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I love to save money. I also love to travel with my family. These two things don’t mix particularly well.
Unfortunately for those of us with frugal tendencies, travel has to happen. Whether you need to see relatives or you just deserve a vacation, packing your bags and hopping a cross-country flight is a mainstay of modern living. You can let airfare beat you down or you can do your best to find good deals, and I’m all for the latter.
For better and worse, there are thousands of ways to book travel. From aggregate booking sites to formal airline booking pages to personal travel agents who answer phones and work in real offices, variety doesn’t present an issue. The hard part is finding a site you understand with the deals you need.
For my money, the following five sites stand head and shoulders above the competition. With functional interfaces and actual price breaks, you can navigate these sites confidently and usually find the most affordable options. Providing cheap flights and hotel rooms to consumers requires sniffing out unaccounced, short-term deals, and that’s something you can expect from the listings below.
Many of the bigger companies don’t do much in the way of tracking down the best deals for consumers, but rather just pull info from as many sites as possible and then charge a significant fee if you book using their services. That recipe doesn’t save you money, it just makes the purchaser feel as though someone else is doing a lot of the work. Sometimes clicking your mouse a few extra times and saving a few hundred dollars is worth it.
None of these options is a foolproof hack for finding dirt cheap flights on any given day; that hack doesn’t exist unless you work for an airline. The sites on this list have different strengths and weaknesses, and knowing what those are will help as you look to find the best deals.
A watchdog protects you. It looks out for you and tries to keep you safe. Airfarewatchdog does exactly that, but mostly for your wallet.
This site does the most important thing for a deal-finding website: it finds deals. As opposed to bombarding you with every flight under the sun, regardless of how many thousands of dollars a ticket might cost, Airfarewatchdog scours the web for specials and sales, bringing you tickets that legitimately cost less than the alternatives.
You can’t think of this site as a warehouse full of cheap airline tickets waiting to be swept up. There exists no such warehouse or website, so put that idea to bed. Instead, consider Airfarewatchdog a local sage with excellent knowledge of which airlines have deals between which cities. Sometimes the information will be exactly what you wanted to hear, other times you won’t find anything that helps with your particular search. If you understand that going into your ticket search, you’ll have better luck finding what you need and avoiding disappointment.
The alert emails from this site make it a particularly good option. Instead of checking in every day and seeing the same overpriced tickets that have been listed for weeks, you can get emails sent directly to you when tickets between certain cities fall below a certain price. Without wasting any extra time navigating travel sites, you can find out when prices drop and specials become available.
Airlines typically don’t offer discounted flights during the holidays and other periods when demand is high, and Airfarewatchdog doesn’t change that fact. However, if you’re getting email alerts and you see that a one-way ticket from Houston to New York has fallen to $130 in mid-December, you might just buy that flight and then see what you can find for a return. Setting multiple watchdog alerts can also help you build your own money-saving itinerary.
Sometimes airlines will drop prices without advertising or announcing the deal to the world, and that’s when updates from an airfare tracking company prove to be so valuable. Frustratingly, these tickets last approximately two minutes before getting snatched up. Still, with timely updates pertaining to a specific flight search, you could be one of the lucky people who gets a last-minute bargain.
Keep in mind that this site doesn’t arrange the actual sale. You’ll be redirected to third-party booking company and then go through another site to make the final purchase. This isn’t a scam or a fluke, just how this form of aggregation works. Like I said, sometimes you have to deal with a few extra clicks to get a good price.
If you have a general idea of where you’d like to go and when you’d like to arrive, Airfarewatchdog will lend a hand. If you don’t know where you’re headed, the site might still offer an irresistible sale that tips the scales.
2. The Flight Deal
For some of the best deals anywhere, this is the place to be. As long as you put low price above specific destination.
The Flight Deal operates just like Airfarewatchdog, but with more focus on finding and the top deals and less on meeting exact search criteria. If you go to the website right now and scroll down a little ways, you’ll see a bunch of cheap flights that include the fees and taxes. Do you need to go to Shanghai right now? Maybe not. But if you want to go to Shanghai, have some time off and just need a cheap flight, the Flight Deal could be the solution.
For those of you who like to feel as though you’re cracking some sort of code – digging deeper than the average traveler and discovering the airline industry’s trove of flight deals – this site scratches that itch. After selecting whatever trip you find most appealing, you arrive on a page with instructions for how to book, and the directions make it seem like you’ve uncovered an airline secret.
The secret is actually a software you’ve used before. The company ITA makes Matrix software, which powers other travel booking sites like Kayak and Google Flights. It’s also used by travel agents with the inside scoop, offering the best way to get the cheapest tickets. The Flight Deal operates a little differently, showing you how to use this tool instead of trying to handle all the work for you.
After entering a couple codes, it’s off to whatever destination you selected. You’ll find the best savings on international flights and destination spots, though The Flight Deal typically has a number of good domestic flights as well. Every promotion on the site has a short lifespan, so you have to emotionally prepare for the some of the low prices to no longer be available when you try to make a purchase.
When everything falls in the right place – extra funds in your bank account, unused vacation days and no idea where you want to go – this tool is invaluable. You can get to and from virtually any place on the globe for under $1,000, you’ll just have to be OK with the available deals dictating where on the globe you visit.
Hotwire targets all types of travelers with flights, rental cars and hotels. I’m sure you can find decent prices for any of those options with this provider, but I’ve got Hotwire on this list because of one of their htoel-booking features.
