On Planning Travel

The husband and I really love to travel, and I like to think that we are pretty adept at planning our time well and making the best of our holidays.  He does all of the flight finding (itamatrix is his best friend) and hotel booking, and I do more of the day-to-day planning and itinerary making.  We definitely do not plan everything out by the minute, and sometimes we have no idea exactly what we are doing in our destination before we board our flights.  I’ve found, however, that it’s best to have a general plan of what you want to do with the idea that you can change things if the want or need arises.

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The Husband and I at the Airport on our way to London

When my parents came to visit, I really wanted them to tell me what they wanted to do in England, as I obviously have much more time here and I wanted to be sure that we did the things they were interested in.  I found, however, that they did not know which resources to use for planning and tended to rely more on word of mouth (which can be good, and can also be terrible).  I ended up planning most everything save a few things (I would’ve skipped Stonehenge), but it made me think that perhaps I should share some of the tips and tricks about planning a trip that I’ve learned along the way.

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My Dad and Me in Bath

I spend a lot of time beforehand cross referencing different sources to figure out what I want to do and when.  These are my major tools, tips, and tricks for planning travel.

  1. ITA Matrix Website: If you haven’t already, I would strongly suggest you check out this site when searching for airfares.  It is significantly better than Kayak, and always finds the cheapest fares.  I like to use the timebars function that give you a visual of exactly how long your flights will be and, more importantly, the layovers.  You can’t buy anything on this site, but you can take the listing of flights to a travel agent to have them book the flights for you, or you can go back to the particular airline site and search that exact itinerary.  If you are crazy like we are, it allows you to search flights based on a specific alliance, with a specific city for a layover, and a million other things.  This site has a great primer on how to use all of the features of the matrix if you have no idea what you’re doing
  2. Lonely Planet Guidebook.
    • I buy a guidebook immediately upon booking our flights to a destination, and sometimes beforehand.  The husband says that I am addicted to guidebooks and he’s probably right.  I’m addicted to travel, and getting to buy a guidebook means getting to travel.
    • Lonely Planet is our brand of choice 99% of the time.  I was initially hesitant to use Lonely Planet as I didn’t like the lack of photos, but have found that the content is much better (I usually search for photos of the places I think sound interesting in the guidebook online).  I love that Lonely Planet offers a range of hotels and restaurants at a range of prices.  I find that Fodors doesn’t do economical well, so when I use a Fodor’s guidebook I’m left searching Yelp for a dinner place we can actually afford.
    • I always look at the top ten things to do list in the front of the book (which does include photos) to get a general idea of what we might want to do.
    • I also take a look at the Suggested Itineraries and, while they are inevitably longer than we have to travel, look at the suggested routes and take bits and pieces of each while making up our own itineraries.
    • I then do the obvious, and look at the sections relevant to our travel and read all about the things to do, the restaurants, and the hotels to pick out ones I’m interested in.  I then cross-reference them on other sites like TripAdvisor.
  3. TripAdvisor:
    • Attractions: Stay away from TripAdvisor for determining which attractions are most popular in your destination.  However, once you have a couple of things you want to see but need to narrow it down, TripAdvisor is your best friend.  If you don’t know what I mean, let me just tell you that the #1 attraction in London is the Wallace Collection (what that is I have no idea), but The Tower of London and Westminster Abbey are numbers 21 and 22, respectively.  You need to have specific attractions to check out on TA and can’t just go write down the top ten attractions listed for a particular location and go see those—you will end up in some pretty obscure places.
    • Restaurants: TripAdvisor is good for finding in small towns but can be overwhelming in the larger cities like London.  Again, find a few restaurants using a few sources (your guidebook, google maps, Yelp, the concierge) and then choose among them by reading the reviews on TripAdvisor.  I always read both a few of the excellent reviews, and ALL of the terrible reviews.  I want to know if the terrible reviews are from some angry jerk, or if the restaurant I’m about to attend has rats running through the dining room and insects in their salads.
