Confused.com? Keeping track of the ever-growing plethora of Web sites promising travel discounts can be daunting.
With input from The Times' Travel section staff, here's a list of some sites offering deals on flights, lodging, car rentals or all of the above. We also tested sites by scanning air fares and hotel rates for two hypothetical trips: a three-night San Francisco weekend in July and a seven-night New York stay in August. The results, although unscientific, are interesting. You may want to call up this story on Travel section's Web site, latimes.com/travel, and bookmark it so that the links are readily available the next time you're looking for a bargain.
First, a few disclaimers: Prices will vary depending on where you're going and when. A site that delivers the lowest prices one week may have the highest rates later in the month. And in many cases, the rates are no lower than what you could get by booking directly from the airline, hotel or car rental company itself.
Another key caveat with hotels: You may not get your first choice in room types because many lodgings give full-paying customers preference in room selection.
Some discount Web sites require full credit-card payment at the time of booking, and purchases are nonrefundable. Other sites may allow itinerary changes or cancellations but charge a "processing" fee. Some favorites, such as http://www.quikbook.com and http://www.hotelres.com, don't charge such fees.
Here's our list, abbreviated by space limitations:
1 800 USA Hotels, http://www.1800usahotels.com, telephone (800) 872-4683 or (201) 847-9000. Lots of listings, including budget motels and some international destinations. One complaint: The clunky design forces users to continually reenter travel dates. Rates weren't impressive for San Francisco; the New York search was better, yielding a double room at the Paramount for $165 ($30 less than the hotel's lowest promotional rate).
Capitol Reservations, http://www.capitolreservations.com, tel. (800) 847-4832 or (202) 452-1270. Easy-to-use site for hotels in Washington, D.C.; includes descriptions of properties.
Central Reservation Service, http://www.roomconnection.net, tel. (800) 555-7555 or (407) 740-6442. Hotels for 10 U.S. cities, including San Francisco, New Orleans, Boston and Miami. Listings aren't as extensive as competitors', but prices are good. Last winter, I landed the Hotel Diva, near San Francisco's Union Square, for $30 less than at any other site. In our recent New York test, lower-end listings included a midtown Howard Johnson for $109 and the Moderne for $140. Caveat: no real-time reservations. Once you find a hotel and price, you must fill out a request form online or call.
Cheap Tickets, http://www.cheaptickets.com, tel. (888) 922-8849. Cost savings on plane tickets have won a loyal following, even though many customers complain about poor service and the Sisyphean task of changing an itinerary. Another quirk: A Travel staffer reports she got a lower air fare by phone than she did on Cheap Tickets' Web site.
Expedia, http://www.expedia.com, tel. (800) 397-3342. The 747 of the online travel world. Besides regular flight reservations, Expedia offers "Bargain Fares" in which flight times aren't revealed until after purchase.
In our San Francisco test, the Bargain Fare was $117, compared with $153 for flights at the times we requested. There were tons of hotel choices, including double rooms at the posh, historic Palace Hotel for $175 (rack rate is $380) and the Holiday Inn at Fisherman's Wharf for $124.
In the New York search, Expedia listed a Bargain Fare of $259, nearly $90 less than the lowest-priced flight at the times we requested. The hotel search included some deals, such as Ian Schrager's Hudson for $175, about $65 less than what the hotel offered directly, and some bombs: $209 for a room at the Time, which the hotel's own reservations line offered at $179. Cancellations and itinerary changes result in charges.
Express Reservations, http://www.expressreservations.com, tel. (800) 407-3351 or (303) 440-8481. A much-lauded Colorado-based company offering hotel rooms in New York and a few listings for Los Angeles. The Web site has a helpful map but no real-time online reservations. Customers must call or e-mail their requests.
Hot Rooms, http://www.hotrooms.com, tel. (800) 468-3500 or (773) 468-7666. Specializes in Chicago-area hotels. The Web site design is awkward, and real-time online reservations aren't offered, but rates are good. Examples: The well-located Millennium Knickerbocker for $134 and the W Hotel on Lake Shore Drive for $159.
