Despite my travel record, what with 100,000 flying miles last year again to get executive platinum and my love affair with setting foot on foreign soil, you might find it ironic that I am mainly a novice when it comes to travel tools, hacks, and systems!
I love planning the sight-seeing, the shopping, the photography, and the social meet-ups with my international friends and family but I confess I would not be all over the map ever so smoothly without my brilliantly travel-tech savvy agent, who also plays the role of husband when not researching and planning our wonderful travels.
This confession actually works out greatly in his favor, because when on occasion, it dawns on me just how much work and effort and sweat goes into planning an excellent trip, I just want to go out and buy him presents – or let him off the hook one too many times. There is one good side to him not reading my blog posts anymore, or else he’d hold me to these wishful promises!
Later this year, we are headed down under, Australia and New Zealand to escape the brutal winter and meet some amazing people – care to join one of my meet-ups? – over divine cups of coffee – hey, I even bend my no-coffee rule at the smell of a Long Black in an Aussie – or Kiwi – cafe! Watching him, I swear the planning for this trip has been a serious job in itself, and if it takes an expert this long, then what if you are a travel novice at planning like me? Where are you supposed to learn the in and outs of traveling like a pro? What tools and applications and services should you use?
That’s what brings me to precisely why I am writing this post today: because travel can be ever so laden with planning and research and worry, and that may just push you into the crazy notion of setting your travel plans aside, and you must fight the urge to stay the course and bring that travel dream to travel reality because did I mention, it is crazy to even consider the possibility of giving up on your travel dreams!
The smart tips for the savvy world traveler in you and the power tips for when things go awry covered a lot of ground. In this post, the focus is on one the most useful tools and services for planning and managing your travels.
Why? Because the right level of planning and arrangements makes all the difference between a fabulous and memorable experience to one where you might just put away that passport for good.
Alright, so here, I share the best tools according to our experience with you. Trust me, I poked my travel agent for the real goodies so you can trust the golden nuggets and see whether they also serve you as well as they have us.
Airline frequent flyer programs: You should never ever fly without signing up for the frequent flyer program of the airline. I wrote extensively about American Airlines program here but in general, you would want to keep track of all of your miles by signing up for the program and then learning enough about it to know how to redeem those valuable points for free flights and nice upgrades.
Hotel frequent stay programs: Similar to frequent flyer programs, except you accumulate points for hotel stays, which you can then turn around and use toward free nights and upgrades. I will never forget how we redeemed our Hyatt points to stay at the luxurious Park Hyatts around the world. It only took a few mattress runs, but it was so worth it!
Google Maps: We use the obviously fantastic Google Maps as our walking and driving GPS. The big advantage of using Google Maps in foreign countries as opposed to real maps is one of security and safety: You do not give the impression that you are a clueless tourist, standing by the side of the road, looking lost and hoping for help. You look like a savvy local that has just stopped to check something on his phone. Perfectly normal, and a bit sneaky too!
TripIt: We absolutely LOVE TripIt. I am surprised not more people use it. You can coordinate, schedule, and organize everything in this fantastic tool. It is free, and integrated fully to Expedia, Travelocity and major hotel, airline, and transportation websites. You can easily import all of your reservations into TripIt just by forwarding your confirmation email. With the foundation of Arrival and Departure in place, you can then attack the daily schedule and add plans to your trip, down to Activities, Tours, Restaurants, Shows, and Notes, and Maps. You can then print it and access it all the same from any smart phone.
Dropbox: For a copy of your passport or other easily accessible documents, use DropBox, the world of cloud computing that allows you to access your documents from anywhere. This can be especially useful if you do not wish to carry around physical documents. In fact, airports have just recently started to let you scan your ticket using your phone.
Indispensable Travel Planning Sites and Forums:
TripAdvisor: This website is no stranger to anyone. TripAdvisor has been around for years and continue to grow. One way to use it well is to read reviews where other travelers openly share their experience. We live in an age where we may take this information for granted but how other travelers feel about a hotel, a restaurant, or a car rental company can give you incredible insight into whether that service is right for you. Browse these forums before booking anything.
Expert Flyer: This amazing program boils down a lot of airline and air travel jargon and complexity so that you can actually understand those rates and time-tables and discounts and can take advantage of them. ExpertFlyer is a paid service, but my travel agent swears it is worth every penny.
FlyerTalk Forums: One way to stay on top of airline deals and promotions and huge savings, plus learning the ropes on how to fly like a pro rather than an amateur, is to educate yourself and this forum is one of the best places to do that. The information comes from serial travelers and frequent flyers and you can just scan for some very valuable information without even engaging in the forums. This can help prepare you as to what deals are available and what new changes might be on the horizon for particular airlines.
MilePoint: This is yet another useful forum that brings all types of travelers together and make it easier for you to find relevant travel advice in a friendly setting. Milepoint‘s motto is this: “everything you ever wanted to know about frequent flyer miles, but were afraid to ask” — and if you can’t find it, there is no need to be afraid to ask. So much to learn from these forums.
Indispensable Transportation Time-Savers:
Railway Passes: One of the biggest time savers is knowing your transportation needs in advance. Train passes are just as crucial to plan for in advance. Unless you have a fixed schedule, consider purchasing your train passes online in advance — such as Japan’s Railway Pass and the Swiss Rail Pass– before leaving on the trips — both of which turn out to be huge cost-savers! But more importantly, some of these passes allow you to hop off and on to trains on a whim; this let’s you change your destination and schedule at a moment’s notice.
Make sure to plan ahead though, as most of these passes must be purchased before arriving in country.
Subway cards: In most large cities, the metro (subway) is the best way to get around the inner city. Think about the time you spend in lines waiting to buy tickets! To minimize this, research the multi-day passes for metro for your target city. For instance, London’s Oyster card and Tokyo’s Suica card are pre-paid options for frequent use of public transport. Simply swipe the card at the subway gate and you are on your way! While these two options are mostly for local residents, they are just as excellent for a visitor. The Suica card can also be used as electronic money is some stores.
The good news to all of this: Only one of you in the household really needs to understand these details to take advantage of the benefits. In our household, hubby will continue to hold that post until further notice, but I will do everything else to make the trips pleasant and unforgettable.
What about you? What do you love to plan and research in advance of your travels? What tools and applications do you use? Tell me everything in the comments below!
Disclaimer: There are affiliate links in this post for products I use, love and trust!