My history with travel booking site Orbitz (free) goes back to 2002, according to my account details. Orbitz has long served as the most convenient hub for finding low fares, pinpointing convenient travel options, and paying for reservations. Because of its long reputation, Orbitz is the best and most trustworthy place to find and book travel, start to finish. In terms of speed, and specifically I mean how quickly you can find and book suitable travel arrangements that meet your basic criteria, Orbitz whizzes you through its system. In a pinch, you can nab a flight, hotel room, and car rental, and have it all paid for in minutes.
While Orbitz remains an excellent resource, it’s no longer at the head of the class for pure search and finding the best prices, however. When time’s on your side, and you need to be very detailed about the specifics of your flight and how much you’re willing to pay, Kayak (5 stars), our Editors’ Choice, should be your travel search site of choice—and note I said “search” and not “booking.” Kayak’s primary limitation is that customers can’t pay for much at all directly on Kayak.com, although that seems to be changing. Instead, Kayak typically ships you off to another booking site, such as Expedia or even Orbitz, or an airline’s website, before you can lay down your credit card. You have nothing to lose by doing a search on Kayak before booking on Orbitz. Purely for booking, though, and the range of additional tickets and packages you can buy outside of flights, hotels, and car rentals, Orbitz is the best. Other big-name competitors like Expedia (3.5 stars) and Travelocity (3.5 stars) just don’t offer the same perks of Orbitz, such as price guarantees, much less stability in their sites (both have flaked out on me often).
Orbitz’s Special Features
The biggest win Orbitz gives customers is its Price Assurance policy. If another Orbitz customer books the exact same flight or pre-paid hotel reservation as you for less than you paid, the company will issue you 110 percent of the difference in Orbitz credit. The credit ranges from $5 to $250 per airline ticket, and $5 to $500 per hotel booking. In all my years using Orbitz, I’ve never received a credit (Orbitz says it keeps an eye out for you, so you don’t have to know the customer who got the better deal), but it’s nice to know it’s there.
Orbitz’s homepage offers a range of very basic search starting points at the top of the screen. Are you looking to book a flight only? Flight, hotel, and car rental combo? Perhaps a cruise? There are nine possibilities all told, and the rest of the search criteria change based on which option you tick. For flights, you can search for round-trip, one-way, and multi-city journeys, all of which appear in a search panel that shows you very straightforward options. Most of these options are standard in all the big name travel search sites: Kayak, Expedia, Travelocity. Some more niche site neglect a few of these options, though. Google Flights only searches flights, and Hipmunk focuses solely on flights and hotels.
One new feature that Orbitz customers will positively adore is a box that states “I only need a hotel for part of my trip” for flight-and-hotel combo searches. What a monumental improvement for people who want the discount associated with comb bookings but are planning overnight trips outside their primary destination. You can’t yet book more than one hotel in this fashion, but this new feature is still a huge improvement and is implemented in a way that keeps the search criteria simple to define.
Not long ago, if you searched for a flight and hotel together, Orbitz took you through the flight options first and then the hotels, a two-step process that the site has finally condensed into one. The first results page now puts hotel options vertically down the left side and flights across the top (see the slideshow for an example). You can sort the hotel listings by price, star rating, location, overall value, distance (usually from the city center), name, and reviewer scores. There are even drop-down selection boxes that let you filter on multiple criteria, like “sort by price, and show hotels near downtown, and have at least a four-star rating.” You can also select a hotel from the left side and then choose to see more flight options afterward when you need to be picky about the airline, departure times, number of connections, and so forth.
Another of Orbitz’s strengths and signature features comes from its vast array of vacation packages, which include everything from family trips to Disneyland to last-minute Hawaiian getaways. You can find tickets to the theater, music concerts, sporting events, as well as those city package tickets that bundle the best museums and tourist sites in any major city into one convenient pass. Some of these deals come from partner site Cheap Tickets, and Orbitz will bump you off to that site when it can’t actually handle the transaction for you.
Flexible travelers have a few options for using Orbitz to their advantage. First, from the “flight only” starting point, you can search for a trip of your choice and tick a box that reads, “search three days before and after.” The search results appear as a price matrix, with no options yet about airlines or departure times—only the lowest quoted fare for each date pair. When booking an expensive flight, you can easily save hundreds of dollars. For example, I searched for fares between New York and Santiago, Chile, and found the lowest fare in my date range to be $1,083, while the highest was $1,374!
More spontaneous travelers will find a lot to explore among Orbitz’s other last-minute deals, although the site doesn’t make it especially easy to see options leaving from your city. Sure, you can find hotel deals for a Caribbean beach holiday or ski lift tickets in Vail, but the flight from your originating city may not make the trip so accommodating. Orbitz does have a section for last-minute airfares and other air ticket deals, but they’re all scattered around the site in a way that I don’t find terribly useful. If I log into my account and surf over to Orbitz’s deals page, I expect to see deals that fit my account profile in some way—at the very least, deals that originate from my city of residence. Orbitz doesn’t offer this kind of functionality. It’s really best for searching and finding deals based on what you already know you want.
As much as I love Orbitz for its search functionality, it doesn’t include a few excellent options that Kayak uses to help you narrow down exactly what you want.
Both Orbitz and Kayak let you search flights departing from an area, rather than a specific airport, but Kayak gives you complete control over the filter. For example, you can use the airport code NYC to include all three major New York City airports, or on Orbitz, type in San Francisco and tick a box to “include airports within 80 miles” to ensure your options take Oakland and San Jose airports into consideration, too. But when you get to the results, you may find airports are included that you don’t want. Kayak lets you deselect airports so that they disappear from the results entirely, and seeing as it’s never in my financial interest to schlep all the way to Newark airport, I really appreciate this option. On Orbitz, though, I’ll sometimes think I’ve found an awesome price on a flight, only to realize that the return journey puts me back in New Jersey, a two-hour commute from my home. There’s no fine filtering.
Another sorely missed feature in Orbitz, but one that pops up in Kayak and Bing Travel, is a “wait-vs-buy” recommendation. It’s a relatively new addition to Kayak, where it appears as an insightful chart showing price trends next to the advice and a percent confidence rating. Bing doesn’t always have a recommendation depending on the route (it seems to be for U.S. domestic travel primarily), but when you do, it also includes the amount by which the price will likely rise, but no graph.
Search and Book
Over my many years of experience with Orbitz, the travel resource has been, and continues to be, the most reliable and convenient place to search for and book flights, hotels, and car rentals in one shot. But nowadays, Kayak, our Editors’ Choice, is my first stop for searching for travel deals, even though I may very well end up on Orbitz to seal the deal.
Orbitz reputation and price assurance policies leave you feeling secure when you put in your credit card information to seal the deal on your next holiday. The site’s shortcomings, which are fairly minor in the grand scheme of things, relate to its missing a few detailed features you can get with Kayak—but the devil may be in those details. It never hurts to make a comparative search on Kayak for your own safety, because you could end up on Orbitz after all when it’s time to make the reservation, since Kayak only minimally offers booking services.
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Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc