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 if you want to plan a vacation better and have a memorable trip.
About 15,000 people a month search “travel plans” in Google and a staggering 301,000 search “trip planner” just in the USA. Around 33,000 search “plan a trip.” Something tells me they’re not going to be very satisfied with the answers they get back. Search engines are good at a lot of things, but not so good at the early stages of trying to plan a vacation.
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 kiosk even. 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, opening up a search box, or putting a question into ChapGPT. They seem to think that “How do I find the perfect man for me?” should be as simple as “Who sang ‘Tutti Frutti’?”
Sorry, but computers aren’t good at answering non-specific queries. 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 trying to make travel plans for Southeast Asia but there are so many choices. What’s the coolest place to check out?”
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 follow-up questions first. They are the beginnings of long conversations. Reams more information is necessary before even the most qualified expert (or AI bot) 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 broad and open-ended for an easy answer.
After all, there are thousands of beaches you could visit just 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.
Even worse, it may be an automated article. Now the problem is compounded because all of those AI tools people are using can only pull from what has already been published. Obviously the ghosts in the machine haven’t been to Amsterdam either. So bad recommendations get perpetuated exponentially.
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.
The Problems With Using Google for Travel Planning
Using the tool that’s already on the home screen of the device in your hand is oh so tempting. It’s why Google is one of the richest companies in the world. If you haven’t noticed though, they’re rich because most of the results crowding the top of the screen are ads, not content. Often they’re ads for Google’s own products or services, or ones they get commission on at least. Then they tend to prioritize big companies spending lots on advertising and content sites that are the most established, not necessarily the ones with the most expertise.
Search engines work well for looking up facts and Google Maps is great for getting you around and telling you where to eat. The wisdom of the crowd is not always wise, but for restaurants it’s generally reliable. There are a few inherent problems with using search for more advanced travel planning though.
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.
2) 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 Viator, 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. They’re no help for planning a trip next year.
4) It’s hard to tell if results are timely until you click through. One time I was researching the ferry route between La Paz and Mazatlan in Mexico. One of the top-5 results was ten years old! That’s not very helpful for my plans this year.
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 instead of ads and no tracking of your information so they can send you personalized shopping pitches. That won’t help you with numbers 3 through 5 on that list above though.
Better Sources for Travel Planning
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 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.
The first part is not planning at all, it’s 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 travel destination],” 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.
Plan a Vacation Better
Once real plans start materializing though for a real vacation on the horizon, here are the steps to go through so you won’t be frantically putting in search engine queries and coming up empty.
Narrow Down Your Options Based on Budget (Unless You’re Filthy Rich)
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. Don’t forget to pad the budget for items you haven’t realized you need yet, like an eSim Europe card for your phone if you don’t have T-Mobile. Or a yellow fever vaccine for that African safari.
Unless it’s a very short getaway, your destination is going to impact your budget more than anything. If you go to one of the cheapest places to travel in the world, you can make a lot of mistakes and still not overspend. If you go to one of the most expensive though, a few wrong moves can wipe you out in a hurry.
Before you choose that destination, however, see what kind of deals are out there. Infrequent travelers tend to get hung up on one place to go and then they start looking at airfares and hotel prices. Savvy travelers do the opposite: they look for deals before deciding and let that guide their vacation.
You can find discounted flights on Google Flights by using the map function and leaving the destination blank. You can also find deals on Going.com (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights), SecretFlying, or Airfare Watchdog. If you have a favorite airline you use a lot, subscribe to their deals newsletter and follow them on social media. Putting “What’s a cheap place to go from my city?” in search is not going to do you much good: you need a specialized source to find the best deals.
You can check sample hotel prices on any of the online travel agency sites, check apartment rental prices on Airbnb or Vrbo, and check rental car prices in a flash on Kayak to get a general idea. If you find that one destination on your list costs twice as much as the other for flights and where to stay, now you can move on to the planning process.
Figure Out How Much Time You Have
Counting transit time to get there in the first place, how long do you actually have for your vacation? If it’s a year-long round-the-world trip, then you can skip this step or just break it down by place. If you only have a week though, you’re going to lose at least one day going and one back much of the time, so you really have five days.
Do you really want to try to do 14 things in 6 places? No, you do not.
Match the time you have to what you want to do and prioritize. If you want to “see all the sights” and check off boxes, you’re going to have to plan very carefully and hope nothing goes wrong. If you’re a slow traveler instead, pick one or two priorities and make the most of them in a leisurely manner. The further you fly, the more you need to factor in jet lag too don’t forget.
Start With Research Instead of Vague Questions
Once you’ve got the place and time figured out—leaving some variables open of course—then you want to start narrowing it down on where you’re going to go. Now you can start asking questions that will yield solid answers instead of vague questions that just get snarky replies on message boards.
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 dreamy part of travel planning can be fun, but it’s also the most time-consuming and frustrating. This is where you look at a giant buffet of offerings and figure out what you’re going to eat.
