Everyone has different travel needs, but you can get enough information online to make the best choices for your personal circumstances. Some people want to be pampered to the limit, while others are happy to simply have a clean room and fresh towels. So whatever your tastes, use what the Internet has to offer to plan the best possible trip.
Research It First
Here are some valuable sites to visit before making any decisions regarding your itinerary. They provide links to other sites that arrange reservations.
This site is aptly named, because its mission is to offer opinions and reviews of hotels, attractions, restaurants, and activities. It also provides links to other sites where you can get additional reviews, such as Frommer’s, Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, and newspapers and magazines from around the country. If you have questions or comments about a city, hotel, or attraction, there are forums for just about everything. The search engine criteria are broad. You can type in a city, a hotel, or a restaurant name, or you can try an attraction name or a combination of city and name (which will get you better results). TripAdvisor links to deals and packages as well. For example, if you’re visiting New York and would like to put together a theater package, click on the http://www.nyctheaterpackages.com link in the Featured Specials box.
Lonely Planet (http://www.lonelyplanet.com)
One of the best travel sites on the Web, this site is loaded with information about destinations, including travel FAQs, events, money, attractions, activities, history, culture, getting around, health and safety advisories, articles, blogs, and forums. The Theme Guides give ideas about where to go and what to do for a particular interest. Perhaps you’re into deserts or historical places (or spooky places float your boat). You can click on “Fatal Attractions” and read about Torajan Funerals in Indonesia or the Day of the Dead in Mexico. In May 2004, Lonely Planet launched it own TV program on the Travel Channel.
This Web version of the long-standing travel guides offers details of destinations and hotels, restaurants, attractions, nightlife, and shopping. It also has health and safety information, downloadable maps, and message boards.
Like Frommer’s, Fodor’s offers destination and hotel descriptions as well as restaurant reviews, itinerary ideas, maps, and special features (e.g., “speaking like a local”).
Then Book It
The travel sites listed below allow you to book flights, hotels, cars, cruises, activities, and vacation packages. (You will get basically the same rates/fares at all of them, but it’s still a good idea to compare.)
In my opinion, Expedia has the best search engine with the most advanced options. For example, you can search for flights by airline, class, or nonstop flights only. You can sort by price, shortest flights, departure times, or arrival times. In most cases, you will be able to choose your seats on the plane and, if available, the types of meals you would like (although many airlines are now offering purchased meals only). The hotel pages have interactive maps, photos, and virtual tours of the property and rooms; easy-to-understand rate and availability charts; nearby points of interest and their distances from the property; directions and cost from airport; and “getting around” information. Read ratings and reviews from other users, too. By registering with Expedia, your travel information is saved for future bookings. The sidebars have travel alerts, airport information, a flight tracker, currency converters, and weather and passport information. The “Activities” tab allows you to conveniently make reservations and order tickets for activities. You won’t have to stand in line to purchase tickets or be turned away because the activity group is full; you just print out the tickets and take them with you. (This is particularly useful if you are going to a foreign country where few people speak your language.)
CheapTickets has a club called CheapTickets Gold. Joining this club is a good deal if you travel often. You get 5 percent cash back; special pricing; airline certificates; partner offers on spas, golf trips, and airport parking; and 24/7 help by phone for domestic travel. Other helpful features on the site include driving directions, street maps, international calling codes, travel tips, a flight tracker, weather, and airport delays.
The best part about this site is the destination guides, which include articles, photo and video galleries, maps, weather reports, a currency converter, passports and visa information, travel advice, and traveler reviews.
Automobile Club of America (http://www.aaa.com)
Aside from providing the old trustworthy TripTiks, maps, and tour books, you can also book air, hotel, cruise, car, and tour reservations and take advantage of AAA’s exclusive tours. You can set up a personal profile to keep preferences for airlines, car rentals, lodging, and cruises. The vacation planning form lets you fill in the details of your ideal trip; AAA will then contact you with the best deal. Make use of the online maps and directions. (Of course, you have to be a member.)
Priceline lets you set your own price for hotels and flights. However, you must enter your credit card information. Once you submit your request, Priceline looks for providers that will accept your offer. If that happens (and that’s a big if), Priceline immediately purchases it. You are not given the chance to sort through options and make your own decision about which hotel/airline you prefer. But if you are not finicky, this might work for you.
Despite its name, this site books flights, cars, and cruises as well as hotels. It has tabs that take you right to pages of certain interests, such as Bed & Breakfasts, Gambling, Golf & Tee Times, Road Trips, Shopping Cities, Ski Resorts, and Spas. If road trips tickle your fancy, this site has a road trip planner. You can plan by drive time, distance from your ZIP code, or which compass direction you want to travel in. It even has a road trip newsletter.
InfoHub Specialty Travel Guide (http://www.infohub.com)
InfoHub is a specialty travel site. It offers off-the-beaten-path packages for those looking to move away from the typical tourist vacation. For example, go on castle, culinary, and cycling tours; gay, biblical, and wildlife and eco tours; artists’ workshops tours; and much more. There are things to do that you may never have thought about, such as the WWII Russian battlefield tour, or you’ll find some trips that did occur to you, like “Following the ‘DaVinci Code’ Trail.” Or perhaps you’d prefer something more uplifting, such as the Scottish Golf and Malt Whiskey Tour, which invites you to golf and visit whiskey distilleries around Scotland. You can choose your package by activity/interest or country/city. Get feedback from other customers and join the forums to discuss experiences and options with like-minded individuals.
Luxury Link (http://www.luxurylink.com)
This site is for travelers for whom money is not the bottom line—i.e., the vacation packages are more on the sophisticated and luxurious side. They include tours, cruises, specialty travel, hotels, resorts, inns, lodges, yacht charters, villas, and spas. There are different ways to search, including a tour calendar. I have to say, I fell in love with some of their unbelievable packages. How does a luxury villa for two on St. Lucia sound to you? This vacation includes accommodation for 7 nights, full breakfast and dinner for two each day, tours of an open volcano and the botanical gardens, a 1-hour massage per person, daily transfers to town and beach, complimentary use of snorkeling equipment, and a cocktail upon arrival. All of this costs $3,900 for 2 people, including transfers to and from airport, taxes, and service charges. This is not to say that the packages are all unaffordable for the average person, because Luxury Link also allows you to bid on packages. For example, at the time of this writing, there was a Jamaican package available in Ocho Rios—5 nights in a luxury oceanfront suite; breakfast, lunch, and dinner for two each day; daily afternoon English tea on the terrace; transfers to the golf course; unlimited greens fees; and full use of non-motorized water sport facilities and equipment. The current highest bid was $1,400 for two people, including taxes, service charges, and gratuities. The auctions are weekly. You might even be able to win a free trip, including flights and accommodations, by entering the sweepstakes.
Other sites you can try are Paymetravel.com (http://www.paymetravel.com), Orbitz (http://www.orbitz.com), and Bestfares.com (http://www.bestfares.com). The important thing is to utilize the Internet and research all your options.
Roberta Roberti is a freelance writer who has written more than 25articles for various publications. You can find links to some of themat her web site (www.rroberti-writer.com).