Best Travel Booking Sites for Flights & Accommodations

view of Rocky Mountains in BC from the window of an airplaneI admit it – I’m a planning nerd. I enjoy travel research almost as much as the travel itself. Let me be clear though – planning does not equal scheduling. I leave plenty of room for spontaneity in my trips, but I research and plan so that I can maximize my time and enjoyment, minimize costs and avoid regrets.

And now you can benefit from my nerdiness, if that’s a word. This piece is focused on travel booking sites for flights and hotels – the biggest chunks of your travel budget. I always check a few different sources before booking anything, since each of these seems to come out on top from time to time.

Best sites for flights

Kayak

This consolidator searches booking sites and major airline sites, allowing for various filtering options, with one of my favourites being “show good deals only”. The site features a fun “Explore” world map showing the lowest prices from your departure point to various destinations that you can filter by weather, time of year, continent, etc – handy if you know you want to get away, but aren’t sure where to go.

Skyscanner

This one lives up to its name, scanning dozens of providers for options. It has some slick options for leaving your destination and/or travel dates open-ended to find the cheapest getaway spots – fun for when you want to get away to nowhere in particular or aren’t quite sure when you want to travel. I like the graph results format provided when searching by “entire month”. The site also allows you to set up fare alerts if you want to wait for a better deal.

flight results from skyscanner, one of the best sites for booking flights

Momondo

Another consolidator, this engine includes a sweep of well-known booking sites such as Expedia and the airline’s own sites, but also lesser-known discounters like Budget Air. For flights, search results are sorted by “cheapest”, “quickest” and “best” options, and a date slider at the top lets you hover over different travel days to see at a glance which are priced lowest. Searches can be filtered by many different criteria, including point program alliances, which is handy if you’re looking to maximize your points.

sample search results from Momondo flight booking site

Google Flights

Google’s engine searches dozens of airline sites and includes the usual filtering options. Results are sorted by “Best flights” based on a combination of factors including price, duration and number of stops. A price graph shows lowest prices by date. If you’re not sure where you want to go, the new ‘Discover Places’ feature lets you play around with different combinations of dates, places and interests to find trip ideas.

Airfare Watchdog

This site includes fares not always found on other sites, such as those from smaller and discount airlines like Southwest, airline “web only” fares, error fares and promo code deals.

seat guru seat map example

SeatGuru

I recommend using this tool when you’re selecting seats for your flight. It includes seat maps for virtually every flight on every airline with advice on which seats are best and which to avoid. Never end up in a non-reclining seat near the toilets again!

Final notes on flights

  • Before booking anything, double check the airline’s own website directly, and if you have a favourite airline, check their site too. Sometimes you’ll find newly discounted fares that the booking engines haven’t yet discovered.
  • If you’re directed to an unfamiliar site for booking, do a bit of research on the company, their policies, and reviews from past customers to make sure you’re comfortable signing up with them in order to save a few bucks.

Best sites for accommodations

Booking.comneon motel sign Austin

Here you’ll often find a better selection of budget options than other hotel sites, including hostels and B&B’s along with traditional hotels. The listings are laid out in a highly readable format so it’s easy to see at a glance how properties stack up in terms of reviews, amenities, etc. You can create a list of favourites while browsing, making it easy to create a short list. The site offers free cancellation for most properties and a prompt confirmation email that makes it easy to change or cancel your reservation. I also use their mobile app to make or revise reservations on the road when needed.

Hotels.com

This site often has the best prices for hotels, and they offer refunds if you find a better price after you book. For most properties, you have the option to save a bit with a non-refundable pre-paid rate or keep the option to cancel and pay upon checkout at a slightly higher rate. If you’re planning a couple of weeks or more of hotel nights, sign up for their loyalty program to get one night free for every 10 nights paid.

Google

It’s not surprising that the minds of Google have created a sophisticated meta-search. It’s not fancy, but it does pick up great rates that the other sites sometimes miss. Here’s how to use it:

  • From the Google search bar, simply type “hotels in” plus the name of the city (eg: hotels in Vancouver)
  • Scroll past the ads to the map with the date bar below and enter your dates
  • If you like, apply filters for price, hotel class or average review score before hitting enter
  • If you want to create a list of possible properties, click the star to the right of the name, which will save it to your map if you have a Google account.
  • To book a property, you’ll be directed to one or more different booking sites.

Hipmunk

Slick mapping functionality highlights accommodation options, and listings include vacation rental alternatives such as HomeAway and Air BnB (more on those below) in addition to traditional lodging categories. One of the most interesting filters is the ability to search by “ecstasy”.

Agoda

One of the best sites for booking hotels in Asia, with a better selection there than other sites. Listings include information on bed configuration and room size, and they have a price guarantee that will let you claim a refund if you find a lower price later. Much like booking.com, they offer both non-refundable and free cancellation options.

Private vacation rentals

Sites like AirBnB, VRBO, HomeAway and others that connect travelers with homeowners who have space to rent continue to grow in popularity. They can deliver unique experiences, local flavour, more space than hotel rooms, and great value for money. They are especially attractive for families and groups, and for longer stays. I had a great experience renting a flat for a 2-week stay in Southern Spain through HomeAway.

pool area of our vacation rental flat in Andalusia, Spain

However, there are a few things to keep in mind when deciding whether to use these services:

  • Properties vary dramatically and there are no standards by which to compare, as there are with hotel star ratings. You’ll need to rely completely on the owners’ description, photos and reviews of other travelers.
  • In some cases, especially with AirBnB, the owners may be present, and you may be sharing some facilities, which may not be your cup of tea. In these situations, reviews are even more important so that you can look out for red flags or poor fit situations. You don’t want to stay with a late-partying host if you’re looking for a peaceful and restful getaway (or vice-versa).
  • Many listings require full or partial payment upfront, and sometimes with only very specific forms of payment. For our Spain rental, we had to wire transfer a 10% deposit in advance, which meant extra time and expense, as well as committing to our dates. We were confident enough in our communication with the owner that we were willing to take the leap, but I realize now that we took a huge risk, and I would not do so again. It can be frustrating to spend hours finding the perfect property, only to realize you’re not comfortable with the payment process. HomeAway now has a secure payment option that many property owners will accept – I’ll definitely be going this route in future.
  • Refund policies vary, so check rental agreements carefully before committing.
  • There has been controversy over the legality of private vacation rental listings in many cities. Critics allege that a new brand of slum lord is turning entire networks of apartments into illegal “hotel rooms”, thus reducing the number of rental accommodations available to city residents and evading taxes in the process.

I recommend reading more about the risks of vacation rentals and how to minimize them before trying it out. Renting a private property might be just the ticket for you; just go into the process well-informed.

Happy planning!

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Comments

  1. Silas Knight says:

    Thanks for the suggestions on finding a good hotel. I hate searching and searching for the best deals on lodgings, but maybe these apps will make is easier. I will have to try the Google one that you mentioned here.

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