I have to admit that I’m woefully behind in planning my travel for 2013. 2012 really kicked my butt and the end of the year left me with little time—and even less energy—to get down to business and make reservations for all the events on my dance card.
Now that’s it’s officially 2013, I have to make some reservations! I mentioned this to a friend I was chatting with at a New Year’s Eve party and she asked where I begin when planning a trip. I thought I’d outline my process here and share the online travel tools I can’t live without.
Where and When
I begin my trip planning by figuring out where we want to go in the first place. My husband and I have a long list of destinations we’d like to visit—as I’m sure you do too—so this part is usually quite easy. Once we know where we want to go, I do a quick search to figure out when is the best time to visit that location. WeatherUnderground.com is invaluable in this regard. The site provides detailed forecasts as well as archived data so you can look up weather patterns in previous years in order to determine how likely it may be that you’ll encounter hot or cold weather, snow, rain, sleet, etc. Maps and satellite images are provided along with astronomical information like moon phases. It’s a good first stop when planning a getaway.
My next step is to secure our flights and ground transportation. We have nearly three million frequent flyer miles so we generally fly on award tickets. That takes a bit more planning thanks imply buying a ticket. I begin by searching Kayak.com. I want to see who flies to our target destination and what connections make the most sense.
Booking Frequent Flyer Award Tickets
Once I know who flies our preferred route, I determine if I’ve got enough frequent flyer miles in my account to cover the tickets. Rather than logging in to each account separately, I use Award Wallet to keep track of my balances at a glance. The only downside of Award Wallet is the fact that some airlines like American and United won’t play ball and don’t allow the site’s app access to your individual mileage data. That means I always have to log in to a few airline-specific sites to check balances before determining what account has the miles I need to book the award tickets.
Join AwardWallet for free and the first ten Luxury Travel Mavens readers to use coupon code free-qamsth will get a free upgraded membership.
With my frequent flyer balances in hand, I log on to ExpertFlyer, a site that shows award and upgrade availability for many airlines in addition to flight availability and seating maps. This is a paid service so you’ll need to pick from a Basic membership ($4.99) or Premium ($9.99). ExpertFlyer allows you to track award and upgrade availability and even has Seat and Flight Alert features that you can program so the site will contact you as soon as your preferred flight opens up award tickets. This is perhaps the one site I use most when planning my trips.
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Help from the Masters
When I hit a snag and can’t get the airline award seats I need, I call in a pro for help. I like both Points Pro (a knowledgeable team lead by rock star blogger Ben Schlappig of One Mile at a Time) and Book Your Award, which is run by the master of miles and points: Gary Leff of View from the Wing.
With airline confirmations in hand, I move on to booking any necessary ground transportation. We generally take a car service to the airport and my favorite is GroundLink. This isn’t the cheapest way to get to the airport but it’s the fastest and most convenient. You can book online or via an app on your smart phone. The app alerts you when your car is approaching and it makes for connecting with your driver at the airport a breeze. It’s well worth the premium price but there’s always a coupon code to be had. Just Google “Groundlink” and “coupon code” and you’ll find a bunch of options. I’m generally able to shave 10–15% off the original rate using this method.
We don’t rent cars often but friends of mine rave about AutoSlash. This aggregator will show you rack rental rates as well as discounts for any codes you provide. The bonus is that if you book through AutoSlash, the site will re-price your rental several times a day. AutoSlash will rebook your reservation if it finds a price drop or a better discount code. That’s very useful.
We tend to plan some mammoth vacations in terms of distance from home. We’ve spent time in Singapore and Borneo, French Polynesia and South Africa. Sometimes we self insure but for big trips we opt for travel insurance. We maintain an annual MetJetAssist membership so I don’t worry about medevac service since we’ve got that covered.
Once we hit the road, I rely on an app called TripIt. It stores and presents all of our flight, hotel, ground transportation, and rental car reservations in one easy-to-access app. You can load it onto your iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry, or Windows Phone 7. There is a free version as well as TripIt Pro for $49/year. Pro offers a lot of good features like instant alerts about flight delays and gate changes as well as helping you find alternative flights when there’s a mechanical or weather issue.
If you’d prefer a live person helping with your on-route travel, consider working with Cranky Concierge. This service is the brainchild of blogger Brett Snyder. He and his team will personally monitor your flights, watch for problems liked delayed aircraft and research alternative flights to get you on your way. Domestic flight monitoring is $15 each way and international itineraries are $30 one way.
What Online Travel Tools Do You Use?
I’d love to hear about the online travel tools you use to keep your trips running smoothly. Comment below and happy travels!
—Andrea M. Rotondo for Luxury Travel Mavens