At first this can be overwhelming, like if you’re going to spend two months in Greece like I did recently. How do you pick where to go in just the Peloponnese Peninsula, much less all those islands?
For me, some guidance was provided by two home exchanges we ended up doing, a conference I was attending, and a boat trip I got invited on to write about. But before all that happened I was reading articles and just asking people who travel like me (that part is important), “Which were your favorite places in Greece?”
I got a lot of different answers for that last question, but there was some overlap and we ended up visiting quite a few of the places people raved about, including the rugged Mani Peninsula at the bottom that I had never even heard of before. If someone gushes on for five minutes about some place they loved and they’re a similar traveler to you, that’s a sure green light. If you at least have some priorities among 100 choices, that can start turning into a rough itinerary.
Form a Rough Itinerary
Once you have a set of places figured out and a time frame, you can start moving from dreamer to doer on the travel planning continuum. This doesn’t mean you have to nail down every detail, but it does mean you can start putting a budget together and figuring out a framework once you get past this phase.
At this point, you can start seeing which levers will impact your costs and which ones will make the trip more pleasurable. You can also start asking for much more targeted advice and narrow down your research.
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, all based on the available time you have.
Invest Some Time and Money in Travel Planning
Why are travel agents still a thing?
Because a good travel agent can save people hours or days of research time. If someone has more money than time, it’s easier to hire a Belize specialist to plan a trip than it is to spend valuable hours just trying to figure out where to go and where to stay.
If you’re staunchly independent though and more careful with your money, then buy a guidebook, buy an itinerary from a specialist, or just pay someone who is a true destination expert for an hour of their time. I’ve had people hire me for this for a few different countries, especially Mexico, and they’ve written back later to say how great my recommendations worked out. For them it was money well spent.
“But I can find that info free on the internet” is the usual reply from the penny-pinchers. Yes, if you have unlimited time to sift through hundreds of results, see which ones are current, figure out which ones are reliable, and see how much time they actually spent doing that research, great.
But you’ll probably find that half the articles you run across are outdated, full of errors, or just generated by some AI tool with no expertise in the mix. Meanwhile, $22 will get you hundreds of pages of valid research if you just purchase a guidebook.
If you’re at the other end of the “time is money” spectrum, there’s an easy shortcut. 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. The rest of the things on this list get a whole lot easier.
Just understand that 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.
Reach Out and Research Again With Travel Specifics
Now that you know roughly where you’re going, you can start asking on Facebook if any friends have been there and start searching for more useful, more targeted articles. Instead of asking, “Where should I go in Mexico?” you can start asking, “What are the best day trips from Merida?” You can start looking at flight options, public transportation, or rental cars.
For that Greece trip of mine I mentioned earlier, the early conversations with a friend who knows the country well were kind of dreamy. A few weeks out though, I could ask, “Where would you go after leaving Kalamata in a rental car in the Peloponnese?” Now she could really help me with specifics.
In many ways, this is the most fun part of the travel planning process. You’re not swimming in a sea of overwhelming information that is too broad to be useful. You’ve reined in the vacation planning process to a circle that is easier to manage, so you’re looking at actual things you could be doing and places you could be staying that fit your budget.
Now the search engines start to become more useful because you can focus on specifics. “What’s the best hostel in Cusco?” “How much does a Machu Picchu trip cost?” “What’s the Lares Trek like?” “What are the things to do in Arequipa in one day?” “How do you hike to Gocta Falls?”
Yes, I’ve answered some of those questions on this travel 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.
At this point it can also be good to let some budget-saving travel hacking options be your guide. Can you cash in airline points or hotel points you earned from travel credit cards? (See my recommendations for getting there more easily for free flights and free hotel rooms.)
Could you do a home exchange or house sit? Do you have some kind of credit to use for something? It could be worth altering your plans a little if so because of the huge cost savings that impact your travel budget. Better to know that now than after your spouse has already gotten excited and booked everything.
Otherwise, once you have an itinerary set up, then you can begin to use Google for what it does best: sell you things.
Find the Best Flight Deal and Book It
For most people, this is when a trip requiring plane travel becomes real. When the flight is booked, everything else can fall into place. Until this, it still feels like a maybe.
Many trips don’t require a flight, of course. You can skip this step if you’re driving on a road trip. Maybe you need to book a bus or train tickets, so substitute that instead. But after you figure out how you’re going to get to where you’re going and when, you can move on to the other essentials.
For a short trip though, this is usually the most expensive budget item on the list if you’re flying. So it pays to invest a little time shopping around, checking out all the options on alternate airports, alternative budget airlines, or different days/times to lower the price. Don’t be cheap for the sake of cheap though: the rules have changed a lot on baggage, seat selection, and other add-on fees. Sometimes a small price difference can mean a big comfort difference.
Figure out Your Vacation Accommodation
This part can take a lot of different forms and I’ve used nearly all of them at some point. I haven’t done any house-sitting, but I’ve stayed in hostels, cheap hotels, apartments, campgrounds, home exchanges, all-inclusive resorts, yachts, small cruise ships, and even a few luxury hotels (when someone else was paying).
