Best Cheap Travel Sites
Travel sites try to capture attention through clever ads with flashy graphics, talking garden gnomes, and William Shatner sightings. They woo consumers with eBay-style bidding, hot deals, top-secret deals, last-minute deals, and deals on top of deals. We turned to expert and consumer reviews to cut through the hype and identify the best sites for booking cheap travel. The contenders included some of the most popular online travel agencies, or OTAs, such as Expedia, Priceline, Travelocity, Orbitz, and Hotwire, as well as search engines like Kayak and Momondo.
Choosing a Cheap Travel Site
Sometimes travel sites display the exact same prices on airfare, hotels, and car rentals that consumers would find on the providers' own websites. But discount travel sites have their benefits. Consumers can search for better deals by, say, flying one airline to a destination and another back home -- something that cannot usually be done when booking directly. They can arrange for lodging and car rental in a single package, with the potential for more savings. Some sites are privy to special deals or have access to blocks of unsold airline tickets or hotel rooms that they offer at significantly lower prices.
The only way to find the best deals on airfare, hotels, and car rentals is by checking a variety of providers and travel websites. No one site turns up the cheapest prices every time, and the best site for booking hotels might not be the best site for booking flights. Also, some airlines aren't listed on third-party travel sites -- domestic low-cost carriers Southwest and Allegiant, for example, require direct booking. There are hundreds of websites promising cheap travel, and even navigating only the market leaders is no easy task, especially given how much money is on the line.
We limited our list to websites that let users book a flight, hotel, and car rental in one place. (Some also include cruises, activity planning, vacation rentals, and even train tickets.) This requirement necessarily excludes some services we often recommend, like the discount hotel booking app Hotel Tonight and the popular search engine Google Flights. Our picks represent a variety of search models and are based not only on whether the site actually delivers low-cost travel but on other factors such as ease of use, fees, customer support, and potential membership benefits.
Meta-Search Engines.Experts across the board advise savvy travelers to start their searches for cheap flights, hotel rooms, and car rentals with an aggregator like Kayak, Momondo, or Skyscanner. These meta-search engines comb through data from numerous providers and other travel sites simultaneously and filter the best bargains based on the parameters entered. Among these services, relative newcomer Momondo, which claims to draw on more than 700 sources, is a standout for zooming in on the best savings and takes a top spot in our ranking.
Although search engines are a great starting point for determining the best prices and itineraries available, they send consumers to another site to actually book the reservation. Not only does this present the occasional frustration of finding that a posted fare isn't available at the booking stage, it also means that buyers are subject to the booking site's policies, as well as any fees it may charge. Kayak breaks the mold slightly by sometimes offering booking through its own website, although a closer look reveals that this process is handled by outside partners like Travelocity and Expedia, and Kayak still is not accountable for any issues or fees.
Online Travel Agencies.The best deals that come up in meta-search engines' results often come from big-name OTAs like Priceline, Expedia, and Orbitz. These sites offer the convenience of having an intermediary do all the heavy lifting -- a particular boon when dealing with a trip with many moving parts, such as multi-airline or multi-city reservations in addition to lodging and transportation. Some OTAs now function much like meta-search engines, providing consumers the option to compare prices from competitors. They also feature some potentially money-saving search methodologies, like opaque (blind) booking, and a number offer rewards programs.
Longstanding booking agent Priceline is our top pick among OTAs. Expedia and Orbitz are also good sites for finding travel deals and offer a variety of options for booking cheap flights and travel packages. Hotwire and Travelocity lag behind.
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Travel Site Reviews: What We Considered
Travel website reviews provide firsthand accounts of users' experiences, both good and bad. We read dozens upon dozens of reviews written by consumers and experts and conducted a number of hypothetical searches ourselves before making our picks. We also looked at the most recent American Customer Satisfaction Index. Priceline led the pack in 2016, and following Expedia's purchase of Travelocity and Orbitz, all three rate within a point of each other.
For any given travel website, some users report finding rock-bottom prices while others say better deals were available elsewhere, sometimes on a provider's own site. Some consumers report smooth sailing with flight and hotel reservations while others rail against indifferent or resistant customer service. Considering all this information with a critical eye, we determined a core set of consumer priorities and concerns when interacting with these sites.
Prices.With so many travel websites out there, including large sites that focus solely on comparison, price differences are sometimes just a few dollars and may be the result of an error or (sometimes hidden) fees. That said, some sites emerge as better than others when it comes to homing in on good deals.
