If I was limited to using one travel web site or downloading one mobile travel application, I would make it Kayak! Why? Being able to search just one site for flights or hotels and reliably finding the lowest air fares or hotel rates around the world, makes this the first site I usually visit when planning a trip! It’s easy to use, provides the best prices and the apps offer some useful, additional tools, earning it a place on my phone/tablet!
Kayak is a meta-search engine, that will itself search across many travel providers, allowing you to enter information for a flight, hotel, car or vacation package once, and having Kayak present you the results from many travel providers. It is available as a web site or mobile apps for iOS, Android, Windows Phone or kindle. Let’s follow an example: instead of looking for a flight from San Francisco to New York on united.com, aa.com, delta.com, expedia.com and other sites, kayak will do that legwork for you and present the prices for the available flights found on the different sites to you:
You have the option to include airports nearby (for example Oakland and San Jose near San Francisco), select the desired cabin (economy, business, first) and number of passengers. If you are flexible, you can search for +/- 3 days of the desired departure date. And if you don’t trust Kayak, you can also trigger a search on other sites, like Expedia or Orbitz (which is a waste of time, trust me!). Before you even start the detailed search, kayak will present you with an overview table of fares for the destinations and month you are looking at: If, for example, you just want to get away for a weekend in January, you can pick the cheapest one.
Once you are ready, Kayak will present you with all the flights that meet your criteria, and a number of options to reduce the number of search results. You can limit the number of stops (ie only non-stops), narrow down the departure or arrival time (ie leave in the morning, return in the evening) or pick your favorite airlines or alliances (especially useful for point collection). Some of the more unusual features offered are the selection by flight quality (ie no red-eyes), duration of layovers or type of plane.
One of the more useful tools is the buying guidance in the top left corner. Kayak analyses the price history of tickets and projects the likelyhood of prices to go up or down! Rather than relying on travel myths, like “buy on Tuesdays”, it gives you a good indication whether you should lock down that bargain fare or have time to look around. It is a prediction, not a guarantee, but I found it to be helpful.
For each of the flights in your selection, you can get additional details for the flight times, connections and layovers, the plane type and providers offering this price. You can also see the fare class, needed to determine whether you will earn miles on this flight or not.In addition to the regular list view of flights, more recently Kayak added a segment view, giving you the flight option with segments over the daily timeline.
Once you select your flight, Kayak will send you to the website of the travel provider to complete the purchase process. Kayak offers similar search for hotels, car rentals and vacation packages. I found the user interface, search criteria and filter options less helpful than some other sites like hotels.com or agoda.com. For hotels, I typically use those sites to find a hotel I want to stay at first, then double-check the price on kayak to ensure it is competitive. For hotels, Kayak introduced the option to purchase through kayak directly, rather than sending you to another site. You do have transparency whether Kayak offers the best price or not – when it does, the “select” option will default to Kayak, but allowing you to switch to your preferred site. Once you have booked your flights and hotel, Kayak also offers you an itinerary management tool. After signing up for a free account, you can build an online itinerary by forwarding your reservation email to firstname.lastname@example.org, They will be interpreted and collated into an itinerary, so you don’t have to carry a stack of printed reservations with you on your trip. While it is not as powerful as TripIt (review and comparison coming soon) or WorldMate (review and comparison coming soon), it is a useful add-on, if you don’t want to sign up for multiple accounts or download multiple apps.