Even though there are several of these posts around, I thought I’d chip my opinions in, too! For better or worse, most of our lives are conducted online these days; this became blindingly obvious over my time working as a travel consultant. When my mum did the job way back in the 80s before I came along, it was all done manually; phone calls to airlines and long wait times, handwritten air tickets, consulting enormous books full of travel schedules to find the right planes, trains or automobiles… Now, you can basically do it all yourself online and the touch of a button!
There are an insane amount of websites and apps to assist your DIY travel agent work, and more being developed by the day, but not all of them are necessarily helpful. Having worked in retail travel, and now working in corporate travel, though, I’ve got a few go-to sites now that have been indispensable in booking my own travel over the last few years. Here are my favourites…
B O O K I N G A C C O M M O D A T I O N
WHAT? If you haven’t heard of Airbnb by now, you’re living under a rock. Founded 8 years ago in San Francisco by a few guys who were short on rent money for their apartment and decided to rent out some space in said apartment to raise the funds, it’s blown up to now cover around 34,000 cities in almost 200 countries around the world. Basically, people who aren’t using their homes put them up for travellers to book as accommodation when they’re visiting.
WHY? It’s a brilliant alternative to hotels; as their latest ad campaign says, “don’t ‘do’ the city you’re visiting, live it.” Because these places are actually peoples’ homes, they are often in areas of cities where people actually live, rather than being tourist centres, which in turn can give you a much more authentic experience. It can also be a very cost effective solution if you’re staying in a city for more than a few nights – not only price wise (as an example, for a trip we’re planning next year, a week in New Orleans at a semi-decent hotel would have cost us around AUD$2000, but we found a beautiful place on Airbnb for just under AUD$1100!), but with a lot of rentals having amenities like kitchens and laundries, it can save you quite a bit of money in the long run.
WHAT? Another website that enables you to search endless numbers of hotels, hostels, apartments and other accommodation.
WHY? Unlike some other similar websites, the deals on here are actually pretty good most of the time; they also offer options of booking and paying in full straight away (and therefore giving an extra discount), or booking now and paying later, giving the option to cancel free of charge should your plans change. They also list properties around 12 months ahead, which means you can get booking pretty early.
3. Trip Advisor
WHAT? Another site that primarily compares prices of flights and accommodation, but also offers traveller reviews and photographs. They also cover tourist attractions and restaurants, and frequently have new “best of” lists published to help with ideas.
WHY? While I generally prefer to book with Booking.com, I find the reviews and photos on Trip Advisor to be incredibly helpful, and more realistic than just looking at photos and feedback on the hotels’ websites (where they’re obviously not going to display anything uncomplimentary). Restaurant reviews can also be quite helpful; a lot of countries seem to either use Zomato (formerly UrbanSpoon) or Yelp for food reviews, but a lot of places also don’t – places like Isla Mujeres in Mexico, which we visited last year, aren’t super populated/don’t have a lot of locals connected to social media to review eateries, so Trip Advisor was very helpful. They also have pretty good maps to help you navigate, which again can be a little difficult in smaller cities.
B O O K I N G F L I G H T S
WHAT? Another comparison website, for flights, accommodation and car hire. They tap into a ton of airlines and travel sites (over 1200) and have a phenomenal amount of options.
WHY? Again, I’ve tried several different flight comparison sites, and have found SkyScanner to consistently give the most and best options. They offer a price alert system, so if you want a heads up when the prices for that Melbourne to New York flight drops without having to check yourself every day, that’s incredibly helpful. Just a tip, though; clear cookies each time your search again, otherwise they’ll be storing your last search and you might find the prices keeps going up!
F I N D I N G S T U F F T O D O
WHAT? Pretty sure no one needs me to explain this one…
WHY? Unlike all of these other websites, Instagram isn’t curated by any one person or group; it’s regular, every day people sharing what they’re up to. So when you’re in Hoi An, like my sister and I were in 2014, and you want something to eat, you search the #hoianfood hashtag, and all of a sudden you have a long list of places to try out! Also, try just searching #newyork, #rome, #bangkok etc; that beautiful sunset photo will most likely be tagged with a location, and you might just discover some beautiful places not listed in all of the travel guide books this way!
