Being your own online travel agent, while empowering, can also be daunting. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number and dizzying array of websites.
According to phocuswright.com, an industry analyst site, about one-third of travelers consistently book their trips online, and 76 percent use one or more websites to choose a destination.
Where to look? Most online travel forays begin with a search engine (such as Google, Bing, or Yahoo) but after that, hold onto your hats:
Looking for inspiration
Not sure where you want to go or what you want to do? Some sites are designed to whet your appetite for specific destinations, properties, or activities. For example, a new site called triptuner.com — with a home page resembling a slot machine — helps you choose and design a trip uniquely suited to your tastes and interests. Vayable.com operates like a matchmaker, picking local guides who provide unique “insider” tours and experiences for travelers.
If you have already homed in on a destination, many convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs) sponsor websites (and mobile apps) with extensive descriptions of hotels, restaurants, and attractions for an area — including maps, weather, and information on what to wear. For example, legendarynapavalley.com showcases wineries and other tourist attractions in Napa Valley, Calif. The official website of greater Fort Lauderdale, Fla., sunny.org, has live beach cams on the site.
Nichebased affinity sites
Whether you are a foodie, dog lover, or wildlife enthusiast, there are sites that can help you design your travels and help you find kindred spirits, including cookingvacations.com, dogwonderful.com (which provides a directory of petfriendly properties), or planetwildlife.com.
Review sites (which often book travel as well) offer opinions and ratings along with photographs from experts and users. Many travelers also ask “friends” on Facebook or other social networks where to stay and what to do.
Despite recent controversy about some vendors scamming the integrity of its review process, tripadvisor.com (once owned by Expedia) remains the most trafficked review site, with approximately 60 million user reviews. Sites such as oyster.com (which focuses on hotels) and jetsetter.com offer professional vacation reviews. Some large hotel brands are incorporating reviews from users directly onto their sites.
In the air travel category especially, metasites such as farecompare.com, fly.com, yapta.com, hipmunk.com, and kayak.com aggregate searches from multiple sites to help consumers find the best deal, in terms of schedule and cost. Cruisecompete.com does this for cruisers.
A number of sites advertise protections for price drops after purchase. For example, the orbitz.com Price Assurance program automatically tracks and processes refunds if another traveler books for less before the start of a traveler’s trip. Tingo.com automatically rebooks hotel rooms at a lower rate if the price drops.
Flashsale sites (such as spire.com, sniqueaway.com, and jetsetter.com) offer time limited opportunities for priceconscious travelers to take advantage of significant price reductions on rooms and vacation packages.
Many travelers check prices directly with airline, hotel, travel, cruise, auto rental, or rail suppliers (United Airlines, Marriott, Hertz, etc.) to take advantage of special offers or to confirm they are getting a good online deal elsewhere. (Booking air directly offers the convenience of selecting seats and obtaining credit for frequent flyer miles on the same site.)
Expedia.com, travelocity.com, and orbitz.com are full-service, online travel agents (also called third-party intermediaries) who broker airlines, hotels, car rentals, cruises, and vacation packages for travelers. In recent years, priceline.com, which started with a name-your-own-price model, has moved to include conventional sales similar to the other big brokers.
Numerous tour operators, Pleasant Holidays (pleasantholidays.com) and American Express Vacations (americanexpressvacations.com), to name just two, also offer one-stop-shopping online packages.
Online tools have the potential to make it easier to organize trips. Utilities like tripit.com help organize all the details of flight, hotel, auto rental, and restaurant reservations. The site allows travelers to forward email purchase confirmations to their TripIt accounts, automatically adding the information to their itineraries, which can be shared with family and friends.
SeatGuru.com takes the guesswork out of knowing how much legroom you will have, whether your seat is in the path of the restroom, and whether it reclines and has a tray table.
Google Maps and its mobile apps can be invaluable in planning your trip and figuring out how to get back to your hotel room if you get lost in a new city. It can also point you to directions for using public transportation.
Flightaware.com tracks the status of your incoming flights if you are worried about bad weather diverting or delaying your plane’s departure.
Weather.com helps you determine how to pack and whether you will need your umbrella.
For more information on planning travel online, see: Online travel trends: Continually changing and getting better
[This article was published in the Boston Globe Travel Section on Sunday, June 10, 2012.]