Most of us who like to travel spend a lot of time on the Internet, scouring the website for cheap travel deals. And most of the time we find the same stuff on most of them — the same flights and packages, with a few dollars difference and maybe an extra feature or two.
But there’s a few sites out there that deliver more than the odd cheap travel deal. There are travel search sites that go above and beyond the norm, and other sites that provide useful information you won’t find elsewhere. Here are five of the best I’ve found in many months of cruising the web and listening to those in the know.
Matrix This is one of the most powerful air flight search engines on the web. It offers options other engines don’t, and capabilities most of them never thought of.
For simple requests, it lets you specify your preferred time, the type of seat you want, and the currency you want to pay in. If your timing is flexible, you can enter a range of durations — say, from seven to 14 nights — and get a calendar filled with up to a month’s worth of flight options. Hover your cursor over each date and it will show the prices for each duration. You can also view your results in a chart with coloured bars that show the time spent on the flight, and on any layovers.
As well, you can enter multiple airports, search multiple destinations at once, and book multi-leg trips: the final itinerary shows not only your total miles but a link to information on all the airports involved and your CO2 emissions! One problem with Matrix: you can’t book directly through the site. Save the details and book with your favourite travel agency.
Seatguru If you’re fussy about where you sit on the plane, Seatguru is the site for you. Just enter your airline and flight number and it will help you find the best seat. There’s a detailed seating map of the plane, highlighting the good seats and the bad and things like where the lavatories are located.
There’s also information on the plane’s amenities, such as the entertainment system, electrical plug-ins, and wi-fi if available, plus its history and the routes it flies. There are detailed advisories for some of the seats, too, along with a colour-coded system to help tell the good from the bad (click on the diagram for a closer look). Seatguru even has user reviews. Here’s a tidbit: “Seat 31K is an economy seat, however, there is a missing window, and it can get cold by the exit during flight … There is no floor storage for this seat during takeoff and landing.”
Even if you’re not flying, it’s fun to browse Seatguru’s extensive list of airlines and planes. It covers more than 100 airlines, from the majors down to obscure ones like Copa and Volaris.
YYZdeals is the brainchild of Chris Myden, a Canadian travel guru who continually scours the web for the best deals. He sends out alerts when he finds exceptionally cheap travel deals from Toronto and other Canadian cities, and sometimes from U.S. cities too. Typical finds include Toronto to Tokyo for $796, and New York to Nairobi for $396 (all figures Canadian). Myden shows where to find the deal, and how to book it when you find it. If you enter your e-mail address you can get the alerts in your inbox as soon as they pop up.
You can also follow YYZdeals on Twitter (@), and there’s a well-used and useful Facebook group, where travellers post hot deals they come across and help each other with advice on bookings, destinations and other travel issues. As well, Chris Myden is an expert on travel sites, and his site offers some illuminating articles on how things work in the retail travel business.
Flightaware Gee, aunt Flo’s flight is coming in pretty soon — I wonder where her plane is right now. Put Flightaware in your favourites list and you can find out. Just choose “Live flight tracker”, type in her flight number and airline, and instantly you can see her plane on a world map, along with the route she’s taken.
Next, try typing in your local airport: there’s a map showing all the inbound and outbound planes at their present location, like little characters in an old-time video game (that’s it at the top of this post). Watch for a minute and you can see them move along their routes. And if you click on a plane, you’ll get a map like this, showing it and the path to its destination.
You can spend hours just watching the planes, seeing what each one it is and where it’s going (look up the airport codes at world-airport-codes.com). But Flightaware has other interesting stuff, including maps and weather reports for each airport, aviation photos, and airline news and discussions. And if you’re travelling overseas, no problem: it covers 45 countries. It even has apps for iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows Phone, and Windows 8. Is there anything you can’t get on the Internet?
Numbeo Ever dream of living in some other part of the world, and wonder what it would cost? Numbeo can tell you. Using prices reported by users around the world, it has a huge database of living costs in cities all over the globe.
Punch in the name of a city or country and presto: there’s a full chart of living costs in almost every category: food, shelter, transport, utilities, clothing and recreation. And the lists are comprehensive: the price of a meal in a fast-food restaurant meal and a pricey restaurant, a dozen eggs, a bottle of mid-range wine, the cost to rent and to buy an apartment in or out of the city centre. (Click on the diagram for a closer look.)
You can also compare two cities — say, your city and the one you’re considering living in — and get a head-to-head comparison, complete with prices and the percentage difference. Some of the comparisons are fascinating: price of a mid-range bottle of wine in Toronto: $14.95. In Panama: $7.77. Think I’d drink more wine if I lived in Panama.
To wrap it all up, Numbeo gives you all-in comparisons of the total cost of living. There are also categories for crime, health care, traffic and pollution, and one called quality of life that puts them all together into an overall index for each city. Who wins? Canberra, Australia, followed closely by Hamburg, Germany and Ottawa, Canada. Denver, Colorado comes in fourth.
That’s five of the most amazing travel sites I know. If you know of any other great and unusual sites, whether they produce cheap travel deals or deliver unique content you won’t find on most travel sites, share them with us: if I get five more, I’ll do another post.