According to a recent comparison test of airfare search sites conducted by travel guide Frommer's, Momondo scored squarely at the top for ferreting out the least expensive flights -- and when it didn't turn up the very cheapest deals, it wasn't far off the winning price. Old standby Kayak generally delivered similarly low prices domestically, although it never came up with anything cheaper and was said to falter fairly unforgivably in finding deals on international flights.
Where meta-search engines really shine is in providing money-saving insight for consumers who have some flexibility regarding travel dates or even destination. On Momondo, Kayak, and Google Flights, for example, travelers can find interactive calendars and graphs that offer an up-to-date, at-a-glance overview of where ticket prices will generally land over the course of the month or year and reveal potential best times to buy.
Kayak provides a nifty forecast tool at the top of its search page that advises whether tickets should be purchased right away or if it's fine to wait, according to data-based predictions of whether the rate will rise or fall within the next seven days. Momondo takes this a step further on a "Flight Insight" page that shows some of the major factors -- including seasonality, days until departure, time of day, choice of airport, etc. -- that affect fares for users' selected itineraries. Both Momondo and Kayak also let users explore a range of worldwide destinations at random to find the cheapest spots or the best times to visit.
As confirmed by various consumer and travel experts, Priceline, Expedia, and Orbitz are particularly good for ferreting out last-minute travel deals. Consumers will find many exclusive bargains on spontaneous getaways on these sites. Priceline, for example, offers cut-rate "Tonight Only" deals for same-day hotel bookings.
Tip: Coupon codes are available for most booking sites. An up-to-date list is maintained on a FlyerTalk forum.
For travelers who are okay with a little uncertainty, many online travel agencies offer opaque booking, which pulls up steeply discounted rates that aren't advertised but leaves the name of the airline or property a mystery until after purchase. This method of booking benefits all parties: The purchaser gets a great deal and the travel provider fills up unused airplane seats, hotel rooms, and cars without upsetting its regular customer base.
While some sites, like Travelocity and Expedia, offer "blind booking" only for hotels (and those deals are pretty hard to find), Hotwire and Priceline also use it for flights; Hotwire offers opaque booking for car rental, as well. To reserve a hotel this way on Hotwire or Priceline, users enter the destination and dates and also choose an "area" and star rating. In Chicago, for example, a user might choose a 4-star hotel along the Magnificent Mile or a 3-star hotel in the Lincoln Park area. On Travelocity, if a blind deal is available, a "Top Secret Hotel" option will appear at the head of the standard search results. Expedia has a page for "Unpublished Rates" in limited cities (although we saw no listings there at last check). In a BetterBidding.com forum, one traveler reports finding a 3-star room near one of the main gates to Disney World for $28 a night by searching Hotwire's "Hot Rates." But this system is not for the faint of heart: In exchange for steep savings on a hotel, there are no refunds, exchanges, or changes allowed.
Priceline augments its opaque booking with a bidding system, "Name Your Own Price," which lets potential purchasers state how much they're willing to pay for airfare, car rental, or a hotel room. The company claims that this feature can save users up to 60 percent on hotels (versus up to 40 percent savings when blind-booking hotels through "Express Deals") and discounts can climb as high as 40 percent on car rental and airfare. But there are limits on how often bidders can submit offers on the service they want, and some aspect of an itinerary must be changed -- such as the number of desired stars for a hotel or the travel date -- if an initial bid isn't accepted.
Experts at Budget Travel say a good starting bid is about 50 percent off the standard price on hotels (or 5 percent off Priceline's lowest "Express Deal" listing) and about 20 percent below published prices for cars and flights. Standard rates for these services can easily be found on travel providers' websites, and there are also sites dedicated to helping travelers bid smartly, like BidOnTravel, Bidding Traveler, BetterBidding.com, and HotelDealsRevealed.com. Many include examples of winning bids submitted by community members and even help nervous bidders try to guess the hidden hotels.
Just remember: Not only doesn't Priceline reveal the name of the hotel, car rental company, or airline until after booking is complete, it also doesn't reveal flight departure times until after a bid is accepted and payment goes through. That said, Priceline doesn't book flights departing before 6 a.m. or after 10 p.m., and Hotwire's time parameters for "Hot Rate" flights are similar. Also note that Hotwire and Priceline guarantee a room that fits two adults but don't guarantee it will have two beds. Travelers are on their own to work this out with the hotel after they've booked.
