While few things in life are 100% effective all the time, you can almost always save time in your major travel service searches by using an aggregator service. This way you can search the best prices from multiple companies without visiting 10 or 20 different travel websites.
The word “aggregator” sounds like an annoyed Florida reptile and it’ll sometimes get flagged by spell check programs. It is a real word though, in the Oxford Dictionary with two definitions.
1) a website or program that collects related items of content and displays them or links to them. OR 1) a wholesale buyer or broker of a utility service, such as electricity or long-distance telephone service, who packages it and sells it to consumers.
In the case of these travel sites, it’s a little of both. You’ve probably used one of the most familiar examples because it’s been around for ages: Kayak. There are plenty of others that have launched since then (12 years ago!) that are worth trying out.
Searching all the Hotel Sites
There are two main players you can use to search hotels prices from a wide range of other sites. Trivago seems to pull in the widest range of options. Because their arrangements are so wide-reaching, you get the big boys everyone has heard of (Expedia, Hotels.com, Priceline) as well as lesser-known sites that have more breadth in specific geographies (Venere, EasyToBook, Amoma). When I pulled up a random night in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the best prices at some hotels were from sites even I haven’t heard of, like Prestigia and HotelInfo.
You don’t pay anything to Trivago: they actually make their money from the search traffic they send to the actual online booking agencies or hotel chains displaying their prices.
HotelsCombined has a similar model and is worth a shot as well. In theory they should be showing the same rates, but sometimes you find a deal on one of these that wasn’t on the other. In both cases you see all the deals in a row, ratings pulled from a variety of reviews, and a description of the hotel. You can search by distance, star rating, etc.
Being Sure of the Best Airline Deal
I used to use Vayama a lot for searching international airfares when I knew where I was going. They seemed to put the pieces together better than most. But then they whithered away, so now I’ll use Google Flights and Skyscanner. Both of these are using databases to show multiple options for different combinations and dates.
I especially love the function in Google Flights where I can see every airport from a destination at once, instead of just one. This is super useful when you need to get to a general area not a specific city or you’re going to have to rent a car anyway, so you’ve got multiple landing options. It can also tell you what the best deals in the world are from your home airport on any given date. You may not have been planning to go to Cartagena for vacation, but look at that—it’s $175 round trip!
Alas, you’re not really done with the search process in many cases if the route is served by budget airlines. Most of them don’t share their data. You’ll still have to visit the sites of Allegiant, RyanAir, Nok Air, and other counterparts around the world. Or ask a human travel agent on the ground—they’re still very popular in developing countries and they’re used to finding the cheapest option.
Car Rental Searches
For searching car rentals there are a whole slew of them like Breezenet.com, Carrentals.com, RentalCars.com, etc. You’ll usually find the same rates though on Skyscanner or Kayak.
If you belong to a loyalty program though or have a discount from AAA, AARP, etc., you might get a better rate going direct and signing in. Or best of all, just use Hotwire or Priceline bidding if you don’t care which logo is over the counter.
Tickets on U.S. Trains and Buses
One of the toughest tasks still is figuring out how to get around the USA without a car. There’s no really robust option for this, though Wanderu is the one that comes closest.
If you search Miami to Tampa buses a week from now, for instance, you a few bus options that are quite cheap: a Megabus or Red Coach ticket that goes from the Miami airport to downtown Tampa is just $15! Or you can stretch out on Amtrak instead and get there slightly faster for $44—still a bargain. I’ve done both this year and would do either one again, though I spend a lot more time searching than I could have on this site. Megabus goes as low as $5 if you book well ahead and Amtrak dips to $35.
I checked out a bunch of other routes around the country and in many rural “red state” cases you’re going to end up with Greyhound as the only option, but overall both bus and train options are increasing, not decreasing overall.
There are Still Lots of Holes
One of the big mistakes I see infrequent travelers make is they assume they can find everything worth finding with a one-stop internet search. There are obvious holes in airline searches as mentioned above since thousands of daily flights are not in those databases. It’s even worse with hotels, where the fat commissions the booking services charge keep many independent hotels from listing with them at all. (Sometimes you’ll find them on a hostel site, sometimes nowhere except their own site and a review on TripAdvisor.)
For apartment rentals, some owners are just on Airbnb, some are just on Vrbo. Or in Europe, maybe HousingAnywhere or Housetrip. Some homes are only listed on a local vacation rental site because they’re annoyed that the booking services are charging such hefty fees as a middleman. There are companies trying to be aggregators in that space, but I haven’t found one I really like yet.
For trains in Europe, here’s what the guy behind the excellent Man in Seat61 site has to say.
It would be lovely if there was one website which sold tickets for all European trains at the cheapest price, but no such website exists. You need to use different websites for different journeys – and sometimes one website for the first part of a journey, and another website for the second.
Sorry, but you’ve still got to do some homework to find the best price. The owners of those travel businesses like it that way. More difficulty means less price competition. Most people won’t bother investing the time to find the best deal. You should.