The internet has made searching for travel deals easier than ever. Although, with thousands of travel sites dedicated to getting the most for your money, it’s easy for consumers to be overwhelmed by the options.
“One thing we’ve learned in 20 years of online travel: There’s no rule for ‘always,’” said Jared Blank, chief marketing officer at DealNews, a deal comparison site. “It’s going to require a little bit of legwork to find the best price.”
Using the major travel search websites — Kayak, Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz and similar sites — is only the first step to finding great travel deals, said Charles McCool, a travel writer and author of “Winning the Airfare Game: Save Money and Stress on Every Flight.”
“They’re all pretty similar, so pick the one that speaks to you most, then learn the little tricks to find the right deals,” McCool said.
Last updated: Sep. 27, 2021
1. Google Flights
Google Flights has become a go-to service for travelers hunting for bargains, thanks largely to its user-friendly interface. Scott Keyes, who runs the flight deal email service ScottsCheapFlights, says it’s the easiest and quickest place to search for great deals on airfare.
“Google Flights is really simple and gets you the results quickly, and you can search multiple airports — five origins and five destinations,” Keyes said. So, if you want to go to Europe but you don’t care exactly where in Europe you’ll end up, you can pick five destinations and compare prices. If your dates are flexible, you can input your ideal dates and search a calendar for the best fares for two months around your ideal date.
For those looking for the power of Google Flights without the user-friendly front end, skip the middleman and head straight to Matrix by ITA Software. Google owns ITA Software and repurposed the company’s flight algorithms for Google Flights.
Charles McCool said that he prefers that Matrix gives the option to specify exactly which airports he wants to fly from. “It’s a little more techy, not as elegant, but it’s more powerful for someone who knows what they’re doing,” he added.
There is a downside, in that you can’t actually book flights through Matrix. Keyes suggested consumers use Matrix or Google Flights to find the best deals, then head to the airline websites to make reservations.
Although many sites focus on finding the best deals on traditional hotels, Airbnb offers a trendy alternative. Through this site, you can book a room, an apartment or a house in cities across the world — which can be a more cost-effective option than hotels.
“Airbnb has really changed the game. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the apartments available and the prices you pay,” Jared Blank said. The direct rental model means you can get lower-priced lodging, but if you’re used to housekeeping, a pool, room service or any of the other amenities associated with hotel stays, Airbnb might not be not for you
Coupons often mean the difference between high cost and a great deal, and that’s true of traveling as well. That’s why sites like CouponSherpa are so important to deal-hunters, said Andrea Woroch, a consumer savings expert.
Recent deals on CouponSherpa included 50 percent plus $15 off worldwide flights through SmartFares, $50 off Business Class Travel through OneTravel, and a whopping 65 percent off a stay at the Grande St. Lucian via Sandals resorts.
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5. Secret Flying
Secret Flying boasts that it has “the deals nobody else knows about” — and it might be right, said McCool. This site's best flight deals come from “error fares,” for which someone inputting the prices accidentally dropped a zero or put in the cost of a flight to Paris, Ohio, when the flight is actually to Paris, France.
“They’ll find really creative round-trip fares, and if you’re flexible, you could plan your trip around this,” McCool said. “If you’re going to a wedding and have to be somewhere specific at a certain time, this site won’t work. But if you have a week off work and you don’t care where you go, you could watch the site and wait for a great opportunity to come up.”
McCool suggested following Secret Flying on Twitter to get an idea of these seemingly too-good-to-be-true fares.
If there’s one thing that’s better than getting a great deal on a hotel, it’s getting a great deal on a hotel while simultaneously earning airline miles. That’s the bonus of booking through Kaligo, Blank said, a site that compares costs on more than half a million hotels worldwide. Choose mileage rewards from several different airlines when you book your hotel stay through this site.
“It’s like Expedia, but you get the added benefit of airline miles,” Blank said. “So you can pick up a few thousand miles for doing what you would have normally otherwise done.”
If you need a last-minute hotel on the cheap, try the HotelTonight app to find a location-based listing of luxury accommodations at discounts of up to 70 percent.
HotelTonight tends to be more useful if you’re looking for a boutique hotel rather than a larger chain hotel. You’ll do best if you cross-check their rates with those on sites like Hotwire or Priceline to be sure hotels with similar star ratings are priced similarly in your city, said Brian Karimzad, director of travel rewards credit card site MileCards.com.