I’ve also just showed up and looked around before taking a room for a night, including just last month in Europe. So remember that you don’t always have to book accommodation far in advance. For high season and holiday times, yes, but if you want more flexibility at other times, save it until the last minute.
For hotels, I personally lean on Agoda for Asia, Booking or Hotwire for most other places, and Airbnb if I’m going to stick around for a while. Sometimes recommendations from others have led me to other services, such as the company I rented an apartment from twice in Bansko, Bulgaria. They’re about half the price of Airbnb. Or you can sometimes find better rentals on Facebook groups or by looking around on foot.
You can also check Hostelworld for hostels, glamping sites for those kinds of places, and state park sites for cabin rentals. Anything more specialized (such as where to park your RV) will surely have specialized websites and group message boards for that.
If you’re booking direct with a hotel chain you have loyalty with, it’s worth doing that for the points. If it’s an independent hotel, you can often get a discount or upgrade by reaching out to them directly, especially if you’re staying for multiple nights. They’d rather give a discount to you than pay 25% to Expedia.
If you’re 100% sure about your plans, go ahead and take that prepaid or non-refundable option they try to push you into on the booking engines. That’s a bad idea the day you’re flying in though, this is not one of the best times to be cheap. It’s worth paying more to have flexibility.
Once again, Google is not your friend when researching hotels. If you search “best hotels London” you’re going to get a whole lot of crappy results, including the ones Google makes the most money from recommending to you. Read the reviews carefully on Booking or Hotels.com instead since only people who have stayed there can leave a review. Or use a site that has professional travel writers reviewing hotels in detail. Or a local site run by someone who specializes in that city/region.
Add on Tours, Activities, and Down Time
Before you jump in and start booking tours on Viator or Get Your Guide, go back to those trusted sources you used to get you to this point. Consult a guidebook about what’s worth seeing and doing. Ask those like-minded friends who have been there. Ask a local what’s fun to do nearby as they’ll probably give you very different (and cheaper) answers.
Don’t feel like you have to do all of this in advance though. 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. You’ll also know what the weather is like instead of taking a sunset sail you booked ahead on a day when it’s pouring rain.
Unless you have Michelin-star restaurants at the top of your list, this also goes for restaurants. I do use Google Maps reviews when traveling internationally to see how restaurants near me rate. It’s more fun, however, asking the locals where they eat and checking those places out. Sometimes those have almost no reviews but they’re famous in the neighborhood.
Also, don’t forget to schedule some down time and give some room for magical things to happen. If you have everything tightly scheduled, there’s no time to meander off for a new discovery, a local recommendation, or an invitation. Sometimes the best memories come from wandering around or stumbling upon something you never knew existed.
Tidy up the Pre-vacation Details
One last step to plan a vacation well that search engines probably won’t help you with much: “What do I need to do before leaving?”
You’ll have a lot more fun on vacation or your summer holiday if you didn’t bring any worries with you. Even more fun if you’ve eliminated most of the factors that can ruin your trip. So here are a few things to think about. Some I’ve learned the hard way and others I’ve picked up from decades of traveling from a home base.
– Get travel insurance
There are lots of companies out there that sell this peace of mind for your health, your flights, and your luggage. My recommendations are Allianz for regular travelers (I have the annual plan) and SafetyWing for Nomads.
– Get your banking in order
You need a travel banking back-up plan, multiple credit cards with no foreign transaction fees, and at least one no-fee or low-fee ATM debit card. You’ll save a small fortune in fees and sleep better if something goes wrong.
– Get your travel paperwork in order
Make sure your passport is nowhere close to expiring: most countries want to see at least six months remaining and a year is safer. Bring your driver’s license if you’ll be renting a car. See if you need an international driver’s license you can get from AAA or your country’s equivalent (usually not, but check).
Read the fine print on what your credit card will cover for car rentals (most cover collision). Check the visa requirements for where you’re going and don’t save this until the last minute.
– Take care of issues around the house/apartment
Sort out mail, pets, lawn care, utility bills, and whatever else goes on without you at home.
– Check the historic weather patterns
You want to know what the weather usually is like. A guidebook will give you this, or check here. Then check the weather forecast as the trip gets closer so you pack appropriately. If you find out your trip is during hurricane season though, you may want to back up a few steps and change your plans.
– Buy whatever travel gear or clothing you need that you don’t have.
You might need hiking shoes, better socks, or a swim shirt. Maybe some quick-dry items so you can pack lighter. I’ve got some advice here on how to find the best travel gear deals every time. Bring a portable phone charger too if you have long flight days.
– Get the electronic items downloaded
Load up your Kindle with reading material or grab a couple of books. Get some entertainment on your favored device. Put a currency exchange app on your phone so you’ll know the value of the local currency compared to yours. See what your roaming plan is and if you’re not on T-mobile, pay more or get a Sim card/eSim for your destination.
How about you? What kind of non-search information gathering has paid off in your travel plans?