My last post on the New York Times Travel Show focused on awesome advice from the Frommers. This post is going to focus on the best, latest online tools to help you plan your next trip. I attended multiple panels on this topic, and there were representatives from Trip Advisor, Google Travel, Gadling, and the The New York Times, as well as Julia Dimon, Rolf Potts, and other independent travel writers. In short, the best of best in the travel industry were giving us the dirt. Here are the sites that you should be using and why.
Figuring out where to go: If you’re more freewheeling, try Kayak Explore–start with your departure city; input any or all of your choice of budget, flight time, type of trip, preferred continent, and time of travel; and, sit back as your computer spits out results that match your criteria. Looking for off-the-beaten-path suggestions directly from the travel experts? They specifically recommend Cuba, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, and Egypt. More generally, they advise going to places that are only briefly mentioned in guidebooks or online or, if you’re already overseas, going to the places where locals go for weekend or week-long vacations in their own country; if you want to join up with a group for a more organized trip, you can try a Global Exchange Reality Tour or any of the trips offered by Intrepid or G Adventures. Finally, for inspiration and advice from your own fellow travelers, you can check out: forums such as FlyerTalk, Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Travel Forum, and the Family Travel Forum; the Frequent Flier Crier newsletter; and, travel-idea-sharing sites Afar, Gogobot, and Trippy (with the latter two allowing you to import recommendations from your Facebook friends).
Advanced flight searching: There are tons of flight searching options out there, but here are the ones that offer something a little different. While you can’t book tickets on the ITA Software site, it might be a good first stop if you have more complicated flight plans–you can search by airport codes, check out various connections, or get a calendar view to figure out the cheapest time to fly if your dates are flexible. Once you figure out the flights you need, you can move on to another site to book. Airfarewatchdog has a more familiar flight-search setup, but the twist here is that the searches aren’t all computer-run–the site has a crew of human specialists who seek out and frequently find cheap airfares that wouldn’t necessarily pop up in a computer search. The set-up at Hipmunk is even closer to the standard search, but it, too, has its quirks. The most notable is the “agony” factor–once you do a flight search, each option is rated for “agony” based on analyzing an itinerary’s price, duration, and number of stops. Dohop is the most traditional of the sites mentioned here, but its specialty is focusing on lower-cost connections and letting you know when you can save money by making multiple bookings (as opposed to just one).
Back to basics: Notwithstanding all of the above, sometimes, going low-tech is your best bet for finding the cheapest fairs. Seth Kugel explains best in his Frugal Traveler column on the topic, but, basically, if you’re going somewhere, check out small, local, brick-and-mortar travel agencies operated by people who are from your destination. They will be in the best position to know specialized information about their country’s travel scene that can net you fares much better than what you could find online, and they can likely put together a suitable itinerary much faster than you could on your own.
Bidding for travel: This is still a popular method for getting hotel savings, and Priceline is still the leader in the field. There are a number of websites on which travelers exchange information to help one another maximize their bids and savings on Priceline, but the new kid on the block is The Bidding Traveler. You can feed the site your required hotel stats and then the site will walk you through how to bid on Priceline. Alternatively, you can sit back and let the site run your bidding strategy for you!
Save after you book: Many people make the mistake of thinking that the search for the best deal ends once they make their booking, but that’s not the case anymore. Yapta tracks flights that you have purchased and will let you know if the price drops enough to make you eligible for an airline refund. Autoslash does something similar with your rental car reservations but actually re-books your reservation automatically if a lower price pops up. Finally, Tingo follows your hotel reservations and will re-book you and refund you the difference should a cheaper price be found.
When a hotel just won’t cut it: Sometimes, you need a place to stay, but a hotel isn’t the right fit. If you’re traveling with your family or another large group, staying in a rental property might be cheaper. On Homeaway and related site VRBO, you can rent a vacation home directly from the owner, narrowing your search by choosing the amenities best suited for your group. What if you’re traveling solo or in a small group, and you want even more cost savings? Airbnb and Wimdu (with the latter being more Europe-heavy) also let you search for vacation homes, but they additionally allow you to rent just a room (or even a couch!) in someone’s home. If you have zero funds for accommodations, you can’t beat oldie-but-goodie CouchSurfing–it’s an active community that offers up not just free couches for strangers to crash on but also a great way to make friends in your destination.
On-the-ground information: Once you’re actually in your destination, your best bet is to step away from the guidebooks. You can download local apps, visit local websites, or (gasp!) go in person to the local tourism board to get up-to-the-minute, extremely-tailored, and relevant information. Hopefully, you’ve learned at least some phrases in the local language, but if the idea that you’re trying to communicate goes beyond your limited communication skills, you can check out the amazingly-decent Google Translate. Simply type in what you want to say, choose the language into which you want to translate your words, and out pops your phrase in the target language. Plus, you can even choose to hear the translated phrase out loud!
Where to eat: Are you looking for a particular dish–not just any dish, but the best of that dish that is offered in your locale? You can use Dish Tip to search for the best pizza, fried chicken, chocolate chip cookie, or other food item and then sort your results by price, location, or other criteria. Right now, the focus is on the U.S., but there also recommendations for Canada and France.
Eyes on the prize: In the end, to be on top of your travel planning, you need to just generally stay informed. Recommended sites are: The New York Times travel section (obviously), especially the Frugal Traveler and Practical Traveler columns; The Guardian travel section; the USA Today travel section; Johnny Jet, a consummate frequent flyer and travel expert; and, Peter Greenberg, Travel Editor for CBS News. For the most up-to-date information, you can follow accounts associated with each of the above on Twitter.
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I hope that you paid attention to all of the above because there WILL be a test: your next trip. Happy planning!
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