Find the best deals, the quirkiest hotels and much more, while surfing
Don’t settle for another cookie-cutter holiday. Or be forced to muddle through a ‘package’ of countries condensed into congested photo-ops. Thanks to the Internet, smart phones and super-fast social networking, it has never been easier to design your own holiday. And planning it as almost as much fun as the actual getaway thanks to the many free travel apps and websites available today.
Step One: Pick a place
So many destinations, so little time. Here’s one way to get started: settle on a theme. Sky diving and adventure? Wine tours and gourmet meals? Spa breaks and retail therapy? Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree and Frommer’s Community Forums have vibrant message boards filled with ideas. Post questions for addition information, and give specifics, so travellers can help you find solutions.
Of course everyone knows about TripAdvisor. It allows you the benefit of other peoples’ experiences, good and bad. Reviews tend to be brutally honest, which makes it doubly useful. Travellers also upload pictures, far more realistic than glossy hotel brochures. Remember you can log in via Facebook, and see if any of your friends have given reviews on places you are interested in. You can also e mail users with specific questions. Don’t forget to give back, by writing your own reviews.
Back-packing sites usually have lots of good tips on inexpensive ways to discover a country. Travelfish is a brilliant resource for South East Asia giving you the nitty-gritty about everything from cliff-jumping on Ko Tao to river tubing in Laos.
Step Two: Land a deal
For flight tickets, try websites like Sky Scanner, Kayak or Orbitz to compare prices and routes. Online deals tend to be cheaper than using travel agents. Hotels can be booked via Booking.com, Asia Rooms and Expedia. Check out Last Minute for late deals.
Approach booking with a healthy amount of cynicism. Double check every claim. A central location? Click on the map and see for yourself. Cleanliness and facilities? Browse traveller reviews. Always ensure public transport is easily accessible.
Don’t dismiss the hostels. In this age of chic flash packers, many are far nicer than hotels, and you can opt for private rooms. Besides, they have fringe benefits like community breakfasts, great locations and low prices. Hostel Bookers and Hostel World offer clear ratings on cleanliness, atmosphere, character and staff. These sites also list some great B&Bs (Small family-style establishments offering both ‘bed and breakfast.’) For a temporary holiday home, check HouseTrip. A great alternative to impersonal hotels, you can choose to book anything from a quirky Parisian studio in Paris to a sprawling Balinese villa. Browse house swapping websites if you are keen to live like a local.
Step Three: Plan the details
Trains are so much more romantic than aircrafts. The best guide for train journeys is currently The Man On Seat 61. Mark Smith, who writes it, has travelled around the world – from Albania to Zambia – by rail, and he offers practical advice on routes, stations and even ferries. It’s especially useful when you’re planning journeys in Asia and Africa, where information can be hard to ferret out, and websites aren’t always in English.
Replace you hefty file of reservation printouts with TripIt. It organises itineraries right on your phone, incorporating flights, hotels and even dinner reservations. (Basically anything with a confirmation number.) Blackberry Travel does the same thing, and also tracks flight delays and changes.
Look out for niche sites and blogs offering information that’s relevant to you. A discussion on hitch-hiking in Peru might not be of much use if you’re a diva whose idea of roughing it involves going one week without a manicure. Go Glamping (a ‘luxury camping directory’) on the other hand will be invaluable. Explore sites like Unusual Hotels of the World, which promises ‘sleep with a story’ in castles, caves and churches.
Business travellers will find the FlightTrack app invaluable, since it offers up-to-the-minute information on flights from more than 5,000 airports and 1,400 airlines. Add GateGuru, for amenities and services at over 150 airports so you never have to groggily stumble around trying to orient yourself in a new airport ever again. Meanwhile Seatguru will help you pick the best flight seats in every air craft. And don’t underestimate Currency Convertor. It’s the quickest way to calculate air fares and hotel rates. And even more useful when bargaining for killer stilettos in yet another crowded Hong Kong night market.
Step Four: Get an experience
There’s nothing like diving completely into a new culture when you’re travelling. The best way is hanging with the locals. Sites like CouchSurfing and Hospitality Club are both popular ways to find like-minded people across the world. Foodies use Chowhound and eGullet for tips on where to eat, interesting food walks and street food spots in the places you plan to visit.
Don’t underestimate good old Facebook and Twitter. They’re efficient ways to connect with a new city. Search for clubs, groups and open events. Introduce yourself. Before you know it you’ll be surrounded by new friends in a salsa club in Barcelona. Wondering why you haven’t travelled this way your whole life.