Previously, I revealed how we plan and customise trips to our unique criteria, desires and goals. I broke down our planning styles in a mega post! In this edition, I am zooming in on the trip planning tools we use for DIY-style travel planning. There’s an app for everything these days, but we always come back to these few, fuss-free tools. Here are the resources we’ve found to be the most reliable travel planning assistants.
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1. Google Flights
There are various flight aggregators you can use to search and compare flights prices. Aggregators such as Skyscanner and Kayak have become quite competitive with Google Flights in terms of the search features they offer. However, we still use Google Flights as our first preference.
This is because we believe booking flights with the airline direct is the best option in terms of price and customer service. While you might find a “great deal” via a third-party, you will often run across hidden fees or terrible customer service–you know the kind that drops off the face of the earth right when your flight gets delayed or cancelled.
Google Flights offers the direct airline as their first booking option, making it clear and simple to book direct, once you’ve done your price comparisons using their tool. On Skyscanner, Kayak etc, they offer many booking options that often looking appeallingly cheap compared to the direct airline price. But the third-party booking agents have terrible reviews and customer service records or add fees at the end of the booking process. (Believe me, I could make a lot more commission promoting one of the other aggregators, but that’s not what I believe is best!)
Note: Not all airlines, particularly smaller or budget carriers, are indexed by flight aggregators, so you still have to search airlines like Southwest and Jetstar direct on their individual websites. Check out this list of airlines not listed on aggregators for more information.
Tripadvisor is where we start our accommodation research. Again, like flights above, we almost always make our final booking direct with the accommodation provider. We use Tripadvisor exclusively for the reviews. Here’s a few of our favourite Tripadvisor features:
- Map view – Use this to visualise where the various accommodations are in relation to attractions. The closer you are to sights, restaurants and other amenities, the less you’ll need to pay for transport on the ground. The “Walk Score” that Tripadvisor assigns a property is also a good indication of how central it is.
- Review search – You can search reviews for specific information that may be unclear such as breakfast or parking. This will bring up reviews that mention these items specifically and can really save time.
- Room tips – If you’ve ever reviewed a property on Tripadvisor, you will know that they ask if you have a room recommendations. This information is gold for anyone looking for a specific view or a quiet corner. The information is compiled in a tab called “Room Tips” in each properties’ review page.
Tip: Crowd-sourced reviews can be problematic because not everyone is objective. Some are jilted by a poor experiences; others on a high from a one-off upgrade; some just went in with completely unrealistic expectations to begin with. These things all influence the emotional state in which a review is written. Always read a number of reviews falling under different ratings (1-5), and only take heed of the common threads between them. You’ll soon grow accustomed to spotting the “mountain-out-of-a-mole-hill” type reviewers versus legitimate complaints and compliments.
There are some destinations where you need to go old school and carry around a guidebook (or at least a digital one on your favourite device). Cuba and Myanmar are prime examples of places we’ve been, where a physical book/digital download is a must. This is due to poor or non-existent internet and general lack of reliable tourist information in English. Most travellers agree Lonely Planet is still the best brand of guides out there, but also consider Rick Steves for Europe.
If buying a quality guidebook seems like a big investment for a single trip, then consider borrowing from a friend or local library. I recently picked up a bunch of Lonely Planet guides at an estate sale for $1 each! They may be a few years old, but most of the information is still relevant.
4. Google Maps and Google MyMaps
Once we’ve established a to-do list for our trips, particularly road trips, we create a Google MyMap with the attractions plotted. As we book accommodation or receive recommendations such as a good coffee shop, I add them to the map, colour coding the pins.
You can also plot routes to travel between locations, to find out the time and distance needed to travel. You can see below our weekend in Niagara Falls including attractions on the U.S. and Canadian side of the Falls, our accommodation and local wineries. Click on the rectangular icon in the top right corner to open the full map with key in Google My Maps and save a copy to use.
See this post for full instructions on using Google Maps and MyMaps to create a custom road trip itinerary of your own.
Whether its Excel, Google Sheets or another preferred software, a basic spreadsheet will keep you organised. We devise each and every itinerary this way. Below is a sample of a spreadsheet we created for a trip to Hawai’i. It is a one page, at-a-glance itinerary that provides an easy reference throughout the trip. Details for different kinds of trips vary, but may include:
- Rental car booking with pick up/drop off details.
- Accommodation with check-in/out details and contacts.
- Activities including any pre-booked attractions or experiences, opening hours and admission fees.
- Driving times and distances, especially for road trips.
- Hiking trails and distances.
- Food and restaurant recommendations.
AwardWallet is where we track loyalty program points with flight and accommodation providers all in one place. Having an auto-updating, central location for all your points/miles means you’re more likely to make use of them and less likely to let them expire.
AwardWallet offers a free membership with basic functionality that fits our needs. If you want to make use of the more advanced features it will cost you USD30 per year. The tool can be used online and/or as an app on your phone.
7. Multi-attraction passes
Multi-attraction passes can provide excellent savings on key sights and activities, and are excellent time savers. Passes such as CityPASS® (North American example), enable you to pre-pay entry to a number of attractions for a discounted rate. In many circumstances, this also enables you to stride past long lines of tourists queuing at the ticket office. Who doesn’t want that?! They may also include public transport to help you get around.
However, it pays to do your research, compare passes, carefully considering your timeframe and style of travel. I wrote more about how to do this here: How to Save Money with a Multi-Attraction Pass.
8. Cloud drive
Once we’ve completed all our travel planning, we upload digital copies of all our paperwork to a cloud drive where we can access it on wifi throughout the trip. Of course, we take a printed copy of all tickets and our one-page itinerary along for the ride. However, we also “pack” digital copies just in case something gets lost, spilt on, stolen etc once we’ve left home.
Upload a copy to a drive shared between all parties taking part on the trip. Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud, Microsoft OneDrive… whatever cloud-based drive you are probably already using will do. Make a folder clearly labelled for that trip and upload copies of all the necessary files. This is also a good place to place a scanned copy of your passport/s and visa/s in case they are ever get stolen too – more on that in Travel Security Tips Every Globetrotter Should Know.
At the end of the day, a few basic resources make trip planning simple and affordable. You don’t need every fandagle app going around, just a handful of reliable, trip planning tools. If there is a trip planning tool you love, let me know in the comments below.
Peace, love & inspiring travel!