For the best deals and inside info

When it comes to travel Web sites, there are a few big names that dominate the market—but I don’t regularly use any of them. Instead, as a professional travel writer, editor and travel talk-show host, I tend to turn to the following smaller and/or lesser-known sites because I have found, time and again, that they save me money and offer the most useful information…

AIRFARES

Momondo.com. When it comes to finding the lowest airfare, Momondo’s no-stone-unturned, cutting-edge technology comes out on top. And unlike most of its competitors, it covers all the airlines, even those that don’t offer companies a commission for referrals (such as Southwest, Ryannair and EasyJet, airlines you generally won’t find on the major search engines). Once you find a fare, you click a link to purchase the ticket at a site such as Priceline.com or Travelocity.com.

Worthy competitors: Dohop.com also offers a broad, impartial search. For multistop itineraries (Momondo and DoHop can do only one-way and round-trip flights), Kayak.com is the place to turn, though it doesn’t cover every airline out there.

CAR RENTALS

AutoSlash.com. This nifty new site offers two ways to protect your pocketbook. First, it searches the Web for discount coupons on car rentals and then applies them in your search so that its customers get the savings automatically. Then it continues to search on its user’s behalf—and if car-rental rates drop between the time the traveler makes his/her reservation and when he hits the road, AutoSlash.com shoots him an e-mail so that he can rebook at a lower rate.

Worthy competitors: BreezeNet.com searches not only the large, multinational car-rental companies but also smaller, local operations, which is important because the latter sometimes have lower rates.

Another smart option for low-cost car rental—the blind bidding sites mentioned below under “Hotels.”

HOTELS

HotelsCombined.com. Ever heard of OctopusTravel.com, HotelClub.com, TravelWorm.com or HRS.com? HotelsCombined.com has, and it searches the listings of all of these relatively obscure discounters (many of which buy blocks of rooms and then sell them at a steep markdown), along with the hotel chain sites and such major travel Web sites as Hotels.com and Travelocity.com. The breadth of its results page is awesome, with rates that often are 50% lower than the published rates.

Worthy competitors: Travelers who just want a bed for the night and don’t really care which hotel they stay at pay even less by bidding blindly at such Web sites as Priceline.com, Hotwire.com and the new GetARoom.com.

But what if you want a clue first as to where you might be sleeping? You can never guarantee where you’ll be staying when you “bid blind,” but such Web sites as BetterBidding.com and BiddingForTravel.com eliminate some of the guesswork. Both offer impartial reports from travelers who have recently bid for travel on these sites, spilling the beans on which hotels they got and for how much money. It’s valuable information because the bidding sites tend to use the same hotels over and over in many areas.

HOME RENTALS

HomeAway.com. The latest Web site to join Google, this claims to be the largest home-rental site on the Web. And it might well be, with more than 230,000 rentals. Instead of cramming your family into a small hotel room, you can rent a condo or complete house. Users contact owners directly and negotiate prices. A key perk of rentals is that they come with kitchens, which is great when you are traveling with picky eaters or don’t want to spend too much on restaurant meals. Many rentals require a minimum stay of four nights or more. Be sure to thoroughly research your rental before you put down a deposit—there usually are few ways to get your money back if you’re disappointed.

Worthy competitors: VRBO.com, Zonder.com, Rentalo.com and a number of others work in just the way HomeAway.com does, serving as forums for property owners to connect with would-be renters.

A site called SecondPorch.com makes use of online social networks to allow users to see what properties their friends have rented and second homes that owners rent only to people they know. A new feature on the site, an online “guest book,” allows would-be renters to contact past renters to get the lowdown on a property from an impartial source.

Another good alternative for budget-minded travelers is renting a room in a local’s house for very little money. The premier site for this type of accommodation is AirBNB.com.

CRUISES

VacationsToGo.com. Those travel agencies that sell the most cruises are rewarded by the cruise lines with perks for customers, such as free upgrades, shipboard credits (typically $100 to $300), a bottle of wine in the room and more. VacationsToGo.com, as one of the biggest sellers of cruises, consistently offers these types of money-saving extras, items you simply won’t get if you book directly with a cruise line or with an agency that doesn’t do much cruise business.

Worthy competitors: Before booking with VacationsToGo, also check CruisesOnly.comCruiseStar.comCruiseBrothers.comCruise.com…and OnlineVacationCenter.com—these agencies also move a lot of cabins and thus have the same types of perks and discounts to offer.

CruiseCritic.com is a fine source for reviews of cruise ships and also has a section on current discounts.

For shore excursions, check out PortCompass.com and ShoreTrips.com. Both companies vet local operators of shore excursions that typically are less crowded and less costly than the cruise lines’ excursions.

OTHER TOP-NOTCH SITES FOR TRAVELERS

Zicasso.com. Connects specialty travel companies with vacationers who don’t want to plan all aspects of their trips.

Translate.Google.com. A tool to use on your Web-enabled cell phone when you don’t speak the local language.

XE.com. A lickety-split, accurate currency-exchange calculator.

MapQuest.com beats Google maps by a hair, thanks to its new functionality, which allows you to add helpful resources, such as gas stations and restaurants, to your maps.

Maps.Google.com/streetview gives you a quick look at where you’re going before you get there.

HopStop.com. Easy-to-follow, logical directions for using public transportation in 20 major tourist areas around the globe.

WebFlyer.com. For those who want to maximize frequent-flier miles. News, tips, mileage calculators and more.