Once upon a time, only millionaires visited Paris for the weekend.
These days, anyone with a credit card and Internet access can take off for a three-day jaunt to Europe. They can bid for a cheap hotel room, book a rental car and pinpoint and secure the last window seat left on a commercial flight--all the day before leaving. In comparison, flying the Concorde seems almost archaic.
The world is more accessible than ever, and that is good news for travel consumers. But the real success story concerns the Internet companies that make online travel services available to the public.
After the dot-com bubble burst five years ago, practically the only Web companies that didn’t vanish were the travel sites. Take Sabre Holdings' (nyse: TSG - news - people ) Travelocity, which was founded in 1996. Travelocity had revenue of $830 million on bookings of $7.4 billion in 2005. What bubble?
Last year, 79 million people in the United States used the Internet when making travel plans, according to the Travel Industry Association, based in Washington, D.C. The "big three" of online travel planning-- Orbitz, which was launched in 2001 by a consortium of commercial airlines and later purchased by Cendant (nyse: CD - news - people ); Expedia (nasdaq: EXPE - news - people ), which was founded within Microsoft (nasdaq: MSFT - news - people ) in 1995; and Travelocity--are used by 28% of North Americans who book leisure travel. They have been joined by a number of other options; there are now more ways to plan and book your next vacation or business trip online than ever before. And travelers are taking advantage of all of them.
"Travelers are on [the] leading edge of technology adoption," says Henry Harteveldt, a vice president at Forrester Research (nasdaq: FORR - news - people ), a technology market-research company in Cambridge, Mass. "They adopt trends before the mainstream, are better educated and have more disposable income. They are picky people. Having control over making travel arrangements is very important, and the Web plays well into that."
According to Harteveldt, online leisure travel is the largest e-commerce category (excluding porn), and in the U.S. it is projected to generate $74.4 million in sales in 2006, an increase of almost 17% over the $63.6 billion spent in 2005. By 2009, Forrester Research predicts, online travel spending in the U.S. will rise to $110.5 billion.
Overseas, online travel planning is picking up steam even faster than it is in the U.S. Spending on online travel in the U.K. and Western Europe will rise about 42% to €30.7 billion in 2006, or about $36.8 billion, Harteveldt says. By the end of the decade that number will approach €50 billion, or about $60 billion.
Does this mean that travel agents everywhere should quit their jobs and brush up on HTML? They don’t think so.
"Consumers will only book a certain amount of the trip online," says Scott Ahlsmith, chairman of the Travel Institute, a non-profit organization based in Wellesley, Mass., that educates travel industry professionals. "If things get complicated, they want to speak to someone." And in booking a particular trip, Ahlsmith says, consumers "are looking for someone who’s been to that destination--they want firsthand knowledge, because pictures on Web sites can be misleading, and some hotels have been accused of inflating their online reviews."
Plus, Ahlsmith claims, booking online can actually cost more than booking through a travel agency. He cites a 2005 study conducted by Topaz International, based in Portland, Ore., which supports travel professionals. The study found that a particular business itinerary cost, on average, $80 more when booked online than when booked using a corporate travel agency.
Studies like these don’t seem to have affected consumer perceptions of online booking, however. "Web travel agencies are viewed as the most comprehensive way to plan a vacation," Harteveldt says. "They’re evolving from spitting out tickets to helping you plan your journey [and] get trip insurance and tickets for attractions on the ground." In other words, they do many of the things a travel agent would have done in the past.
In honor of the great travel deals and useful tools available on the Web, we have compiled a list of the best travel sites. In researching the list, we cast a wide, ahem, Net. We came up with the best places to research or book your trip, as well as to fantasize about where you’re going next or report back on your latest vacation.
We didn’t include Expedia, Orbitz or Travelocity, since the general public is mostly already aware of these sites. Instead, we included unusual sites offering something different to the consumer, like FlyerTalk.com, which allows fliers to figure out the savviest uses for their accumulated frequent flier miles. Of course, some well-known sites did make the list, but for less-than-obvious reasons: We listed Priceline.com (nasdaq: PCLN - news - people ) not for flights, but because it’s the best site we know of for booking luxury hotels cheaply.
We rated the sites according to three criteria: aesthetic appeal, user friendliness and usefulness. In other words, they had to be easy to look at and easy to navigate, and they had to make life easier for you. We hope they do just that.