“I love using HotelTonight for cheap hotel nights — because it lets you actually see the hotel you’re getting before you book,” he said. One downside: You likely won’t get any hotel points when you book through this site. Still, it doesn’t hurt to ask when you’re checking in," Karimzad said.
Made for those with a penchant for airline travel, FlyerTalk users share insider tips on everything from hotel deals to the best ways to use mileage points earned on a credit card. “These are people who really fly a lot, whether for business or because they want to have fun,” McCool said. “I call them ‘psycho frequent flyers’ because they fly that much.”
Some advice McCool got from the FlyerTalk community saved McCool money on a rental car from Avis after someone posted a discount code for Avis cars booked through Priceline, which he said cut the price of his rental by about 40 percent.
A fairly new social media platform, TalkTalkbnb connects travelers with hosts who want to learn a second language. In exchange for some chit-chat in an agreed-upon dialect, the host offers a room in their home completely free of charge — definitely a more frugal option for those looking to travel on the cheap and have some time to spend with their hosts.
“The platform allows people to cut travel expenses through free boarding in a foreign country in exchange for teaching their native language to whomever they stay with,” said Daphne Duong, who works as a PR representative for TalkTalkbnb. “In particular, families and students are able to use TalkTalkbnb as a powerful resource to learn, travel and save money.”
For travelers not interested in trading the comforts of a hotel just for cheap lodging, RoomerTravel can be a huge cost-saving option, Woroch said. This site connects savvy travelers with others who are stuck with a hotel room reservation they can’t change, then allows the traveler to purchase that unwanted room reservation for up to 74 percent below market price — a win for both sides.
Simply enter the city or ZIP code you’re visiting and your travel dates into the search bar to look for available rooms.
AutoSlash is an independent tracking app for car rentals that not only searches car rental companies for your specific needs but also keeps track of an existing car rental so it can continue searching for better deals. McCool said he’s a huge fan, especially since the price on a car rental reservation he made a month ago has been slashed four times already.
“I haven’t had to do anything," McCool said. "I could go back and constantly recheck auto rates, but with this, I don’t have to. They do it for me. That sort of tool is very powerful when it comes to saving money.”
AutoSlash won’t change your reservation to a different company, but the site will continually rebook your reservation with the same company to be sure you're getting the lowest rate. You’ll also receive email updates of lower rates from different companies with an option to rebook.
Another go-to option for avid travelers, Trivago has always made its interface easy to deal with: simply input the place you plan to stay, and the site will search hundreds of other sites to find a great room rate. This comparison-shopping agent can give you a sense of what the rates are for some of the places you’re interested in traveling to, even if you ultimately book through another site.
The site now also offers a free advice calendar, which provides up-to-date information on the most affordable times to go to different cities and the most popular months to visit. It also includes city-specific tips from local experts and suggested itineraries from Trivago partner agencies.
While sites like Google Flights searches big-name online travel agents like Orbitz, Priceline and Expedia, Momondo searches the small ones that most people haven’t heard of but often offer better prices on flights.
“These smaller online travel agents are trying to grab some market share and get people familiar with them, so they’re more likely to be selling flights at cost or at a loss, with the hope you’ll book a hotel or car through them, too,” Keyes said.
Because these smaller sites tend to charge more for cancellations and plan changes, Keyes recommends only using Momondo if your plans are set in stone. For more flexibility, the larger sites are the way to go.
Travelers going on long road trips this fall will be able to benefit from using GasBuddy. It tracks gas prices all over the country, so travelers can use the site — or more likely its free mobile app, since you’ll be on the road when you need it — to find the most affordable gas station prices along their route.
Tracking airfares is one of the easiest ways to find a great deal on a trip you know you want to take, McCool said — and AirfareWatchdog can help you. The site also sends daily newsletters based on fares from your home airport, which can help you learn what normal fares are to places you’ve thought about visiting.
“If you see over and over that the fare is $800, and then you see it drop suddenly to $500, you’ll know a sale is going on, versus if you just plop the dates in and search one time,” McCool said. Unfortunately, you can’t book flights through AirfareWatchdog, so you’ll want to plan on using another site for that part of the process.
Christian Long contributed to the reporting for this article.