Travel

Strategies: getting the most from the Web

NHA TRANG, Vietnam — The darkened sky softens as the sun slips over the mountain-ringed bay. Though it's barely dawn, fishing boats bob in the distance; joggers have already hit the beach.

Here at Ana Mandara, one of Vietnam's premier resorts, the day is filled with promise: bicycle rides, spa treatments, sunning on the beach, lounging by the pool or simply soaking in the beauty of the carefully-clipped seaside gardens. My personal concierge will take care of it all.

And save for the spa, it's all at a 25 percent discount, thanks to LuxuryLink, an online site catering to style-conscious travelers who want pampering at a discount.

The Web is loaded with sites offering deals and travel ideas you might not find on your own. If you've ever been online, you know about the big three: Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity. Here's the lowdown on a half-dozen others we find particularly intriguing. And since they won't fit every need, we've included a compendium of others that we — and others we know — have found useful over time.

Our list isn't comprehensive, and we've surely missed some good ones. You can share those with other travelers in the TravelTalk forums.

LUXURYLINK

Founded in 1997, LuxuryLink (www.luxurylink.com) closes about 650 auctions each week, says president Diane McDavitt.

The name tells the story: The vacation packages here focus on luxury experiences, often at hotels that you've read about in Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure.

We love LuxuryLink just for the fantasy factor: A slip into the past at the turreted Rufflet's Country House Hotel in Scotland, romance in the bungalows of Fiji's Turtle Island, whipping up culinary masterpieces at Peggy Markel's cooking school in Tuscany. What makes it better is that you can actually buy these vacations.

LuxuryLink offers opportunities to buy at auction, buy at a set price ("Best Buy") or build your own trip. You can search by type of trip — gourmet vacation, adventure trip, family holiday, spa or golf getaway — or the month you want to travel. Most trips are hotel packages, though some offer air as an option; others are tours. Suppliers are disclosed during the shopping phase, before you bid or buy.

Sorting all of it out can take a while — especially if you get tempted by the delicious possibilities — though a new site design launching in September should make it easier. But don't hesitate if you find one you like: Offerings change quickly.

Fixed-price packages are sold at about a 20 percent discount, with auction items typically selling at 40 percent under retail, says McDavitt. We found that on fixed prices, the values aren't always cheaper than what you could find on your own — we e-mailed several properties listed here and got similar rates. The real plus to LuxuryLink's packages come in the extras that are included, such as round-trip transportation from an airport, breakfast, welcome baskets, champagne and tours.

The drawback: LuxuryLink doesn't confirm dates. If you want a package for set dates, you need to call the hotel, check their calendar, buy the package, then hope the hotel still has the dates available. (You can't ask them to hold). With the custom trip-builder, LuxuryLink can't offer real-time confirmations: They have to get in touch with the property to confirm, so there's a lag time there, too. "It's a trade-off. There's a savings at hand but they are subject to availability at time of booking," says McDavitt.

The company welcomes phone inquiries and says it stands behind its auction items.

Bottom line: LuxuryLink works best if you've got some flexibility. But with offerings like these (available last month), you might find the time. Note that while they aren't inexpensive, they do represent good value.

  • Kiawah Island Golf Resort, South Carolina: Three nights in a one-bedroom villa, two rounds of golf on award-winning courses, full breakfast daily, one gourmet dinner, all taxes and fees. For two people: $1,385 total.
  • Villa Ducale, Sicily: Three nights in a deluxe room, flowers and wine on arrival, daily breakfast buffet, dinner one night, taxes. For two people: $885.
  • Kenya Safari, Africa: Nine-night safari for two, including three nights at Mara Safari Club Luxury Tented Camp, all meals and hotels, game drives, domestic flights, taxes and service charges: $4,960 total. (Date-specific package.)

SKY AUCTION

Looking for a bargain on airfare — even business or first class? A vacation package, New York theater tickets, vacation home rental, hotel stay, restaurant certificate or flight simulator experience?

Founded in 1999 by a long-time tour operator, Skyauction (www.skyauction.com) works with reputable suppliers to offer trips, most starting at a $1 opening bid. Whether the supplier is named in the auction listing depends on that company's wishes, but if you e-mail Skyauction about a "blind" item, the company often can tell you the supplier's name in an e-mail, says president Michael Herring.

Typical users are solo travelers, students and couples traveling without children, but the site recently has beefed up family options. Herring says they vet suppliers with which they work, and rarely have customers had problems that weren't quickly resolved. In the case where a supplier went bankrupt, Skyauction took care of refunds.

