Too much choice is as frustrating as too little. Save time and money by zoning in on the sites that save you time and money on every trip.
Jill Starley-Grainger is commissioning editor for the Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Each month she'll be musing for us on some of the finer things in life when it comes to travel. This month, she's sharing her favourite travel-booking sites.
I remember when booking a holiday was as simple as calling a travel agent. We’d chat for 10 minutes, then they’d call back a few hours later with a short list of options.
Thanks to the internet, we’re all travel agents now. Theoretically, this means more choice and less chance of your hotel overlooking a construction site. Realistically, this means I often spend more time planning a holiday than actually enjoying it.
The problem is too much choice – too many ads promising ‘best rate guarantee’, too many reviews to be read and ‘user photos’ to be browsed. So I’ve come to rely on just a few websites for booking my trips.
For the best price without spending hours browsing a hundred different sites, I use Trivago. It pulls in rates from all the other major sites – Hotels.com, Booking.com, etc – as well as dozens of smaller ones. When I wanted a weekend in Rome, Trivago found the five-star Rome Cavalieri Waldorf Astoria hotel for £163 a night – a massive 45% discount off the hotel’s standard rate.
Image: Rome Cavalieri Waldorf Astoria
But the major failing of most hotel-booking sites, is that they rarely highlight interesting boutique hotels. Independents can rarely afford to offer the deep discounts that the massive chains will, meaning their rates are pretty steady and you rarely see those headline discounted figures.
When I want somewhere that’s guaranteed gorgeous, my go-to site is Mr & Mrs Smith. Their expert reviews tell the whole story, and they only list hotels they’ve genuinely vetted, so you’ll never end up in a dud. I recently booked the decadent Soho House Berlin with them for £136 a night – as cheap as I could find it – and they threw in a luscious full-sized body lotion from the cult Cowshed skincare range.
Image: Soho House, Mr & Mrs Smith
A hot tip I’ve also heard for last-minute bargains on luxury beds is the HotelTonight app. Again, it vets hotels and leans towards independents over chains – and booking takes less than two minutes. You can only book on the day you need the hotel, but this does lead to discounts of up to 50% off the rate.
Comparison sites abound in the car-hire market – but unlike with hotels, I’ve yet to find one that consistently beats the others, so I always do a quick check of my favourite three. It’s easier with cars, so even checking three sites rarely takes long. Try RhinoCarHire, CarRentals.co.uk and Skyscanner.
Remember, some loyalty programmes offer useful perks – free second driver, reduced excess insurance, free upgrades when available. Before hitting the ‘confirm’ key with a third-party site, I’ll directly call the listed car-hire company to check they’ll honour the perks if I join their free loyalty scheme – or, even better, if they’ll beat the price I’ve found through a comparison site.
As with cars, no one site is head and shoulders above the rest, but I find that if I do a quick check these three, I always find the best deal: Kayak, Momondo and Skyscanner. The first two allow you to look for multi-city flights, and all let you select your class – so you can compare prices for Economy, Premium Economy, Business and First.
If I know what I want to spend, but I’m not sure where to go, a quick browse of Budget Airline Flight Checker will tell you what’s available on low-cost airlines.
No matter which flight I book, though, I always check SeatGuru to find the best seats.
And the rest…
Villa holidays are meant to be relaxing – yet finding a good one can be so stressful. My favourite specialist is Oliver’s Travels, which has hundreds of beautiful, luxury houses around the world, from Britain and Ireland to Italy and the Caribbean. They recently helped me find the Chateau Chamborigaud in Languedoc, France, for a week away with friends. Despite its jaw-dropping appearance, it sleeps 18 people, so worked out at only £71per person per night.
Image: Chateau Chamborigaud, Languedoc, France
Skiing is another area where tracking down plush pads can be a headache, but you can’t go wrong with Scott Dunn - this year I’m booking their renowned Eagle’s Nest chalet in Val d'Isère. And for packages of all types, my fallback is ITC Luxury Travel. I’ve been on spa breaks, sailing holidays and romantic getaways with them – they’ve never disappointed.
Image: Eagles Nest
Read more #SMART stuff
The Business Traveller - Business travel guide to Madrid
#Smart interview with former Dragons' Den entrepreneur Hilary Devey
15 minutes to… Speak a new language