The Joy of Travel Planning

Instead of looking forward at the start of the year, I'm taking a little time to think about now. Every year, around this time, I always develop a hankering to travel somewhere. I love planning to travel. It fits my predisposition to overengineering. Plan, and re-plan. Measure five times and then, maybe, cut.

We now have so many great resources for travel planning these days. I wanted to write about the ones I use, and maybe learn some new ones from my readers.

The first phase is deciding where to go. Usually, I'll just get an idea in my head - the current idea as I write is Siena, Italy. Since I'm often thinking about photography, I like to hit Flickr's Places to get a sense of the place visually.

My next stop is usually WikiTravel. WikiTravel is relatively new and I'm sure it doesn't have the same number of eyeballs on it as Wikipedia does, so I'm doubly careful to verify its content, but my guess is that the people editing those pages are pretty close to the local action. Certainly, I've looked at the pages local to me and they're acceptably accurate.

Next up, a trip to the incomparable Google Earth to see what's nearby and what the lie of the land is like. I use Earth to figure out how far one place is from another, particularly if I'm flying in to an airport at a distance from my final destination. The Geographic Web layer is a goldmine in itself:


That already tells you a lot about where the interesting parts are. I'll keep coming back to Google Earth to drop pins on interesting places on the map.

I always get a flight locked down before bothering much about a hotel. The hardest question I find, when flying to somewhere out of the way, is discovering which airlines fly to which airports. I'm still surprised there's no website that makes this easy to discover. One tactic is to visit the website for the destination airport and look at which airlines are landing there. I'm not crazy about that, though, because the indirection of code sharing means that you not only have to know who flies out of your local airport, but also who they're affiliated with. Brain pain.

Over time, I've simplified my flight-finding approach to three steps:

  1. Do British Airways fly there through a London connection?
  2. If not, do KLM fly there through Schiphol?
  3. Search Expedia, then book directly with the airline.

BA are probably the stingiest airline in the skies when it comes to cabin upgrades, but I have rarely had a serious problem in many, many flights with them. Over the years, I've found them increasingly price-competitive with other non-budget airlines. Even if they're a bit more, I'm usually happy to pay it. Readers will no doubt disagree, but I speak from reasonably extensive personal experience on this one. All the other options flying out of Glasgow (GLA) are far, far worse.

Expedia used to be a great site but, over time, it seems that they're selling only weird and inconvenient combinations of flights. Am I right? Seems like the airlines are keeping the good flights and the easy connections to themselves these days.

Once I've figured out the flight, it's time to look for a hotel. I generally like Expedia for a first pass through what might be available, but I'm increasingly appreciating TripAdvisor and for hotel reviews.

It is remarkable how wide the variation is in online hotel reviews compared to reviews for manufactured goods. So much of the opinion of the traveller is based on what happened on their specific visit, and you have to bear this in mind when reading. Hotels also suffer from the Jeremy Clarkson Effect - the inability to appreciate a mid-range product for what it is when you spend your life driving the Ferrari. Some people are just a bit spoilt by their prior experiences.

I don't have a specific thing I look for when booking a hotel. Free WiFi is a plus, but more than once I've been lied to by Expedia on that count. For security reasons, I avoid anything described as being ideal for backpackers or students, and I try to get something close to the centre of the city or near a transport route. I'm not at all precious about hotels - it's just a bed. I look for hygiene, security and convenience.

I do have one rule, though: if you're arriving in a new city after dark always, always get a taxi to the hotel. That's the fun of travel planning. Next, it's all about what to do when you get there. Me, I'll have a camera in my hand.

What sites and resources do you like for travel planning?