Feeling too pinched by the ever-troubled economy to travel? You can still find good deals to get away -- if you know where to go online first. Here are the best travel sites we've found to help you bag the best bargains on airfares, lodging, car rentals and all your other travel needs. Note: All but one of the following sites are free to use.
1) Kayak.com scours hundreds of online sources for the cheapest fare available. The more flexible you are on time and destination, the better your chances of finding a great deal. Search for dates up to three days before and after your ideal travel dates, within a selected month, or on upcoming weekends. And with the site's Explore tool, you can scan a world map for all the places you can reach within a specified per-ticket price range. It also lets you specify your preferred flight time, vacation activities (beach, gamble, golf or ski?) and weather (from freezing to "ouch").
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2) Bing Travel can help you bite the bullet and buy your ticket, or not, with its "price predictor," which forecasts whether fares will go up or down. Enter your desired itinerary and the site will return a list of flight options, along with a recommendation to either buy now or wait for a fare drop. But the tool is not omniscient. Predictions appear with confidence rates are are limited to certain cities, round-trip, coach flights and specific time frames depending on your departure and arrival cities.
3) AirfareWatchdog works best for travelers ready to take off at the drop of a deal. The site has actual people lurking on airline Web sites in anticipation of fare sales. They sign up for rewards programs to snag promotional codes and discount offers that can be passed on to AirfareWatchdog users.
Bonus: The site includes fares from Southwest, Allegiant and other small airlines that may not appear on bigger search sites such as Kayak and Bing.
4) Yapta.com tracks fares for you and will shoot you an e-mail or Tweet if the cost of your selected flight drops. After you buy your ticket, if the price falls below what you paid, most airlines and online travel agencies will refund you the difference, usually in the form of travel credits or vouchers. If the change in price dips below the cost of any "re-booking fees" some airlines charge in these situations, Yapta will walk you through how to collect your refund. Note: Yapta does not currently track Southwest flights.
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5) Hotels.com lets you search just one site for accommodations at more than 150,000 properties. You can find particularly good last-minute deals, which are updated daily. But even advance-travel planners can score big bargains with the site's seasonal sales, destination-specific deals and other special offers.
Frequent travelers will appreciate the simplicity of the site's Welcome Rewards program -- for every ten nights you spend at any combination of the program's 53,000 member properties, you'll earn a free night's stay worth up to the average daily rate of your ten nights.
6) TripAdvisor is the most popular hotel-review site, offering millions of professional and amateur reviews of hotels in the U.S. and overseas. Search for your destination, and the site will return a detailed list of hotels, bed and breakfasts, vacation rentals and other lodging options. You can filter the results to find which hotels are best for value, families, business, romance or luxury.
Watch out for possibly fake reviews from cronies trying to push up their own hotel's ratings or flame their competitors (the site flags some suspicious postings). Ignore reviews on either extreme and focus on those with midrange ratings -- they're more likely to be the most helpful. TripAdvisor doesn't sell rooms or offer any actual deals, but it links you to partner sites, such as Expedia, Travelocity and Hotels.com. Click on the "check rates" button and select the site or sites you'd like to try -- a new window with results will open for each partner.
7) If you're traveling alone, or with a buddy or two, you can score a great deal staying at a hostel -- without necessarily having to join the backpacker and bunk-bed lifestyle you might associate with this budget-lodging option. Many hostels offer more private, hotel-like accommodations these days. Hostelz.com offers nearly 50,000 listings in more than 9,300 cities, and includes reviews from professional and real travelers.
8) JetSetter.com is our favorite private-sale site for luxury-hotel deals. In general, these kinds of sites offer invited members exclusive access to deep discounts for a limited time, and they work best if you're flexible about where you want to travel. JetSetter can have 15 to 30 of these "flash sales" available at once – more than similar sites, which usually offer just a handful at a time -- and can save you up to 50% off published rates. The sales typically last seven to ten days, or until they sell out. And here's your invite to join, from friends at Kiplinger.com: http://www.jetsetter.com/register/promo/kiplingers.
9) At CruiseCompete.com, more than 300 travel agents vie to give you the lowest prices for dates, ports and ships you specify, whether you're booking well in advance or at the eleventh hour. You provide an e-mail address and they send you their best offers. Plus, the site has live agents available to guide you through the process through a live chat or by phone.
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10) DealBase.com has collected more than 90,000 hotel and flight deals worldwide that are easily searchable. But what this site is best for is its "Deal Analyzer." Hotels often create promotional offers that include, for example, continental breakfasts or some other add-ons along with the room. DealBase.com will dissect these packages and let you know whether or not they're good values by telling you how much you'd really save. If you find that an offer is in fact a good value, click the "Get This Deal" button, and DealBase will redirect you to the site where you can purchase it.
11) Hotwire.com often offers the best published deals on cars by collecting rates from its eight rental car company partners, including Avis, Budget and Enterprise.
The site also offers "hot rates" from rental companies that won't be identified until after you've paid. With rental cars, the risk in taking the blind-booking approach is minimal: A minivan is a minivan, no matter which company provides it. (You can also head back to Priceline.com to try bidding for a better bargain on your rental car.)
OTHER TRAVEL RESOURCES
12) Currency conversion. Check XE.com for reliable, mid-market exchange rates. Along with an easy-to-read grid of conversion rates on the homepage and a host of other tools, this site offers calculators for travel expenses, credit-card charges and, obviously, currency conversions.
13) Eurail. Trains are often the fastest and cheapest way to travel within and between European countries. Our favorite American Web site for checking timetables and booking tickets on European train lines is RailEurope.com. But you might be able to catch better deals directly from European railways' sites, if you don't get lost in translation.
14) Seating. At some airlines, better seats come at a price. SeatGuru.com flags the seats that cost an extra fee, as well as those that have the most (or least) legroom and recline.
15) Travel insurance. You never know when an emergency situation will spoil your travel plans. Buying travel insurance from agencies and travel providers, such as cruise lines, is usually a crummy deal because of price markups and restrictions on filing claims. At InsureMyTrip.com, you can compare plans and prices from multiple insurance providers with just one search and narrow your search results by specifying the kind of coverage you need.