Have Internet, Will Travel
So how popular has the web become as a source for travelers?
For the first time ever, internet bookings this year will account for more than half of all US travel bookings, according to a recent report from independent travel research firm PhoCusWright. Last year, US online travel bookings totaled about US$85 billion.
By 2011, $128 billion in travel will be sold online in the United States, according to a report by JupiterResearch. Everyone wants a piece of the action, and the onslaught of new travel-related sites is daunting.
We’ve pored over the newcomers, taken a fresh look at the old-timers and come up with our own, admittedly subjective, list of the best and brightest, from A to Z.
—-Airports. Looking for detailed info on airports across the globe? Go to the World Airport Guide (www.worldairportguide.com) for the lowdown on transportation, location, hotels, facilities and parking for more than 200 airports. Perhaps most valuable are links to each official airport Web site.
—-Bookings. New sites for booking airline tickets, hotel stays, car rentals, etc., seem to launch daily. But I find myself going back to Kayak (www.kayak.com), a meta-search site that doesn’t book directly but sends you to other sites to buy. Kayak does a good job of scouring the Web for all available options. Kayak also publishes fare trend graphs and tracks fares that its users are finding in its Kayak Buzz section.
—-Cruises. For updated cruise news, including the latest norovirus outbreaks and details on who has gone missing from which cruise ship, I head to Cruise Critic (www.cruisecritic.com). The site includes extensive reviews of about 265 ships, thousands of reader reviews and good articles on various cruise-related topics for the major lines.
—-Driving. When it comes to driving directions and maps, Mapquest (www.mapquest.com) is still the gold standard. A fun new feature allows you to string together as many as 10 destinations. You can also access Mapquest on your Web-enabled cell phone or PDA. The site also includes a world atlas and extensive foreign country maps.
—-Ecotourism. The site of the nonprofit International Ecotourism Society (www.ecotourism.org) allows travelers to search for tour operators, travel agents, hotels and transportation providers that are members of the organization and have signed a code of conduct promising to adhere to ecotourism standards.
—-Frequent fliers. Frequent-flier expert Randy Petersen runs several sites devoted to the topic. Best overall is Web Flyer (www.webflyer.com), which offers extensive details on most loyalty programs. The site also reviews and ranks the programs and posts the latest frequent-flier news, such as United’s recent decision to set a stricter expiration policy.
—-Guidebooks. It’s difficult to pick a favorite in this crowded field because each one gears itself to a different demographic. But my pick for general info is Frommer’s (www.frommers.com); the site offers all the basics (how to get there, best time to travel, hotels, sites, restaurants, etc.) plus good entries on recommended destination-geared reading and recommended hotels in categories such as â€œbest for a romantic getawayâ€ and â€œbest historic hotel.â€ It books trips through www.travelocity.com.
—-Hotels and other lodging. One of the most comprehensive sites is Hotels.com (www.hotels.com), which says it offers rates from more than 70,000 properties worldwide. The 15-year-old site sorts properties by name, star rating, price and its own picks, and it contains detailed info on each hotel, with map locations. It also now states total charges with taxes before you enter credit card information. Weak points: Its condo/vacation home rentals are thin, and you must prepay.
—-Insurance. Several sites that compare travel insurance options allow you to see prices, to compare coverage and to buy, all in easy-to-use formats. But QuoteWright (www.quotewright.com) is a cut above only because users can easily locate the policies’ fine print; the site, for example, explains under â€œtrip cancellationâ€ who would qualify as a family member in case of emergency. It includes results from all the major companies, including Travelguard, Access America and CSA Travel Protection.
—-Jets. It may not be the most useful site, but a new player, Flight Explorer (www.flightexplorer.com), sure is fun. Install its software and you can view a specific flight in 3-D with satellite maps beneath it. Want to know what city, or even what block, it’s flying over right now? Just zoom in.
—-Kayaking, hiking and the great outdoors. The venerable Gorp (www.gorp.com), now part of the Away.com family of sites, is the best starting place, especially for articles on outdoor destinations from Nepal to New York. Its weekend city escapes pages are especially useful for urbanites. It requires registration for using some areas of the site, but it’s free.
—-Last-minute. Look for packages to a wide array of destinations on Site59 (www.site59.com), one of the few sites truly devoted to last-minute deals. For example, a recent three-night air/hotel package from Washington to San Diego departing just three days later was $731 for two people (including all taxes); priced separately, the same deal would have cost $1,396.
—-Oxygen and other special needs. The nonprofit Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (www.sath.org) has an extensive list of tour operators and travel agents that specialize in general disabled travel, plus travel for the deaf and for the blind. The site offers links to other travel sites for the disabled, as well as articles on cruising and links to individual airline policies.
—-Quibbles. If you care about fellow travelers’ experiences, Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com) features more than 5 million customer reviews of hotels, restaurants, attractions and vacation packages. It ranks hotels based on reviews and posts average prices. It also compares prices from major booking sites, including Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz. The site’s recent upgrade is a My Trips function, which allows you to create personalized folders with trip details, photos, hotel ideas, etc.
—-Restaurants. The site for the Zagat Survey (www.zagat.com) offers info, reviews, menus, etc., from restaurants across the United States and Europe; cities are especially well represented. Can search by neighborhoods, cuisines, ratings, etc. Also includes fun articles, such as best restaurants for Valentine’s Day dinner.
—-Special deals. For sheer simplicity, Travelzoo (www.travelzoo.com) is tops. Every Wednesday morning, it emails the top 20 deals of the week. It can search for car rental, air deals, cruise bargains, vacation deals and lodging specials, and it also offers a news desk, which posts deals as they’re announced.
—-Tourism. Seems as if every city, county, region, state and country has an official tourism site, doesn’t it? Find them all on the Tourism Offices Worldwide Directory (www.towd.com), which offers links to 1,421 tourism sites worldwide.
—-Urban. The site for the travel guide series Time Out (www.timeout.com), the bible for urbanites, offers detailed info on 117 cities from Abu Dhabi to Zurich. The well-written entries describe best restaurants, bars, nightlife, shopping, hotels and events. But it’s not always up-to-date: The New Orleans entry, for example, makes no mention of Hurricane Katrina.
—-Vaccinations. For the official word, go to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov/travel), where you’ll find health information for specific destinations, vaccination recommendations, updates on disease outbreaks and articles on such topics as mosquito and tick protection. It includes a list of travel medicine clinics.
—-Weather. You watch it on TV (admit it), so you might as well heed the Weather Channel (www.weather.com) online as well. Along with its frequently updated forecasts for both domestic and international destinations, the site features video, historical data on vacation spots, airport and health info and skiing/golf conditions. The Travel Smart index includes a vacation guide and driving advice.
—-Youth. Students and everyone else 25 and younger have a friend in the travel agency STA Travel (www.statravel.com). It offers modest discounts on airfares; a round-trip ticket on British Airways from Dulles to Heathrow was recently priced at $476, while members of the general public were paying $498. Anyone can purchase tickets, but only students and people 25 or younger get discounts. Site also offers package deals, car rentals, cellphones, hostels, etc.
—-Zoos. Make sure you have some time set aside if you go to Zoos Worldwide (www.zoos.worldwide.de). Its collection of live video feeds from zoos across the globe is addicting. The site also offers links to zoos, aquariums, animal sanctuaries and wildlife parks.Filed under: Travel & Culture