The site allows users to search by destination, some trip types (including last-minute getaways and cruises) and "Auctions Closing Soon." The site runs about 1,500 auctions per week; most last for two or three days. Some packages have special children's prices; you'll need to e-mail skyauction for info on a case-by-case basis.

We recently saw:

  • Round-trip economy-class airfare to Tokyo bidding at $496 just three hours before closing
  • A nine-day Kenya safari including air from New York on British Airways going for $1,387 a half-hour before closing
  • A seven-night Caribbean cruise aboard the Norwegian Jewel going for $316 per person a half-hour before closing.

Note that auction prices often don't include taxes and single supplement fees. To find those, you must open the auction item info and read the small print at the bottom.

One drawback: The site sometimes gets slow, especially toward the end of the day. Be patient; it will load — eventually.

EBAY

eBay (www.ebay.com) is best known as a place to fill out your silver pattern or find an antique table, but it also has a travel category selling luggage, travel packages, cruises and lodgings. Its offerings aren't as deep what you find on travel-only sites, and they're limited to mainstream destinations such as Hawaii, Florida and Mexico. But eBay has one advantage over some other auction sites: You find out instantly if the dates you want are available. Of course, you have to pay instantly, too.

What we found most interesting was eBay's listing for vacation rentals, including condos, homes and cottages. Most are at "Buy it Now" prices — which means no bidding. The Central Florida/Disney area dominated listings when we checked, but we also found a two-bedroom, two-bath house in Williamsburg, Va., for a week's rental for $695; six nights in a three-bedroom, three-bath villa in the U.S. Virgin Islands for $1,800; and an auction for a three-night stay in a Vancouver hotel/studio that was bidding at $50 for all three nights just an hour before the auction closed.

eBay is a marketplace, not a travel provider, so it offers no phone center if you have problems once your trip begins.

HOSTELWORLD

If you're a budget traveler, Hostelworld (www.hostelworld.com) is a must. Started six years ago in Dublin as a reservations site for hostels in the U.K., Hostelworld now takes reservations for hostels and budget accommodations at more than 10,000 lodgings worldwide. And no, they're not just for kids anymore; the average age of bookers using the Website is 18-30, says Niamh Ni Mhir, the site's marketing director.

More interesting, perhaps, are the site's budget tours, added three years ago. Most are day trips and short tours that travelers often book on arrival but, until now, had trouble nailing down in advance. Here you can buy a pass for the BazBus, the on-and-off backpacker bus traversing South Africa (14 days from $260); a two-night camping tour from Alice Springs, Australia, to Ayers Rock ($219); or a three-night Inca Trail trek in Peru ($290).

The site doesn't offer a call center, but you can e-mail questions and staff should respond within 24 hours, says Ni Mhir.

LOST HOTELS

This 18-month-old site is still developing, but it has us salivating.

Colombian-born Ernesto Ruben created Lost Hotels (www.losthotels.com) to suit his own thirst for information about ecolodges and independently-owned hotels with less than 100 rooms and a strong service reputation. Because of their size, most aren't represented through the usual travel agency channels.

Ruben hasn't personally visited all 350 hotels located in 40 countries, but he has vetted them through knowledgable locals before inviting them to join. Information on the website is sometimes spotty; it's submitted by the hotels themselves, says Ruben.

Though hotels occasionally post specials, the real value here is in locating lodgings you might otherwise miss. Travelers can search by interest — such as ballooning, caving, bird-watching, spas or corporate travel — or by location. Tantalizing options include the Elkep Evi Cave Houses in the Cappadocia region of Turkey ($60-$130), Turtle Inn in Placencia, Belize, owned by Francis Ford Coppola (from $175), and Casa Morada in the Florida Keys (from $229).

LONELY PLANET

thorntree.lonelyplanet.com

This could be because we're all travel junkies. Where else would you get recommendations on things to do in Togo, a recipe for oysters served Cuban style (with rum) or find a recommendation for a cheap sleep at Whistler, British Columbia?

Name the place or topic — some fan of Lonely Planet has been there. Commercial postings are prohibited, so at least in theory the recommendations come from fellow travelers.

One caution: Lonely Planet travelers tend to eschew the tried and true. If you've got your heart set on a location and someone trashes it on the message boards, try to figure out if you're like-minded travelers or just drawn to different paths.

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