The travel sector has undoubtedly been one of the best performing sectors over the past five years, with the majority of shares significantly outperforming the broader market.

As highlighted in the chart below, the two best performers in the sector have been Webjet Limited (ASX: WEB) and Corporate Travel Management Ltd (ASX: CTD), which have delivered share price gains of 363% and 889%, respectively.

Source: Google Finance

Source: Google Finance

Although it is unlikely that these returns will be mirrored over the next five years, most companies in the sector should still benefit from the ever-increasing number of business and leisure travellers globally.

On that basis, I though it would be an interesting exercise to compare the value of the ASX’s five largest travel shares using some simple analysis (figures sourced from CommSec and company reports):

Stock Market Cap P/E ratio FY16 EPS Growth FY17 Forecast EPS Growth PEG Ratio Dividend Yield Debt to Equity Return on Equity Discount From 52-week high 10 Year Total Shareholder Return
Flight Centre Travel Group Ltd (ASX: FLT)
$3.45b  13.06 (3.8%)  (6.1%) N/A 4.5% 5.7% 18.2% 24.7%  11.3%
Corporate Travel Management Ltd (ASX: CTD)  $1.87b  38.95  54%  47%  0.83  1.5%  14.5%  24% 1.6%  61.7% (5-year return)
Webjet Limited (ASX: WEB)  $1.09b  35.31  24.6% 48.9%  0.72  1.6% 36.6%  14.7% 8.5%  26.1%
Qantas Airways Limited (ASX: QAN)
 $6.06b  4.78  94.5%  N/A  N/A  3.7%  149.4%  31.6% 30.3%  (1.1%)
Virgin Australia Holdings Ltd (ASX: VAH)
 $1.99b  N/A  (135%)  N/A N/A 0%  334%  (24.9%) 52%  (16.8)

Is there a stand-out buy?

In my opinion, there doesn’t appear to be a stand-out buy right now based on the analysis above.

Sure, Qantas has an extremely cheap price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio but its future earnings are extremely uncertain. Furthermore, lower fuel pricing was a major tailwind for the airline in FY16, but this is unlikely to be the case moving forward. The company also has an extremely high debt-to-equity ratio and poor long-term record which rules it out for me.

Virgin Australia is also pretty easily ruled out based on its terrible track record, lack of dividend and ludicrously high debt to equity ratio.

Although Flight Centre is trading on a relatively undemanding P/E ratio, the company still faces another 12 months (or more) of difficult trading conditions where earnings are unlikely to grow very much. Nevertheless, the shares could be considered by investors looking for a fairly attractive and reliable dividend yield.

The two companies with the best future growth prospects are clearly Corporate Travel and Webjet. Unfortunately, this future growth appears to have already been priced into their current share prices with very little margin of error left for prospective investors.

Foolish takeaway

Based on the simple analysis above, I don’t believe any travel company is a ‘must buy’ right now.

With that said, I think it would be a good idea for investors to keep a very close eye on Flight Centre, Webjet and Corporate Travel in anticipation of any near-term buying opportunities.

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Motley Fool contributor Christopher Georges has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia owns shares of Corporate Travel Management Limited. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Bruce Jackson.