After spending some time planning and booking our latest trip, I compiled some of my tips for online trip planning to save you as much time and anxiety as possible.
- Before you start planning, consider what is important to you in your escapes. Is it nonstop adventure and activities or is it lazing on a beach for hours with a stack of books or magazines? If you want some of both, you may even want to consider splitting stay between a couple of attractions.
- Search for flights on comparison sites like Kayak or Orbitz and then go directly to the airline's site and look for the same flights, should you find one you like. Travelocity used to be a good way to find rock-bottom prices for flights, but in the last couple of years it has become downright irritating. They are constantly advertising some fare you can't possibly find when you do the search. For some reason, I have seldom found the lowest fares when I have used Expedia. If your searches on the comparison sites turn up fares that require multiple carriers to get you to a destination that usually only requires one airline, I find these types of tickets are seldom worth going after. Stick with a single airline if you possibly can.
- I generally start my search for flights about eight weeks out, and search often over the next few weeks. Often a fare sale will begin during the time I am checking. Good times to search for flights: try varying times of day; after midnight (every now and then unusual fares are released and you may turn more options then as a result as well); midweek (Tuesdays and Wednesdays); and Saturday and Sunday. In my experience, I've been least successful on Fridays.
- In searching for flights, select the flexible dates option, if you have any give in your schedule. Often, flying at an off-peak time (Tuesdays, Wednesdays; sometimes other days depending on specific routes) can save you hundreds of dollars or get you direct flights instead of flights with connections.
- VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) is a great place to start searching for condo, house, and villa rentals. craigslist is another option, but can be a less-reliable source.
- If you're at all particular about where you stay, it's worth reserving some time to comparison shop, hard, for lodging. You want to make sure that the things you need and wish for are covered, and the things you hate aren't going to make your heaven away from home a living hell. Go to TripAdvisor to find out whether anyone has complaints about the hotel upon which you have already started pinning your set of vacation fantasies. Comments like "The double-glazed windows kept out the constant traffic noise but kept in the smell of stale cigarettes," "The walls were so thin we could hear our neighbor's TV set blasting away," or "Great beachfront condos but stocked with barely enough dishes to cook breakfast" will help you with your decision before you plunk down lots of your hard-earned cash to hold a place.
- Once I've narrowed my search down to a few places, I Google the name of the place to find my own directions and a web site for that hotel or locale. I check out message boards that have trip reports and reviews. As you browse, do remember that the snapshots of the hotel or condo or cabin interiors online often make things look more spacious than they will when you see the real thing. If I have the time for a trip to the library, I might even cross-reference my online finds with the places listed in the guidebooks. By cross-checking, I find I don't wind up with so many unpleasant surprises.
- Book the lodgings directly through the people operating the establishment, if possible. You'll often get the best rate (especially if you mention finding a lower rate than they advertise on their home web site). Be aware, too, that hotel personnel have admitted their biases against guests who have booked through online travel websites like Expedia, Hotels.com, or Orbitz.
- If you are using an online booking engine to rent your condo or hotel room, I have found it can help to add a friendly note in the comments section, if there is one. I might write something to the effect of: "My husband and I are looking forward to celebrating our anniversary at your lovely villa! We will be traveling with our daughter, who is a little lady of eight years old, if you have any suggestions for activities in the area that kids her age especially enjoy." That little bit of icebreaking up front can make a big difference in the long run.
- On renting a car: Again, consider what you like when you travel. Would you rather study your maps from the seat of a train or would you rather take that little twisty detour and visit a different village than you had originally planned, one that looks a little more off-the-beaten-track? Although Travelocity can frustrate during flight searches, it is reliable for car rentals, and I have often found the lowest rates of all the online comparison sites there. Another one I just learned about is carrentals.com. Also, when renting cars, I have found it's the opposite of renting lodgings in that going to the company directly is not necessarily the cheapest option. At most US agencies can usually cancel car reservations just before your trip with no penalties.
- Create an all-in-one detailed itinerary before you go that contains the following details:
- Airline and flight numbers, along with the number for the airline. (If your flight is delayed or cancelled, it can be quicker to call the airline than to wait in a long line of passengers.)
- Address, directions, and contact information for your lodgings.
Transportation info: car rental details like confirmation numbers, pick-up times, and rates. (A couple of times when my reservation didn't come up in a rental agency's database, I have been able to get the same car and rate without hassles because I was able to show them the printout showing the quoted rate.)
- Times and route numbers for buses, trains, ferries, or other transport.
- Your own contact information.
Make copies of your itinerary, too: One for each other piece of luggage you are checking or carrying on. I put one in my kid's luggage when we travel together so that if we get separated, people know exactly where to find us and what our destinations and connections are.
And if all of this seems too overwhelming, go see a professional travel agent instead. This is what they're paid to do!