Hotel Discounts, http://www.hoteldiscounts.com, tel. (800) 964-6835 or (214) 361-7311. One of the biggies in hotel bookings, representing thousands of properties nationwide plus international listings. It sometimes can find rooms on "sold-out" dates.
In our three-night San Francisco test, great Thursday and Friday rates were followed by high prices for Saturday, meaning the average nightly prices were, well, average. The New York search was more successful, turning up the $140 rate at the Moderne and an average of $213 for the Inter-Continental on 48th Street ($259 rack rate). Caveat: $50 fee to change or cancel.
Hotellocators, http://www.hotellocators.com, tel. (800) 576-0003. When rooms are scarce, sold-out hotels often refer customers to this site, which says it specializes in finding vacancies on "sold-out" dates. In our San Francisco and New York tests, it was outperformed by other sites. But it did return a few respectable deals: in San Francisco, Hotel Union Square and Hotel Metropolis for $136 (usually $185 to $190 when booked through hotels directly); in New York, $125 for the Comfort Inn Central Park West and $185 for Morgans (normally $235).
Hotwire, http://www.hotwire.com, tel. (888) 362-1234. A site founded by an investment group and six airlines (America West, American, Continental, Northwest, United and US Airways). For air fares, punch in your destination and travel date, and you're offered a discount flight at an undisclosed time. You don't find out the flight time until after you pay.
For our test weekend in San Francisco, Hotwire offered an $83 round-trip fare to SFO and a $92 fare for Oakland; for lodging, the best offer was a downtown San Francisco hotel that Hotwire rates four stars (out of five) for $80 a night, although the name and exact location weren't revealed. For the New York test, the round-trip air fare was $210. Hotels included a midtown lodging that Hotwire gives four stars for $130 and a five-star property in the Murray Hill area for $129, but nothing in the Financial District or Times Square. Another downside: no itinerary changes or refunds.
Orbitz, http://www.orbitz.com, tel. (888) 656-4546 or (312) 894-5000. A site owned by American, Continental, Delta, Northwest and United airlines that opened earlier this month. Unlike most other sites, Orbitz listed a flight on Southwest Airlines, $130 into Oakland, for our test weekend. And it returned the cheapest nonstop flight for the times we requested in New York: $301 on TWA.
But Orbitz's hotel rates were no better than competitors'. Other downsides: Inferior design means you'll spend extra time clicking away for specific lodging prices, and Orbitz doesn't filter hotels by neighborhood.
Priceline.com, http://www.priceline.com, tel. (203) 299-8000. The "name-your-own-price" auction site now promises to respond "yes" or "no" within 15 minutes of your bid. Like other bargain-basement sites, Priceline doesn't reveal your flight or hotel specifics until you've paid. That said, travelers with flexible schedules report good deals. Example: A colleague bought a round-trip ticket from Orange County to Washington's Dulles for $180.
Qixo, http://www.qixo.com, no phone calls. Searches about 20 travel-related sites and refers travelers to the best deals. In my New York test, an America West round trip turned up for $324. Perhaps bargain hunters wouldn't mind that the flight, which departed at 9 a.m., wouldn't arrive until 9 p.m. because of a stopover.
The hotel search included low-end choices like the midtown Manhattan Comfort Inn for $134 and upscale spots like Morgans for a high $243. In San Francisco, Qixo alerted me to Hoteldiscount.com's $140 rate for the W Hotel.
Quikbook, http://www.quikbook.com, tel. (800) 789-9887 or (212) 779-7666. One of my favorite sites for hotels, it has expanded to include more than 40 U.S. cities, focusing on mid-to high-end properties.
Quikbook snagged me a room at Chicago's Swissotel for $105 last winter. In our San Francisco test, offerings included the Joie de Vivre chain's Hotel Rex for $119 (versus $175 direct); for New York, the Best Western Woodward (near the Theater District) for $112, the W Hotel on Lexington Avenue for $199 (a $90 savings) and the Hudson for $169 (the lowest price for this hotel of all sites we searched). One major benefit: no penalty for cancellations or itinerary changes within the specified time, usually 48 hours before arrival. And when I called with a question, the customer service rep was more than helpful.
