If the grab-bag approach doesn't appeal to you, you can still go right to the source. The major airlines' Web sites are still popular among frequent-flyer loyalists, and a couple of them—United Airlines and American Airlines—even let you book flights on other airlines from their sites. In fact, they'll often recommend other carriers first.
Four of the top U.S. airlines—Continental, Delta, Northwest, and United—have taken this a step further by creating a megasite that offers not only the chance to book other airlines, but hotels, rental cars, cruises, and vacation packages, as well. The site, which should be up and running by the time you read this, will feature all the content from the airlines' individual sites, which they'll continue to operate. (See "Airline Megasite Ready for Takeoff.")
Even on their own, the airline sites have a lot to offer. United Airlines recently added a free flight-paging service that informs passengers of flight delays, cancellations, and gate information. You can have your messages sent to your PC, text-enabled cell phone, or alphanumeric pager. If you have a Web phone or PDA, you can receive schedule changes by e-mail while you're on the road. The site itself was recently upgraded with some impressive new features, but its interface is still confusing, and its non-air products, such as vacation packages, could be better integrated. Like most airline sites, you have to log in with your frequent-flyer number and password to get full access.
American Airlines' site is equally full- featured, and unsurpassed in its flight selections and seating availability. Continental Airlines lets you specify personal preferences regarding flights, car-rental agencies, and hotels, but your inability to book flights on other airlines is a hindrance for all but the faithful. The airline apparently hasn't caught on that proprietary systems don't work on the Net.
Many sites are still discovering just what does work on the Internet, and as they do, booking travel on the Web will get even easier. Right now, Travelocity.com offers the most robust technology and the widest range of features, and its merger with Preview Travel should make it even more impressive. Preview Travel's range of tour and land-air packages has propelled it ahead of competitors. Uniglobe.com is the clear winner when it comes to cruise content and swift, intuitive bookings.
If you're a road warrior, you're apt to feel most at home at Trip.com, which offers plenty of tools and programs to make your life less harried. For discounted fares and special deals, both Cheap Tickets and Lowestfare.com, as well as some of the individual airline sites, which continuously post deeply discounted rates for last-minute travel, are worth checking out. For the most comprehensive selection of hotels, TravelWeb.com is the place to stay. But Placestostay.com's database of independent properties makes it worth a visit too.
Whichever sites you explore, be sure to return often. These sites will continue to dream up new and useful features, and you're sure to discover a tool or two that wasn't there on your last trip.