Photo: jose.jhg

Forget major booking sites. Cheer for the little guy. Tell better stories.

CURRENT JUICY GOSSIP in the travel world is that travel-booking monolith Priceline has purchased Kayak.com. Some argue this merger will open more doors to travellers, but I disagree. What I see is another outstretched corporate hand waiting for every last coin in my super-geeky-uber-handy fannypack.

To me, Kayak.com was one of the few websites I felt could give me an honest overview of current prices online, at least for flights. It’s called a “metasearch” — it searches all across the web and displays the original source for you — and hopefully what you’re getting when using a metasearch-based website is an unbiased opinion.

As it stands, you don’t actually pay Kayak for anything. Priceline, however, will want a cut of the pie. So now, when you use Kayak, you’re handing off previous dollars to the original source, to Kayak, and now to Priceline (which, by the way, also owns Booking.com and Agoda). Yet another route to finding a good deal, or even a fair deal, is leading back to one place. Where I’m from, that’s called a monopoly.

For me, it’s actually not all about “how much can I save?” I’m a self-professed “FlashPacker” and my dorm days of snoring roommates, communal showers, and bunk beds are gone, no matter how much the price tag might entice me. So these days, for me it’s more about knowing where my money is going, being confident that I’m spending it well, and – wherever possible – getting my money into the hands of people who actually need it. Priceline – and now Kayak – do none of these things for me. However, there are options that do, if you’re willing do things a little differently, for flights and hotels alike.

Flights

Direct from airlines: At the very least you should be able to skim off the booking fees that Kayak, Priceline, and even a third booking site are adding into published prices. This can range from just a few bucks, to a hundred or more. On a last minute trip to Cambodia last month, where I was forced to book online (my travel agent was out of town), I saw that Korean Air was offering the best price and route on several sites. So I went directly to their website and the price was nearly $200 cheaper than all the major travel-booking sites. Imagine that.

Hipmunk.com: Co-founded by an engineering grad and the guy who started up Reddit, Hipmunk’s goal is to “put the fun back in travel planning.” It is also a metasearch website but displays results in a graph (or on a map, for hotels), sortable by time, price, and also agony. The thing to note is that it openly displays its investors, none of which are major players like Priceline, which hopefully means it is displaying at least some unbiased information.

A ‘good old-fashioned travel agent': It’s a bit like dating: once you find one that truly has your needs in mind, never let them go.

There are lots of reasons. For one, there really are results that don’t go online that an agent can access; two, there are smaller airlines that can’t afford to come up on major booking sites that an agent can search for; three, agents have working relationships with certain airlines or hotels, and actually can have some serious clout to throw around on your behalf; and four, they can hold tickets anywhere from several hours to a whole week, giving you (and them) time to ensure it really is the best price.

My agent, Susan, has saved me countless hundreds of dollars, held tickets for me over long weekends, and even nailed me a huge deal when she was home sick with the flu. But I did have some dud agents along the way to Susan, so start searching before you have any urgent travel needs.

Local fare scouting: For example, YVR Deals (in Vancouver, Canada). The owner scours the Internet everyday for ticket sales that the airline is trying to keep on the “down low” (not every airline wants their higher paying customers to notice they have reduced the price by half or more). He also finds — no joke — accidents in pricing that are live on the web. Look into a small company doing this kind of scouting at your nearest major airport, and you just might snag a serious deal.

Airfare Watchdog: Here you can enter flights to or from a particular city, and receive an alert when a ticket goes on sale. You can also search for flights from your location to “anywhere” — though results are usually not that amazing. Regardless, it never hurts to have a second pair of eyes hunting for the price you need.

Accommodation

Housesit: Often housesitting can mean staying somewhere for free. Yes, free. Water their plants, keep the stove off, maybe feed a cat, and enjoy life as a local. Some gigs are for a few weeks; others are for months at a time. MindMyHouse.com connects sitters with homeowners and TrustedHousesitters.com has a small signup fee but is widely recommended.

I might not pick up a gig off Craigslist, but through these types of sites you can safely secure long-term, free accommodation. You will have to trade an exact location, and possibly exact dates, but housesitters would agree, it’s worth the trade.

RentMix.com: Known as the “Kayak of Renting” as much as I hestitate to say that. It is a metadata search of some major home / apartment rental sites, hopefully producing an unbiased list of options. For those just starting down this road, it could be comforting to see some prices side-by-side.

AirBnB.com: Why not just forget hotels all together? AirBnb is the place to rent locally owned apartments or spare bedrooms in cities all over the world. Hosts are verified and rated, and so are renters — also most photos are taken by an AirBnb photographer. Prices range from snagging a futon for dirt cheap, to renting a private tree house, to boking an entire villa for 25 people. On average though, for the same price or less as a basic hotel, you can get a private apartment, feel like a local, and support a local as well.

For example, a private room in a hostel in Buenos Aires is about $60 (and a decent hotel is at least $120 or more) — for $65 I rented an apartment in the trendy Palermo-Viejo neighbourhood, with a kitchette, a flatscreen, wifi, a patio, and a rooftop terrace. And all my money went directly to a fabulous local guy who arranged my airport transfers, offered ample advice on the city, and even didn’t charge me when I broke the stove trying to dry my shoes. AirBnB for the win.

Stay at a monastery / farm / etc: There are creative stays everywhere if you’re willing to look for them. Stay in monasteries around Italy, at MonasteryStay.com. Aside from a unique experience, it creates income for the monastery. Also in Italy: Agrotourismo.it, which offers farm-stays by the night, week, and month.

Think of the type of unique accommodation that would appeal to you (castles, tree houses, camper van, etc) and google that plus your country of choice. You may not necessarily save money, but you do support locals, and (as if it needs to be said) “I stayed in a tree house in Laos that support eco-sustainability” is a way better story than “I got a good deal on Priceline.”