Travel Planning on the Web

By James A. Martin | Posted November 05, 2007

The Internet is one travel companion you simply don't want to do without. Travel planning Web sites increasingly offer more information in real-time, such as updates on how long you'll wait for a taxis at a given airport. More travelers are using the Web on their laptops and cell phones to share information on hotels, restaurants—even airline food. And the big travel booking sites, such as Travelocity and Expedia, now provide travel agency services for small businesses.

Here’s a look at online travel tools designed to make your next business trip easier, less expensive, and a bit more fun.

The Major Online Booking Sites
Expedia Corporate Travel, Travelocity Business and OrbitzTLC combine online travel booking with travel agent telephone support and services designed for business travelers. The services are often (but not always) offered for a fee. For example, Travelocity Business service fees begin at $5 for online booking and $20 by phone.

Each of the sites offers tools the others don’t. For example:

The main Expedia site includes a handy Stuck at the Airport guide to services, shops, restaurants and other diversions in over 65 airports worldwide.

Travelocity Business guarantees one of its travel agents will answer your calls ‘within 60 seconds’ 24/7. The main Travelocity site features FareWatcher Plus, a tool that jets you e-mail updates when the fare between two cities changes.

Travelocity has a new travel tool, RoadTrip Wizard, currently in beta. The tool helps automobile travelers plan a trip based on their interests and preferences. Travelers receive an itinerary that includes hotels, maps, driving directions and tourist attractions

Orbitz recently stepped into the Web 2.0 realm with its Traveler Update. The free service provides an at-a-glance overview of updated airport information including flight status, traffic, weather conditions and Wi-Fi connections. Some information comes from official sources, such as the FAA and TSA. But your fellow travelers post timely updates and tips, too. Here’s a message a traveler recently posted about Houston’s Bush airport:

“There are no taxis currently available in terminal E outside of baggage claim, but some will be here in about 10 minutes.” Travelers can use the service on computers as well as on Web-enabled phones.

Other Booking Sites
Lastminute.com Sometimes business requires traveling on short notice. Lastminute.com lets you quickly find discounted airfare, hotel and/or car packages within about 10 days of the departure date. The site also includes a Going Out section with links to online theater and sports-ticketing services.

Hotwire recently launched Travel Ticker, which automatically e-mails you the latest travel deals. The Local Trips tool lets you search for hotels within 250 miles of a city or zip code.

Yahoo FareChase  is a travel search engine that ranks search results by popularity. Recent enhancements include integration with Yahoo Maps and Yahoo Search. Using the collaborative, downloadable Yahoo Messenger Flight Planner plug-in with Yahoo Messenger, you can research and book flights in real-time with business partners, friends or family.

For discounted international airfare booking, popular sites include Mobissimo, Flycheapo.com and WhichBudget.

Travel Search Engines
SideStep, Kayak and Farecast are search engines for travel. Each lets you concurrently search multiple travel booking sites for airfares, rental car and hotel rates, and other travel deals. When you find a deal you like, the site automatically directs you to the relevant travel-booking site.

In addition to providing searches at its Web site, SideStep offers a downloadable Web browser toolbar. With the toolbar installed, SideStep displays its own search results whenever you conduct a search at Expedia or other booking site—so you can easily compare the two.

Kayak is a no-frills search engine with some useful tools. Its Best Fare History lets you quickly see what airfares have recently been and currently are for travel between two cities. Fare Buzz shows you the lowest fares from a particular airport to, say, the top 25 U.S. cities.

Farecast offers a travel search engine similar to Kayak’s. But you can also use Farecast to chart recent airfare history between two cities and receive buy-now-or-wait recommendations on airfares. In addition, FareCast has a hotel rate search engine currently in beta.

Sites to Visit Before You Book
FlightStats provides travelers with the on-time performance records of most major airlines. You can see if a flight you’re about to book is likely to be delayed based on past performance. FlightStats sends current flight status updates to cell phones, too.

SeatGuru provides seating diagrams for domestic and international planes. The site offers details on legroom, the location of lavatories and exits, in-seat power ports, and video screens. SeatGuru color-codes seats, too. Green means the seat is desirable for its legroom or other attributes; yellow is for an iffy choice; and so on.

Yapta is designed to alert you when a specific airline itinerary has dropped in price. The upshot: You can wait before booking to see if a price falls (though you risk the opposite happening). Or you can be alerted if the price of an itinerary already booked drops, so you can try and get the airline to refund or credit the difference. That may be easier said than done, however, as some airlines are tightening their rules regarding such refunds. For example: “US Airways quietly changed its policy on vouchers for price changes after you purchase tickets,” the Wall Street Journal reported in September. “The carrier now charges a $100 change fee regardless of whether you want cash or a voucher.”

Want to hear what other travelers say about the hotels they’ve stayed in? Visit TripAdvisor. The site offers user-generated hotel reviews, tips, and photos. You can book hotels and airlines.

Two More for the Road
Take the surprise out of airline food with a trip to Airlinemeals.net. Fellow travelers upload photos and descriptions of mile-high meals, which you can browse by airline name. Vintage photos of dining in the air add a blast of nostalgia.

Speaking of food, Chowhound is a useful for sniffing out where locals in various cities eat. The site features user reviews, blogs, recipes, and more.

James A. Martin has decades of experience covering technology, and he's also the author of Traveler 2.0, a blog that provides technology news and views for travelers.

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