Which holiday websites can you really trust?

The holiday brochures may paint a rosy picture but what's your potential holiday destination really like?

Gone are the days when holidaymakers had to rely on travel agents to tell them about a particular country or resort. Now we have websites, online reviews, social media, videos, bloggers and apps to paint a more accurate picture of our chosen destination. But which are the best ones to use?

Bob Atkinson, travel expert at TravelSupermarket, suggests holidaymakers check out a range of sources, rather than solely relying on travel agents' advice when deciding where to go.

"Just remember that sites trying to sell you something will not always give you the full picture, so be aware of that and read around them to ensure you know what you are buying is right for you," he says.

Review sites feature testimonials from people who have stayed in a particular destination or hotel, or eaten in a certain restaurant. TripAdvisor is the best - known review site and claims to be the biggest travel community in the world.

But Atkinson warns that such websites are not a 'bible' to be taken as the only version of the truth.

"Treat reviews with a pinch of salt, read between the lines and go with the majority. If there are limited reviews for something then be cautious as to placing a value on them," he says.

Another option is to see what independent experts such as the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide say about a place.

Lonely Planet destination editor James Smart says: "Our writers are experts in the places they talk about and they visit every destination, which means they eat the food, visit the sights, check out the bathrooms and travel the roads. And because they cover whole cities, regions and countries for us – and in some cases have been covering them for years or even decades – they're able to put places in context and tell you just how good (or bad) their offerings are.

"Our writers don't accept freebies for positive coverage, either – if we write about a place in our books or on our website, it's because we think it's worth visiting."

If you're unsure how safe a particular destination is, check the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's (FCO) travel advice service. It advises on the instances of various types of crime in destinations and the likelihood of natural disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes.

It also rates the terrorist threat and in some situations will advise against travel to all or parts of a certain country if it's not safe. Bear in mind that if you travel against FCO advice, your travel insurance is unlikely to cover you.

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How to book

Holidaymakers have numerous options to book a trip, whether they're going on a package deal or putting together the different elements of a holiday themselves.

The industry is split into comparison sites such as TravelSupermarket, Kayak, Skyscanner, Trivago and Momondo; online travel agents such as Expedia, ebookers, Travel Republic and On the Beach; and traditional tour operators such as Thomson, Thomas Cook and Kuoni.

Alongside these are accommodation specialists such as Booking.com and Hotels.com, and airlines selling flights, and often complete holidays, direct to customers.

Some travel firms have much better reputations than others. Earlier this year, Which? members rated Trailfinders and Audley Travel as the best holiday companies.

Elsewhere, other firms are not so popular. Expedia, in particular, seems to be on the receiving end of a high number of complaints and scores a paltry one out of five stars on Trustpilot.co.uk.

Companies putting packages together must hold an ATOL licence, which you can check with the Civil Aviation Authority, or they may be members of a recognised trade body such as ABTA, Global Travel Group or the Travel Trust Association (TTA).

"You can verify memberships with their head offices. If someone has no accreditation, take care before handing over any money," warns Atkinson. If you're booking the different elements on your holiday separately make sure you buy travel insurance which includes 'end supplier failure' and insolvency cover as well as the usual elements such as cancellation, lost baggage and medical expenses. To be on the safe side book by credit card to benefit from the extra protection offered under section 74 of the Consumer Credit Act.

There are plenty of handy websites and apps to help independent travellers get the best deal on each element of their trip. To compare flights, use Skyscanner.net, Travelsupermarket.com, ebookers.co.uk or Opodo.co.uk.

Be flexible

Alistair Daly, chief marketing officer at On the Beach, says you need to be flexible to get the best fares.

"For instance, if you live in Manchester, widen your departure airport search to any in the North West. You could find that by choosing to fly from an alternative airport (such as Liverpool in this case) you may find a cheaper flight. If possible widen your departure date search. As the price of any particular flight depends on demand, you may find that by simply departing the UK a few days either side of your preferred date could save a lot of money."

Once you've found the flight you want on a comparison site it's worth checking if you can get a cheaper ticket by buying it directly from the airline.

The Daily Mail recently found that passengers often paid more when buying flights through 'discount' travel websites than when they booked directly with budget airlines. It found Cheapair would charge £95.59 for a particular flight from Palma to Gatwick but the same flight cost just £61.98 on the easyJet website.

There's anecdotal evidence some sites will increase the price if you repeatedly return to it to make the same search – presumably to panic you into making the purchase. To get round this, delete the 'cookies' the website places on your computer and delete your browsing history before repeating a search.

If you're heading for Europe and aren't sure if it's cheaper to fly, drive or take the train or coach, you can compare modes of travel at GoEuro.co.uk. It currently covers the UK, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy. It finds users the best possible transport options and combinations based on price, journey duration and convenience.

When searching for hotels, there are a couple of smartphone apps which compare the prices available from online travel agents. Lodgeo compare major hotel booking sites such as Booking.com, Hotels.com and Expedia, and allows users to book using the app, too. Trivago is similar but re-directs you to the travel agent site to make the booking.