Travel has seemingly never been easier — the internet is heaving with so many travel planning tools: flight aggregators, hotel booking sites, boutique sightseeing portals, and about a trillion travel bloggers.
And there lies the problem: the sheer volume of travel planning tools can be overwhelming. I’ve tried a lot of travel planning tools, rejected many, and today I keep a carefully curated list of just ten essential travel planning tools bookmarked on all my devices.
I’ll explain why these travel planning tools made the cut, how I use them, and what they are best suited to. I’ll also share with you six runner-up tools I use for more specialized purposes.
Top Travel Planning Tools for Flights & Rewards
I’m a real stickler about flights. I spent my 20s as a tour manager, and I had no control over which flights I took, where I sat, how long the layover was, what time the flight left… or anything!
Now that I’m a grown-up (!) I’ve given myself the gift of total control over everything to do with my air experience. I’m super fussy these days, and that’s a good thing: flying gets more and more stressful with each passing year. But with a little patience and a lot of planning, I make the flight portion of my journey as comfortable and hassle-free as possible!
My ideal scenario is to deal directly with the airline, rather than with large booking sites: you might get a good deal on a flight with the large flight booking site, and that’s great… until something goes wrong.
And when it does, you are at the mercy of the big booking site’s customer service. I’ve had several horrible experiences, so I steer clear of these sites and try to go directly to the airline. Dealing directly with the airline is better for your frequent flyer rewards as well.
Always download the airline’s app to your phone: it will be one of your top travel planning tools!
An airline app is a huge timesaver and the best way to get up-to-the-minute information on your flight while it is happening: a good airline app will tell you when you can check in online, when the gate is open, which carousel the luggage is on, and all kinds of useful information.
I begin my quest for the perfect flight with the three travel tools below to get a detailed look at the landscape of availability, and pricing, and then try to home in on how I might finesse my rewards points to get the best seat at the best price.
1. Flight Guru: My Go-To Travel Planning Tool to Research Flights
Flight Guru provides a quick and easy way to identify the best dates, prices, and airline options for the itinerary I want. It offers free searches and paid subscription options for deeper searches that can alert you about sudden changes in fares for your desired itinerary.
Flight Guru’s booking engine promises access to fares and rates that are not always available to the public, which can help you save up to 75% when you fly Business Class! Since I’m able to plan well in advance — I know where I need to embark and disembark for my work as a cruise ship enrichment lecturer several months if not years in advance — I take advantage of Flight Guru’s paid version, and I use it to track the cheapest fares for my chosen routes.
2. Google Flights: A Handy Travel Planning Tool to Research Flights
Google Flights is Google’s version of Flight Guru. It’s more bare bones, but will give you an overall view of availability and dates, and links to various options to buy the ticket, including the airlines themselves, which is always my preferred relationship. It’s a good place to begin any search for the right flight.
3. The Points Guy: My Favorite Travel Planning Tool for Finessing Frequent Flyer & Rewards Points
The Points Guy is my go-to resource for finagling my constellation of credit card and loyalty program points and leveraging them intelligently to choose travel services, particularly flights. I’ve nabbed a few very sweet upgrades thanks to their strategic advice, and I don’t apply for new credit cards without looking them up on their invaluable site, which is also filled with excellent reviews of hotels, cruise ships, airlines, and other travel-related services.
Top Travel Planning Tools for Hotels & Accommodation
I’m equally fussy about my choice of accommodation — if I don’t feel safe and comfortable at my lodgings, I will not enjoy my trip or feel the level of comfort I need to get work done. After these primary concerns, is, of course, location. I want to be within walking distance of at least 3 of my top 5 attractions.
It can be bewildering to review all the options for the perfect hotel in big cities such as Cairo or Barcelona, but the two travel planning tools below make it easy to research, compare and get a suitable room at the right location for an acceptable price.
4. Booking.com: The Best Travel Planning Tool when the Unexpected Happens
Booking.com is the travel planning app I keep on the front screen of my phone when I travel. It’s a great for research, comparison shopping, and for booking and changing flight and hotel reservations on the fly.
When I got COVID last summer and had to change a myriad of arrangements, Booking.com made it quick and (relatively) painless. Booking.com is a splendid solution when you have to reserve something urgently. Their transparent indication of which penalties will ensue for changes and cancellations is one of their best features!
