Traveling… there’s a lot more to a great trip than the actual trip. In fact, what happens before the trip often determines if the trip is great or not. Have you ever booked a trip to paradise and find out when you get there that it’s rainy season? We have… Over the years we’ve made a lot of mistakes and have learned a ton. There are countless tools available on the internet to help plan travel, but sifting through them to find the gems can be overwhelming, to say the least… Oftentimes people throw their hands in the air and never plan the trip, or use the tools they find first which may not be the best ones.
We’re knee deep in travel planning right now and what follows are the tools, methods, and information sources we’re using. We’ve tested these out over the years and they’ve proved super helpful…
· Weather, seasons, and best places for specific times of the year
One of our favorite tools is www.bugbog.com … the website includes lots of great information, but the one we use the most is the “best places by month” tab. The beaches category has been super helpful to us many times and has always been accurate. When we start planning any trip that’s somewhat weather dependent we always look here first.
· Identifying flight options
www.kayak.com is a great resource to find the best flight prices available. We look here to get an idea of the latest deals and which destinations are least expensive to fly to when we’re planning to travel. A word of caution… some of the deals involve flight patterns that are challenging and it’s hard to tell when you look at the search results. We were looking at one the other day that involved overnight layovers, which defray the deal because additional hotel stays are involved and means less time at the destination. Also, when you’re ready to book we recommend booking directly through the airlines.
Another method we use to identify the best flight prices and patterns is picking airports nearby and typing in a variety of potential destinations. We often look at airport that are within a couple hours driving because the deals and destinations vary significantly.
We’re from Cleveland and there aren’t many flight options to international destinations. The flight prices are very high for the packages of flights that can get us out of the country. We often look at big airports that we know we can drive to or get inexpensive airfare to from Cleveland and then look at flights from that airport separately. For example, Toronto and Chicago are drivable, and inexpensive airfare to some of the Florida airports is often available.
· Potential routes and areas to bundle together
www.gotoday.com and www.gate1travel.com are both excellent resources to get ideas of destinations that are often grouped together. We’ve found these especially helpful when researching Europe. Also, by digging into the descriptions we can see what type of land travel is typically involved (rail, car, bus, etc.).
www.gotoday.com and www.gate1travel.com both offer some really attractive packages. We typically plan all of our own travel because we prefer to determine our schedule and places we’re staying, but we have used them in the past and have been pleased. Note that when you look at the prices they are very compelling, however for each package there are multiple tiers of hotels which increase the cost substantially. Often the reason some hotels are more expensive than others is because of location… the cheapest option may be clean, safe, etc., but far away from the real experience we’re looking for… it’s important to research before jumping in.
· Evaluating lodging
Hotel websites and www.tripadvisor.com are great, but we like to look farther than the reviews and at different sources. A really helpful feature in www.tripadvisor.com is the map. We’ve looked at hotels before that seem awesome, but when we look at the map we find that they are in inconvenient areas or are far away from the places we want to visit.
In addition to review and pictures on websites, we find social media very helpful. If you search Facebook and Instagram for hotels, the pictures and information that comes up is candid and very telling. We’ve gotten invaluable information for the good and the bad by doing social media searches
When we’re looking for a more luxury experience we love www.mrandmrssmith.com and www.luxurytravelmagazine.com . Both offer great information about destinations and lodging for luxury experiences. We especially www.mrandmrssmith.com because of the candid information they include for families… which destinations welcome our little ones and which ones don’t.
It doesn’t get much better than www.googlemaps.com … it’s one of the best resources available. However, we don’t just look at the flat view… the satellite view is super helpful. For example, the satellite view reveals how close a hotel is to the water, how crowded a beach is, how close the town is to the hotel, where the roads are, and all kinds of other super valuable information.
· Attractions available at a destination
Hotel websites, various travel books and websites like Rick Steve’s and Frommer’s, and www.tripadvisor.com are great resources for attractions. If there’s an attraction that you are really interested in, make sure you check the open times, tickets, and schedule when it’s closed carefully.
If you’re looking for things that aren’t well publicized, social media is a great source. Sometimes we’ll look at a spot and see some pictures of a really cool activity that isn’t listed in the general publications.
· Currency, electric, and other practical considerations
Websites for a destination (usually an area will have a tourism website), www.tripadvisor.com, Rick Steve’s, Frommer’s, and Lonely Planet are great sources for this factual information. Though it’s great to have information online and on our devices, sometimes we still purchase a book with reference information to carry with us in case our electronics aren’t available.
A note about some of the reference materials above… they are great for factual information. However, they all come with specific points of view. We like to check multiple sources and then decide which advice to follow.
· Local airlines and available flights for remote spots
Sometimes people shy away from really cool but remote spots because they can’t figure out transportation. This is where the hotel we are considering staying can help… we look at it this way… they want our business! Hotels are more than happy to help with transportation. We’ve had situations where the hotels have even booked our flights on local airlines for us!
If a hotel is remote, usually the website will have a section about getting there. Many times local airlines are listed and we look them up on the internet. Also, we do internet searches of local airlines for a specific area. For example, we’ve found local airlines in Belize, the Bahamas, Cambodia, and Thailand.
· Getting around during the trip
This is an interesting one… renting a car and driving, taking trains, or depending on a bus system can be great in some destinations and really bad in others. What is great and what is really bad is also very subjective! Travel forums on www.tripadvisor.com are great for getting an idea of what’s involved.
When we’re considering renting a car and driving we look at how similar the driving is to what we are used to (i.e. side of the road, side of the car the driver’s on, and general traffic rules). Getting directions and reading road signs is something else to consider… if we can’t read the road signs driving would be really challenging. We also might consider looking at pictures of the traffic in an area… if it’s really bad there are probably pictures on social media! We aren’t as adventurous as some when it comes to driving in foreign countries… if it seems like it’s going to be stressful we find other ways to get around.
General note… we’ve found that the train system in Europe lives up to its excellent reputation. There are differences between countries, mostly in how well marked/announced the trains are and how well they stay on schedule. The best we’ve experienced is Switzerland… on time down to the second and very well marked!
· The vibe of a spot
This is so important and sometimes the hardest to judge by just looking at the hotel website and www.tripadvisor.com. We’ve found that social media is the best source. For example, we do searches on Facebook and Instagram and look at candid pictures of restaurants in the area… How are people dressed? Are there any kids in the pictures? What does the food look like? What time of day is it? How crowded is it? Are people smiling? Do people look relaxed? We also do this type of search for local shopping places, beaches, pools, and other attractions. The real time and candid feedback and pictures are invaluable to determining if the spot is what we’re looking for.
Are you aware of any tools we missed? We’d love your feedback… just leave a comment right below the post so others get the information too!
Here’s to a bunch of new and amazing experiences in 2017!