Tip: When searching for flights, always use a private browser window. Many sites monitor searches with cookies and use this information to strategically increase prices. Momondo's website says the company does not engage in such practices.
Fees.Many travel sites charge booking fees, and it's important to take those into account. Multiple travel sites might offer the same price for a particular trip, but some hide or obscure taxes and fees, causing the stated price to appear lower than the end total. Also, the sites' policies regarding booking fees seem to change quite frequently, and may be different for different types of itineraries.
Momondo provides information on fees charged by its affiliates, and Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline, Hotwire, and Travelocity list all-inclusive prices along with base prices. That said, the traditional OTA's vary in how much they charge for their services and how upfront they are in divulging the exact amounts.
Although it's not disclosed until after users input passenger information, Priceline charges a processing fee of $7 a ticket for flight itineraries made up of multiple airlines. A fee may also be charged for "Name Your Own Price" flights. For standard flights on only one airline, there is no fee. Changes to airline reservations cost $30 on top of the airline's change fees. There aren't any fees for booking hotels or rental cars when paying directly, but for "Name Your Own Price" deals or when the "Pay Now" option is selected, the fine print suggests that Priceline may be profiting from the "estimated" fees and taxes collected at the time of purchase. The site also charges a fee of $25 for cruise bookings.
Like Priceline, Orbitz charges a $30 change fee for airline reservations. Other charges are clear enough: The fee for booking a cruise is $25; booking a rental car or vacation package is free. But for hotels, Orbitz's fee is sometimes wrapped into a general "taxes and fees" description that also includes charges direct from the hotel. We also found at least one instance where the price Orbitz quoted for a room was several dollars higher than on other travel sites, including the hotel's own website. At the same time, booking some flights can carry an additional cost that ranges from $6.99 to $25. While this appears to be a charge for multi-carrier flights, it's unclear what determines the exact amount.
Expedia says it charges no fees to book, change, or cancel "nearly all" single-carrier flights, hotels, cruises, rental cars, or vacation packages. However, booking a trip that involves several airlines will likely incur a $7 fee. For hotels, Expedia lumps taxes and fees together and says it retains a service fee, but it doesn't break out that amount. In some cases, however, Expedia may not charge a fee, which we found to be the case when testing several bookings and comparing the price on Expedia and the hotel's own website. As an Expedia subsidiary, Travelocity generally follows suit.
Booking airfare on Hotwire doesn't cost anything extra. As is often the case with travel sites, a standard rental car booking just creates the reservation; all charges are collected by the rental car agency when the vehicle is returned. For a "Hot Rate" car rental, however, the consumer pays the entire total when the deal is accepted. With hotel rentals on Hotwire, there are some potentially unclear fees, particularly for "Hot Rates"; the website is fuzzy on details.
When possible, it's worth comparing the rates on these sites with the prices offered by the airline, hotel, or car rental company itself. Sometimes there are a few dollars to be saved by cutting out the intermediary and booking directly.
Tip: When booking a flight, don't forget to factor in baggage and other fees charged by the airlines. Most airlines now charge for checked bags, and several low-cost carriers -- most notoriously Spirit -- make patrons pay for a carry-on bag, as well as "luxuries" such as choosing a seat. It's best to be familiar with each airline's policies before selecting a flight, as unanticipated fees can ultimately negate a good deal.
Although it's not levied by travel sites, another type of fee to be aware of is resort fees. This is specific to hotels in popular tourist destinations -- for example, Florida, Las Vegas, or Hawaii. The charge, which generally ranges between $10 and $40, is ostensibly meant to cover amenities but is frequently just a tacked-on expense from which many hotels profit. As it's usually paid at check-in or check-out, it's often not included in the base room rate and can come as a surprise to unsuspecting travelers. We looked for travel sites that were transparent in this respect, and in most instances our picks clearly warn travelers about these fees and frequently provide the exact amount that will be charged.
Price Guarantees.Many travelers may not know that most travel sites offer price guarantees and refund customers who find lower published fares. That said, terms and conditions are extensive for all these refund programs, so don't expect the exchange to be incredibly easy.
Hotwire's "Low Price Guarantee" awards the difference if a lower price is discovered within 24 hours of booking. Travelocity, Orbitz, and Expedia sweeten the deal by extending the time period allowed for claims on hotels to 48 hours before check-in (Orbitz and Expedia) or 24 hours ahead of arrival (Travelocity). They offer additional reward dollars or travel coupons on top of the difference in cost. Expedia also has a "Hurricane Promise." If a severe weather warning requires a trip to be postponed or canceled, site representatives will work to get travel rebooked and potential fees waived by providers.
