There are a ton of travel sites swimming around the web and it can be daunting to know the best place to start when planning a trip. How do you book cheap flights to the best destinations? How do you find a great hotel in your price range and not overpay? And once you get there, where should you eat? What are the not-to-be missed attractions? What should you do to be safe and prevent illness? Travel, while incredibly fun and rewarding, comes with a lot of logistics.
I’ve travelled a good deal in the last five years for both work and pleasure, and I’ve of course made my share of mistakes. But I’ve also gotten some great deals (I’ve never flown to Europe for over $650) and have even received some free flights and overnight stays. My flight to Prague this fall, for example, was completely covered with credit card points, and I have plenty of points left over.
There are thousands of resources on the web if you know where to look for them. Here are some of my favorite travel sites, each offering its own unique tips and spin on travel:
Start with Kayak and expand from there. Check all the big sites – Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline, etc. I’ve found that lately Kayak has been giving me flights with horrible itineraries, including unnecessary long layovers and out-of-the-way connections, even though there are better itineraries in my price range. However, it’s a decent starting point to get a baseline price. Then I try to find better deals on the smaller sites including momondo, airfarewatchdog, Skiplagged, and ITA Matrix (see further reading to decide which site is best for your trip). Shop around.
Trust the Common Wisdom of Airline Booking
I’ve found that these often-cited tips are true:
- Book at the beginning of the week – Tuesdays and Wednesdays often have the best prices.
- Use an icognito or private window – airline and booking websites have definitely been found to store data then increase prices for repeated searches to a destination.
- Don’t be afraid to search multi-destination trips! – I’ve found far better deals by searching for a multi-city itinerary rather than a round-trip to and from one city. (For example: New York ->Milan; Paris ->New York. Flights between European cities are cheap; you can book those at a later date). You would think these itineraries would be more expensive, but not always.
- Consider a combo flight and hotel deal – JetBlue Getaways, specifically the Top Ten Deals, is one of my favorites. I’ve done it twice and sent Eric and I to Vegas for four days, staying in the Hard Rock Hotel (a four-star property) for $700 TOTAL. During that time, each flight alone was $400. I saved over a thousand dollars. I also sent us to Grand Cayman for four days for around $1200 for flight and hotel. Plenty of other sites have flight-hotel combinations as well. Certainly check out reviews on the hotel, however, as they don’t usually include the best ones in the cheapest deal.
Do you want to take a trip but don’t know where to go? That’s a great position to be in! Skyscanner lets you put in possible dates for your trip and shows you the best-priced flights for major cities around the world.
- Here is an article from Business Insider on lesser-know websites for airline deals
- And another from Kiplinger
- And another from USA Today
I’m certainly biased since I freelanced for them, but Oyster.com and TripAdvisor are excellent resources for hotel reviews. TripAdvisor is undoubtedly the BIGGEST name in travel right now and for a good reason – there are often hundreds, if not thousands, of reviews on a range of travel products – hotels, restaurants, and attractions, and they also offer online travel advice forums.
TripAdvisor vs. Oyster.com
The difference between the two is this: TripAdvisor is everyone’s opinion (anyone can write a review), while Oyster.com features “expert” reviews and photography (Oyster is owned by TripAdvisor). Oyster takes hundreds of realistic photos of each property – the hotel is not supposed to prepare or setup anything, and sometimes the photographer goes incognito (the hotel doesn’t know they are there). There are no fancy marketing photos here (check out their photo fake-outs) and you know exactly what you’re getting into. What does the bathroom look like? Is the pool small and crowded? Is there a breakfast buffet and what does it typically serve? How far is the hotel to the center of town and is it a pain to get there? Oyster explores all of this.
I usually start with TripAdvisor and find the top-rated hotels in my price range, then read the Oyster reviews to make my decision.
Pro tip: on both Oyster and TripAdvisor, you can enter the dates of your travel and compare prices for each property on various websites (Expedia, Hotels.com, Travelocity, etc.). I’ve been surprised to find four and four-and-a-half star hotels that were cheaper than three stars. It pays to look around and compare.
You don’t have to go the traditional hotel route. Airbnb, where you can rent a full house or apartment, room with a bathroom, or just a room, can be a great alternative to a bland chain hotel. I’ve done it three times this year and all were a great experience. They were also similarly priced as hotel rooms in the area but I got an entire apartment. Check reviews of the properties before you book.
Things to Do
The Big Guys
Once you’re there, what do you? You can always look at the publishing titans of travel – Fodor’s and Lonely Planet. I’ve recently been liking Rough Guides – they have a great interactive website including fun activities aimed at young people (beer, clubs, etc.) and large, beautiful pictures of each location. WikiTravel also provides informative articles on many locations, and will include key info like currency, language, and culture. Amazon recently launched a new Destinations feature.
You can also search for attractions on TripAdvisor. They categorize things to do by the highest rating. You won’t necessarily find the must-sees on the front page (a small park, for example, could be rated very well but it’s not a main attraction), however it’s great when you’re looking for tips or whether something is gaudy or a tourist trap, or you’re looking for attractions off the beaten path. I’ve also found TripAdvisor fairly spot-on for restaurant recommendations in foreign cities.
Don’t be afraid to read the smaller guys, travel blogs in particular. I often find the larger websites overwhelming and they can point you in the direction of chains and touristy gimmicks. Many travel blogs have better itineraries and are aimed at a younger crowd. I love Nomadic Matt – he’s been at the travel game a long time and has helpful guides to many, many destinations. I found his five days in Paris guide perfect. His expertise is in budget travel so he’ll help you with your daily and weekly attractions budget, food costs, etc. Even if you prefer more upscale travel, it’s always helpful to find ways to save money, or at the very least, know what you’re in for.
Three other blogs I enjoy are Adventurous Kate, Twenty-Somthing Travel, and Candice Does the World – all focused on solo female travel. If you want a personal perspective on travel, mixed with tips, beautiful photos, and plenty of notes on how to safely travel alone as a young female, be sure to check them out. Here is a current list of popular travel blogs.
Points, Points, Points! How to Get the Best Deals in Travel
Hands down, the reigning king of this arena is The Points Guy, who has made it his mission to report on the best travel deals, credit cards, rewards programs, frequent flyer miles, and the like, to get you the best value when planning your trip. There is a huge wealth of information on the site, but he has guides that break down the best rewards programs, the best cards to use for travel, etc. Another blog in this space is One Mile At A Time, which provides similar information.
Pro tip: sign up for rewards programs all the time, every time, if they’re free. I have signed up for a loyalty program with almost every major US airline and I belong to hotel and car rental loyalty programs as well. Eric and I have gotten a number of free flights through these. I waited an embarrassingly long time to do this, but it totally pays off. If you can fly often with a single airline, do it, as it’s a great way to maximize points.
Having a credit card that accumulates points for travel is a terrific way to get free stuff. I have Chase Sapphire Preferred and I highly recommend it. It’s often rated as one of the five best cards for travel. Again, I booked a flight for Prague (r/t) this fall using points and didn’t pay a dime, with plenty of points left over. Chase Sapphire gives you double points on travel and dining at restaurants and no foreign transaction fees.
Now it’s your turn! What are some of your favorite travel resources on the web? Share with us!