The Best Travel Sites: Summed Up
|Best Airfare Site||Best Car Rental Site||Best for Flexible Planning||Best for Comparing Features||Runner-Up Best Car Rental Site|
|Flexible Dates Options||+/- 3 days||N/A||+/- 3 days; monthly search||+/- 3 days||+/- 1 day|
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.
How We Chose the Best Travel Sites
Price is the undisputed king in the travel world. So you might be surprised to learn that since more than 95 percent of the online travel marketplace is controlled by just two companies (Expedia and Priceline), many of our travel sites found the exact same flights and cars for the exact same price. Our top picks all consistently found us the best prices for the cheapest flights and rentals – though Booking.com won top crown for finding the cheapest price overall and Priceline’s unique tool helped us luck into getting a great deal.
Flexible date tools let you see what happens if you slightly adjust dates for a proposed trip. We love being able to compare prices if we left for vacation a day earlier, or came back a day later. If you’re bargain hunting and haven’t completely set a schedule, flexible dates are a must-have. Kayak was our favorite here, with flexible date results that ranged from one to three days, or even a whole month so you can see what week is best for your summer vacation.
Whether tracking down the right hotel amenities, locating a specific car type, or making sure our plane ticket covers baggage fees, it’s crucial to have great comparison features on a travel site. The best travel site will make it easy to request amenities, or at least give us a good look at the features of different options. Hipmunk stood out here with useful diagrams and cool displays about each hotel and flight in our search. We could tell at a glance that it was worth paying some extra money for a four-hour flight with Alaska rather than a thirteen-hour multi-stop flight with Spirit.
At its most basic, the best travel site should have pages that load quickly, display relevant results, and don’t leave us wondering if we’ve accidentally clicked on spam. This turned out to be a high bar. A few websites flooded us with pop-up ads imploring us to “call for better rates!” and StayDriveFly and ShareTrips had so many pop-ups their pages took an eternity to load. We also frowned on travel sites that sprinkled alternative date options within our requested results: Every time we saw good prices, we had to double-check that the dates were in fact ours. The best travel site shouldn’t make us feel concerned about leaving our credit card information with them, and won’t side-track us with irrelevant search results.
The 5 Best Travel Sites
Check PricesLow airfares and comprehensive hotel searches, but not great for finding a rental car.Return to top
Why we chose it
Lowest airfare prices
After tracking prices for the same flight across two weeks, only one website truly impressed us: Booking.com’s primary weakness is that it doesn’t have a flexible dates tool. It’s a useful first stop if you’ve already nailed down the days you want to travel, but if you’re interested in exploring flight costs on multiple days, weeks, or even months, the easiest option is to go through runner-up Kayak.
No car or cruise search options
Booking.com did offer results, we weren’t impressed with its limited customization options. But if you’re looking to book a plane ticket or a hotel room, Booking.com is our top pick.Best for
Check PricesIf you have the time and the patience to hunt for the best deal on a car rental, Priceline’s Name Your Own Price Tool can score you a great deal (if you’re lucky).Return to top
Why we chose it
Name your own price tool
Priceline is known for its Name Your Own Price Tool, although unfortunately it only applies to car rentals now (they discontinued it for airfares in 2016). It works like this: you select your dates, location, the basic type of car you want, and enter the price you’re willing to pay, per day, for that car. If your bid wins, you’ll be connected through to the purchase page to finalize your details. If not, you can wait 24 hours to make the same bid or try adjusting your preferences.
Before you buy, you’ll see how many people the car can fit, the approximate size of the luggage compartment, its transmission type, and whether it has air conditioning. But you won’t know the exact details of the car you’re renting, or where you’re renting it from, until you’ve completed the purchase.
The trade-off for not knowing the specifics of your rental car can be some serious savings. Our bid for a luxury car at $10 per day for three days was accepted, even though the tool briefly warned us that our price was “too low.” Depending on how busy your destination is during your planned trip, and the popularity of the car you’re requesting, you might be able to score a great deal.
Points to consider
In every search except for when we lucked out with the Name Your Own Price Tool, Priceline always ended up charging us a higher price for the same flight or car rental. When we searched for the cheapest flight, Priceline consistently charged us around $50 more than the average.Best for
Check PricesExpedia helped us track down our perfect car, although we weren’t impressed by its mediocre flight and hotel searches.Return to top
Why we chose it
Excellent car rental customization
If you know exactly the type of car you want, Expedia will help you find it. In addition to choosing the time and place for pick up and drop off, you can choose to only search for cars rented by a specific company and request special equipment. You can also specify manual or automatic transmission, how important air-conditioning is to you, and whether you need to have an unlimited or limited mileage policy. We particularly liked how you can look at cars within a given daily price range, and if you have a specific neighborhood you’re trying to pick up or return a car in, Expedia can search for that too.
Helpful car rental map
We liked having a map when searching for car rentals within a city so we could easily see whether a company was on the north or south side of town. This feature was particularly helpful when searching for locations near the airport. Expedia’s map outclasses the competition, although it’s a little tricky to use — you have to leave the map view to add filters (like car type or location) and then go back to see how your preferences affected the map.
Points to consider
Mediocre airfare pricing
Expedia rates thoroughly average when it comes to airfare prices. While Expedia never amazed us with low prices, it also didn’t overcharge us for a ticket, like Priceline. That said, if you’re looking for the best airfare, we recommend starting your search with Booking.com or Hipmunk, which tended to find lower prices.
