Now that the weather is improving, many of us think about taking a trip, possibly from the comfort of our armchairs! Whether you are a detailed planner or an impulsive day-tripper, there are lots of digital tools to help you plan a successful outing!
Where to Go?
If you are looking for ideas, it can be kinda fun to go Googling around on your device. I did a simple search on “vacation ideas” and was served up these interesting links:
- The 50 Best Places to Travel in 2019
- Trip Ideas
- 10 Budget-Friendly Family Summer Vacation Ideas
- From AARP: Affordable U.S. Destinations for 2019
Google even offers some thoughts about how you might want to narrow your query — you can add the month you want to travel, whether you are seeking a family or couples spot, along with particular features you might be seeking — mountains, beaches, national parks.
What to Do There?
Some people travel expressly for an important activity available at the destination site: Whale watching, hiking, visiting grandchildren. But even if you have a main focus for your stay, it’s fun to research other possibilities. A search for “Things to do in [your destination]” will likely bring up the tourism web site for the region which is a good place to start.
TripAdvisor also comes up in these searches. People often leave very detailed reviews on this site, which I have found very helpful.
Modifying this search: “things to do at night” “romantic things to do” or even “things to do when it rains” can pop up some interesting articles to round out your research.
Where to Stay?
If you are travelling expressly to attend an event or to visit friends or family, you may already have recommendations for accommodations. But it’s gotten much easier to find accommodations near the main thing you are visiting. A search on “hotels near [your destination]” can be very helpful.
If you are travelling with a group, you may find that renting a house or a condominium is a more comfortable and less expensive option.
VRBO and HomeAway are platforms which specialize in offering vacation homes. VRBO recently bought HomeAway, so all the listings are the same now, and there is no reason to check both.
AirBNB is similar, except that people also rent rooms in their homes. If a price seems too good to be true, read the listing carefully — it may be that you are being offered only a portion of the home, which is fine if that is what you seek, and might even really suit the solo traveler who welcomes the opportunity to meet people in their travels.
Frommers, the travel guide people, put together a list of The Best and Worst Hotel Booking Sites. They note that promotional rates like weekend packages and seasonal discounts are often only available from the hotels’ own web sites, so even if you are using a well-regarded booking site, it’s wise to click over to the hotel site to make sure that you are getting the lowest possible rate. The slideshow is worth reading. Spoiler alert, they like Booking.com for its wide variety of options in most places and its ability to consistently find the actual lowest prices (not to be confused with booking sites which show a low price which disappears when you click through to make an actual reservation!)
If you’ve recently won the lottery, or just want to plan for when you do, these places are pretty nice, too!
Where and What to Eat?
As usual, it’s possible to start with a search on “What to eat in [your destination]” For fun, I decided to ask this question for that totally exotic location, Decatur, Illinois. ( Some of you may have heard of it!) What came up were sources we as locals are familiar with:
- National review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor
- Decatur Magazine’s Dining Guide
- An article from the Herald and Review
I really like to look at the reviews in local publications, because they often give a sense of how the restaurant fits in context with the local culture. So I totally recommend starting with this basic search.
If you want to drill down further, I really enjoy Open Table, which features customer reviews and menus for participating restaurants, along with the ability to make a reservation.
These days, if you find yourself exhausted (or, heaven forbid, under the weather!) and just not in the mood to explore for your dinner, there are a lot of places that will deliver. When I asked “who delivers food in Decatur, IL” I was amazed to learn that depending on your address, DoorDash will deliver from 52 restaurants in town, and not just the fancy ones, either. You can have a Big Mac or a Starbucks coffee delivered if that’s what you want! BringMeThat offers a similar service. Obviously, who delivers what varies from city to city, but it’s good to keep this option in mind.
Also, I’d like to make a plug for the delight of a humble picnic in a beautiful place. An expedition to the grocery store in a new place (my family has long made a habit of experimenting with ice cream novelties or candies not available at home) or just the comfort of somebody’s favorite pb&j or baloney can be every bit as much (or more) fun, especially if there are kids with you, as sitting for a long time waiting for lunch to happen. A search for “grocery stores near me” can aid in this quest.
What’s the Weather Like?
As you may have guessed, I googled “Weather in May in Decatur IL.” I was surprised! Some time since the last time I tried this, Google has put together a handy dandy chart with highs and lows and even how many days a month it rains! There are other links to other weather sites which can give you a more detailed sense of things, but generally I just want to know whether I need a sweater and/or rain coat. And whether I might want a bathing suit in case there is a chance to swim!
How to Get There?
When I was a child in the 60’s and 70’s, family vacations were always car trips, worked out in advance by my mom and the lady at the AAA. We had a “TripTik” — a custom-crafted series of maps to the places we planned to go, supplemented with the Mobile Travel Guide and a large map of the region.
