three of its websites that blend together low prices and lots of detail, allowing you to pick which hotel room, car rental, or plane ticket you should buy.
Booking.com was our top pick for the best airfare sites for one simple reason: It consistently found the lowest prices for plane tickets. While it doesn’t offer flexible dates, it has enough search features to make it easy to find your perfect flight. We also loved the thoroughness of its hotel booking site, which has so many filters that we almost started to feel a little claustrophobic on the page. You’ll be able to see whether each room has air conditioning, a private bathroom, a flat-screen TV, free Wi-Fi, and possibly 20 more amenities. You’ll have a clear picture of what exactly you’re paying for, but since Booking.com does this for every hotel room, the page gets full really quickly.
That said, in addition to not having a flexible dates option for airfare, Booking.com doesn’t have a cruise search feature or suggested trips available. And while it has a car rental section of the website, we couldn’t get it to actually find any cars. But if you’re looking to book a plane ticket or a hotel room, Booking.com is our top pick.
If you’d like to rent a car, we’d recommend Priceline. Its trademarked "Name Your Own Price Tool" was discontinued for airfare, but you can still use it to get a great on a car rental. (To read more, check out review on Priceline in the best car rental site.) Unfortunately, we’d recommend staying away from Priceline when looking for an airplane ticket — it was usually more expensive than 60% of the competitors.
We also liked Kayak, whose clean layout makes it easy to absorb a lot of information about different travel arrangements quickly and compare flights. We loved Kayak’s flight search for having the best flexible dates tool of any travel site we tested — ranging from flexible weekends to flexible months. Kayak also impressed us with its hotel search, which includes a map displaying not only where hotels are located within a city, but which areas are best for dining out, shopping, and sightseeing.
The Expedia sub-brands are a little easier to group together than Booking Holdings. Booking Holdings’ websites vary significantly both in terms of appearance and what prices they serve up — hence why we recommend Priceline for car rentals, but suggest avoiding it if you only need to book an plane ticket. Expedia sites are nearly identical in presentation, information, and sorting abilities. If you’ve gotten a sense of deja vu after visiting these four sites sequentially, there’s a good reason for that: Expedia has found a formula that works, and is running with it.
Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, and CheapTickets jointly won top pick for the Best Car Rental Travel Site. There was no price difference among these four websites, and their rental policies — free cancellation, unlimited mileage, and refilling policy — were identical, too. Each website offered the same filters (car type, daily price ranges, rental car company, neighborhood, etc.), and displayed results in a clear, easy-to-read list. You’ll be able to sort the list of cars either by total price or distance, or if you’re using Expedia itself, you can also sort by its “Recommended” picks.
While we loved these four Expedia pages for car rentals, they were surprisingly lack-luster when we tested them for finding the least expensive plane tickets. At best, they were strictly average. Expedia and Travelocity never found the cheapest price, but they were never egregiously expensive. Despite the name, CheapTickets was the greatest outlier. Its tickets were always at least $20 more expensive than most of its competitors. Orbitz was less consistent, sometimes offering a fare comparable to its competitors, and other times raising the price to $40 more expensive. If you’re looking for the best airfare, we recommend starting your search with Booking.com or Hipmunk.
This solidly average theme followed the Expedia sites through its other services. It offered some of the most important filters for hotels — price, star rating, customer rating, and amenities — but wasn’t as thorough as Booking.com or Kayak. And while you can book cruises through the Expedia websites, the amount of customizations are even more limited than their hotel searches. Instead, the site pushes you to call a Cruise Specialist for more information.
Independent Travel Website
Hipmunk did well in our pricing tests, finding either the cheapest price of the day for airfare, or within $15 dollars, and finding one of the lowest prices in car rentals. That said, Hipmunk’s greatest strength is its presentation — and, no, we don’t just mean its cute mascot. The site excels at giving you enough information to fine-tune your results and compare booking options without giving you a visual overload.
We particularly liked how Hipmunk organized its airfare and hotel search results. For flights, after you type in your basic information (point of departure, destination, and dates), you’ll be greeted with a chart displaying how much each cabin class will cost, at what time of day the flight arrives and leaves, and what amenities are available on each flight. The end result is a clean presentation that is easy to read, and that makes it easy to compare options.
