Writer and travel expert Jeanne Ammermuller fills us in on her top 7 tools for easy, headache-free trip planning.
In my last blog
, I talked about my approach to planning—finding all of the places I want to visit and putting them on sortable index cards.
But how do you find those gems? Who do you trust? And where do you go to find the special secret places that few tourists visit?
The short answer is that there is no one place to find all of these things, but the hunt can be part of the fun. I’ll help you get started with my top 7 trip planning tools.
This is such an old school approach, but I love going to my local library and checking out a range of guide books about my destination. At the library, I can afford to take home the pricey Eyewitness guides that include gorgeous color photos of sites and give a great sense of the beauty that awaits. I can also take out some practical favorites like a Let's Go, Lonely Planet or Rick Steves’ guide. The editions in the library can sometimes be outdated, but famous historical sites—like a church that has stood for several hundred years—aren’t going to change much in a year or two. So I use the library to start my list and then double check facts in a current guide or via the internet.
I also find that guide books help you organize your thinking; they give me a good overview of a destination and help me start to shape a workable plan.
Google has transformed trip planning. One quick search can produce an enormous amount of information about a location or site. Type in Louvre museum and you’ll get the day’s schedule. Type in top ten Bangkok attractions or cheap eats in Budapest and you’ll get some great ideas. But your search results can often be overwhelming, so you’ll want to find a way to filter them down. Keep an eye out for the quality of the source, and the motivation of the site—are they supported by one advertiser or many? Are they promoting one perspective or service? All sites can be helpful, but just be aware of what they’re after so you’re making decisions based on your interests, and not based on a sales pitch.
You can bookmark the best sites or jot what you learned on an index card and note where you found it.
This website has been the single biggest addition to my trip planning in years. I love Trip Advisor, but again, I use it carefully. I usually start with a destination’s forums to read about others’ itineraries and favorite experiences. I like doing this after I’ve done initial book or Google research. This is where you can read about one traveler’s off-the-beaten-path favorite, or the secret to getting into the Louvre without waiting in line.
The local experts and other visitors can be very helpful and want to see you succeed and enjoy the destination as much as they do. I do find that the forums can have different personalities depending on who the experts are, and some can be a little snarky if you haven’t done your homework. So before you post a question, like, “What hotel should I stay in in Paris” or “Best Beaches in St. John,” consult your guidebooks or search the forum to see what others have said in the past and make a preliminary list. Then post a more detailed question: “Does this itinerary make sense?” or “Should I bother visiting X restaurant?” It’s also helpful to post a specific budget. “Where can I have a budget-friendly romantic dinner in Lucca, Italy” will not yield as helpful advice as “Where can I have a romantic dinner in Lucca, Italy, for less than 75 Euros?”
You’ll find that many people have opinions, but always approach the content with some skepticism. I tend to look at the poster’s stats, and if they’ve only posted once or twice, I take their input with a grain of salt. These posters often end up being paid commenters. TA is pretty good about tracking down promotional content, and members of forums can be effective at self-policing. But if you see a post that says the Hotel Happiness is the only place to stay in Hungary, check the poster’s stats, search the forum for other comments about Hotel Happiness, and then read the hotel reviews.
I also approach the review section carefully. It can be very helpful to get ideas, but these can be a little less reliable. They are frequently rated by one-time-users, and those glowing remarks can give the establishment a false high rating. Sometimes ratings are based more about how well-organized or web-savvy the place is than its quality. As with so many things, it’s buyer beware.
Last word on TripAdvisor: Look at the content on the side margin of your location forum. There are many helpful items aggregated there, including FAQs on the transit system or particulars about visas or phone systems.
Sites like Kayak can be indispensable in finding a good deal on airfare. They can help you in the early stages as you set your budget and figure out logistics and timing for your trip.
Start wide, opening the search up to all of the airports in the vicinity of your home and your destination. It’s also a good idea to maximize the date range to look for the best deals. You’ll see patterns, like the best airport and the best days to fly.
Also consider one-way searches. You might find it’s cheaper to fly into one airport, and to fly home from another. You might even use different airlines, especially if your trip involves multiple destinations. Once you’ve found the airline(s), go to the airline’s own personal site and search again. You’ll often find other options for flights.
I always buy one good guidebook that is very current to take with me. In times when you have no internet connection, or want to reference something like a walking tour or museum tour, it’s handy to have.
Rick Steve’s guides often include great museum and neighborhood tours. I’m less likely to use guides to find the kind of neighborhood restaurants I like, since most guidebooks are popular and more likely to feature tourists’ favorites rather than locals’. I did, however, discover Savannah, my favorite restaurant in Paris, through a Let’s Go guide, and always find it charming and local-feeling.
I’ve also found great walking tour books. They’ll give you an itinerary in a particular neighborhood that points out sites and often takes you to areas you wouldn’t normally visit.
If you’ve got a trip coming up, post a query on your Facebook page asking if anyone’s been to St. Petersburg recently, and can they share some ideas. You don’t need to be too specific about dates, either—just mentioning the season is probably enough to get some great advice.
You can also look for helpful people/institutions to follow on Twitter, like: Lonely Planet’s @ReidonTravel, @velvetescape, or @traveleditor. Or, try searching Twitter for location-specific ideas by following: @timeoutlondon or @LDN to get real-time travel ideas for London.
Pinterest is loaded with destination images that link to informational websites or blogs. It’s also another great way to organize your ideas. At the same time I’m writing my index cards, I start a new board for my destination and drop in all of the good web content I find.
As you plan—or even while on your trip—take suggestions from friends and fellow travelers into account. These sources know you better than any guidebook or website and can steer you to places that suit you. Chat with fellow travelers and swap favorite places and ideas. You never know what you’ll find at the last minute, and flexibility can make your day!
Jeanne Ammermuller is a writer by profession and a rabid traveler and planner when time allows. She’s traveled in Africa, Europe and North America–both solo and with children–and considers Paris and Kampala, Uganda, her favorite cities.