8 Travel Tools I Use to Plan My Trips

8 Travel Tools I Use to Plan My Trips

I’m a DIY trip planner and a firm believer that you don’t need a travel agent, an expensive escorted tour or a huge budget to see the world. So, when it comes to finding flight deals and booking hotels, I’ve learned a few tricks over the years and found a bunch of useful travel tools to plan my trips.

These very resources have helped me find unique places to stay in Iceland, cheap flights and hotels for my Switzerland road trip, and once-in-a-lifetime adventures like helicopter tours over Kauai and boat rides in a glacier lagoon.

Read on for 8 websites and apps that will alert you to airline sales, give you insights on the best flight dates and destinations, and help you sort through accommodations and tours for your holiday, whether in the United States or abroad. And scroll to the bottom for some bonus tips for planning your vacation.


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8 Travel Tools I Use to Plan My Trips

For Watching Deals

Scott’s Cheap Flights

Scott’s Cheap Flights is an email alert service that notifies you when airlines have deals to international destinations. Flight experts research routes around the clock and send messages when prices drop. Along with the lowest fare, emails include departure and arrival airports, dates and airlines that the deals include, the typical price of routes for comparison, predictions about how long the deal may last, and any exclusions (like holidays).

You can sign up at ScottsCheapFlights.com where you’ll find two options — a free one that sends limited notices for a departure region or a paid service ($39 a year) with unlimited alerts for personalized airports (plus a few bonuses like ad-free emails, peak season deals and mistake fares).

I haven’t upgraded to the premium one yet, because combined with the other services I use, I find enough deals. Because of this, my emails aren’t tailored to my home airport and I get a few alerts that don’t include it. I actually don’t mind this, though, because I like tracking deals from other places and staying up to date on prices and best routes to fly.  

Hopper

On the Hopper app you can “watch” different flights you are interested in and get alerts when prices change. This is particularly helpful if you have more specific vacation plans, as you can choose travel dates and your departure and arrival airport to get the notifications.

After setting your parameters, you’ll start receiving notifications when prices jump up or down, along with predictions on whether the cost may fluctuate in your favor or if you should go ahead and purchase now. The app will also alert you to nearby airports on either end that have better deals.

You can set multiple alerts, so if you know you want to fly to Bangkok but have three date ranges that work, you can add all of them. Or, if you know you want to travel to Germany but don’t care if you arrive in Berlin, Munich or even across the Swiss border in Zurich, you can set alerts for each.

Escape Houston (and beyond)

Escape Houston and its partner websites publish flight deals from specific cities in the U.S. to both domestic and international destinations. It began as a blog about travel from Houston but has since morphed and grown to include other major airports, each with their own website (I’ll list them below).

Since I typically fly out of Houston, I appreciate the tailored aspect of this site, and each post has super specific information like example dates, which sites you can book them on, and potential add-on fees

Currently, deals are only published from Houston on EscapeHouston.com, from Dallas/Fort Worth on CheapDFW.com, from Austin/San Antonio on EscapeATX.com, and from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Milwaukee on Escape.Flights. Even if your home airport isn’t one of these, an occasional visit may alert you to airline flight deals that apply to your city as well.

For Flight Shopping

Google Flights

Google Flights is my go-to for research, as I can easily play around with dates and destinations to find the best deals. The features of the platform allow me to search in super general ways for when I have no idea where or when I want to travel, or in very specific ways when I’m trying to plan the details of a complex trip.

For research, the “explore destinations” tool lets you put in an origin airport and either exact dates, a whole month or a range of the next six months. It will then show starting prices for airports all over the world during that date range as you move the map around and zoom in on continents and countries. You can also set parameters like the number of stops or the airline alliance you prefer to fly with.

For more specific planning, use the search function and enter your origin and destination along with your travel dates. You’ll be able to choose one way, round trip or a multi-city format for open-jaw flights (where the origin and/or destination are not the same both ways). Once you pull up the calendar, starting prices to your arrival port on surrounding days and months are displayed to help you fly cheaper.

