The cyberspace of travel planning websites is full of stars — and, unfortunately, lots of virtual space rubble, too. How do you avoid the confusion? First, make sure the site you’re using specializes in the type of information you’re looking for. Here are some sites — and tips on how to use them — that will help you navigate right to the best information.
1: Ask the locals
Start planning with government tourism board websites. Yes, most of them offer a glossy, airbrushed look at your destination — but the best of them also provide useful on-the-ground information, including the local scoop on hotels, restaurants and outfitters. A few favorites for their combination of helpful information and inspiring photography are those for the Hawaii Tourism Authority, California Tourism and the Italian Ministry of Tourism. If you’re going to an English-speaking destination, check out the website of the area’s major newspaper, perhaps the New York Times or the London Evening Standard. Most local papers have sections for travel, dining and entertainment and give you an in-depth look at trends and upcoming events.
2: Track those airfares
Fares fluctuate daily — even hourly. When should you buy? The AARP Travel Center, powered by Expedia’s Trend Tracker, evaluates the least expensive flight and hotel prices and tracks the weather for your travel period. For airfares alone, you can also track prices with a handy tool on the airfare search engine Kayak.com. It compiles results from searches in easy-to-read “fare history charts” with data from the past 90 days (the link is in the top left-hand corner of your search-results page). The charts help you see how your airfare has gone up and down and show the cheapest dates to fly within your chosen departure month.
On Kayak’s home page, before you hit “search,” you can also open new browser windows for comparison shopping on other travel sites, such as Expedia.com and Priceline.com, which makes research simple. For a straightforward recommendation on when to buy your tickets, enter your search details in www.bing.com/travel, the travel component of Microsoft’s Bing search engine. Your results will have a bright red, yellow or green dot with a directional arrow, telling you if prices are expected to drop, stay the same or go up in coming days, based on Bing’s sophisticated airfare prediction matrix.
3: Seek out savvy travelers
TripAdvisor.com leverages travelers’ love of sharing experiences with others through hotel, restaurant and activity reviews by people who’ve been there, done that. But read TripAdvisor reviews judiciously: Some people just love to complain about perceived bad service and to share horror stories. Two other outstanding travel planning websites are AirfareWatchdog.com, which tracks airfares on popularly searched routes, and SeatGuru.com, which collects airplane seat reviews.