Sorting out travel plans can really be a simple or as complicated as you want it to be. You can ‘throw money’ at it and get someone to arrange it all for you, or you can spend a bit more time and effort and sort it out yourself.
Most of my jobs have had something to do with the travel industry (the last decade spent at global hotel booking/price comparison sites), so I’m in the camp of “sorting it out myself”. I love the research phase of figuring out where to go and then the planning phase of making it happen (and getting the best deal while I’m at it!). I’m terrible, though, at figuring out what to do once we get there. I’ll happily rock up to a destination with not one thing planned…well, maybe except for where to eat!
So, here are some of the ways I go about planning and booking our travel and the tools I use. I hope one or two might make your next trip a bit more stress free!
Price Comparison Sites
I’m a fairly loyal Qantas flier, but I rarely start on their website to book flights. The majority of the time, I go straight to a price comparison site (I predominately use KAYAK) as they make it so much easier to find what I’m looking for. I can filter by time, airline, airline alliance, whatever. Especially when your travels are more complicated that just in and out of one city, these sites aggregate much better than many of the actual airline websites.
If you’re not familiar with price comparison (or “metasearch”) sites, you actual don’t book with them, you book with one of their fare ‘suppliers’. It could be the airline direct (yes, you can book the more complicated routes still direct via here but not on the airline’s site!), a global site like Expedia or a more regional supplier you might not have heard of where you live. For these, don’t ignore them just because you don’t know them, BUT, I would say do a quick search on Google to see what others have said about them. Recently, Bestjet collapsed here in Australia and left a lot of people in the lurch.
Really, you could consider this another price comparison search. I’ve started using Google Flights more and more, mainly for research purposes. It’s really helpful to get a quick snapshot of your options and then they have a great Price Graph tool that is helpful when you don’t have fixed dates but are more interested in a good deal.
You can also scroll to the bottom of the page to amend your language, country and currency settings. Helpful if you’re booking something while travelling, but you want to results of your home country search.
Hotels drive me crazy. They want you to book direct with them, but unfortunately, as a whole, they do such a poor job and making you want to book direct (more expensive, terrible websites, making you create a log-in, etc..) that I often book elsewhere. That being said, I recently had a good experience booking direct (see here) so I will cover booking direct as well.
Price Comparison Sites (Trivago, Skyscanner, KAYAK, HotelsCombined)
However, let’s start here. Price comparison sites are my go-to for booking hotels but not necessarily the same reason as for flights. With flights, it’s mainly the good user experience on their site. For hotels, it’s the rate!
Unfortunately (or fortunately for you!), hotels are terrible at controlling their rates that end up online. It’s not necessarily their fault (I won’t bore you, but rates going from the hotel to you go can pass through many middleman that either adhere or don’t adhere to the ‘rules’ the hotel has given them), so it pays to shop around for the best hotel deal. Now, when I say ‘deal’, that doesn’t necessarily mean the cheapest rate. I make sure to compare what’s included (i.e. if booking a hotel at Uluru, you probably want breakfast included as there’s no McDonald’s next door!), or I may need a flexible cancellation policy in case my plans change, etc.
I predominately use HotelsCombined to book my hotels. Just like with the flights, you aren’t booking directly with them, but booking with their partners, that can include the hotel directly. What I like about HotelsCombined is that it’s easy to see the best deals for each hotel to get an idea of what I’m looking at rate wise. If I know the area I want to stay in, I can use the map to get a quick idea of how hotels in that area compare, or if I know the hotel I want, it’s easy to see which of their partners have the best deal.
Same as for the flights, there might be some suppliers that you haven’t hear of, but don’t just dismiss them. My parents in the US would never know the Wotif brand, but they are an Expedia brand, quite popular in Australia. (To be honest, Expedia and Booking Holdings are duopolies, owning most of the major online hotel bookings sites, sigh…).
While we’re on the accommodation topic, I have to also mention “alternative accommodation”, i.e. AirBnB. Everyone in the industry has an opinion about AirBnB and similar companies, but as far as I’m concerned, alternative accommodation can be a great alternative to a hotel. For me, it’s really about where I am going and the experience I’m looking for. In a big city or resort destination I’m probably choosing a hotel for the ease, facilities, etc. If I’m looking for a more ‘get away from it all’ vibe, I’d probably opt for something other than a hotel.
Australia and New Zealand, for the most part, are driving countries. If you’re planning on just visiting the major cities, you can definitely get by on a combination of public transport, taxis and/or Ubers. However, to really experience either of these countries, I would definitely recommend venturing away from the cities as well. Driving down under is on the left but in case you don’t remember, there will be some road signs to remind you! Once you’re out of the major cities, driving is pretty straightforward, but the distances are fairly substantial. You’ll see a lot of Driver Reviver stops along the highways of Australia that serve free coffee to motorists – stop and take advantage of them.
Unlike hotels and flights, I find the price comparison sites for car rental a bit too much work – the type of car is never the same, I don’t know what car rental company I’m actually booking with and it’s just a bit too much work.
For rental cars, I tend to stick with Avis as we’ve had good experiences with them in Australia, South Africa, the US, the UK…And some bad experiences with other companies. But to be honest, I think it’s luck of the draw a lot of the time. If you do go with Avis, be sure to sign up for their free Avis Preferred program before you book. This allows you to skip the pickup counter and go straight to your car at lots of locations. (Some of the other big rental car companies have a similar loyalty program). I would pay for this service! Getting to the rental car counter after coming off a long flight and then getting the sales pitch of the endless add-ons has to be one of the most painful processes ever!
If you are a member of a frequent flyer program (and if you fly and aren’t then why not, it’s free!), did you know that you can book your car and earn frequent flyer points? Below is the car rental booking page via the Qantas website. At least with Avis, I find the rates the same for the fully refundable, and i get some more points!
Frequent Flyer Programs
While we are on the subject, all I can say is that it is definitely worth it to sign up for your airline’s frequent flyer program because it’s totally free! And you might end up flying with them (or their partner airlines) more than once. I could write a decent amount about frequent flyer programs here, but there’s a couple of guys online that will cover any question you could possible have, so suggest you give them a read if you want more info. The Points Guy and God Save The Points are great resources.
What other travel tips are you interested in? Leave them in the comments below!