These days, it’s possible (and advisable!) to use GPS, but I still recommend having a big ol’ paper map as backup. I sent my son and his Google-developer college pal on their road trip with my Rand McNally Road Atlas and was totally pooh-poohed for it, but they indulged me and stuck in in the back seat. Come to find out, there are parts of Nevada where there is no data signal, and that paper atlas came in darned handy. Score one for mom!
If you are travelling in or near large cities, getting directions from a service which includes traffic reports, like Google Maps, can save you hours of frustration. Even out in the middle of nowhere, I’ve been directed off the interstate and onto roads I knew nothing about to avoid the slow down due to a crash.
Greyhound serves Decatur and has pretty reasonable rates. Bus travel these days features individual electrical outlets and WiFi, so you can continue planning your trip while en route!
Amtrak from Bloomington or Champaign is a pretty nice way to travel between city centers. You get to avoid all the traffic and the parking expense, the seating is comfortable and spacious, and you can move around. Sometimes there are people from the National Parks Service giving lectures on what you are passing. It’s way cheaper than an airplane, and way less stressful than dealing with airports. The trains also feature WiFi and electrical outlets at each seat.
Our friends at Frommers try to take the pain out of making flight reservations by evaluating flight booking sites, as well. They point out that Southwest never shows up on the booking sites, but is worth checking independently. Also, that Expedia now owns Orbitz and Travelocity, so there is no need to check all three, as they all show the same data. Frommers favorite for finding low pricing is Momondo, a site I had never heard of till researching this talk! They also have kind words to say about SeatGuru, which apparently offers only average pricing, but has lots of excellent detail about the planes that fly each flight. Wondering whether the flight you are thinking about booking is usually flown on a 737 MAX 8 or 9? SeatGuru can tell you!
How to Get Around Once You’re There?
If everyone in your party is able-bodied, for the price of a good pair of walking shoes, you can make your vacation a fitness opportunity! I find this is a lot less scary in places I’m unfamiliar with now that I have Google Maps in my pocket. Maps does offer walking paths as well as driving routes, but as always, use your common sense. This is an actual path suggested to me when walking around Chicago last Fall. I’m not exactly sure where their AI figured that I learned to walk on water!
If you are not staying within walking distance of everything you want to seek, you’ll need ground transportation. The quality of taxi service varies from city to city — most have taxis hanging around the airport waiting for de-planers, and in some cities you can just go out to the street and hail one down at any hour. In other places, you’ll need to find the name and number of some local services and call them. Taxi drivers are generally unionized and have had to pass some sort of screening to get their jobs, and some people prefer taxis for these reasons.
Some taxi services have introduced phone apps, but my experience with these has been very spotty. I have had much better experience with using the telephone. If you are going to taxi around, it’s smart to look up a taxi service phone number and put it in your phone (or on a piece of paper you won’t lose, because even if your hotel will call for the ride out, you need to get back!
Ride Share (Lyft/Uber)
Alternatively, you can set up an account with Lyft and/or Uber with an app downloaded to your phone, and order up rides this way. Ride shares are generally cheaper than taxis, and the drivers vary, but often are quite friendly. The ride share companies also let you order an SUV if your group is large. My favorite feature of the ride share is that the fee is charged directly to your credit card, so there is no juggling to find the fare and the tip at the end of the ride, you can just leave the car and tip the driver at your leisure, later from your phone. Another nice thing about ride share is that the route is determined by GPS, so everybody, you, the driver, and the company, know how you are getting there and there is much less likelihood that you will be “taken for a ride.”
If you are staying at a hotel, you may be able to use their shuttle service. Many hotels offer shuttles to and from the airport, and some will shuttle you downtown or to other places of interest. It’s worth looking into!
Renting a car can make sense if you are travelling major distances once you get where you are going, or if there is going to be a lot of running back and forth to the airport picking up various people for an event. Nerdwallet offers The Cheapest Way to Rent a Car: 9 Tips. I had no idea that a Costco membership could get you a break on car rentals, or that the Florida Sun Pass is $19.99 at CVS which makes buying it there way cheaper than paying to rent it daily from the rental company!
You can save a ton of money and hassle and time by braving the mass transit system in cities which have one. Especially if you plan to be zooming around during rush hour, a subway can be a godsend. It’s wise to research the neighborhoods you will be travelling through, of course, and mass transit is not necessarily your safest bet late at night. But taking the subway to a baseball game in Chicago is a great way to get where you are going on time, and with less stress than driving (and parking) tends to induce. The Chicago Transit authority has a page dedicated to using the CTA to attend sports events. I’m also a fan of the busses that run up and down Michigan Avenue in Chicago. The drivers are so helpful (I strongly suspect you have to be among the cream of the crop to get the tourist-heavy routes!) the people watching is excellent, and it’s just nice to give feet a rest after a lot of sight seeing!
Keeping Track of Your Plans
There are a number of useful apps for keeping track of your travel plans. My heart belongs to Tripcase. I used it for keeping track of who was arriving on which flights to my son’s wedding, and was impressed when it let me know, long before the airline told her, that my daughter-in-law’s flight to visit us on another occasion was cancelled .