The first place most of us look when planning a trip is online — but where should you start? If you have a preferred travel agent with a high level of customer service, they will likely handle the details for you. But when you’re arranging the trip yourself, you can spend hours browsing online and end up more confused than when you started.
If you’d like destination inspiration, take a look at Times Travel. But if you want to piece the trip together yourself, these websites are our favourites for everything from flights to passenger rights and books for the beach.
Main photo: karst mountains in China (Getty Images)
Best for flight planningHave an idea of where you want to go, but flexible on which airports you could use? Or maybe you just want to see which routes operate non-stop from your nearest airport. No other website makes a map of the world’s international routing options as clear and easy to understand as FlightConnections.
If you’re in Birmingham and you don’t fancy schlepping to a London airport, for example, you can see at a glance that there are non-stop flights from BHX to Cancun, Egypt, the Canaries and Dubai. Or maybe you want to go to Valencia in Spain, but you can’t find any flights from BHX. With FlightConnections, you might see that non-stop flights are available from Nottingham East Midlands (EMA) — a much closer journey than London.
Click on your preferred route, and it’ll also show you which dates the route operates non-stop, so you know which dates to search for.
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Best for flight price comparisonThe top four players — Google Flights, Kayak, Momondo and Skyscanner — are all excellent flight-comparison websites.
But Kayak has the edge. Its search results pages are clear and have the best range of useful filters. You can see instantly how much premium economy on the same route would cost, for example, instead of having to do another search from scratch. You can add a cabin bag or hold bag, easily remove the results from airports you don’t want to have your layover in, and even narrow your search to the type of aircraft you’d prefer to fly with.
Best for hotel bookings A lot of people think Booking.com, Hotels.com and Expedia are hotel-comparison sites. They aren’t — they’re booking sites. Yes, you can book thousands of hotels with them, but they will only show you their own negotiated prices for each particular hotel.
That’s why your first port of call for any hotel research should be Trivago. It takes prices from all of the major hotel-booking sites, including the three mentioned above, plus hundreds more booking sites and online travel agencies.
Best for hotel reviewsThe reviews on TripAdvisor can be written by anyone, whether they’ve stayed at the hotel or not. And multiple investigations have shown how many fake reviews flood the site.
That’s why our go-to site for hotel reviews is Booking.com. Only people who have paid for a booking via Booking.com can write a review. This means its reviews are much more reliable. It’s not 100 per cent foolproof, but it is much more reliable than most alternative review sites. You can find reviews for most of the world’s hotels — and you don’t have to book with them to read the reviews. Just browse, then check out Trivago.co.uk to find the cheapest deal on your preferred hotel.
Best for train adviceThinking of switching plane for train — or riding the rails on a scenic journey at your destination? The first port of call for any train lover should be Seat61.com. What started as a hobby site more than 15 years ago is now the UK’s best site for train advice — for routes all over the world. It covers the best train-booking sites in different destinations, plus how to get the best deals, which seats to choose on many routes, and more.
Best for house swapsWhat’s cheaper — and arguably better — than the likes of Airbnb and Vrbo? A free home swap — mi casa es su casa. Unlike Airbnb, no money changes hands between homeowners. You’ll pay a fee to join the site, but during your membership period, on most sites, you are allowed to make as many free home exchanges as you can negotiate with other homeowners.
Each site has its pros and cons, but the world’s largest site HomeExchange, which costs $175 (£140)/year to join, wins by virtue of the fact that it lists more than 450,000 homes all over the world. Home-swapping is, ultimately, a numbers game. You’ll massively increase your chances of finding someone suitable to swap with in Sydney if there are more than 100 potential homes in Sydney for you to contact about the arrangement.
7. Zest Car Rental
Best for car hireYou can do a car-hire search on the major flight-comparison websites, plus with car-rental comparison specialists, such as Rhino. But there’s a reason Zest Car Rental consistently ranks in the top table of customer surveys and is the choice of Which? as recommended car hire broker.
The game for car-hire companies is to appear at the top of the comparison sites, which means they hide the real cost of the “extras” that are often essential, such as excess-reducing insurance or a full-to-full fuel policy. (With full-to-empty fuel policies, you usually end up paying for fuel you didn’t use when you return the car with a quarter of a tank or more.)
With Zest Car Rental, in most cases, excess-reducing insurance is included in the price you see, and in many cases, the second driver is also included in the rate. Zest only works with providers who have a “fair fuel” policy, and customer services is fast to respond to any questions or problems.
Best for literary escapesWhether your travels are strictly armchair this year or you’re heading off on holiday, reading a novel set in your destination can really put you in the mood. The best place to look for your travel reads is TripFiction. Despite the name, it’s not entirely fiction, with biographies, travelogues, history and recipe books sneaking into their listings.
Choose your preferred country or region and browse all titles — or narrow it down by genre, such as crime or fantasy. A list of books appears, with summaries for you to find out more before deciding whether to buy.
9. Civil Aviation Authority
Best for passenger rightsAt a loss for what to do if your flight gets cancelled, your luggage gets lost or you get stuck in queues at security and miss a flight? You’ll find all of your passenger rights on the Civil Aviation Authority website.
It’s worth taking a look before your trip, too, so you can be sure you have suitable travel insurance to help with the increasingly common problems that the law doesn’t provide enough coverage for, such as delays at airport security.
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