2014's Top Travel Brands Will Help You Escape This Winter

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As the fall winds start blowing harder, leaves whirl across the lawn, and winter looms, you might be thinking now's a good time to plan a vacation. If that's the case, then we have bad news: Air travel prices are soaring and the quality of service is plummeting.

However, if you really need that getaway, you can minimize the pain by sticking with the travel providers that consumers have found offer the best service and prices. Harris Poll EquiTrend asked 41,806 U.S. consumers ages 15 and older to rate travel brands on familiarity, quality and "purchase consideration," a marketing term that basically boils down to how likely you are to consider buying a service from a vendor. The winners:

Online Travel Service -- Two-Time Winner

Harris finds that American consumers prefer to begin their vacation planning with online searches at Expedia.com (EXPE), Travelocity.com -- owned by Sabre Corp (SABR) -- and Orbitz.com (OWW), in that order. Expedia topped this list for the second year in a row, and according to Harris, recently earned its highest score of the past 10 years.

Airlines -- The Old Guard and the New

The top two full-service airlines in Harris' survey are the two with the most limited reach -- Alaska Airlines (ALK) and Hawaiian Airlines (HA). The good news, however, is that travelers surveyed by Harris give decent marks to larger legacy airlines Delta (DAL) and American Airlines (AAL) as well, which come in at third and fourth place, respectively.

Among so-called discount airlines -- a distinction that's losing its difference as the discounters grow bigger and older, while the legacy airlines cut services and flights -- Harris finds travelers giving the highest marks to Southwest (LUV) and JetBlue (JBLU).

Hotels -- What Kind of Accommodations Do You Like?

The study included 47 hotel brands across five categories:
  • Luxury: Omni wins top honors in the luxury hotel category, followed quickly by Starwood (HOT) and Four Seasons. W Hotels (also owned by Starwood) and Ritz-Carlton (owned by Marriott (MAR)) take fourth and fifth places.
  • Full service: Marriott also tops the rankings for full-service hotel brand of the year in Harris' survey, followed in short order by Hilton Hotels (HLT), Courtyard by Marriott, and Hilton's own Embassy Suites.
  • Extended stay: Like where you've arrived at, and want to stay a while? Homewood Suites (owned by Hilton) and Residence Inn (Marriott) win top honors in this category.
  • Mid-market: Hilton's Hampton Inn ranks No. 1, followed by Holiday Inn Express and Holiday Inn (both owned by Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG), which failed to rank in the luxury category but redeems itself here), and then La Quinta (LQ) in fourth place.
  • Economy: America's Best Value Inn tops this category for the third consecutive year, followed by Super 8 and Red Roof Inn.
And now it's your turn. Do Harris' findings match your own impressions of these online travel agents, airlines and hotels? Or are some of these "winners" not really up to snuff? Chime in and sound off -- tell us what you think below.

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith hasn't really enjoyed traveling since about 1995 and thinks most travel services ratings these days should be qualified as "the lesser of X number of evils." Neither he, nor The Motley Fool, has any position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. To read about our favorite high-yielding dividend stocks for any investor, check outour free report.

9 Hotel Scams and Annoying Fees to Watch Out for
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2014's Top Travel Brands Will Help You Escape This Winter
After you check in, the room phone rings, allegedly from the front desk. There's a problem with your credit card, the operator says, please give me the account numbers again. To pull it off, all a criminal has to do is trick their way through a hotel switchboard and catch a patron in the room. If you get a call like this, hang up, call the operator, and ask if there's a problem. That's a good habit at home, too. Hang up and call back. If there's really a problem, don't reveal your number over the phone. Just walk back to the front desk.
"You find a pizza delivery flyer slipped under your hotel door," the FTC says. "You call to order, and they take your credit card number over the phone. But the flyer is a fake, and a scammer now has your info." I've not seen widespread incidence of this. it would be pretty brazen for ID thieves to physically walk around hotel hallways, where cameras might be used to identify them. Still, the same principal applies. Use a smartphone to double-check the phone number you see on any flyer placed in your room before you order pizza.
The single easiest way for a hacker to hijack your computer is to set up a rogue hot spot and trick you into connecting to it. "Oh, free WiFi," you think. While that's a very real problem, it's also not terribly likely in a hotel room. After all, to be close enough to pull it off, the criminal's technology would in most cases have to be inside the hotel. That's a risky proposition. On the other hand, you might be visiting a lot of strange coffee shops on the road, where rogue Wi-Fi is a more likely possibility. It's always smart to double-check the safety of the networks you connect to, however. It might be wise to stick with your smartphone's connectivity, if that's possible.
The more expensive the hotel, the more likely you will be charged a hefty Wi-Fi fee of $10-$15 per day. The new trick I've seen lately is for hotels to offer "free" Wi-Fi in the lobby but charge for access in the room. Best way to avoid that fee? Before you leave, make sure you know how to use your smartphone for broadband access.
Hotels have a love-hate relationship with websites like Priceline (PCLN) or Expedia, which help them fill rooms,but systematically put downward price pressure on their inventory. Extra fees, added at check-in, are the hotels' way around this problem. Many folks pay online, only to find there's additional charges when they arrive at the hotel. Resort fees are often the biggest culprit. As the name suggests, this fee is most prevalent in restort-y places like Las Vegas. 
Hotels like charging to clean your room now, as if that's not included in the price. The worst part of the housekeeping fee: Often, housekeepers don't get any of the money.
More hotels are embracing travelers with pets, and they're charge $10 to $100 for allowing a pet in your room. If you use a site like Expedia to sort through pet-friendly hotels, make sure you manually check the fee. Not all pet-friendly hotels are created equal.
This one bugs me. Some hotels put a safe fee on your bill, even if you never use the safe. You can ask that it be removed. Same for the newspaper fee.
Finally, gone are the days when hotels could be canceled by 6 p.m. on the night of a reservation for a full refund. Cancellation policies are all over the map now and can even vary based on how the reservation was initially made. Never book a hotel without knowing what the cost of a breakup would be. Travel always involves adventure, which involves unpredictability, which means plans change. Make sure you plan for that.
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