TRAVELING FOR LESS
How to Use Travel Websites
Discount Travel sites are a great option for budget travel, or to reduce overall travel fees. Depending on your restrictions including time, family members’ schedules (like school or work constraints), and personal vacation preferences, you can find a lot of great deals out there today, especially if you are able to be flexible. Even without the freedom of a “last-minute getaway” as an option, there are ways to cut down on travel expenses if you learn how to navigate the sea of deals available. We’re here to help you understand your choices so that you can plan a vacation that is fun and stress-free!
5 steps to make the most of your online travel searches:
Step 1: Know the destination and time-frame you are interested in. If you have the ability to be spontaneous, look through current deals or getaway options and perhaps consider a location you weren’t planning on going to if a great opportunity presents itself. Most travel engines have a hidden feature where you can type in “anywhere” or “everywhere” as the destination to return that websites’ deals.
Step 2: While unproven, it is recommended by some to do your searches using an incognito-mode browser window. If you are unsure how to open an incognito window, read this how-to. The reason to do this is that it is possible travel sites could change prices based on your location and cookies, so using “Incognito Mode” prevents the ability for targeted inflation. Cookies in a normal browser save your search data in order to recommend the right advertising, know your location, etc., and some travel experts claim this can have adverse effects on flight/vacation prices.
Step 3: Using the sites below or your other favorite travel websites, do some comparison shopping on best prices and try to figure out if there are certain times like off-peak seasons that may be much cheaper (if you can consider altering your dates). Being flexible with your flight days (weekdays are typically cheaper than weekends) can often pay off in a big way. Most travel sites have an alert system that you can configure so that you can ask to be notified when a specific set of criteria has a price-drop – allow them to contact you if this is something you can hold out for and you may end up with a much better rate than purchasing a spur of the moment ticket.
Step 4: Understanding that most discount travel sites are just presenting other company’s information, read reviews on the specific hotel/airline/excursions you are considering. Do not assume the company reviews (i.e., Travelzoo’s) are enough to verify the services purchased through them will be good. While the sites we have listed try to enforce high standards with their participating vendors, they are not always able to quickly react and drop vendors who have recently lowered their quality. We recommend doing your own research on each service included.
Step 5: Understand all refund policies. If you have questions, contact the companies and get clarification before you travel or purchase. This is SO much easier to do before hand rather than after the fact, and should give you a sense of how the company will handle a problem situation as well as judge their speed of communication.
Travel aggregators search through numerous options which typically include both large and small travel companies, to find available options and allow you to sort them according to preference (price, ratings, etc.). Some of the main sites that claim to do aggregation actually own multiple aggregation sites. For instance, Expedia.com owns all of the following sites: Hotels.com, Hotwire.com, CarRentals.com, Trivago, Venere.com, Travelocity, Orbitz, and HomeAway. So although they mention that they are searching multiple sites, this is somewhat misleading, and recent low scores of such sites have kept them off of our list. However, Hipmunk, Skyscanner, and Google Flights have options to compare against other sites including these.
Skyscanner is consistently on everyone’s “Best Pick” list and for good reason. Many seasoned travelers will attest that if they only had one search engine option they would choose this one hands down. Reason being, this site is easy to use, reliably presents the best prices, and is not annoying with ads or pop-up windows like some of the other aggregators. You can also make use of their easy to use multi-city options as well as quick and dynamic filters which will help you customize your trip.
Hipmunk has a fun and fresh spin on travel searches with their easy to understand interface. They also have a cute way of explaining how rough your chosen travel choice will be based on their “Agony” setting which will identify pain points like stops, layovers, and total duration. Plus their name is Hipmunk, nuff said.
While fairly lackluster as a travel resource, Google is usually pretty great when it comes to data. Flights are no exception, but you may not end up using them to book. From what we have read in many reviews, Google Flights is mostly used as a baseline to validate other sites’ prices against. Their search engine is fast and includes no frills but will give you a good idea of what options are available and also recommends cheaper dates to fly. However, we have found this site rarely has the best prices and offers no “specials”. Worth mentioning is the Google ITA Matrix site as well, which is strictly providing data and no pretty interface, but has a really thorough result set.