After searching, the results page has narrowing options for arrival and departure times, number of stops, layover airports and flight duration and can be sorted by price, duration, best overall, etc. You’ll also see “flight insights” here with graphs and information about surrounding dates and airports with lower prices.

When you’ve selected the flight that you want, a trip summary pops up with instructions on how to book, which typically involves clicking away to an airline site or travel-booking platform like Priceline. Sometimes you’ll have multiple options, but I always recommend reserving directly through the airline to save hassle if there are any delays or cancellations during your trip.

Note: While Google Flights is very detailed and extensive, it does leave off prices for certain airlines. In the U.S., for instance, it does not populate prices for Southwest Airlines, though it will include a note to check their website if they fly the route you’re searching for. Also, the total cost occasionally will be higher when you leave Google Flights to book with the airline as prices can change very quickly and the platform doesn’t update as fast as the airline’s will.

Skyscanner

Similar to Google Flights, Skyscanner has both explore and search functions for round-trip, one-way and multi-city flights. The explore map feature on Skyscanner only displays prices from your destination for a single month (as opposed to Google’s shorter and longer ranges), but it can display months up to a year out, whereas Google only works up to six months ahead.

I like Skyscanner’s search feature for specific dates with an unknown destination, as you can select “everywhere” and be taken to an ascending list of low prices by country, which you can open for a list by city. So, for example, if I know I can take vacation from February 12-19, I put my home city of Houston in the “from” box and Everywhere in the “to” spot and find out that my cheapest international destinations will be Mexico (no surprise there) and Guatemala. If I want to go to Europe, I scroll down to see that Belgium will be the most affordable, followed by Italy and Spain.  

For general research, I overall prefer the speed and functions of Google Flights. But, after I’ve determined my dates and destination, I always plug my exact trip into Skyscanner to double check that I’m getting the lowest price, as it occasionally pulls up airlines or booking platforms that Google didn’t. You also can sign up for price alerts for a specific trip if you aren’t ready to book.

For Finding Hotels

Google Maps

For researching hotel rates and locations, I always use Google Maps. It’s really as simple as pulling up the map and typing “hotels in CITY NAME” into the search bar. You can move the map around and zoom in on a neighborhood if you have a desired location or start entering search parameters if you want to narrow your options down a bit.

A slide tool on the sidebar lets you set a max price per night, while the “more options” button can sort by hotel class or rating. From there, just start clicking on properties that interest you. Selecting a hotel will pull up a summary with a photo, ratings, a few key details (free parking, pool, breakfast, etc), contact info and different websites you can book on with their prices (which will often vary). Most of these sections can be clicked and expanded if you want to see more pictures, read more reviews and so on. Or, if you realize you aren’t interested, just click “back to results” to return to a list of options on the sidebar.

I like to use this tool to figure out price ranges of hotels in a city and quickly compare the cost on different booking platforms for ones that I’m interested in. Plus, viewing options on the map is better than just Googling “hotels in CITY” because it gives more results in a single view and I can immediately see prices and locations without having to look through a hotel’s website. The main shortcomings of searching this way is that it doesn’t show Airbnb options and sometimes doesn’t have price information for smaller or locally owned properties (typically because they don’t have a great website for Google to pull the info from).

Booking.com

Booking.com is a hotel reservation site that I use frequently and recommend. The search functions are excellent for narrowing down your choices with a lot of filters for finding something with specific features.

After entering in your dates, city and the number of adults, kids and rooms needed, you can select options like “breakfast included,” “airport shuttle,” “kitchenette,” “beachfront,” “free WIFI” and much, much more. Price, location, star and review score settings can be adjusted as well. If you’re looking for an accessible room, there are also really specific options you can choose for particular needs.

Results come up in a list, which you can organize by price, reviews, location or “recommendations” by Booking. Or, you can switch to “map view” to find something in a desirable location.

