Travel Sites Venture Beyond the Bottom Line
Most Web-savvy travelers know how to find cheap airfares, hotel rooms, and rental cars on comparison sites such as Kayak.com and Farecast.com, or on the big booking sites (Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, and the like). But last year, dozens of Web 2.0 travel sites jumped in to fill new niches in travel planning. Here's a selection of sites (many of them still in beta testing) that might help with your plans.
When You Don't Know Where to Go
These sites can help an undecided planner find a perfect travel match.
Best Trip Choices uses a simple yet highly revealing questionnaire to identify which of six "travel personalities" you most closely match. After taking the quiz to determine your type, you can drill down to identify destinations and activities that BestTripChoices thinks are suited to your preferences. (You're on your own for booking, though.)
Similarly, TravelMuse, Tripbase, and Triporati present destination suggestions based on your interests (which you identify on supplied lists or tags); TravelMuse and Tripbase also factor in your budget, and TravelMuse asks you how much time you're willing to spend en route. All three sites provide reviews, maps, and other content, including links to booking sites.
These sites offer some specialized features, too. Triporati's Facebook app lets you find friends who share specific travel-related interests. Tripbase returns per-diem costs for its suggested destinations. And TravelMuse provides tools to help you collaborate on travel plans with friends.
If you're considering a cruise or an organized tour, a good place to start shopping is at Travelbeen.com, which debuted in seven countries last year with the goal of incorporating every travel Web site on the planet into its "social search engine."
One of TravelBeen's more unusual features is its ability to perform searches for travel suppliers by specialized criteria. If you're looking for an eco-tour in Costa Rica or a "clean cruise" to Antarctica, for example, you can elect to see only companies that adhere to strict accreditation standards. A shortcoming: Though accreditations are noted, they aren't explained. For example, you can call up a list of cruise lines that belong to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, but it's up to you to know how those lines differ from lines that aren't members.
If you're looking for a hotel deal, try DealBase. Its Deal Analyzer technology promises to spare you from having to sift through reams of fine print by presenting the key criteria for each listing--price, savings off rack rate, and terms of booking (for example, dates of stay and deadline for booking)--in just three lines of type. Drill down to filter by category or interest (golf, beach, four-star, and so on), bookmark your favorites, and come back to view them as a list.
What to Do When You Get There
Once you've chosen a destination, these sites can help you make rewarding use of your time.
Visually compelling PlanetEye creates color-coded, geo-tagged Microsoft Virtual Earth maps that you can use to identify, for example, restaurants and attractions within walking distance of a particular hotel. You can create virtual folders (called "travel packs") to file photo-illustrated restaurant reviews and travel tips aggregated from many sources.
At Trazzler, travelers identify the destination or interests they want to research (if you provide only the latter, Trazzler will help you choose a destination), and then they flip through a "trip stack" of bite-size, photo-illustrated hotel, dining, and activity suggestions with links to Web sites that provide more detail. Compile a wish list, and the site aggregates data from your searches into a preference pie chart. Trazzler uses both professional writers and user reviews to create its pithy content.
The Human Touch
No matter how sophisticated its algorithms are, a machine just can't make some travel decisions. In the case of multiple-destination trips or flights to remote locations, for example, online booking isn't always a snap--and it may not even be possible. Compete 4 Your Seat takes over where Kayak and the others leave off, by calling upon a network of travel agents to bid on your tough-to-schedule flight plans.
Similarly, Zicasso promises "handcrafted" itineraries for multiple-destination trips. You describe your needs, and within two or three days you receive trip plans--including pricing--from up to three prescreened agents. You can refine a plan as needed, and then choose the one you like best and pay the agent directly.
Tripology is another service that caters to travelers with specialized interests, ranging from nature vacations to language schools to spiritual journeys. Users enter their criteria and are matched with three niche specialists: From there, the traveler decides whom to contact and negotiates fees and services with that specialist.
Getting Help Getting Organized
These Web sites act as virtual personal assistants to organize your essential travel information better than you could do it on your own.
TripIt does require a small initial time commitment, but it returns impressive rewards. After you register, simply forward your flight, hotel, and other confirmations to TripIt, and the site will organize them into a master itinerary that you can customize with maps, weather information, photos, and walking or driving directions. Tripit's Itinerator will even perform automated tasks such as checking your flight status, selecting your seat, and generating a personalized travel guide that you can have piped to your online calendar or your iPhone.
Nile Guide, another one-stop organizational travel shop, uses Google Maps technology and content from local experts to make personalized travel recommendations; then it integrates your selections into your calendar. Nile Guide can create customized, downloadable guidebooks, too. An iPhone version is due out later this year.