You know where you want to go on vacation. You know when you want to travel. You even have a budget set for the trip. Now, how do you go about making your reservations? With the myriad of travel sites competing for your attention, it’s difficult to know where to turn for the best values and best service. To help make planning your next vacation a little easier, here are thumbnail reviews of eight of the top travel booking sites.

Kayak

The best part about Kayak.com is that it’s an impartial site. Unlike some other travel sites, Kayak is a search engine and grabs information from a variety of sources, including Orbitz, major hotel chains and online travel agencies. Founded in 2004, Kayak.com is a good place to research a variety of hotels and/or flights all in one place. I like this site, but some of the information pages, such as the hotel description pages, can be somewhat outdated. Kayak recently formed a partnership with the search engine, Bing, to offer an even broader range of information, such as airport gate locations and driving directions. I would expect this site to improve in the near future because of this partnership.

Expedia

Originally founded by Microsoft, this Washington-based travel giant is the world’s largest travel agency and has many travel arms, including Hotwire and Hotels.com listed below. Expedia.com is very easy to use and offers a wealth of travel information.  You don’t have to be a travel expert to find what you need here. Particularly noteworthy is Expedia’s deal page, which offers a variety of deeply discounted offers that change each day. Expedia has also recently formed a partnership with Groupon (the daily coupon site) to offer weekly travel discounts. At KCL, we recently featured a Groupon deal for a hotel and spa in Sedona that represented a savings of more than 50 percent. Look for more Groupon/Expedia deals on KCL in the future.

Expedia offers a price guarantee. If you find a better price online within 24 hours of booking your vacation with Expedia, they will refund the difference to you and give you a $50 gift certificate towards your next vacation with Expedia.

Priceline

Priceline was the original travel bidding site and is best known for its “Name Your Own Price” offers. Today, the site offers discounted pre-priced flights, hotels, car rentals and cruises as well as the bidding offers. IF you can be flexible in your travel and can abide with not knowing your exact flights and times, exact hotel or exact car rental company until after you’ve paid for your vacation, you can save big money here. Personally, I’m not that flexible and I wouldn’t recommend it for families with small children (since you could be stuck flying all day.) However, if you don’t mind giving up a little control over your travel plans, there are deals to be had here.

Orbitz

There has been a lot of controversy involving Orbitz over its ten-year history. The most recent  incident was American Airlines pulling its flights from the booking site’s database in 2010. These flights are back, but the booking site’s reputation hasn’t quite rebounded. Originally founded by a consortium of major airlines, Orbitz was sold in 2004 following anti-trust concerns. Today, the travel booking site facilitates more than 2.5 million travel searches each day. Like Expedia and Travelocity, Orbitz offers hotels, flights, cruises and car rentals. They also offer a price guarantee where they will send you a refund check if the price of your flight, hotel or other travel package decreases before you depart on your vacation. Personally, I find that Expedia and Travelocity offer better information and are easier to use.

Travelocity

Unlike some of the other travel booking sites, Travelocity is a full-service travel agency, the sixth largest in the United States. This company is owned by the same company (Sabre Holdings) that owns the computer system that American Airlines uses and at one time owned the airline also. Although Travelocity claimed to have no bias, it’s good to keep in mind that their system probably favors, at least somewhat, American Airlines flights and tours. Travelocity’s complete travel offerings includes flights and hotels as well as cruises, tour packages, rail tickets and passes, car rentals and even tickets to attractions like SeaWorld at your destination.

I particularly like Travelocity’s hotel program. The company negotiates special rates at a wide range of hotels that can only be booked via Travelocity. These offerings change frequently, but recent deals included $97 for the Super 8 near Union Square in San Francisco, the Hyatt Regency in Denver for $76 and $135 for the Omni Hotel at CNN Center in Atlanta.  Travelocity also has a “secret hotel” program that promises up to 55 percent off of your hotel rate. With this program, you don’t get the exact name of your hotel until after you pay for the hotel.

Travelocity also offers a price match program where they will refund the difference to you if you find a better price after you’ve booked your reservation with them. They also add a gift certificate for $50 towards your next vacation with Travelocity. Unlike the price guarantee with Orbitz, which is automatic, you have to find the better price for Travelocity and bring it to their attention.

Hotwire

A division of Expedia.com, Hotwire sells deeply discounted hotel rooms, flights and other travel components, usually very near to the travel date. You can find some good prices here if you can be flexible about your travel dates and destination AND if you can accept not knowing the airline or exact hotel until after you’ve paid for the trip. For hotels, they DO tell you if the property is a three, four or five-star hotel and give you a basic location (such as airport, downtown, east side, etc.) The site advertises up to 50 percent discounts on hotels and up to 40 percent discount on flights (although this is likely off of the full price and not off of any discounted price offered by the airline or hotel company.)

Smarter Travel.com

I just learned about Smarter Travel.com recently and haven’t had an opportunity to use it to book a vacation, but I like what I see. According to their Web site, they are the “largest online travel resource for unbiased travel news, deals, and timely expert advice.” They personally comb hundreds of travel sites and hand-pick the best ones to feature on the site, with real people, not bots. I like, too, that they offer general travel information on things to see and do from area Convention and Visitors bureaus in addition to selling flights, hotels and such.

Hotels.com

You can get some great hotel prices at Hotels.com. This hotel booking site, another division of Expedia.com, offers more than 135,000 hotels worldwide. This site used to not tell you the name of the hotel until after you completed the deal, but they have changed that policy.  I’ve gotten some good prices with this site. Last year, I booked a room in Chicago that normally goes for $199 per night for just $69 per night. Hotels.com is also a good resource if you’re traveling to a city during a major convention or sporting event. They frequently have rooms available when other booking sites do not.

Using Travel Sites Wisely

To get the most from travel Web sites, just like shopping for groceries or back-to-school supplies, you want to know the “regular,” everyday price of the flight, hotel, cruise or travel package before you make your reservations. Just like grocers put large, eye-catching displays at the end of the aisle, so travel sites entice readers with spectacular prose even when the “deal” isn’t all that great. To do this, visit the individual airline, hotel and cruise line sites first before you shop on the travel sites.

You’ll also want to do some research before you shop about the best price season and best type of room or cabin. Travel Web sites, even the best ones, are computer-driven and only return good information when and if they are given good information by the user. For instance, they won’t tell you if there’s a better airfare from Baton Rouge if you ask for New Orleans, even though the former city is less than an hour’s drive away.