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What’s new in travel search options

SmarterTravel

Online travel providers are constantly revamping their websites to encourage you to book with them instead of their competitors. Last year, I compared [%14456 | | different search tools %] offered by the airlines, online travel agencies (like Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity), and [% 15410 | | price-comparison websites %] (otherwise known as “metasearch” sites) like Kayak.com.

Since my last report, there have been many new features added. Whether you want to search flexible dates, by activity, or for cheap gas, one of these websites may offer what you’re looking for.

Airlines
Online travel agencies
Price-comparison websites

Airlines

Alaska

Early this year, Alaska added a “low-fare finder” to its booking feature. It allows you to search for one day before and after your preferred itinerary. Alaska’s one-day option may be helpful, but it would be better if it allowed you to search for more days before and after, as versions from other carriers such as JetBlue do.

Delta

Delta has made its booking engine much more user-friendly with its latest revamp. Not only does Delta allow you to search up to three days before and after a specified date, it also lets you search for weekend trips in a given month. The new search options are similar to Orbitz’s Flex Search, lacking only the “flexible stays” option (which allows you to choose an approximate length of trip and travel dates to find the lowest prices).

US Airways

One of the most recent steps of the America West/US Airways merger was to combine the two airlines’ websites. The new usairways.com incorporates features from both the old US Airways and America West websites, and includes new tools as well.

US Airways is incorporating a flexible search option from America West. The Low Fare Finder displays fares for your selected travel date, along with the days before and after. It also gives the option of searching three days before and after. This feature is helpful in seeing the least expensive fares for a given week and route.

Online travel agencies

Expedia

Last week, Expedia announced two new additions to its search capabilities. The first (and the most useful), is its Fare Alert tool. A downloadable tool like Southwest’s Ding program, Fare Alert notifies you when your selected air route or vacation package hits at or below a specified price, including taxes. It’s available for both domestic and international routes.

Expedia’s other new feature is its Gas Station Locator, designed to help travelers returning rental cars. The Gas Station Locator will identify five gas stations nearest an airport with the cheapest gas prices, and is available for the 50 top airports in the U.S.

Site59

Popular last-minute vacation package provider Site59’s new search tool is called “Need Ideas?” In addition to browsing packages by destination, you can also search by categories including “All-Inclusive,” “Food & Wine,” “Outdoors,” “Romance,” or “Sun & Beach.”

Another recent addition to Site59 is its “Meet Me In…” option, designed to accommodate travelers meeting in a destination but departing from two different cities. To use Meet Me In, you select two or three departure cities, a destination, and dates, and are presented with hotel, flight, and car rental options for one price (with a price breakdown based on departure city). To help you choose flights, a “time together” calculation is also displayed.

Travelocity

Travelocity has three new features. In February, it added a search that allows you to book activities in popular destinations. The activity categories include attractions, tours, shows, events, outdoor recreation, and dining, and you can select a popular destination in the U.S., Caribbean, Mexico, or Europe, or type in a destination that’s not listed. SmarterTravel.com’s Today in Travel blogger Josh Roberts [% 302615 | | analyzed the activity search %] and ultimately determined that while it may offer good deals, you should still compare prices before booking.

Another new feature on Travelocity is aimed at gay travelers. Through a partnership with Travel Alternatives Group, you can search gay-friendly hotel properties and be assured that they do not discriminate based on sexual orientation, but do employ a diverse staff and offer sensitivity training for employees. Travelocity also has a selection of travel deals for gay and lesbian travelers.

Like Site59, Travelocity is also offering a Meet Me In… option, using the same technology.

Price-comparison websites

SideStep

SideStep has added two new features. The first is an activity search, still in beta (meaning SideStep is still working out any bugs in the search). Enter your destination and dates, and choose from activity categories like “Amusement and theme park,” “Cultural,” “Shows and theater,” and “Transportation.” SideStep finds all available activities in the selected category and then allows you to book through a third-party website.

It has also introduced travel guides for popular destinations, a feature that is also in beta. Frommer’s appears to provide all the content for the guides, so essentially it’s the same information you can find on Frommers.com.

Mobissimo

A few months ago, Mobissimo unveiled its own activity search. Unlike most of the other activity searches, Mobissimo’s requires you to select your departure city, preferred activity, and travel dates. A handful of destinations around the world come up, some with sample fares. After selecting three destinations that appeal to you, Mobissimo then searches for all the available fares to that destination. Activities include traditional options like beaches, museums, spas, and ski resorts, as well as more off-beat options like cricket, film festivals, and forgotten wonders.

Kayak

Earlier this year, I reported on Kayak’s [% 297280 | | Buzz %] feature (a tool that allows you to search by region, theme, month, and maximum price, and then displays recent searches by other Kayak users), as well as its recent “Buzz Alerts” email program and Kayakbot (a program on AOL Instant Messenger with which you can check prices for flights, cars, and hotels). In addition to those features, Kayak has several new options as well.

Like many airlines, Kayak now allows you to search up to three days before and after a specified date, and also searches for multi-city itineraries (technology that most of its competitors don’t offer).

Kayak is also building a community. In its Trip Ideas section, you can post travel “wish lists,” and view other users’ lists, as well as articles provided by travel websites like Frommer’s, About.com, and others. Kayak also has a fledgling message board forum available to registered users only (still in beta).

All in all, will these new search options make a difference in the prices you get? If you’re searching for activities or trip ideas, probably not. But, if you’re using flexible-date searches or a fare-alert system, they might. My advice is to always compare prices with a few different providers, and choose the best price and itinerary for your trip.

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