SDHR (San Diego Hotel Reservations), http://www.savecash.com, tel. (800) 728-3227 or (858) 627-9400. Books rooms for San Diego, Palm Springs and Phoenix. The site design is clumsy and takes time to figure out, but the low rates are worth the effort.
Last winter I booked a room at the historic U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego for $89. For a test of summer rates, I plugged in weekend dates and was offered San Diego's Hilton in Mission Valley for $110 and the La Jolla Marriott for $109, among others. Had I been willing to brave the heat of Palm Springs in July, I could have reserved a room at a Howard Johnson for $40, the Estrella Inn for $69 or the Hyatt Regency Suites on Palm Canyon Drive for $75.
San Francisco and Silicon Valley Reservations, http://www.hotelres.com, tel. (800) 677-1550 or (415) 227-1500. A favorite here, it has helpful descriptions and often good rates at Bay Area hotels, with a good mix of boutique and chain properties. An easy search function lets you specify neighborhoods and price ranges. Check out the "Xtra Value Rates," which, the day we looked, listed San Francisco bargains of $114 at the Westin St. Francis on Union Square, and $88 to $99 for the Harbor Court, Juliana, Monticello and Vintage Court, all in the Kimpton boutique group. Availability is limited, but you can't beat these prices.
For our July test dates, we found Joie de Vivre's Savoy for $99, the Fisherman's Wharf Sheraton for $149 and the W for $159--not bad for peak tourist season.
Sidestep, http://www.sidestep.com, no phone calls. Uses a program from a company called ITA Software to find discount flights, hotels and car rentals. You'll have to download the software, but once you do, you'll get flight searches that include Southwest Airlines.
In our San Francisco test, the hotel search was less impressive, yielding fewer choices that tended toward Howard Johnsons and Super 8s at unspectacular prices, $100 to $150. For the New York test, Sidestep suggested a Spirit Airlines red-eye for $285, plus $315 Sun Country and $360 US Airways flights with one stop. Hotels included low-end choices such as Howard Johnson and Best Western (both near Times Square) for $105 to $110, plus high-end properties. A colleague planning a trip to Atlanta reports landing a night at the Ritz-Carlton there for $115.
Travelocity, http://www.travelocity.com, tel. (888) 709-5983. Expedia's principal competitor for supremacy in the Web travel world. A colleague swears by its rates for flights, lodging and cars, but in our San Francisco test, the lowest air fare we could find was $153.50 into SFO; Oakland was $158.50. The W Hotel was listed at $140, but the Hotel Rex was $150, a good 20% higher than Quikbook. New York prices were average compared with other sites.
Travelscape, http://www.travelscape.com, tel. (888) 335-0101. Another one-stop shopping source for travel. Last month I booked a double room at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco for a remarkable $139 on a convention weekend when rooms were scarce. In our San Francisco and New York tests, Travelscape air fares were competitive with other sites. Hotel deals included the Pickwick in San Francisco (near Metreon and the Museum of Modern Art) for an average of $89 a night and Le Parker Meridien in midtown Manhattan for $198, more than $100 less than the hotel's lowest published rate.
Even though Travelscape is owned by Expedia, it doesn't always list the same deals. Example: Travelscape recently offered double rooms at the Hyatt in West Hollywood for $125, while Expedia's rate was $220.
Trip.com, http://www.trip.com, tel. (888) 484-3874. Owned by Galileo International, creator of one of the booking services used by travel agents. Our test results were disappointing. The best deals were on San Francisco lodgings, which included the ritzy Fairmont for $189 as well as more modest choices, such as a Ramada on Market Street for $109 ($60 below rack rate).
Washington D.C. Accommodations, http://www.dcaccommodations.com, tel. (800) 554-2220 or (202) 289-2220. Lists participating hotels online but gives prices and takes reservations only by phone.
Craig Nakano is an assistant editor in the Travel section.