The immense number of hotels in the world makes picking lodging both easy and impossible. You can find a place to stay on virtually every city corner, and the prices will range from under $50 to however many hundreds of dollars you choose to spend. However, you often don’t know what you’re getting, and you can pay too much for a lousy option, or you try to save money and end up with zero amenities.
Hotwire offers a clever solution to this problem, one that accounts for extra inventory at hotels without making travelers race to find special deals. What’s this crazy secret? It’s a mystery! Not really… but sort of.
When you know the general area where you want to stay but don’t have a very strict preference, you can book a mystery hotel through Hotwire. If you worry this means you could end up in a run-down roadside lodge that’s shady and full of roaches, you can let go of that fear. Hotwire still gives you a pretty good idea about where you staying, including such details as:
● Star rating
● Pool or no pool
● Pet friendly
● Breakfast availability
● General vicinity
● Parking arrangements
Essentially, you’ll know the important information about your hotel. You can even take this info and go to another booking site to see if you can figure out which mystery hotel Hotwire is setting you up with. You get to look at the section of a map in which your lodging is located before booking, so you’re free to do a little detective work before paying for the room.
This system works because most hotels have extra rooms at the end of the day, and any room not filled equals money lost for that establishment. However, if hotels just waited until the late afternoon to slash prices by 70%, everyone would just wait until the last minute to book. This forces businesses to either take a financial hit on the empty rooms, or find a third party to push discounted inventory without disclosing the proprietor.
Enter Hotwire, meeting both consumer and vendor needs by offering a product in demand at an affordable price. You can get rooms at a 40 or 50% discount, depending on the time of year and your destination. You can also modify the search enough to make sure the mystery lodging meets your needs.
Also, don’t underestimate the fun of an unknown adventure! Instead of wasting countless hours reading reviews from strangers who probably don’t have the same tastes as yours, you can just book something that meets your needs and hope for the best. The worst case scenario is you’re a little underwhelmed but stay in a relatively nice place. Best case, you pay half price for a great spot you otherwise would have written off as too expensive.
To make this work, you have to be willing to book last minute. Some people can’t handle that kind of uncertainty, and I understand if this version of travel gives you all sorts of anxiety. If you like having all your lodging details squared away early, you might want to use a different service. For those who want to sprinkle some spontaneity into their travel, pop over and see what mysteries await you at Hotwire.
Much like Kayak, Hotwire, Priceline and all the other travel aggregators, CheapOair lets you plug in your dates and cities and then dishes out a ton of different flight possibilities. The service isn’t particularly unique, but there are a few things this site does better than others.
First, you don’t have to deal with an endless stream of information opening in new windows. That might be a personal peeve, but redirecting my search to five different windows for five different companies seems like overkill. I appreciate keeping it all contained to one page so I can navigate more easily and modify my search quickly.
CheapOair also tends to check flights with smaller and oftentimes cheaper airlines. You might have lengthy layovers and limited inflight amenities, but those are small sacrifices to make for affordable tickets. We all prefer flying direct, but if a couple hours at the Denver airport saves you $300, I implore you to pack a good book and make that trade.
Flight comparisons are also pretty simple with CheapOair, as you can bounce between different flights on different airlines and see which legs are most expensive for round-trip flights. On occasion, I’ve taken the pricing info from CheapOair and then gone directly to airline websites to book, piecing my own flight schedule together to maximize my savings. Booking directly through the site is easy enough, but mixing and matching might help you save a buck.
You have to be very careful about booking on the right day and location with CheapOair. In an effort to show you the cheapest flights, you may get a lot of options for dates and airports you didn’t originally select. If you’re searching for flights around Christmas and find something absurdly cheap, there’s a good chance it’s for a different day than what you plugged into the search bar. This can be a little frustrating, but it could also help you finagle your travel dates and save a lot of cash.
People swear by different travel sites for different reasons, and it often comes down to personal preference. I like the simplicity of CheapOair and tend to find affordable tickets at this site, so I recommend you give it a try the next time you’re booking flights.
None of the mystery of Hotwire but all of the savings. That’s Hotels.com.
There’s not a lot to this site. You type in the city where you want to stay and get tons and tons of options in a tidy little list. You’ll usually find a few great deals and you can see plenty of reviews, look through loads of pictures, and filter your results by specifying which amenities are most important to you. The hardest part is selecting from the countless choices the site turns up.
One of the main reasons to use Hotels.com is the variety of deals you might find at any given time. Like with the Hotwire mystery, hotels pawn excess inventory off to Hotels.com, but sometimes you can snag rooms at basement prices more than a few days in advance. If you’re looking for good hotels anywhere in the world, this should be among your first stops.
In addition to the good prices, the rewards program provides a great perk for regular travelers. Sign up for free, start reserving rooms through Hotels.com, and after 10 bookings you’ll get your 11th for free. It’s just like all the coffee shops that offer you a free cup of Joe after you show some loyalty, only this company gives you expensive lodging (that will probably come with free coffee as well).
Overpaying for a hotel room feels like such a waste. You know there are unfilled rooms and lots of the time you’re not going to do anything other than sleep for eight hours and then be on your way. Hotels.com does a solid job of showing you exactly what you’ll get with your stay and making nice rooms more affordable than you might expect.
We all travel in our own little bubbles, and these are the sites that have helped me navigate my personal voyages. If you have other sites that make your life easier, I’d love to hear about them. In the meantime, check out the services above and hopefully at least a few of you will save some money on your next vacation.