When it comes to actually making hotel reservations, Booking.com is my go-to site. The hotel pages on the platform are often more helpful than the hotel’s own website, because all of the key information I need is in one place, along with pictures, the overall rating and reviews. All of the different available room types are displayed with info about their amenities and often a photo. Sometimes there will even be different prices to choose from depending on whether you want to include breakfast, book a refundable rate, etc.

Speaking of refundable, the abundance of “free cancellation” options on Booking.com are one of the top reasons I use the platform. I’m often juggling a lot of trip planning at once and being able to reserve and cancel without commitment helps me to make decisions quickly, since I know I can amend as needed. Cancellation options are spelled out very clearly, whether it’s free until a particular date, allowed with a fee, or not available at all. I typically only book with free cancellation unless my plans are solid and the price too good to pass up. If you do need to cancel, it’s very quick and easy to do so, even if you’ve prepaid (which typically isn’t required, though a credit card is needed to reserve, of course).

The booking process is simple, especially after you’ve created an account and saved some info. If you aren’t ready to commit, your searches will even be saved in a little timeline format, so you can come back and refer to your trip.

For Booking Tours and Excursions

GetYourGuide

GetYourGuide has literally tens of thousands of activities and tours available all over the world, whether you’re looking for an airport shuttle, a dinner cruise, tickets to a show or a day trip outside of a big city.

The website is straightforward and easy to use. Simply enter in your travel dates and destination (a country, city or even landmark) to pull up a list of available activities. You can then select different categories like “walking tours” or “food and drink” and durations, whether a few hours or multiple days. There are options for a couple dozen different languages, too, so you can ensure the activity is in your native tongue.

The description pages for activities show all of the important details, like how long it is, the meeting point and everything the ticket includes. Bookings are made through the site, and many experiences are refundable up to 24 hours before they begin.


Tips for Planning Your Trip

1. Always do your travel research in a private tab that doesn’t store your browsing history (“incognito” mode on Chrome). Otherwise, the data cookies your browser collects might alert websites to your interest and I’ve noticed prices suspiciously change while I’m looking or booking.
2. Wednesdays tend to be the best day to shop for deals. Midweek and Saturdays are typically the cheapest days to fly while Fridays and Sundays are more expensive.
3. Booking a few months in advance will generally save you money on flights, but I’ve seen incredible deals pop up less than a month out as well. Casually monitoring prices through the resources above helps you know if you’re overpaying too far ahead.
4. If your home airport doesn’t usually get deals to international destinations, research which domestic airports you can fly to for cheap and watch for deals from those cities, too. You can always build your own layover by booking a flight to an airport with cheaper routes. Just be cautious if booking separate tickets as delays or cancelled flights can potentially cost you big.
5. Most airlines have a 24-hour free cancellation policy, so if a deal pops up that’s too good to be true, go ahead and book it while you can and cancel the next day if you need to.

 You don’t need a huge budget or a travel agent to plan your vacation. These apps and websites will help you find the best deals on hotels, flights and excursions and make travel planning easy. #traveltips #travelplanning #trips #travelinspiration #travelblog #travelessentials #travelbudget #travelchecklist #vacationplanner #vacationplanningonabudget #vacationplanningtips #vacationplanningideas
 Planning a trip and don’t know where to start? These 8 travel tools I use to plan my vacations will help you get started, and save you money on flights and accommodations. #travel #beachvacation #traveltips #traveltipsinternational #travelplanning #travelblog #travelessentials #travelbudget #travelchecklist #vacationplanner #vacationplanning #vacationplanningonabudget #vacationplanningideas
 Trying to plan a vacation on a budget? Use these travel tools to plan your trip and find the best deals on hotels and flights. #vacation #vacationplanning #traveltips #flightdeals #traveltipsinternational #travelplanning #trips #travelinspiration #travelblog #travelessentials #travelbudget #vacationplanner #vacationplanningtips #vacationplanningideas
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