5. Agoda: My Travel Planning Tool for Researching Hotels & Accommodation
Agoda offers a wider search of accommodation options, including vacation rentals, private villas, and short-term apartment rentals, as well as an impressive worldwide inventory of excellent hotel properties. I rely on their search and filter options to make a final selection.
Agoda is also a good option if you are looking for a deal: you can save up to 75% on hotels worldwide with a well-executed search. This is the travel planning tool I turn to when I’m arranging for a stay that is longer than 5 nights, in which case I want kitchen and laundry amenities. Several of my Travel Bucket List destinations involve longer stays in cities such as Jerusalem, Vienna, and Lyon, and finding the ideal short-term rental in each of these cities will start with Agoda!
Top Travel Planning Tools for Sightseeing & Culinary Experiences
If I’ve learned one thing as a cruise ship enrichment lecturer, it’s to plan well ahead, and make good use of travel planning tools that can help me reserve sightseeing services ahead of time. Most of the ships I work on spend on average 7-12 hours in a city. But I’m often assigned a lecture slot directly after the sailaway, which can limit my time on shore to 5-6 hours.
If I’m not taking one of the ship’s shore excursions (undoubtedly the most convenient way to see lots of things in a limited time frame), I have to hit the ground running as soon as the ship is cleared: there is no time to wait in line for a museum, wander for hours looking for the perfect restaurant, or get stuck on the wrong side of town.
I plan my port time well in advance and use the travel planning tools below to have everything lined up before the ship comes into port.
6. Viator: The Travel Planning Tool I use for Researching Sightseeing
Viator: for guided tours and museum entrances. Viator is a travel planning tool for organized sightseeing tours, entry to museums, and other location-specific activities. Viator’s app earns its place on my phone in several ways: I often begin with Viator when I’m at the initial stage of researching a new destination and want to get an overview of the chief attractions of the city.
If I’m visiting during peak season, I can purchase ticket entry to venues I want to see ahead of time through Viator, or buy into a group or guided tour that skips the general entry line. This means less time waiting in line and more time enjoying exploring.
7. Tiqets: My Choice Travel Planning Tool for Booking Entrance to Museums & Attractions
Tiqets is another go-to travel planning tool for fast-track museum entry tickets during peak season. Their site is a repository for attractions and activities in port cities. Their City Passes are a great way to save on entry fees. I like the interface, which makes it very easy to find what you are looking for quickly and easily.
8. GetYourGuide: My Favorite Travel Planning Tool for Arranging Bespoke Guided Tours
GetYourGuide is a great resource for organized tours, alternative experiences, or a more intimate one-on-one guided exploration. I often use GetYourGuide to hire a guide to show me around a food market in a place I’ve never been, or to show me the best places for street food.
I’ve also reached out to GetYourGuide to source a guide who is knowledgeable in some of the more esoteric subjects that interest me, such as mystery cults and royal history. To date, I’ve never had a dud guide, and some GetYourGuide guides have become good friends! GetYourGuide also has a great app, but I find their site is easier to use for general research. Plan these outings well in advance during the high season! Good guides go fast!
9. EatWith: My Preferred Travel Planning Tool to Arrange Extraordinary Culinary Encouters
EatWith has enabled me to have some outstanding culinary experiences, meet some marvelous foodies, and get under the skin of a destination’s cuisine and culinary spirit. I take a long time to absorb the full swath of a destination’s culinary history, and it is vital to learn from the locals. This is exactly what EatWith accomplishes by hooking me up with locals for food tours, cooking classes, shared meals, and culinary encounters of all kinds.
Whether it’s learning to make waffles in Belgium, or joining a local family for dinner in Mumbai, EatWith delivers that vital component of unique, bespoke culinary experiences.
10. WeGoTrip: My Favorite Travel Planning Tool for Self-Guided Audio Tours
WeGoTrip: If I know a city well but want to explore something new, I turn to WeGoTrip for self-guided audio tours of a specific venue or neighborhood, and the price includes any admissions — I can skip the lines and go at my pace, which are two things I really value. I had a marvelous tour of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh using WeGoTrip last summer, and I’m planning to use it to explore the Bryggen neighborhood of Bergen this coming summer.
Other Top Travel Planning Tools I Keep Bookmarked
While I use the ten travel services above in almost constant rotation — they are not the only travel planning tools in my toolbox! I use the tools below for specific types of travel or a particular type of organization and find them invaluable for research, reviews, and resources.