Priceline's "Big Deal Guarantee" promises to pay back the difference on regular bookings when a better deal is found and 200 percent of the difference if another site beats an "Express Deal." For all "Express Deal" and "Name Your Own Price" reservations, the guarantee can be claimed as late as the day before travel. Momondo pledges a 24-hour post-booking guarantee on hotels (which are reserved through partners, as opposed to the site itself).
Rewards Programs.We didn't make a rewards program a strict requirement for our top picks, but frugal travelers should consider the potential long-term benefits of rewards programs available through some OTAs. Paying a few pennies more on today's travel might mean saving a bigger bundle down the road.
Among all the sites we researched, membership pays the most with Expedia and Orbitz. For each reservation, Orbitz members earn Orbucks that can be applied toward hotels. Expedia's rewards program is much more robust, allowing points to be used toward flights as well as hotels. Altruistic members can donate their points to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Savings aside, members of both sites are eligible for a host of perks, ranging from insider deals to special hotel amenities and room upgrades, that increase based on loyalty level. Orbitz even offers Orbucks reimbursement for checked luggage fees and pays for TSA PreCheck for its Platinum members.
Priceline has a limited rewards program that offers bonus cash, but it requires a Priceline branded credit card. Other users can sign up to receive emailed coupons and special offers. Enrolling with Hotwire or Travelocity doesn't earn any reward points but does allow access to private sales and discount pricing.
Convenience and Ease of Use.This should perhaps go without saying, but a travel booking website should make booking travel easy. With the exception of aggregator Momondo, all the sites we researched allow airfare, accommodations, and transportation to be booked as part of a single package. This certainly saves a great deal of legwork and also increases potential savings.
Beyond that, we considered the overall website design and looked for advanced options that make it easy to book complex trips. For example, are there filters that let users select flight departure or arrival times? Is it easy to search for flights that involve more than two airports? Is there a way to show nearby airports that might be offering better prices? Is it simple to access flexible date options or set a preference for direct flights?
Most of our picks perform fairly well on all counts, although, among the traditional OTAs, only Priceline and Orbitz allow users to search flights with flexible dates. Orbitz, in particular, earns praise from expert reviewers for its user-friendly interface and was awarded Top Ten Reviews' Gold Award as the top-rated travel site in 2016.
When it comes to overall user experience, however, Momondo is the real winner. While hotel, flight, and car reservations must be made separately, the aggregator saves a lot of hassle by letting users initiate a search that includes flights departing from nearby airports and offering listings grouped into "Cheapest," "Fastest," and "Best" options -- the latter taking into account both price and duration. Momondo seems to have taken a cue from travel site Hipmunk's much-lauded "agony" ranking of the least painful flights -- i.e., those that are quickest and have the fewest layovers without being too expensive. Search results on Momondo can also be sorted by frequent flyer alliance and narrowed to flights departing during a very specific time window, or with all options lined up in a convenient timetable. Perhaps most useful is a graph giving an at-a-glance sense of whether slightly adjusting travel dates might affect fares. Finally, the sleekly styled site offers a lot more than search. Visitors can also browse a wealth of travel articles and advice, from "The Best Budget Vacation Destinations of 2017" to a guide to tipping norms worldwide.
Aside from their online interfaces, the sites we researched support proprietary apps for booking on mobile devices. Most allow users to unlock exclusive deals (particularly on last-minute accommodations), set fare alerts on preferred travel options, easily access trip itineraries, and receive travel updates on the go. Some, like Priceline, Orbitz, and Hotwire, offer additional perks such as express check-out from hotels via phone. Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz apps let users book airport shuttles, other ground transportation, and activities.
Customer Support.Our reading of travel site reviews indicates that unhelpful customer support and inconvenienced travelers are at the root of many consumer complaints. Because most travel sites operate independently from service providers (such as airlines, hotels, and rental car agencies), communication is not always seamless and attempts at problem resolution may be futile. Many reviews note the difficulty of holding a third-party intermediary responsible for errors in an itinerary. A common complaint involves booking hotel rooms through an OTA only to find no reservations upon arrival and be left helpless as the hotel and travel website each deny responsibility.
