My family and I have just returned from a long-planned trip to France and Italy. As many of you may know, we do travel quite a bit, and over the years, we have become fairly efficient with the use of technology to help streamline our planning and execution of any trip. After this most recent trip, and due to many questions from friends and family, I made the decision to use this space to share a bit of the process, sites, and apps we have found to be most useful on our travels. We hope this information will spur some of you on to expand your horizons or at least make your next trip a little smoother.
A few thoughts prior to getting started:
- We have very rarely engaged any 3rd parties (travel agents or guides) to help in the booking and are very much a do-it-yourself family with regards to all aspect of the booking and travel process. We feel a large part of our success in “doing it ourselves” centers around our use of technology to help us simplify and control the booking and execution of our travel. This isn’t to say doing all the work yourself is for everyone, and I don’t mean to belittle travel agents. They definitely do add great value to any vacation!
- Every trip we take, we have a set budget in mind and all our planning is in attempt to stick to this budget. You may find it amazing how a few simple tools and some planning can make trips you might think are exotic are actually much more reasonably-priced. For larger (and more expensive) trips, we may start planning 8-10 months in advance. This allows us to shop for more deals, work out more complex details, and start saving our money toward that budget.
- With regard to mobile apps, we are an Apple iOS family. The apps featured below are utilized very effectively with iPhone 6s, but I’m confident many of them are popular enough to be available on other platforms.
- My family and I are always learning and looking for new and better tools. Even when we don’t have a trip planned (which is pretty infrequent), we are tagging and sharing ideas for new booking sites and travel apps. If you know of a tool or site that we should consider, please share it with me in the comments of this post or via email at email@example.com
And without further adieu, here is the travel advice of the Grossnicklaus family!
On Getting There and Getting Around
Our first step in planning any trip centers around the logistics required to get there. We are a family of five (with three teenage daughters) from St. Louis, MO, and this key point plays a huge role in many of our travel decisions, most notably the travel and lodging aspects.
When our girls were younger, we spent more time on regional driving vacations (i.e. Yellowstone, Destin, NYC, etc.) as flying with them was difficult for young parents. As such, we raised a family who is very comfortable getting in a car and spending 8-10 hour days driving.
When we drive we always rent a vehicle as opposed to driving one of our own, and we found the aggregator sites like www.Kayak.com, www.Priceline.com, and www.Expedia.com to be great for finding good rental deals. Over the years we have had great success with Enterprise Rent-a-Car and slowly settled into a good relationship with our local office for just reaching out to them directly.
As the years have passed, we began to travel farther and farther abroad, and airline travel became more frequent. It is now very common that the cost of these tickets is at least half the cost of our entire vacation (sometimes more!). For this reason, our initial planning for larger trips begins solely with monitoring airline ticket prices.
With regards to being efficient at finding the best airline deal (and possibly finding the largest overall savings of your entire trip) here are some tips:
- Flexible Timing: Ticket prices fluctuate very frequently (usually daily), and the difference between leaving on a Monday vs. a Tuesday can be very significant. The same trip could be 30-40% cheaper if you left a week later and came back a week later. A swing of $150 per ticket (which is a common fluctuation on overseas travel) is $750 in savings when buying five tickets. That $750 may be enough to pay for another week of lodging or put toward anything else. On larger trips, we start planning earlier with a rough idea of a window of time we would like to go somewhere. We rarely fix an exact date to leave and return. Between work schedules and the traditional schedules of high school-age girls, a lot of planning and sacrifice goes into ensuring everyone clears out their calendar for, say, mid-June to mid-July (as we did this year). This isn’t to say we travel for an entire month, but this gives me a lot of flexibility in finding the cheapest ticket prices possible. Common sense also applies to this timing. Traveling on holidays and weekends is usually more expensive. Depending on your destination, there are usually high and low times of year (oddly enough, flying to the Caribbean from the U.S. is cheaper during the summer months than it is during our winter months, which is the high season in the Caribbean due to the lower risk of hurricanes).
- Flexible Airports: My family lives in St. Louis, MO, which is not exactly a hub for international travel. That said, when we begin to look for airline deals we focus on checking prices not only from St. Louis but also from Chicago (which is the nearest major hub to St. Louis). With our most recent European trip, we found over $200/person in savings when leaving from Chicago vs. St. Louis. This was $1,000 in overall savings in ticket prices, but it left us with the need to get to Chicago to catch our flight and then home from Chicago on our return. With this particular trip, we drove to Chicago the day our flight left (4.5 hours from St. Louis), left our car in long-term parking, and then drove home to St. Louis from Chicago immediately after landing. This added a 4.5-hour drive to our travel days (which was difficult), and we had to pay for the parking (about $150) and gas to get there and back, but overall we saved about $750 on plane tickets. Depending on where you live, you likely have other airports around you that you can get to relatively cheaply and easily. Keep these airports in mind when booking flights. The savings could definitely outweigh the hassle. Beyond your departure airport, looking for alternative arrival airports could also be a huge savings. When booking this most recent trip, we ultimately flew into Paris and out of Rome. For the time window of our trip, this was a huge cost savings compared to flying into Rome and out of Paris. We also looked at many other airport combinations in France and Italy to see if a large cost savings might be found. Ultimately, our best deal was to land at Paris’ Charles de’Gaule airport and leave Rome’s Fiumicino airport.
- Airline Loyalty: While many of my peers are very successful at being loyal to one airline and amassing frequent flier miles and getting free flights, we have always been more bargain-conscious and will locate and buy the cheapest flights with little loyalty to a particular airline. We are also what you would call “low rent” fliers and will gladly (but smartly) purchase economy tickets. First class travel may be nice for some, but, for the large cost difference, I’d rather spend that extra ticket money on something more substantial at my destination. With any airline ticket, it’s important to consider other costs such as baggage costs (do you get to check a bag free per person, or is there a cost per bag which you would have to consider?).
With the above considerations in mind, the first place I look for tickets is www.kayak.com. Kayak is an aggregator site that searches for ticket prices across a wide number of airlines and is very useful and user-friendly. We have used Kayak very efficiently over the years, and they have a great website and set of mobile apps with some very powerful search capabilities. They have a reminder feature, which allows me to set up a search and send me an email reminder every time prices change for that particular trip.
When beginning the trip planning process, most of my family will start hitting Kayak with creative searches, changing dates, airports, and other parameters to see if we can find the cheapest tickets. You would be amazed at how significant the costs of a single airline ticket can change with a minor tweak to dates. With regards to Kayak, you can also utilize it to find rental cars (as mentioned above), hotels, and travel packages. Our primary use of Kayak is airline tickets and rental cars.
Beyond Kayak we have recently started using a service (and app) called Hopper (www.hopper.com), which is an airline ticket monitor application that watches ticket prices for trips you specify and notifies you when to buy or when it expects ticket prices to go up or down. We used this service heavily prior to this more recent trip but ultimately made our ticket purchase directly from the airline carrier.
One key point when using an aggregator such as Kayak to purchase tickets (or rent vehicles) is whether you make the actual purchase through the aggregator or directly on the airline/rental car agency’s site. This is definitely a consideration because, if there are major issues while you are traveling, you will either be working with the aggregator (i.e. Kayak) to resolve the issue or the airline. For our most recent trip, I found the cheapest tickets via Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) while searching Kayak. When I went to buy the tickets I went to the SAS site directly and searched for the same dates and flights. Booking directly through SAS was a slightly higher cost (about $50/person), but I had the peace-of-mind to know that I could deal directly with the SAS customer support, should anything go wrong.
Be sure to stop by next Monday for the next installment of On Travel and Technology!