    • Hotels: The husband and I mostly stay in places where we can use his hotel points to stay for free, but when we are looking for hotels that we’ll pay for, I spend a lot of time on TripAdvisor.  This is the area that I find to be the most useful on the site.  I again read a few of the “excellent”, a few of the “above average”, and ALL of the “terrible” reviews.  I really want to know if I’m going to get bed bugs, or if the people staying there are just crabby, and you definitely get that sense by reading the “terrible” reviews.
  4. Google Maps: When planning what to see and when, google maps is your best friend.  I map out the location of each site to help decide when and in what order we should see things.  They have car, walking, transit, and bike directions, and I’ve never been lost as a result of google maps.
  5. 1000 Places to See Before You Die App: Narrowing down the top sites for a particular location can be tough, especially if you are traveling to a lesser known locale.  Everyone knows the top sites in London, but the same might not be the case in, say, Lisbon, Portugal, where we happen to be going this weekend.  While this is by no means a travel bible, it’s a good place to start for places that, if you are nearby, you might want to check out.
  6. UNESCO World Heritage App:  The husband makes fun of my love for UNESCO sites, but I maintain that there’s a reason that UNESCO names sites as world heritage sites, and they are generally at the top of my list when traveling.  I’ve been known to go way out of may way or get up insanely early just to fit in another world heritage site.  I have some serious fear of missing out when it comes to these guys.  Seriously, though, the app lets you search by destination and allows you to read a little about, and look at photos of, each site to see if you are interested in visiting.  Once you’ve gone, you also have the satisfaction of recording the date of your visit, and get the satisfaction of seeing the little suitcase fill in, indicating that you’ve already traveled to that particular place.
  7. Good Old Google:  A few of my favorites are wikitravel and just googling best things to do in…., best cheap eats in….best restaurants in….or itineraries for….  I’ve found that the British newspaper, The Telegraph, also has some great itineraries for places throughout Europe, and the New York times often does travel articles about different cities.  I also always check out blogs if they come up in my search results.  The more personal the description, the better, in my book.  I’ll also often look at guided tours on sites like Viator and then adopt them to our independent travel needs.  This part of my planning is the part that can take a long time, but I think it’s totally worth it.                                                                                                             IMG_2146                                                                           On a Bike Tour in Ireland                                                                                           
  8. A Bike Tour: We almost always take a bike tour right after arriving to a city.  It gives a good overview of a place, is quick, and lets you see a large area in a short time.  We use what we’ve learned along the tour to pick other sites to see, and go back to the places where we hope to spend more time.  We also always ask the tour guide for good recommendations for restaurants, and haven’t been disappointed yet.
  9. Yelp: If you’re out and hungry, Yelp is the best, assuming they use it in your particular city.  You can filter by expense, and read real, local reviews.  We’ve found most of our favorite restaurants from our travels using Yelp.
  10. Tours By Locals:  The husband and I always travel independently and not on a massive tour bus, but we really like to take tours.  Otherwise, I feel like you wander aimlessly around a city, looking at sites, but never really understanding what they mean.  We have used this website in a number of different locations and always had good results.  It has a ton of tour guides with potential tours, their available dates, and their reviews.  We often book these when we get to a location, but if there’s a tour you know you want to do, I strongly suggest booking ahead.  The better the guide, the more likely they are to be booked.
  11. Friends: Always ask friends.  If you know someone in the location where you plan to travel, ask them.  There’s nothing like advice from a local or someone who has been there before.  It really can’t be beat.  If you take this advice, you’ll end up at the cool local pub rather than the tourist trap with the guy outside trying to hand you a menu

Hopefully you didn’t know all of these things already, and have found this at least somewhat helpful.  Planning travel is one of my favorite activities in the world.  I’m always in search of better ways to plan, however, so if you have things that work for you, please do share!

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