We were even more impressed when we searched for hotel rooms. Search results display in gorgeous cards next to a map. At first glance, the cards look simple, only displaying customer ratings, a general area, the price, and a few photos to scroll through. However, hovering over a card enables you to “flip” the card, and see the highlights for each hotel (whether it includes free wifi, parking, or breakfast, or has a pool and allows pets), customer reviews (broken down by location, service, room, and vibe, among others), and rates. We also liked how you can adjust the map to pin down where in the city you’d like to stay — your results will narrow down or adjust as you go.
That said, Hipmunk fell short when it came to searching for rental cars, where its grid display is more confusing than it is convenient, and we weren’t fans of how you can only search for rental cars near the airport. These two flaws were enough that, even though Hipmunk found cars as cheap as those offered by our top picks, Hipmunk wasn’t even a runner-up for the best car rental site.
As mentioned earlier, Hipmunk is also one of two of our top websites to not book cruises, or offer preplanned trips. Instead of presenting potential trips for you to brainstorm about or be inspired by, it has Hello Hipmunk. It’s an A.I.-based travel assistant that works with your email, calendar, or social media apps like Facebook messenger, Skype, and Slack to help give you advice on making travel plans. If you don’t feel like going directly to Hipmunk.com or using the app, you can email (or message, or slack) Hipmunk directly.
The examples Hipmunk gives make us believe Hello Hipmunk is best at answering direct questions, like “Can you show us flights from Seattle to Houston, leaving June 12th and returning June 15th please?” However, the A.I. can apprently handle modifiers like “I need recommendations for a romantic trip from Los Angeles between July 18-24” or “I prefer American Airlines.”
We recommend checking Hipmunk out if you’re making a hotel or airfare reservation, but if you’re just trying to book a car rental to zip around town for a day, we recommend looking at CheapTickets — or another Expedia website — first.
Our survey revealed the importance of price — as well as a few other interesting tidbits about travelers.
To help us find the best travel websites, we surveyed over 500 travelers to find out what they valued most, whether they wanted to book a complete vacation package, or just a car rental. The overwhelmingly most important factor was price — more than 60 percent of surveyed travelers marked price as their No. 1 concern when using a booking engine.
We asked travelers what two factors they would describe as being most important when searching for and booking airplane tickets, hotel rooms, and car rentals.
For airfare, people first cared about getting the right price, and then getting the exact dates they needed for their trip. Seeing flexible dates was another popular option — possibly linked to getting the lowest price for the trip. Travelers also valued being able to see what it would cost to upgrade their cabin class, the amenities that would be available on their flight (like in-flight entertainment, Wi-Fi, and food service), as well as being able to mix-and-match airlines to potentially get a better price.
We were surprised to see that price had some stiffer competition when travelers searched for a hotel room. Price was still the undisputed winner, but was only the first or second most important factor for about 70 percent of travelers, as opposed to 90 percent for airfare. Customer reviews and star rating were also important to helping us keep an eye on quality, as was being able to locate each hotel on a map. Travelers also valued being able to sort and search for hotels by specific amenities (like having a gym, or being pet-friendly) and seeing results from Air B&B and other niche sites show up on their search.
That said, price made a comeback when tracking down the perfect car rental; no other factor came close to being important for more than half of our surveyed travelers. Travelers appear to like being able to specify unlimited mileage (whether you can drive as far as you like without being charged a fine), see customer reviews, and identify the type of car, but above all else, price is king.
We asked our travelers a final question: would they consider a blind booking? Blind bookings are typically seen in car rentals or hotel bookings, and very occasionally when purchasing airfare. In exchange for not knowing the specific information about your booking, you might be able to save money. Car rentals might let you know the general type of car, a group of car agencies you might be renting from, but you won’t know for certain until you complete the booking. Similarly, you’ll be able to see pictures of the hotel room and read about its amenities, but you won’t know the name or exact location until you’ve purchased the room.
In addition to 36 percent of travelers saying they would not consider a blind booking, 12 percent responded that they would either require savings greater than $200, or would only consider a blind booking for certain purchases but not for others, like a car rental, but not a hotel.