How to efficiently and inexpensively plan your next vacation
Vayama. Skyscanner. Tripology.
If the thought of scrolling through multiple sites sounds so overwhelming you just want to hire a travel agent, have no fear. Diversity Woman is here to help you sort out how to arrange your dream vacation online—and save big bucks in the process. All you need is a laptop, an Internet connection—and some time.
Research, research, research
Did we say time? We meant it. There’s no way around it—you’re going to have to do your homework. The average person planning a trip visits seven websites before even choosing a hotel, notes Bjorn Hanson, a clinical professor with New York University’s Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism.
Of course, you’ve heard of Expedia and Priceline—the online travel agencies, or OTAs, as they’re referred to in the travel business. For many customers, this is where their travel planning begins. After a series of recent mergers, Expedia and Priceline are the only two major OTAs left in the industry. Travelocity, a third, was recently acquired by Expedia, and at press time, Expedia was in the process of acquiring Orbitz, another former competitor.
The main advantage of OTAs is that they’re one-stop shops that allow you to book flights, hotel rooms, car rentals, cruises, and, in some cases, activities in your chosen destination. Often the package deals they offer are more affordable than if you were to purchase all the components of a trip individually. But buyer beware: make sure you’re comparing apples to apples, says Hanson. Some third-party sites won’t allow you to accrue loyalty program points, for example. And if you’re reserving a hotel room, you may not be able to book an early check-in or late departure.
Many smaller websites are beloved by travel experts and other people in the know. A popular one is Kayak (acquired by Priceline a couple of years ago), mainly for its “buy or wait?” feature, which tells you if prices are expected to go up or down in the next seven days. Others include Vayama, Adioso, and Skyscanner. Jim Friedlander, president of Academic Arrangements Abroad, a tour operator in New York City, says Momondo is his go-to site when booking international flights.
Just keep in mind that there’s no magic bullet when it comes to booking flights. Given the mergers and acquisitions in the airline business (there are now just four major carriers in the United States—United, Delta, American, and Southwest), all of these websites are working with the same, limited flight information, and there simply isn’t the kind of competition in the industry that created the systemwide airfare sales we used to see a decade ago. Also, remember that Southwest keeps its pricing information off third-party sites, so if you’re flying to any of the cities it serves, you should check the flights listed on Southwest.com.
An informal survey of this author’s associates, colleagues, and friends—who include travel writers, travel agents, and average citizens—revealed that all use third-party sites for research only. When it comes to purchasing flights, they prefer to do so directly on the airlines’ websites. This trend toward direct booking has been fueled by the rise in metasearch engines—most notably Google’s flight search service (google.com/flights), but also similar ones such as Hopper and Hipmunk. Taking note of this tendency, airlines have invested heavily in making their own websites more customizable so that travelers can add (and pay extra for) such perks as extra legroom, priority booking, and WiFi.
Check reviews for comments and features you won’t find online
FlyerTalk, TripAdvisor, and the customer comments on Priceline are great sources of travel information from real people. Before using a travel company or booking a hotel room, restaurant, or other attraction, do a search to find out what others thought about it. The travel companies Faregeek and Tripsta, for example, were recently excoriated on FlyerTalk for poor customer service and, in some cases, outright scamming.
Hanson observes that female travelers in particular seek specific information about hotel rooms that branded sites don’t provide. “Women traveling by themselves often want a room near the elevator, for instance, because of safety issues,” he says. “They don’t want to walk down a long hallway alone.” Or they may want to know how powerful the hotel’s hairdryer so they can decide whether to pack their own. Hanson suggests that solo female travelers peruse TripAdvisor for comments and anecdotes from other women about a hotel’s overall “vibe.” Did they feel safe? Were they comfortable eating alone in the hotel restaurant, or was it a pickup scene?
Overwhelmed? Get help from a human
Kristy Hall, a New Jersey–based consultant for the Tropical Travelers, an agency specializing in Caribbean vacations, recommends Tripology and Viator for travel planning. Both sites allow you to do everything online (and are free) but have the backing of live experts—travel agents like Hall, who got started in the travel business by planning vacation requests through Tripology.
Indeed, with so many new travel websites out there, brick-and-mortar travel agencies are making a comeback, according to Donna Quadri-Felitti, a clinical associate professor of hospitality and tourism management at NYU. “Especially for consumers who aren’t particularly cost sensitive, a travel agent who’s a destination specialist can be a great option,” she notes. “If you’re looking not for the cheapest deal but for the best experience, a travel agent who can get you backstage passes or other insider deals may be the best choice. They can save a busy professional a lot of time.” DW
In the long-ago days before 9/11, Sara J. Welch flew to Europe several times as an air courier, paying less than $300 round trip.
Ways to Save on Flights
Buy your ticket on a Tuesday afternoon • According to FareCompare, Tuesday at 3 p.m. eastern time is the best time to find a deal on a domestic airline ticket. Why? Because airlines usually launch their sales late Monday night or very early Tuesday morning. By the time the afternoon rolls around, their competitors have had time to match those offers. If you’re awake, you can also try searching after midnight on a Monday, which is when airlines release any flights that haven’t been paid in full yet.
Buy two one-way tickets, and use different airports • If you live in or near New York City, for example, it may be cheaper to leave, say, from Newark airport but fly back to LaGuardia or JFK. In any case, it never hurts to check.
Be flexible with dates and times • According to FareCompare, Tuesday is the cheapest day to fly, followed by Wednesday and Saturday. The most expensive days to fly? Friday and Sunday. You’ll also get a better price if you book a red-eye or a flight with a long layover.
Delete your cookies and browser history • If your computer remembers you’ve been on a particular site before, it won’t always show you the lowest prices available.
Check social media sites • Sometimes companies’ Facebook page and Twitter feed will mention last-minute deals.
Check Airfarewatchdog and Travelzoo for deals • If you haven’t decided where you want to go, they can be great sources for last-minute sales.
Save money after you purchase your ticket • After you’ve booked your airfare, go to Yapta.com and enter your flight details. This site will help you get a travel credit if your ticket price drops 24 hours after purchase or if it drops more than the airline’s change fee. Yapta doesn’t charge you up front to use the service, but it will take a percentage of the money you save. However, with many domestic airlines charging change fees of $200 or more, this service may only be worthwhile when booking expensive international tickets.