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Travel sites new, improved

Sun., July 11, 2010, midnight

TripAdvisor tops list of search engines

A lot has changed since I reviewed travel websites four years ago. The best ones reflect the new realities of travel, and offer to include luggage fees in fare calculations – which helps, since $15 or $25 applied each way can turn a good deal sour.

This time, I found TripAdvisor slightly better than Kayak and Bing Travel.

Four years ago, I recommended travel-focused search engines, particularly Kayak, as a one-stop shop for airline deals. These services check multiple sites at once and let you book directly through the airlines.

Online travel agencies such as Orbitz and Expedia did the booking for you – and tacked on several dollars in service fees.

Those fees are largely gone now. Yet after trying all the sites again, I am still sticking with the search engines.

Sometimes they still refer me to an online travel agency for the best deal, but at least they’ve checked around for me. And I can more easily use them to narrow my choices based on departure times, frequent-flier programs and other criteria.

TripAdvisor, Kayak and Bing Travel all work similarly. Start by typing where you are leaving from and where you are going. Then pick the departure and return dates and hit “search” or “find flights.”

You’ll get a list of flight options, which you can sort by price and other criteria, including nonstop flights. If you need to get there by noon, you can adjust an on-screen slider to eliminate afternoon and evening flights.

Kayak and TripAdvisor let you filter out airlines that aren’t part of specific frequent-flier alliances, so you can be sure you’ll earn miles. Kayak also lets you choose whether you want only flights with Wi-Fi wireless service.

No single search engine is complete. It all depends on the deals they make with the airlines and travel agencies. Kayak and Bing, for instance, can incorporate fares from Orbitz, but not Expedia, while TripAdvisor can pull fares from Expedia, but not Orbitz. None tested included Southwest Airlines.

As a workaround, these search engines do offer easy ways to search those excluded sites in a separate window. Bing also includes Southwest flight schedules in its results, but not fares.

Bing, run by Microsoft, has Visual Search Galleries that help identify the best options based on whether you’re looking for a family vacation or a honeymoon destination, what time of year you want to travel and how long you are willing to sit on an airplane.

It also lets you search for multiple destinations at once, not just multiple airports in a region. If you’re being indecisive about whether to fly to Chicago, Miami or Boston this summer, plug in all three and let Bing pull up all the options.

Charts and graphs help compare fares by departure date and length of stay. They’re based on Bing’s “observation queries” – daily checks of millions of flight/date combinations.

Once you’ve settled on where and when to go, Bing can predict whether fares are likely to go up or down.

I tested it by performing the same dozen flight searches seven times over a week. Had I followed Bing’s recommendation to buy or wait, I would have spent a total of $210 more on four flights but saved a combined $400 on seven others (the price on the 12th was unchanged) – not bad.

That said, Bing didn’t always produce the lowest fares. That honor goes to TripAdvisor, based on test searches for a half-dozen different trips.

I also liked TripAdvisor’s tool for calculating baggage and other fees. Enter the number of bags you’re checking, whether you have elite frequent-flier status (which sometimes includes free bag checking) and whether you’d like to buy food, alcohol or headphones on the flight.

TripAdvisor estimates and adds the fees to your base fare for comparison.

Some travelers may prefer the comfort of travel agencies such as Orbitz, which sometimes offer rebates when fares go down and send text messages informing you of delays and gate changes. They also offer discounted flight and hotel packages.

Nonetheless, the travel search engines remain a good starting point. I’ve long been a fan of Kayak, but this test has opened my eyes to other options out there.

I like Bing’s tools for helping me decide where and when to go, as well as when to buy. But once I’ve made that decision, nothing beats saving money. TripAdvisor came through.


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