Lackluster hotel searches
Expedia does offer some of the most important filters for hotels — price, star rating, customer rating, and a few amenities — but that’s about it. If you want to truly hone in on the perfect hotel with non-smoking rooms and various neighborhood filters (so your Paris trip will land you closer to the Louvre than the Moulin Rouge), you’ll want to try Booking.com or Kayak.Best for
Check PricesKayak’s clean presentation and solid price results make this site a good option for making your next plane ticket or hotel booking.Return to top
Why we chose it
Flexible flight searches
Kayak kicks up the flexible search game by offering three different search options: flexible dates, flexible weekend, and flexible month. Flexible dates let you specify when you’d ideally like to be traveling, and then compare what it would cost (or what flights are available) on the days leading up to and following each date. The result is a chart displaying which days are cheapest to travel. If you’re trying to find the lowest price — and you don’t mind staying an extra day or cutting your trip short to get it — Kayak’s tool is unparalleled for simultaneously comparing the most dates across multiple airlines.
Kayak’s clean layout makes it easy to absorb a lot of information about different travel arrangements quickly. Kayak impressed us with its car rental search map – we could see at a city-wide glance where the cheapest rentals were without having to zoom in on a particular area. We also liked Kayak’s hotel search, which includes a map displaying not only where hotels are located within a city, but which neighborhoods are best for dining out, shopping, and sightseeing.
Kayak’s heatmap (available in hotel searches) makes it easy to see whether your hotel is located in a good area for eating (left image), shopping (right image), nightlife, or sightseeing.
Points to consider
While Kayak’s prices weren’t exorbitant, it didn’t earn outstanding marks for finding bargain-priced tickets like Booking.com. In the case of our hypothetical NYC-LAX vacation, choosing Kayak meant spending between $7 and $15 more than Booking.com. We also found Kayak to be a little more expensive than the rest of the competition when searching for car rentals – about $10 or so per day.
No direct bookings
Unlike Booking.com, Kayak isn’t a booking engine. It’s an aggregator. This means you don’t purchase your ticket directly through Kayak.com. Instead, when it’s time to purchase, you’ll be redirected to the website of the airline or rental agency you’re booking with and will likely need to create an account to complete your purchase (unlike Booking.com where you can make all purchases through your one Booking.com account). If you end up booking one of Kayak’s “hacker fares,” which combine a departure flight on one airline with a return flight on a different one, you’ll need to go to two separate websites to complete the booking.Best for
Check PricesHipmunk offers impressive and useful presentations for airfares and hotels, and competitive pricing across every travel category.Return to top
Why we chose it
Great comparison features
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 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, flight arrival and departure times, and the available amenities for each flight. The end result is a clean presentation that makes it easy to compare options.
Like Kayak, Hipmunk scored solidly average in terms of price. It never found the bargain deals that Booking.com managed to turn up, but it was never the most expensive. It hovered close to Kayak and Booking.com for the most part. And if you’re amenity-minded, paying a few extra dollars may be worth it – Hipmunk makes it the easiest to compare two different flights based on amenities.
Impressive hotel searches
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” it to see the hotel highlights (whether it includes free WiFi, parking, or breakfast, has a pool, allows pets, etc.), 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 adjust as you go.
Hipmunk’s unique hotel-search results page makes it easy to compare hotels and learn more about each option, without making the website feel crowded or hard to navigate.
Fun mobile support
All of our top picks offer some kind of mobile support, whether it’s an app or just a mobile-friendly site. Hipmunk offers Hello Hipmunk. It’s a digital travel assistant that works with your email and calendar, as well as 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 direct questions about prices for a trip, or coordinating plans with your family.
Points to consider
Poor car rental search
Hipmunk fell short when it came to searching for rental cars. Its grid display is more confusing than it is convenient, and makes it difficult to search for cars based on amenities, or sift through the results to find the perfect car. We also weren’t fans of how you can only search for rental cars near an airport, since we might need to rent a car without making a trip out of the city.
Guide to Travel Sites
How to make the most out of any travel site
Avoid website cookies
Most travel sites offer a bonus if you make multiple bookings with them for the same trip – be it your flight and hotel, your hotel and car rental, or all three. If you’re only booking one part of your trip, you’ll want to go to the airline, hotel chain, or car rental website directly to see if they can give you a better rate just for working with them directly – but if you need to make multiple bookings, it’s worth seeing what discounts you can get for bundling through a travel site.
Keep an eye on cancellation policies
No matter which website you’re booking with, you’ll want to browse through the cancellation policy before making your final purchase. When we searched for the best car rentals, all of our tested websites came back with the same price, except for Kayak, which offered us $123 for a car instead of $133. However, this $10 savings meant that our reservation was non-refundable – which could be a deal-breaker if you think there’s a chance your travel plans might change.
Travel Sites FAQ
What’s the difference between a booking engine and a price aggregator?
A booking engine (like Booking.com“>Booking.com or Expedia) searches for results and lets you book your travel arrangements directly on their site. Fare aggregators (like Kayak and SkyScanner) will display available flights/rentals, but typically will redirect you either to the airline or agency’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.
Are all Priceline and Expedia travel sites the same?
Priceline and Expedia each own multiple travel sites – so do you have to check all of their travel sites to get the best price? For Expedia, the answer is no. Expedia sites (including Orbitz, Travelocity, and CheapTickets) all produced the same search results, and only vary slightly in presentation and sorting abilities. Expedia has found a formula that works and is running with it, which means once you’ve searched one Expedia site, you’ve searched them all – saving you time in comparison shopping.
Priceline travel sites (including Booking.com, Kayak, and Momondo) are a different story. In addition to vastly different presentation and search features, Priceline’s travel sites gave us different prices. When we tracked airfares, Booking.com consistently gave us some of the lowest prices for a roundtrip ticket while Priceline offered some of the highest. Unlike Expedia travel sites, you’ll need to check each of Priceline’s to make sure you’re getting the best deal.
*Priceline’s standard car rental searches gave us slightly more expensive results, but we could sometimes get a better deal when using its Name Your Own Price Tool.
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