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Booking travel (and award travel in particular) can be complicated. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available online to make things easier. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele offers his list of the best web tools to help you plan your next adventure.
What distinguishes the average travelers from the true experts? It’s not just what they pack in their carry-ons, but also what online tools they’ve bookmarked in their web browsers and smart phones. Using the right websites and apps can help you save money on reservations, snag scarce award space, choose the best seats, and know exactly what your options are when a flight is canceled.
Here are ten great online tools that every traveler should try:
1. ITA Matrix
Serious travelers have long been fans of the ITA Matrix software, which has now been acquired by Google (and powers Google Flights). The latest version of this tool allows travelers to explore airfare by date ranges across multiple carriers in order to find the lowest fares, and to search by criteria like cost per mile. Options can be displayed in the form of complete trips, individual flights, or a newer time bar feature that shows the total scheduled duration of the journey, including time spent on the ground during layovers.
Another feature is that it breaks down all the government taxes and mandatory airline fees imposed, which can help you figure out what fuel surcharges may apply if you’re ticketing an award flight. Travelers can look for airfare that stops in a certain city, which is how some people discover so-called “hidden city” deals. Another trick is to change the sales city, as some airlines will offer lower fares to travelers from other countries. But really, I’m just scratching the surface, as this tool is the most advanced airfare searching site available to the general public, and it’s free!
When I speak with newcomers to the points and miles game, or those are just starting to take it seriously, the first thing I tell them to do is to sign up for AwardWallet. This program allows you to keep track of all your usernames, passwords, account numbers, and reward balances for airlines, hotels, car rental programs, credit cards rewards, and more—a total of 648 loyalty programs are supported at the time of writing.
When I need to log into any of my loyalty accounts, I just pull up my Award Wallet home page and make a single click on the program in question, and it automatically opens a new page and runs a script that enters my username and password. That makes tending to my own accounts much easier, but my favorite feature is that I can also track programs for family members and friends, which has made this tool incredibly useful, since I manage both my children’s and parent’s accounts as well. AwardWallet has a free basic service, or you can upgrade to AwardWallet Plus, which includes expiration notices for all accounts, extra reward account properties, historical account balance changes charts, and the ability to export award balances into Excel format. To upgrade, you must simply offer a donation of your choosing.
How many miles will you earn for your next flight? The answer depends a number of factors, including the distance flown, the class of service, the ticket price, your elite status level, promotional bonuses, and any minimum segment miles. One way to figure this out would be to find the distance using the Great Circle Mapper (which is an excellent tool in itself) and then perform all of these calculations yourself.
Instead, try the WebFlyer mileage calculator, which takes a few steps out of this process and simply delivers the mileage total that you’re looking for. While there’s no cost to use this tool, note that it hasn’t been updated to reflect the new revenue-based programs recently implemented by Delta and United.
If you’re traveling, or just picking someone up from the airport, then it’s helpful to know where the plane is and when it will land. Unfortunately, airlines sometimes fail to display accurate information online. But air traffic control systems know reliably where your flight is, and have the best possible estimate of when it will arrive at its destination.
FlightAware is an amazing service that utilizes real-time data from air traffic control systems to provide you with not just arrival times, but also aircraft location, altitude, and ground speed overlaid on a map that even includes weather radar. With this info you can satisfy your inner aviation geek, or just make sure you’re not late picking up your loved ones when they arrive early.
This tool allows travelers to search for award space and upgrade availability on dozens of supported airlines. It also shows which flights have seats available, which is great to know when your flight gets canceled. ExpertFlyer is also good for finding flight status, flight details, seat maps, and fare information. The basic version is $4.99 per month, while a premium version is available for $9.99 per month or $99.99 per year. With the Premium version you can create alerts for flights and aircraft changes, get all available published fare pricing, perform flexible searching of +/- 3 days from travel dates, and save queries for repeated use. A mobile edition is also available for Premium subscribers.
That’s right, Wikipedia is good for more than just writing term papers and settling bets; it’s also a great resource for travelers. When I’m planning a trip, I frequently pull up Wikipedia pages for the airports I’m flying to in order to discover which carriers serve which destinations. I’ve found Wikipedia’s information to be highly accurate, although not 100%, with more errors at smaller airports in foreign countries than here in the United States. Nevertheless, it’s a great place to start if I quickly need to know which airlines offer non-stop flights between Denver and Memphis (United and Frontier, but not Southwest or Delta), or perhaps Milwaukee and Cancun (Frontier, Delta, and Southwest).
Other useful information provided includes the airport code and which terminals are served by which airlines. The Wikipedia airline entries offer a list of destinations served and the types of aircraft currently in operation. Of course, Wikipedia is free to use, but donations are encouraged.
Like Expert Flyer, this tool searches airline award availability, simplifying your efforts to find scarce award seats. Other functions include upgrade availability, airfares, Visa information, fare rules, and minimum connection times. You can search by airline alliance, and even use a date range of seven days with Star Alliance searches. This tool is available as both a downloadable Windows program and an app for IOS, Android, and BlackBerry. The program is available in Gold, Platinum, and Diamond versions for annual subscriptions of $35, $60, and $75, respectively, although six-month subscriptions are available as well.
8. Award Mapper
Just as ExpertFlyer and KVS simplify airfare award searches, Award Mapper is at least as valuable when it comes to using hotel points. The system supports awards from your choice of Best Western, Club Carlson, Choice, Hilton, Hyatt, Intercontinental, Marriott, and Starwood. Searches are geographical with a back-end powered by Google maps. When searching, you can also limit your searches to properties within a specific points range. There’s no charge to use this website.
Shopping for airfare is no longer an apples to apples comparison, as airlines have changed their business model to focus on so-called ancillary revenue (also known as nickel and diming to most people). To make matters worse, airlines are constantly changing their various fees (usually by raising them), which makes it harder to figure out just how much your trip is going to cost.
Thankfully, this tool will help you to quickly find out what fees you may be charged for luggage, ticket changes, or even pets. For example, while I’ve never traveled with a pet, I found out with one click that Frontier has the lowest cabin pet fee at $95, while Hawaiian charges a whopping $175. The Bankrate tool even gives you an idea of fee waivers that may be available from your credit cards, although it doesn’t go into detail on which specific cards offer which particular perks. There’s no charge to use this tool.
Never reserve or accept a seat assignment without consulting this valuable tool. It will show you the layout of every aircraft operated by every major airline, providing valuable warnings against limitations such as limited recline, lack of windows, proximity to lavatories, or no room for a personal item. There is no charge for use of this site.
What are your favorite online tools for travelers? With some great bonus categories, the American Express Gold Card has a lot going for it. The card offers 4x points at US restaurants, at US supermarkets (up to $25,000; then 1x), and 3x points on flights booked directly with airlines or through amextravel.com. It is currently offering a welcome bonus of 35,000 bonus points after you spend $2,000 in the first three months.
With some great bonus categories, the American Express Gold Card has a lot going for it. The card offers 4x points at US restaurants, at US supermarkets (up to $25,000; then 1x), and 3x points on flights booked directly with airlines or through amextravel.com. It is currently offering a welcome bonus of 35,000 bonus points after you spend $2,000 in the first three months.