For a Lot of Travel Plans, Google Won’t Cut It

Just because you can look up an answer to a burning question in a few seconds for most facts doesn’t mean you can do the same for vacation recommendations. You’re going to need to dig deeper with research when it comes to something as personal as travel plans.

vacation research and travel plans

Most of this won’t show up in a search query

About 15,000 people a month search “travel plans” in Google and a staggering 301,000 search “trip planner.” Around 33,000 search “plan a trip.” Something tells me they’re not going to be very satisfied with the answers they get back. 

In the pre-internet age, travel planning was much tougher, without so many answers at our fingertips. So we relied on books, on physical message boards in guesthouses, on recommendations from other travelers, on the local tourism office. Somehow we muddled through and the actual traveler experience, in the end, wasn’t much different than it is now. We just took our chances more often and didn’t book so much ahead of time. 

I worry that the wonderful always-on answer machine we have at our fingertips is making us dumber and The Atlantic had an in-depth article on this issue all the way back in 2008. We’ve seen lots of research over the years that indicates we’re at least getting lazier about remembering things and we distrust our memories more. (How many phone numbers can you remember, for instance, besides your own?) We basically use our phone as a hard drive for our brain and the internet as cloud storage. 

If we think we can retrieve any factual knowledge in seconds, we don’t bother to actually commit facts to long-term memory. That makes a lot of sense, saving your brain energy for working out solutions to more complicated problems or freeing up capacity for creative pursuits. But it also keeps us from digging deeper when that’s exactly what’s needed. Like when making travel plans. 

An expectation has grown in some people that the answer to any question should be as easy as asking the Alexa listening device. They seem to think that “How do I find the perfect man for me?” should be as simple as “Who sang ‘Tutti Frutti’?” Here are a few travel-related questions I’ve seen in the comments of this blog  and on social media streams:

1) “My husband and I want to go to a nice beach in Latin America next month. Where should we go?”

2) “I’m going to be traveling around the world for eight months, probably staying in hostels. How much will it cost?”

3) “We are a family of four making $45,000 a year and want to move out of the U.S. Where should we go live?”

4) “What’s the best hotel to stay in for a weekend in Mexico City?”

5) “A friend of mine wants to go to Africa next summer. Any recommendations?”

These are questions that cannot be answered without lots more questions first. They are the beginnings of long conversations. Reams more information is necessary before even the most qualified expert can tell you what you need to know.

It doesn’t matter if that expert is an algorithm, one human being, or a whole crowd of virtual friends. These questions are too open-ended for an easy answer. 

After all, there are thousands of beaches you could visit just in Brazil… 

beach in Brazil

Travel Plans Require Actual Planning–and Research

The answer I usually give to impossibly broad questions tends to make impatient people huffy. But it’s what they need to hear: do your homework first. Then ask about specifics once you’ve narrowed down your options. Otherwise, it’s garbage in (the question) and garbage out (the answers that are basically wild guesses based on very limited information). 

The reason those shallow top-10 and “best of” articles are so popular across all media forms is because so many people are looking for a shortcut. They want a way to skip the research phase and have someone else spit out easy answers. But when it comes to important decisions in your life, it’s seldom that simple. You can’t look at one list article and be ready to invest your money, buy a house, have a kid, move to another city, plan a garden, sail a boat, write a book, or travel around the globe for months on a limited budget. You need to do some real research first.

If you find one of those top-10 lists that seems like the answer to your prayers, two words are in order from your end: “Says who?” Are those really the 10 best things to do in Amsterdam? How does this person know—has she or he been to the 50 other sites in order to make this list of what’s “the best?” Does that person live there, or know the city extremely well?

What I see more often is that the writer is really a junior editor in a cubicle in New York City that’s doing Google searches, just like you. Or she is a travel blogger on the move who spent all of three days in the city. Some of those attractions or activities she didn’t even experience because it was out of her budget or she only listed what was on her press trip itinerary.

There are some inherent drawbacks to search engines that most people, especially younger ones who have grown up using Google from the start, don’t seem to even see, much less understand. The problem is especially acute with something that has as many moving parts as a vacation or round-the-world trip does. 

Here are just a few problems with relying on search queries:

1) At least half the results page of a query will be taken up with ads, not information links, often filling the entire initial screen on mobile devices.

For instance, if you search something like “Paris vacation,” you’ll get ads from the likes of Expedia, Marriott, and an apartment rental company at the top of the page, then “People also ask” leading to more Google results. After that it’s “Top sites in Paris” that links to Google Maps, an actual Google map,  and an images link that goes to Google images. Sometimes you’ll see flight results (based on your location) that lead to Google’s own flight search engine, and sometimes hotel results that earn Google a commission if you book through them. After all that you’ll finally get some organic results, but those are dominated by big companies like TripAdvisor, Costco, AA Vacations, Marriott, Delta, Kayak, and Liberty Travel. 

Google results when making travel plans

2) As in the example on Paris in #1, Google’s own services are given priority over independent ones, so you’ll see results that steer you to companies that earn them money or services they own. This has gotten them into legal battles, but it persists. 

3) The higher the “domain authority,” the more likely a site will be at the top of the results, which means big brands like TripAdvisor, Expedia, and Booking.com tend to dominate a lot of organic travel search results on top of their ads, sometimes taking up the entire top-10 on Google or Bing. These are mostly transactional results, not informational ones, so they’re only helpful if you’re ready to book something right now.

4) It’s hard to tell if results are timely until you click through. Last week I was researching the ferry route between La Paz and Mazatlan in Mexico. One of the top-5 results was from 2011! Not very helpful for my late 2021 travel plans.

