Last year was the year of the “staycation.” But we predict that the summer of 2010 could mark the return of the vacation. Airline experts report seeing stronger summer bookings, too. Thanks to online deals from airlines, hotels, car rental companies, and specialty travel websites, travelers can go away without going in the red.
According to Melanie Nayer, Gadling’s hotel blogger and the editor of CheapFlights’ Travelononmics series, it pays to spend a few minutes comparing prices on big travel sites like Orbitz, Travelocity, Kayak, and Expedia. But why stop there? A number of specialty travel web sites can offer attractive deals — even better ones if you know how to maximize their potential.
To be sure, booking airfare through a reputable travel site or directly through the airline offers travelers peace of mind that they might not get otherwise — but that doesn’t mean you should skip the fine print. “Looking for the best deal doesn’t always mean you’re going to be in the best situation,” Nayer says.
Here, four websites to check out before you check in.
Anne Banas, the executive editor of SmarterTravel.com and frequent traveler herself, says this “opaque site” is among the easiest to use, offering hotel rooms, flights, car rentals, and cruise deals. “The way Hotwire works is they don’t tell you the name of the company [until after you purchase],” she explains. “You make a reservation and they’re able to give it to you at a much lower price.”
Best for: domestic car rentals. Banas prefers to know the name of her hotel or airline before booking, but she’s not as concerned about car rental companies. “They only rent from major agencies, so you’re not going to get a car from Rent Direct,” she adds.
Insider tip: “I find it useful when I know my exact dates,” Banas says. However, Hotwire also offers a flexible date search and a trip watcher feature that notifies users when the price drops.
Examples of recent deals: full-size car in Kansas City for $7.95/day, 5-star hotel in Athens, Greece for $72/night.
Priceline offers deals on hotels, flights, cars, cruises, and vacation packages, but it’s best known for the bidding section where travelers can name their own price on flights, hotels, and more. Like Hotwire.com, you don’t know the name of the business until after you’re committed to booking if you use this method.
Best for: hotels in destinations you already know. “Bidding sites are great for destinations that you’ve been to before that you feel comfortable traveling to, but I wouldn’t use it for a destination where you’ve never been,” Nayer says. However, you can score great deals. “If you think you can’t afford a four-star hotel, then try these sites,” she adds.
Insider tip: To ensure that you’re booking a nice hotel, Nayer suggests taking a look at the star ratings and filtering as specifically as possible. If bidding isn’t your thing, then check out Travelocity’s newly released Top Secret Hotels. “It’s their version of a Priceline or a Hotwire without the bidding,” Nayer says. “The hotel is a secret, but you don’t have to bid on it. They’re offering wholesale prices on these rooms.”
Examples of recent deals: round-trip airfare to Peru from $339 on LAN Airlines, room at a 3.5-star hotel in Asheville, North Caroline for $47/night
Bing Travel is similar to Kayak.com in that it aggregates information on airfare and hotels from many different sources across the web and directs users to that website for the actual booking process. “Bing tends to be pretty comprehensive,” Banas says.
Best for: easing anxiety about fluctuations in airfare. Banas says Bing uses historical data to help decide you should wait or book now.
Insider tip: Banas says Southwest Airlines isn’t included on most airfare aggregators, so if you’re flying to one of their destinations, you may want to check Southwest.com or Momondo, a Dutch website that does include Southwest in its searches.
Examples of recent deals: round-trip airfare from Cincinnati to Chicago on American Airlines for $102; round-trip airfare from Austin, Texas to Boston on US Airways for $158.
The sister website to luxury fashion retailer Gilt Groupe, Jetsetter offers luxurious travel accommodations to members at a steep discount. (Don’t be put off by the member-exclusive language on the website. This writer’s request for a free membership was approved within 24 hours.)
Best for: luxury travel. “They have first class hotels at unbelievably low prices,” says Nayer. “Hotels that were going for $500/night on other websites, Jetsetter was offering for $250.”
Insider tip: Don’t delay, because sales change frequently. And if you’re prone to buyer’s remorse, look elsewhere. “If you know Gilt, you know you have to act fast,” says Nayer. “I think they usually give you a week, and it’s nonrefundable. Once it’s booked, it’s booked.”
Recent deals: studio in the Opposite House in Beijing, China starting at $120/night, ocean view room at Capella Pedregal at Cabo San Lucas from $290/night.
Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers business and lifestyle topics.