Indeed, despite Travelocity's "Customer 1st Guarantee" -- which boasts 24/7 assistance and promises that its representatives will work directly with hotels and airlines should there be issues with cancelled flights, overbooked rooms, or lost reservations -- it does not escape reproach from angry and disappointed users who say the company doesn't necessarily make good on those promises. On business review site Trustpilot, for example, customers complain about stonewalling from representatives or failure to be compensated after they were overcharged due to reservation mistakes. Travelocity earns an average rating of just 5.4 out of 10 based on nearly 7,650 reviews. By comparison, Priceline earns an overall score of 8.9 on the same site from well over 32,000 reviewers. Orbitz, Hotwire, and Expedia all earn less than 1, with the latter receiving complaints about poor service from call-center representatives.
Aggregator Momondo fares almost as well as Priceline in reviews, possibly because it doesn't actually handle reservations. (Perhaps Kayak might consider returning to this model, given the numerous customer complaints with Trustpilot and ConsumerAffairs panning its booking services and even claiming unauthorized charges).
Travelers would be wise to always confirm with the airline, hotel, or car rental company when making online reservations and get something in writing (print all confirmation emails and keep them in a safe place) as evidence if a problem arises. And remember, complaints about customer support do not necessarily have much bearing on overall customer satisfaction. Despite all the negative reviews, many thousands of frugal consumers fly and stay without a hitch but don't share their experiences online. Also, someone who has a great experience is likely to post a positive review of the hotel or airline, not the booking website.
Quality of Accommodations.No one site is widely known for steering customers toward consistently shoddy or always superb lodging. However, domestic hotel ratings are not regulated as they are in Europe and some other parts of the globe, so most travel sites set their own criteria for awarding stars. When reserving a room, especially with an opaque booking deal, keep in mind that a 4-star hotel on Travelocity may earn only 3 stars on Hotwire, or vice versa.
Hotwire's overview of its hotel rating system indicates that it uses ratings from Expedia as a starting point (it can be assumed that Travelocity and Orbitz also closely follow their parent company's lead) and adjusts those ratings based on customer feedback. The site also offers a breakdown of what sorts of properties fall under each star rating. It provides customer reviews of each property alongside TripAdvisor ratings on each hotel listing page. The other online travel agents provide similar reviews and ratings roundups on their hotel pages, although Priceline skips the feedback from travelers outside its own customer base (which includes Booking.com users).
Momondo differs from the pack. Rather than posting user comments on hotels, the search engine crunches data from a huge range of reviews gathered from the properties' websites as well as other travel sites and offers a general summary of scores for each hotel. It addresses six criteria on a scale of 1 to 10: cleanliness, dining, facilities, location, rooms, and service. We found tallies for one New York City hotel that claimed to be based on more than 47,000 reviews.
When we used Momondo's summary information to conduct an at-a-glance comparison of a rather basic 2-star Comfort Inn property, centrally located in New York's Times Square vicinity, and a 5-star hotel with fitness center, spa, and garden located in the more expensive downtown SoHo area, we were surprised to find that the hotels scored very similarly on most counts: Both scored 9.1 on location, 8.9 for cleanliness, and 8.4 for dining. The quality of rooms and facilities also ranked nearly the same. The most significant difference was service: The 2-star hotel earned an 8.9 and the 5-star only a 7.6.
What our quick comparison indicates is that personal preferences (e.g., a location in the thick of it versus quieter environs close to luxury shopping) as well as expectations (the staff attention and amenities that travelers associate with a hotel based on its price and star rating) play a large part in hotel reviews. Given the amount of subjectivity here, and the abovementioned discrepancies in star ratings across travel sites, the best advice is to approach ratings with a bit of skepticism. Instead, determine the factors of greatest importance to you and then scan amenities, descriptions, and user comments (where available) to find best fit. Travelers calling properties to confirm after booking should also put in any special requests at that time (e.g., for a high floor with a view or a quiet room tucked away in a corner).Tip: One of the most objective ways to get a sense of what to expect is to look for photos of hotel rooms taken by travelers (as opposed to images provided by the hotel).
Finally, it's important to remember that last-minute deals and rooms reserved via opaque booking or bidding are deeply discounted usually because they remain unsold. Sometimes this is because of factors such as seasonal demand, but sometimes it's because the room or hotel is less desirable, so be sure to manage expectations. Still, a cut-rate room in a luxury hotel, even if it's on the first floor next to an elevator bank, may outdo the very best full-priced room at a typical bargain chain.