WHAT? I’m a big fan of TimeOut; operating in over 100 cities around the world, they curate print magazines and a brilliant website full of things to see, do party, learn, shop, experience and eat. They use locals to investigate and write for them, which means that their guides are written by people who actually live what they’re writing about.
WHY? As I mentioned above, it’s locals who write for TimeOut, so it’s not just going to be the standard, run-of-the-mill travel guide. I’ve found when I’ve travelled, the ability to visit the website while you’re chilling in your hotel room and click on the “what’s on in Paris this weekend?” section is one of the best ways to find something to do, based on information that’s actually current (for anyone who’s turned up at a parking lot only to find that the market they read about in a travel book is actually not on that one weekend knows what I’m taking about).
M O N E Y
7. XE Currency
WHAT? Currency conversion, plain and simple!
WHY? I love this app so much! Currency conversion can be really complicated (especially when you’re visiting a few places that all use different currencies!), and it’s not always easy to do the maths mentally in a hurry. The app is awesome because it allows you to add a number of different currencies so you can have Thai baht, US dollars and the Euro all compared against the Aussie dollar on one little screen! The website also has a nifty little section where they show historical currency data, so if you’re that way inclined, you can check the general patterns and hopefully make some smart decisions when you’re swapping money over.
P L A N N I N G
WHAT? Learning new languages made easy(-ish)
WHY? Probably my favourite new app this year! Pick which language you’d like to learn, determine where you’re at with a little test to start with, and off you go! The lessons only take a few minutes each, and include speaking, listening, multiple choice, translation and matching exercises. You can also set a reminder if you’re prone to forget – if I don’t have a chance to do my lesson in the morning while I’m waiting for the train, I’m reminded at 4.30pm to do it waiting for the train on the way home!
WHAT? The ultimate online notebook – save any and every bit of information you’ll ever need.
WHY? If Duolingo is my favourite new app, this is my favourite old trust app. I’ve been using this for years now, and would be lost without it! Basically, you can create virtual notebooks, and add as many notes as you want to them. I have a notebook for “RECIPES” where I save in a new note any recipes I come across online that I want to try. I have another “TRAVEL” notebook for our upcoming trip to Vietnam, where I have a note containing our flight information, a note with our travel insurance information, a note with our accommodation details (booking numbers, payment details, etc) and so on. And because husband is travelling with me, I’ve been able to share the notebook with him, so that he can see what’s going on with the trip. He can also add his own notes, which will pop up on my app when I refresh it. It’s the ultimate organiser, and for someone as OCD as me, that’s really saying something!
10. Sygic Travel
WHAT? Formerly Tripomatic, this is the most brilliant companion to take on the road with you. Basically, it’s an app that will allow you to plan and visualize your trip on a map. So, if you’re off to Rome for 3 days and want to see the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Vatican and the Spanish Steps, you can search and bookmark those attractions, assign them to a specific day of your trip, then click on that day and see the attractions you’ve bookmarked located on the city map.
WHY? Because it’ll save your bacon. There’s nothing wrong with being a tourist, but walking around a city like New York with a giant paper map is basically like painting a target sign on your back. With this app, you can pay a small fee to download an offline map of the city you’re visiting, so that when you’re out and about and not connected to the hotel’s free wifi, you can still get that map up and follow the flashing blue dot from the hotel room to the Empire State Building! Bringing up lists of attractions in the city you’re visiting is also incredibly helpful, as the app lists their websites and opening hours, as well as any other interesting information. You can also manually add in your own places to visit if they’re not already listed in the app, which can be really helpful – you’ll even be asked to find your attraction on the map so you can add it to your personalised travel map! You can search specific areas, too, filtering your search for only bars and restaurants, for example. It’s hard to explain just how brilliant this one is in writing, so do yourself a favour and visit the website or download the app and have a play with it – you might even discover some amazing new places in your own home town!