New Sites Ease Travel Planning

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For me, planning a trip has always been almost as much fun as the travel itself. And travel planning is right up there with banking and shopping among activities that have benefitted enormously from the Web. I get a real thrill from tracking down deals and checking out user reviews of hotels and restaurants in order to winnow out the duds--the sense of empowerment can be heady.

Most people know about the big sites for booking travel--Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity. And if you haven't seen an ad that features William Shatner hawking, then you simply don't own a television. Sites such as Priceline, CheapTickets, and purport to specialize in tracking down travel deals, but in many instances you can find equally good bargains at the big sites.

For user reviews, nothing quite measures up to TripAdvisor--a regular in our best-of-the-Web stories, and number 81 in our recent "100 Best Products of 2007". In fact, many people consider it the preeminent Web 2.0 travel site because it has successfully parlayed user-added content into a thriving business.

But new resources continue to appear, offering different twists on these familiar themes. I polled my colleagues for their favorite travel sites and came up with a few that will help you research travel deals and find like-minded travelers and their recommendations for restaurants, hotels, and destinations. Other sites that we came up with will let you chronicle your wanderings in word and in video.

One travel-site trend is the specialized search engine. Kayak (number 22 in our "100 Bets Products" feature) and Booking Buddy help you avoid having to navigate to several sites and enter trip information on each to comparison-shop. Instead, you just provide your desired dates and destination; they then initiate searches of the booking sites. Kayak makes this supremely easy by searching all the sites at once and presenting the results in a list; with Booking Buddy, you're offered a selection of sites to search one at a time (in much the same way that TripAdvisor works when you click the Check Rates button on a hotel review page). Note that these sites don't sell you anything--they make their money from advertising and click-throughs. But the ads aren't too annoying, and the sites do save you time.

Several new sites offer social networking features for travelers. TripConnect, for example, invites you to seek advice and share experiences with friends (if they too sign up) or with other members who share your interests. For example, a Food and Restaurants group on TripConnect is basically a forum where foodies can seek restaurant recommendations or other food-related information from like-minded travelers (this is one group I signed up for immediately).

Want more socializing from your network? Several travel sites cater to younger, more-adventurous wanderers who might want to meet in person. On TripUp (formerly known as TripMates), you can write a review, post videos, alert the world to your travel plans, ask questions at the site's forums, consult a 'Trip Guru', or even seek a travel mate by filling out a compatibility form. TravBuddy presents a somewhat similar set of features in a simpler interface.

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