Cruise Critic: The Essential Travel Planning Tool for Cruisers
Cruise Critic is the Holy Grail of cruise review sites, with a huge amount of information about cruise lines and their amenities. At this point in my career as a cruise ship enrichment lecturer, I’m pretty familiar with the ships I frequent, but when I was getting started, I poured over the ship information on Cruise Critic to better prepare for my time on board.
For the first-time cruiser, Cruise Critic has in-depth reviews and FAQs about each cruise line, with reviews from its very dedicated members. For the bargain hunter, Cruise Critic offers excellent access to daily deals on a wide range of cruise options.
As a frequent solo cruiser, I appreciate Cruise Critic’s Cruise Roll, which provides a forum where you can introduce yourself to your future fellow passengers before you depart. It’s a great way to find like-minded travelers who share your interests, and for me, it’s a great way for me to meet some of the guests ahead of time and answer any cultural or historical questions they may have. You must register with Cruise Critic to access the boards and valuable cruise comparison tours.
BikesBooking: My Choice Travel Planning Tool for Booking Bicycles, Vespas, and Motorcycles
BikesBooking.com: Weather and terrain permitting, I love exploring cities by bike, and BikesBooking helps me arrange for a bike to be waiting for me when I arrive. I’m not a motorcycle person, but Bikes Booking offers rentals of motorbikes, Vespas, and scooters as well. This is a hassle-free way to beat the traffic and enjoy the destination by bike. I admire companies that do one thing and do it well, and Bikes Booking is just that kind of company!
Stanford's: My Favorite Store for Maps, Books, and Travel Accessories
Although I embrace the convenience of apps on my phone, there is no substitute for a great map, and there is no better place to get them than at Stanford’s in London. For a modest surcharge of less than $20.00, Stanford delivers to the USA, Canada, and EU. Stanford’s extensive map offerings include historical maps, reproductions of old maps, country and region maps, railway maps, ordinance maps, and an amazing array of planning maps for walking, cycling, or road trips.
I always have a map in my stateroom of the region I’m cruising, and most of them have come from Stanford’s. But maps aren’t the only thing Stanford’s offers: travel literature, any imaginable guidebook, travel kit, accessories — you name it, Stanfords have it. If you can’t visit them in person (in London or Bristol, UK) do the next best thing and visit their website!
Priority Pass: The Essential Travel Planning Tool to Access Airport Lounges Worldwide
Priority Pass: This is what I give myself for my birthday each year: a Priority Pass’s Prestige Membership, which gives me access to some 1,300 premier airport lounges when I need them most: during delays. I hate interruptions in my air travel, but with Priority Pass, I know I don’t have to endure them in discomfort.
Notion: The All-in-One Organizational System makes the Perfect Travel Planning Tool
Notion: I could not do the work I do without Notion’s astonishingly efficient all-in-one workspace of interlinked databases. I take notes for all of my cruise lectures in Notion, plan my articles and posts, and keep track of my cruise schedule, my life goals, as well as my household management, financial world, and mundane projects and tasks.
Unlike other productivity systems, Notion’s flexible system of blocks — text, image, checklist, bullet points, embedded videos — allows you to completely customize the system to your needs. No two Notions are alike. And that’s how it should be.
I designed a Notion Travel Bucket List Planner Template, which you can get here.
World Heritage Site: A Fascinating Site Dedicated to UNESCO's World Heritage Sites
World Heritage Site. I’m a sucker for a completist and Els Slots is a consummate completist. Her goal — to visit every single UNESCO World Heritage Site — is a lofty ambition if ever there was one. But Els also created an outstanding site for the rest of us: World Heritage Site is the first place to go if you are researching a destination and want to hit the highlights.
The search function is astonishing, allowing the visitor to search by country, category, connection, inscription year, era, and period. The site accepts community reviews that offer a wealth of information and insight into visiting and experiencing UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.
Choose the Travel Planning Tools that Work for You!
Curating the right tools is the key to booking unforgettable and hassle-free travel! Pick the tools that will help you identify exactly what you need for your journey, then book some of those things in advance so you don’t miss out, and make sure you get the most for your travel dollar!
Do you have a travel tool you rely on? Share it with us in the comments below!
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