''Big Three'' booking sites

 

Nearly every traveler has at least one of ''The Big Three'' online booking agencies logged into their favorites list.

Each site accomplishes the basics -- booking flights, hotels, rental cars, cruises, vacation packages -- so which you use may be a matter of personal preference. But there are some differences between them. Here's a snapshot. (Information was supplied by the companies and augmented by our research):

EXPEDIA

Overview: Expedia has the most expansive online toolset and handles some less-common foreign routes (including flights within China, India and Africa). Some airfare and hotel deals are available only on Expedia. Deals are prominently displayed. Expedia also offers a no-blackout-dates rewards program. The appealing, easy-to-use home page and tools make this our favorite of the Big Three sites.

Founded: 1996

What it sells: Flights, hotels, rental cars, vacation packages, activities in your destination. Users can search the site by destination or interest (family, adventure, beach, romance, luxury, Walt Disney World, ski, golf/spa, all-inclusive).

Does not include: Some low-cost carriers such as Southwest and Easyjet

Booking fees: $5, in some cases free

Deals by e-mail: By free subscription.

Last-minute deals area: Yes

Fare alerts: Download a widget that alerts you when prices drop on a specified city pair. Drawback: Only specific U.S. airports are included.

Phone support: 800-EXPEDIA, open 24/7, with no additional booking fee. During regular U.S. business hours, staff typically is U.S. based but during other hours may be offshore. Doesn't reveal the number of phone staffers.

Price guarantee: Find a better price online for the same trip within 24 hours and Expedia will refund the difference plus a travel coupon for $50.

Flexible date searches: Yes, on major domestic routes. It also offers a ''flight fare'' calendar that helps you see cheapest times to fly.

Rewards program: Thank you points are awarded at 1 point per dollar spent and may be combined with other thank you points and awards through the Citibank network.

User-generated hotel reviews: By travelers who stayed at the hotel in the past six months.

Cool tools: Expedia's online toolset (Click See all tools under Plan Your Trip) includes airport guides (both MIA and FLL are included), alerts if your flight is delayed, driving directions/mapping, gas station finder (good for finding stations convenient to airports), group bookings for hotels and cruises, split payment (in case you and your companion are buying your air separately), limited seat alerts that let you know when an air fare is selling out, and a cruise calendar (alas, not very detailed).

Check out: Insider Selects, a ranking of the world's top hotels determined by a matrix based on consumer reviews, a value model and Expedia's experts. (The Ritz-Carlton on Key Biscayne ranks No. 4.)

ORBITZ

Overview: Orbitz specializes in domestic travel and foreign cities with travel originating in the U.S.; includes foreign hotels and car rental. The company prides itself on its customer care program, and consumer advocate/Travel Troubleshooter Christopher Elliott agrees that of the big travel web agents, Orbitz uses the combination of people and technology most effectively. The site caters to niche markets including family, ecotourism and gay-and-lesbian travel.

Founded: 2001

What it sells: Flights, hotels, rental cars, rail tickets, cruises, activities, vacation packages

Does not include: Some low-cost carriers such as Southwest and Easyjet

Booking fees: $5-$12; additional $25 if booking via telephone

Deals by e-mail: By free subscription; you can sign up for deals in specific categories.

Last-minute deals area: No, but a general ''deals'' area

Fare alerts: Deal Detector will alert you when the airfare drops to a price you've specified.

Phone support: 888-656-4546; 1,500 telephone agents, with 24/7 service; staff both in the U.S. and offshore. Telephone bookings incur an additional fee (usually $25).

Price guarantee: If you find a lower hotel rate, you may submit an e-mail request for reimbursement.

Flexible date searches: For airfare, on the home page

Rewards program: Earned via use of an affiliated Orbitz Mastercard.

User-generated hotel reviews: By travelers who have stayed at the hotel and booked through Orbitz

Cool tools: OrbitzTLC is a suite of customer products that alert you and up to six contacts about changes in your itinerary, late-arrival alerts to hotels, alerts supplied by other travelers and the FAA about airport conditions. All are delivered via mobile phone, PDA or text. The site allows allows mobile access service of itineraries and last-minute hotel availability.

TRAVELOCITY

Overview: The original online booking website, Travelocity offers global arrangements, though its flight coverage is less wide-ranging than Expedia's. Travelocity's home page includes an easy-to-use tool for flexible-date searches. Its Travel Info Center and destination guides include editorial articles, tips, photos, currency converter and other tools.

Founded: 1996

What it sells: Flights, hotels, vacation packages, rental cars, rail tickets, last-minute packages, cruises, activities

Does not include: Some low-cost carriers such as Southwest and Easyjet

Phone support: 888-872-8356 offered 24/7, more than 1,000 phone reps, most in India. No additional fee for booking via telephone.

Booking fees: $5-$7 for domestic flights, up to $11 for international; hotel fees vary.

Deals by e-mail: Yes, by free subscription. Featured deals are part of merchandising programs with suppliers.

Last-minute deals area: Yes

Fare alerts: Farewatcher Plus allows up to 10 city pairs -- including packages -- and will alert you when prices drop. You can also sign up for RSS feeds.

Phone support: Yes. Some matters are handed offshore, others by U.S. agents.

Price guarantee: Find a lower price within 24 hours and Travelocity will refund the difference plus a credit for $50 off future travel. Also promises to work with suppliers when issues arise.

Flexible-date searches: Right on the home page

Rewards program: Earned via use of an affiliated Travelocity Rewards MasterCard

User-generated reviews: Under the ''hotels'' link. Guests who have booked through Travelocity are invited to comment, but others may register opinions as well. Travelocity also links to the IgoUgo traveler community (www.IgoUgo.com).

Cool Tools: Often hard to find. Look under Travel Info Center and Destination Guides for some of the site's best features: News, tips, editorial articles, currency converter. Mobile access to flight time tables and weather are now in beta. A ''road trip wizard'' that helps plot driving trips is at travelocity.roadtripwizard.com. A ''wishlist'' feature helps you find items you've looked at previously, but it's a bit difficult to find.

-- JANE WOOLDRIDGE

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