Travel Tips (published in St. Louis Post Dispatch)

Here's my article from the the St. Louis Post Dispatch on travel tips and technology. I'm reposting it here because I have many of the apps and sites linked directly.

How would you say technology has changed the travel industry? 

It's changed in so many ways... there's an enormous amount of information, tools and resources available to both travel agents and individuals. I think the biggest impact is that we can now have so much more information about a destination, hotel, attraction, etc before traveling, which results in fewer surprises.

Do you have a website or an app that you would recommend?

So many! I could go on forever! Here are the top sites and apps that I use on a regular basis. (Note: all apps are for iPhone, although other versions may be available.)

In researching trips, I look up hotel reviews on Frommer's, Oyster (featuring numerous, untouched hotel photos), Venere (for European destinations) and TripAdvisor (which I take with a grain of salt), and I use Yelp for restaurant reviews and photos. Any restaurants that look interesting are bookmarked in Yelp; then when onsite, I can view bookmarked restaurants on a map or sorted by distance to choose where to eat. If planning a vacation, I look up relevant travel questions on Ask Metafilter. Then I create a custom Google Map showing the location of the airport, my hotel and any attractions that I plan to visit. Any other trip notes (places to visit, plans for each day, etc.) are kept in Simplenote for easy reference during the trip on my iPhone.

When it's time to book airline tickets, I turn to Hipmunk, my favorite airline search tool. It searches all the major airlines I fly with the exception of Southwest Airlines. I love how clear and organized the results are. After finding the flights I want, I book them directly with the airline. After flights are booked, I look up airline seating charts on SeatGuru to help me choose my seat assignment.

Once my flight, car and hotel are booked, I use TripIt to keep track of everything. I forward all my travel related email confirmations to a TripIt email address and the service automatically organizes the information, which is immediately synced to my Macbook/iPhone calendar. Tripit is amazing and keeps my entire itinerary in order without having to carry any paperwork, aside from a boarding pass. I also forward a copy of everything to Evernote so I have a backup that I could reference up on my iPhone if I had to.

Once all my info is in TripIt and I'm on my way to the airport, I use FlightTrack Pro on my iPhone to check flight status, gate information, layover times, etc. It'll also notify me if there's a delay. If I'm going to have a meal at an airport, I use Gate Guru for a listing of restaurants and shops in each terminal, along with user reviews. 

Once at my destination, I use Yelp and Google Maps on my iPhone frequently (usually to find the best nearby coffee before anything else!). If I'm traveling interntionally , I use Google Translate for language challenges, Google Voice for free texting back home and eCurrency to convert prices to dollars (it does not require constant internet connectivity, which is useful).

I also use Twitter throughout to ask advice and sometimes send feedback to a hotel or airline (hotels are especially responsive on Twitter these days). I use Tweetbot on the iPhone and Echofon on the Mac.

Does it save money to book on sites such as Travelocity or Orbitz as compared to using a travel agent?

I've personally never booked anything on those sites because it gives me a level of comfort to book directly with an airline or hotel rather than through a discount third party site.

I use Hipmunk and Kayak (and to find the lowest airline rates, and I check hotel websites directly for their lowest rates. I will sometimes use Kayak (or if traveling in Europe) to get an idea of general hotel rates, but then I book directly with the hotel.

Our company only books large groups (not individual bookings), but I can say that there is a real value in using a travel agent, especially for international trips or inexperienced travelers. Travel is expensive, and it's nice to have advice from someone who's "been there and done that" rather than guessing.

My advice would be that booking online makes sense for experienced travelers and/or simple trips (a few nights in Chicago, for example). In these situations, I'd recommend booking directly with hotels, airlines, etc. whenever possible so that you know your reservation is secure and confirmed. For inexperienced travelers or more complicated trips (two weeks in Egypt, for example), a travel agent's advice and guidance can be extremely valuable.

What trip is next for you?

I go to Palm Springs with a group of 400 people later this month, and then to Paris in the fall with my wife for a site visit/vacation, which I'm pretty excited about. I'm taking a group to Cancun in March and then I go back to Paris in May with two groups of 350 attendees each.

What are some of your favorite travel tips?

  • Scan a copy of your passport and drivers' license and keep it online somewhere (or email it to a family member) so you can get home easily if your documents are lost.
  • I always pack a small plug adapter that makes 3 power outlets from one (like this). It's extremely useful in a hotel or airport where there are limited power outlets.
  • When traveling internationally, I take very little cash. I take money out of an ATM upon arrival and use my credit card whenever possible. Banks and credit card companies get much better conversion rates than individuals do. Never change money at an airport - it's the most expensive option.
  • I take photos of receipts with my iPhone and upload them to Dropbox to avoid envelopes stuffed with receipts to sort through when I get home.
  • For a long trip, I bring my refillable Nalgene water bottle so I can refill frequently for free rather than buying bottled water.
  • If you are comparing two comparable hotels and one is a little more expensive than the other, it's sometimes worth a try to call the reservations line for the more expensive one and ask if they will match the price of the cheaper one. The telephone reps often have the ability to do this to make a sale.
  • When choosing a hotel, consider the price of parking, wifi and perhaps breakfast in figuring total cost.
  • When researching a destination, is an excellent resource. For most destinations, they have a general introduction, "Frommer's Favorite Experiences" and often sample itineraries, all for free.
  • Stay calm when traveling and be nice to airline and hotel staff. Most people aren't.
  • A pair of over-ear noise canceling headphones is a great purchase (or gift) for a frequent traveler. They're a lifesaver when on a flight with talkative people behind you or when you are stuck in the last row of a small plane.
  • Always, always, always pack a snack for a flight. You never know.