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Travellers often book flights and hotel stays ahead of their trip, but many don’t realise they can save time – and sometimes money – by booking classic tours and activities in advance as well, such as Paris’s open-excursion boats, Les Bateaux Mouches, or an after-hours tour of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.

In 2012 in the US alone, travellers spent about $20 billion on tours (on foot, Segway or bus), activities (such as skiing, zip-lining and museum-going) and attractions (like zoos and theme parks), according to an estimate by PhoCusWright, a market research firm. For comparison, that’s double what US travellers spent on car rentals and triple what they spent on cruises.

Worldwide, most of the money spent on tours and activities is handed over in-person on location. But advance bookings may grow, thanks to a boom in start-ups competing to become the prime online aggregator of such transactions, such as GetYourGuide and Zozi.

In December 2012, Expedia, the world’s largest online travel agency, hinted that it has embarked on a multi-year push to make thousands of tours and activities available for booking online, in addition to the small selection that it already sells.

Given that we’re always in favour of saving our readers time and money, we’ve put together a quick guide to the booking sites most worth checking out, listed in size order. For simplicity’s sake, this round-up focuses on single-day tours and activities, and excludes companies that sell multi-day tours, packages that include lodging and marketplaces for “peer-to-peer” experiences, such as someone offering authentic local meals in their home for a fee.

Viator
Founded in 1995, Viator is the most venerable and polished of the tour-and-activity sites. It lists 15,000 options, from walking tours to whale-watching trips, in 1,000 destinations across more than 150 countries. In 2012, this San Francisco-based operation also began selling shore excursions, or land-based trips for cruise-goers to take advantage of when their ships dock at port. Rather than pay for the generally more expensive cruise line-organised trips, travellers can pay up to 60% less and enjoy a broader selection of choices by booking through Viator, a site that also comes in several foreign-language versions: Japanese, Portuguese, French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. The site also leads by providing more than 360,000 user-generated reviews of its tours and activities on offer – about three times more than other sites.

GetYourGuide
With 17,300 tours and activities in 1,700 locations across 109 countries worldwide, GetYourGuide has the largest inventory of tours and activities and the most upfront descriptions of who is running the operation you’re paying for, such as the name and background of, say, a kayaking-trip organiser. GetYourGuide is strongest in its offerings for Germany, Switzerland and Austria, which are under-represented by other companies. It also beats competitors with its impressive selection of skip-the-line-tickets to major tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower. Besides English, the Berlin-headquartered company also has German, Spanish, Italian and French versions of its site.

Pocket Village
The Berlin-based Pocket Village differs from other sites in that it’s primarily an “inspiration engine”, providing travellers with ideas of what to do at their destination. It asks users a series of questions, such as what your interests are, what your budget is and when you are travelling, to suggest a handful of options. If you like one, you can click through to book from other companies, such as Viator and Get Your Guide. The English language-only site sources 7,000 tours and activities in 1,680 locations in 107 countries. The two-year-old metasearch site’s hallmark is niche adventures – making it best for people who are up to the demands of, say, going on white-water rafting in Nepal.

City Discovery
Promising access to more than 6,000 travel activities in 110 countries, City Discovery is especially strong in its offerings for the US, France, Greece, Italy, Brazil and the Philippines. The decade-old, Paris-based company has perhaps the most cosmopolitan feel of all these sites, as its website is available in 16 languages and its offerings, such as a five-hour city tour of Nairobi, are sometimes more geographically diverse than industry leaders Viator and GetYourGuide. The site tends to be strongest in “culture vulture” tours focusing on museums and sightseeing, rather than outdoor adventure or sports-related activities.

Zozi

Two-year old, San Francisco-based startup Zozi curates more than 220 adventurous single-day tours and activities in 21 US cities and two Canadian cities. (The site also arranges 40 multi-day tours in 25 countries.) In each of these destinations, the firm has hundreds of unusual listings, such as a water-powered jetpack flight in Newport Beach, California. This English language-only site is geared toward a younger, US and Canadian crowd planning a close-by getaway. Uniquely among these sites, it also directly sells apparel and accessories to suit the activities, such as board shorts and messenger bags.

Kijubi
Pronounced “could you be”, Kijubi is a California-based company that lists 8,000 things to do in 19 US states and the District of Columbia, plus 70 other countries. The English language-only site, launched in 2009, has its strongest suit in selling tickets to Southern California’s most popular attractions, such as the San Diego Zoo. But its general specialty is sporty, outdoor activities worldwide, such as swimming with dolphins off the coast of Mexico and heli-hiking in New Zealand.

Sean O’Neill is the travel tech columnist for BBC Travel

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