The most useful travel websites

Part 1 of 2

By Richard Turen
Richard TurenSomeday soon, someone, hopefully a reader, will realize the synergy between what we do and what Apple sells. As our clients learn to transform themselves from tourists to travelers, we need to be information portals.

We could, I suppose, pretend that our clients don't have access to the World Wide Web. But they do. And the savvy agent understands that we're not for everyone, and we're certainly not useful for every trip.

It helps if we can speak the same language as our clients. We need to point them in the direction that will best serve their needs. I think we have to recognize that our collective futures might be linked to our willingness to be the human travel portal our clients so desperately need.

So here is a list of some of my favorite consumer websites, the ones that I think can be really useful to proactive travelers and their agents. Due to space limitations, many of my favorites are missing, but we'll continue this in my next column.

SeatGuru.com: They do what airlines won't do: They describe your seat. They do this for more than 60 airlines, pointing out how close the nearest restroom is to your seat, as well as the power outlets. Why should you always avoid the 19th row, seats A/B and J/K on United's 767 international flights? This site offers several reasons why you would want your clients seated elsewhere.

Hipmunk.com: A surprising number of industry friends are unaware of this off-the-charts-popular new site. Rather than just do flight searches, Hipmunk has an Agony scale pointing out a flight schedule's shortcomings. There is also an Ecstasy scale that incorporates information from TripAdvisor to create a sense of how reviewers really feel about a hotel property's amenities. Gen Xers love the site's color-coded "Heat Maps" that include neighborhoods with great dining, shopping and even local "vice." There are links to major hotel sites including Orbitz and Hotels.com but also Airbnb and Getaroom.com.

Plnnr.com: This site creates customized travel itineraries for popular cities in the U.S. and Europe. After the user enters specific interests, the site kicks out a fully formed suggested itinerary that includes the hours of each attraction, travel times by taxi, bus or on foot and rather sophisticated subcategory requests like local gardens, architecture or breweries. The user can keep rejecting itineraries until exactly the one that seems perfect presents itself. There is no fear of wasting a travel agent's time or hurting his or her feelings.

CouchSurfing.com: Well over a million worldwide members of this online travel community trade insider information and recommendations. They also offer sleeping arrangements to one another, as members host one another in their homes and apartments. This is the ultimate use of social media to bring the people of the world together with local residents leading the way. This is a transformational site and an alternative to the notion of hotels. This is how travel by social media could look in the next decade.

FoXnoMad.com: Anil Polat's parents were journalists. Polat is also a journalist, but he is associated with a new generation of tech-savvy backpackers who travel the world. This is the perfect site for travelers seeking insight into how to best use modern technology in off-the-beaten-path destinations.

WanderingEarl.com: This might be my favorite rainy weather travel getaway. Back in 1999, Derek Earl Baron left home for a three-month trip to Asia that has yet to end. He'll go practically anywhere, and his openness toward his surroundings and practical advice make him a valued traveling companion. He explains, quite clearly, how you can just drop everything and travel the world -- for years at a time.

AutoSlash.com: Clients of the self-drive variety love being driven to this site. You pick your car company, reserve your car, and when the rate drops, the site locks in the lower rate on your behalf. It even works if you just put in your confirmation when you have booked a car rental directly.

TripIt.com: For travel agents who are not quite sure how to format an attractive FIT, TripIt may be the perfect solution. TripIt takes all of the confirmations for every component of a trip and creates a single, comprehensive document that is accessible via laptop, smartphone or tablet. You forward your information to these folks and they take your flight numbers and include gate numbers, seat selection advice and links to online check-in. You get weather reports and driving directions, and your flight status is regularly updated. Of course that's one way to describe the site. Another is to simply say it is a great consolidation site for those who think they can be their own travel agent.

AwardWallet.com: This is the best of the sites for keeping tabs on several frequent flyer accounts. One click can get you to all of your accounts where you can view current balances.

Momondo.com: This is the insider's consumer search engine operated by a young staff of dedicated research and blogger types in Copenhagen. Momondo might be the best of the travel site aggregators, searching more than 700 websites to come up with the best fare results. Momondo is free to users and does not directly sell tickets. It just takes the consumer by the hand, shows them the best prices and links them to the seller.

FlyerTalk.com: Required reading for anyone who even dabbles in travel. This is the dig-deep site for some of the most frequent flyers. This is where you go to get the latest on the most recent mileage reward strategies and the best travel credit card rewards. The forums are like having a really neat seatmate on the nonstop flight to Singapore.

Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at rturen@travelweekly.com. 
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