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Four Can’t-Miss Travel Sites You Should Be Using

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Travel was the Internet’s first commercial “killer app” and the Internet remains central to the way many of you—probably a majority—go about selecting and buying travel deals. By now, a few dozen sites have emerged as the big players in the travel search space, and you probably know about them and use them. Still, travel is one of the most competitive environments anyone is likely to encounter: Innovative newcomers keep seeking a niche in this huge market, and today’s big players constantly tweak their systems. Here are a few recent developments that caught my eye, and might also catch yours.

Given the relative maturity of airfare search systems—and the general sameness of results—it’s no surprise that a lot of the new action is in hotels: {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}

  • Mr. & Mrs. Smith, based in London, claims to be a “boutique hotel expert” providing more than 700 recommendations for the sorts of hotels you might not find on some of the larger sites. You can search by region/city, region/environment (coastal, child-friendly, spa, wedding, and such), or hotel. My sample search for San Francisco turned up two choices—one the obvious upscale St. Regis, the other an unknown-to-me housing option on a former military base just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Most of the choices are expensive: The site returned only three “budget boutique” entries for the entire United States, and the rate at one of them was $299 (budget?!).
  • IStopOver proposes to serve “picky” travelers who can choose accommodations—mostly vacation rentals—based on “a home away from home” experience. You certainly can filter by a large number of variables, but—surprisingly—handicapped accessibility isn’t one of them. And I get annoyed with rental searches that filter by “number of guests” rather than number of bedrooms: “Sleeps four” in one bedroom, with two on living room couches, isn’t the same as two real bedrooms. Still, the site did return some of what looks like good options at attractive prices. And if you’re really frugal, you can even search for just a room: How about a living room cot near Fisherman’s Wharf San Francisco for $35 a night?
  • Room 77 displays actual floor layout maps—locations of individual rooms, floor by floor—in the hotels it lists. The illustrations are much like those cabin layouts by deck you see for cruise ships. You select your preferences according to how high up in the hotel you want to be, how far from the elevators (for quiet), and whether you’d like a view. Once you select, the site returns a ranking of rooms according to your preferences. Once you’ve chosen, you can either click through to the hotels booking website or get to an information sheet telling you how to request a specific room number. I have one major gripe here: You can’t indicate a preference for number of beds, which would be a key factor for many travelers.

Keep in mind that newcomers typically don’t provide the range of coverage that you find with the giant sites. But they’re worth a look; if you don’t see what you want, try somewhere else.

Of course, you’ll always find action in airfares. Hipmunk has an interesting gimmick: You can search and rank flights in terms of the “agony” factor, a composite score based on price, total trip duration, and number of stops. To reduce screen clutter (or the need to scroll through multiple pages), the site omits flight options that are “worse” than the ones displayed. If you want to see them, anyhow, just hit the “worse” button. You can also limit the display by departure and arrival times. Displays show flights on a time grid, nonstops as solid bars, and connections as bars with gaps for the connecting time intervals. Hipmunk is essentially a custom front end for Orbitz, which provides the base information and booking capability. That means you won’t see any flights on airlines Orbitz doesn’t cover, including Allegiant and Southwest, but a lot of other sites omit them, as well. Overall, I kind of like the display.

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