Sites like these are where being vacation-flexible is going to be a game-changer when it comes to price. Not all of the bargains require purchasing “last-minute” deals, there are still plenty of options to purchase trips far in advance. However, the specifics are typically locked down with these deals (meaning excursions, hotels, flights), although they can sometimes be modified or upgraded for additional fees. If you are willing and interested in a destination that might be a bit of a gamble or deviation from when and where you thought you were originally going to go there are usually some spectacular deals available. Be aware that these sites are 3rd party, meaning they are not the actual company you are booking with so you will want to research the actual tours, hotels, etc., independently as well if you are considering one of their deals.
Travelzoo has extreme deals to random locations where you never know from week to week which locations will be on sale. I personally look forward to their weekly newsletter with the top 20 deals where you can find outrageous trip prices like a week stay including flights to China for only $600.00. Additionally, you can do specific location searches which will typically return good bargains. Their reputation is solid and the site prides itself on never offering a deal that the employees wouldn’t or haven’t gone on themselves.
This site is especially good for a low-frills interface that is simple and easy enough for Grandma to use. The company goes out of its way to keep costs down so much so that they do very little marketing including no affiliate marketing. This site is best suited for those looking to create a multi-citi itinerary, and it can handle this task beautifully. You can easily add cities and days you will be in each location and it will allow you to customize your methods of transportation between each.
Despite mixed reviews and a lot of low ratings on every Vacation Rental By Owner site we checked into (which included all of the major ones), we still believe that vacation rentals can be a wonderful and economical way to find great, affordable lodging on a budget. Hostels are the most inexpensive of all the budget-travel methods but you will usually have to share facilities with others, dorm room style.
Our own personal experiences with AirBnB (including reviews from many friends and family members) have been overwhelmingly positive, but based on all the negative experiences reported we concluded it is very hit or miss. Make sure you read the fine print, reviews on that specific rental, and refund policies carefully to avoid misunderstandings and to thoroughly understand what you should and shouldn’t expect.
TurnkeyVR is listed here because they have higher review scores than AirBnB and VRBO.com. Turnkey VR manages the complete transaction, so there is no miscommunication with the actual owners. There are two promotions running right now until 9/30/18, each offering 10% off. If staying 7 days or longer use: TRIP10. If staying in the middle of a week use MIDWEEK10.
If you are okay with sharing your sleeping and other quarters with strangers, hostels provide the most economical way to travel and can usually be found in every major international city. Hostelz.com is a search engine/aggregator which includes most of your main hostel sites and their availability. This site has been praised and awarded by reputable travel companies such as Frommer’s for their accuracy and convenience.
Vacations consist of 2 parts: where to go and what to do. Once you know where you want to go figuring out what to do can be tricky; some people make a full living off of creating travel itineraries. If you are willing to do the research yourself you can save big bucks and there are great resources online to help. We are recommending the site that we’ve used for most of our vacation planning.
Along with its Search Engine which includes Vacation Rentals and Flight/Hotel/Car finders, TripAdvisor is probably best known and trusted for it’s crowd-sourced community. We use TripAdvisor to confirm good reviews for all of the travel sites we recommend here as the reviewers are scored on their expertise levels and verified purchases; a great way to ensure legitimate ratings. TripAdvisor is the best place we know of to find free and pay-for city-specific excursions and activities – check out the “Things To Do” area once you have entered the destination city you plan on traveling to.
We picked the sites above after reviewing dozens of other travel sites and determining there were either too many mixed reviews or something that stuck out to us as “fishy” about the rating system (for example, 700 5-star reviews with duplicated verbiage).
We thoroughly reviewed the following sites before choosing our recommendations for you (note: some of these might be great but somehow didn’t meet our bar): Agoda, AirfareWatchdog, Amoma, Apple Vacations, Booking, Bookit.com, BudgetAir, CheapCarribean, CheapOAir, CheapTickets, CruiseDirect, Expedia, FlipKey, Fly.com, Hotels.com, HotelsCheap, HomeAway, IceLolly, JustFly, Kayak, HotWire, Momondo, Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity, Tripping, Trivago, VacationSooner, VacationsToGo, VRBO, Windmu, Wholesale-Flights.
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