The Good Life For Less: Finding The Best Travel Deals (Part I)

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Vacation Dock

(credit: Jupiter Images)

January in Minnesota may mean you are feeling the stinging bite of winter winds, lack of sun and the need to just see green again. And if the season continues this way, February and March will bring even more of a desire to soak up some rays of sun.

So where do you go to spot some of the best travel deals? There are lots of options and they may seem overwhelming if you don’t know where to start.

You can try your hand on one of the many online travel vendors. They are all good in their own way and each has things that stand out better than others when it comes to incentives for booking with them (I will get to those more later).

My personal favorite place to start is Kayak.com. I have been using this site for years because it is a pretty simplified looking site that allows you to play around with trip options in a very easy-to-see manner. No flashy graphics or floating palm tree pictures here!

It stands out to me because it searches hundreds of online travel vendors for you and compares them. My favorite part is the fact that you can narrow down options and make it fit your exact preferences by playing with the easy-to-use slider bars for things like the price, departure and arrival times. And use the check boxes to narrow down the amenities you want, class of the hotel, the landmarks you want to be near.

However, Kayak is the site to find deals and compare them, and it’s not the best place to look at photos of the hotels and landmarks. (I’ll tell you what the best place is for that later.) Kayak sends you to other sites to book your trip, but this is a good place to start.

Now on to some of the big online travel vendors:

Travelocity – The company with the traveling gnome. They have all the major airlines. They have a low price guarantee. They allow you to daydream and find the perfect trip with their Experience Finder. This allows you to play with maps, photos, pick themes for your vacation and browse through activities and events to plan your trip around

Priceline- The company with William Shatner as the Priceline Negotiator. The good news is they let you name your own price to bid on hotel rooms, flights, vacations and more. There are also no booking fees. The bad news, they have gotten many complaints about being lax with customer service, so buyers beware if you are making complicated travel plans. I would use them if you need to find a last minute flight for cheap. If you just can’t get enough, download their app.

Orbitz- They offer price assurance and no flight booking fees if you fly with a single carrier. They also have a search bar (I know, sounds simple) to help you find exactly what you are looking for — something not all sites have. One thing to know is that the “Price Assurance” only applies to flights booked on Orbitz, so they say “if another Orbitz customer books your same flight or prepaid hotel room for less, they’ll send you a cash refund for the difference.” This is another good place to find last minute flight deals.

Travelzoo – Many travel deal junkies subscribe to their newsletter — 21 million to be exact! The company actually employs people to work in the “Test Booking Center” where they test all of the deals you see on the website. The thing that makes Travelzoo stand out is that they will not recommend a travel deal that they wouldn’t book themselves and their reviews are all done independently — not affiliated with a hotel or airline. Basically they sift through the best deals for you in something they call the “Top 20.”

Hotwire- This site stands out for its “Trip Watcher” feature which lets you know when the price on a trip has dropped. It is comparable to other sites when it comes to finding deals, but it does let you search flexible dates in case you find a cheaper flight leaving the day before. However, you do have to pay a fee if you book with them and the price can vary.

Expedia- They don’t charge booking fees for flights and are in the process of creating a new travel rewards program where you can earn points to go towards your trip. This is a nice site to book a hotel on because all the information they provide to help you easily narrow down your search for the perfect place to lay your head at night. It’s also easy on the eyes. Once in a vacation search, promotions and deals for hotels are easy to spot in bright green font.

Of course, the big discount travel vendors may not hold a candle to what’s offered directly on airline web pages, so make sure to double check there before you book to get the best price.

Whatever you choose, once you’ve narrowed down your search and found a few different options, I recommend always cross-referencing your hotel picks with TripAdvisor. To me, this is hands-down the best site to find real reviews from people who just got back from the same place you are planning on going. You can also get ideas for things to do nearby and see photos uploaded from people’s actual trips, not just the fancy staged resort pictures. There are forums and also tips and hints on things you shouldn’t miss or should make sure to pack.

I hope these tips help you start your search for the perfect destination, but you may not want to book that flight just yet. I’ll be doing another post on the pitfalls and things to avoid for when looking for travel deals later this week.

-Alison Lorge is a web producer and consumer blogger at WCCO.

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