5) Google is great at answering specific questions, not so great at helping you find in-depth information about a country or region. It’s designed to tell you what the biggest winery in the Valle de Uco is or which hotel in Mendoza is rated highest on TripAdvisor. Search engines are not set up to help you design a week-long itinerary for a wine country vacation in Argentina.

You can lessen the effects of some of the above problems by using a search engine like Duck Duck Go instead, with more organic results on the first page and no tracking your information so they can send you personalized ads. That won’t help you with numbers 3 through 5 on that list above though. 

Fortunately, someone else has usually done the legwork to help you down the right path to helpful travel planning information. There’s probably a great book out there already that has it all covered. Maybe a whole shelf full of books. Or a specialized magazine to subscribe to. Or a club to belong to. Or a Facebook group to hang out on.

If you’re lucky, there will be an entire website dedicated to the one area you’re planning to visit. For example, here are ones that should be your first stop if you’re headed to Paris, Pittsburg, Raleigh, San Diego, or Thailand. If you find one like that, lean on it hard for info and reward them with a booking through their site–or at least tell local businesses that’s where you found out about them. This is the digital age equivalent of a well-researched guidebook. 

One element will still be required though—your time.

Even in the age of Google and Facebook in your pocket, real knowledge still takes some effort to acquire.

travel planning for Thailand

The Natural Path of Solid Travel Plans

Travel planning is a journey, whether you’re working on a weekend getaway by car or a year-long trip around the world. The amount of research necessary is going to grow with the scope of the trip, but in most cases, there’s a logical defined path you’ll go down to get ready. 

First, inspiration – This part you’re probably doing all the time without really thinking about it. You’re absorbing photos, videos, TV shows, movies, books, and articles. Any and all of these exposures can influence where you plan to go on the next trip and the one after that. When someone says, “I’ve always wanted to go to [insert place],” they’ll often have a hard time explaining why. That’s because they’ve been exposed to a decade or more of images and articles about the Amalfi Coast, Machu Picchu, or Paris. At some point, all that exposure resonates and they finally decide to take the inspiration and run with it. 

You don’t have to do any work in this phase. You’re just absorbing and prioritizing. 

Second, a Feasibility Analysis – That’s a fancy way of saying “We need to figure out if we can actually go there.”

Before you start diving into real research, you need to know if you have enough time to visit, if you have enough money to afford the place, if you can get there somehow from where you are, if it’s a place both of you want to go if you’re a couple. These days you have to find out if it’s even open to visitors and what hoops you’ll need to jump through if so. 

So once you have settled on a place, or at least narrowed the choices down to a few, spend a little time on research and discussions to see if a trip there is feasible. If you’re going on a very long journey with multiple countries, I’ve got a book that can save you a lot of time: 

The World’s Cheapest Destinations

Next, an Itinerary – If your destination is Peru, a country with a hundred great things to do among multiple locations, where are you going to go once you get there? This is often the part of travel planning that is the most fun, but it’s also the most time-consuming. This is where you look at a giant buffet of offerings and figure out what you’re going to eat.

Sure, you can start with Machu Picchu if you’ve never been to Peru, but what else? Putting “Where should I go in Peru?” is probably not the most efficient or effective way to figure that out. 

Ideally, you’re pulling from multiple sources to get to a rough plan draft. You can read articles, buy a guidebook, watch TV travel shoes, check out YouTube videos, scroll around on Instagram, or ask your friends on Facebook who have been there already. If you’ve got enough money, you might even want to hire a travel specialist for Peru and thus spend less time going down rabbit holes and dead ends. Or you can pay someone who knows the country well to just design an itinerary for you based on an interview on your preferences. 

If you’d rather just tag along with a guide who knows the country well and have all your hotel stays and transportation set up, booking with a company like G Adventures can shave off weeks of travel planning time and eliminate a lot of possible snags. 

For all those options mentioned except the organized tour booking, a Google search is only going to get you but so far. It doesn’t know what you really want to know. Your needs are too complicated. Narrow things down, then your searches will start yielding results. In the next step. 

The Travel Planning Action Stage – Once you have an itinerary set up, then you can begin to use Google for what it does best: sell you things. Or often in this part, you can just turn to the services you’ve used already in the past. Search flight prices through Kayak or Skyscanner, book a hotel through Booking.com, line up some day tours through Viator, and on it goes. 

Now the search engines become quite useful though because you can focus on specifics. “What’s the best hostel in Cusco?” “How much does it cost to go to Machu Picchu?” “What’s the Lares Trek?” “What are the things to do in Arequipa?” “Is Peru a cheap place to travel?” “What to pack for the Inca Trail?”

Peru travel plans

Yes, I’ve answered some of those questions on this blog, so you could end up on my site. For other questions, you may get 10 great articles to check out. After you read those, you can book with confidence. 

Info on the Ground – There’s one last step in the mix for most travelers, but especially slow travelers on a budget. If you’re not planning every hour of your trip in advance, which I would definitely not recommend, you’ll need more information after you arrive.

After all, it’s often cheaper to book an adventure tour locally, plus on site you’ll often get better information about what to do and see, where to go, and which places are worth visiting. I rarely spend much time on Yelp or other restaurant recommendation sites when traveling internationally. It’s more fun asking the locals where they eat and checking those places out. 

You can do local searches for what you want to know, thus the popularity of “_____ near me” searches, but don’t rely on that method 100%. Again, an old-school guidebook you brought can be helpful, but so can using your eyes and ears by picking up local printed materials and just asking around. Sometimes the coolest things you discover haven’t been written about by anyone in your language, so they don’t even show up in an internet search. (Same goes for a new hotel or restaurant, by the way.) 

How about you? What kind of non-search information gathering has paid off in your travel plans? 

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9 Comments

  1. Lisa 08/25/2021
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