Travel Planning 101: Research for the Budget Traveller

Many (many) years ago, pre-internet, the average person would never consider booking our travel. Few would have the time, knowledge, or connections to compare various offerings. We didn't have access to reviews or photos. Almost without exception we used the services of travel agents and trusted them to do that work for us.


Travel agents still perform this service and are very useful for more complex travel arrangements, but many budget travellers have learned to do our own research and bookings. We find we are more motivated to find better deals, better able to react to flash discounts or error fares, and are generally more satisfied with the prices and excursions we find. We are confident that we have accessed enough information to make wise choices. We have built that confidence by constantly improving our 'googling' skills.

It takes time to do the research. I need a fair amount of information before I'm ready to commit my travel dollars. I want to make a lot of comparisons and make sure I don't miss a good deal. I tend to use aggregate sites and alerts for fares and lodgings (see the 2nd Edition of The Scary World of Travel). I'm not just researching prices and options. I am also learning about the history and culture of the area, suggested activities, local festivals, and transportation options.


I enjoy the planning process as much as I enjoy the travel. I fill notebooks and digital files with links, research, questions, options, and maps as I gradually gather the information. I am often planning several trips at the same time, with different notebooks for each. I'm a big fan of organizational strategies and tools. Besides my notebooks, I have documents organized into files that are organized into folders, that are organized into another folder. In My Documents on my computer, I have a folder labelled 'Travel'. Within that folder, I have a folder for each trip labelled "XDestination+TravelYear". Within that folder will be other files labelled 'Lodgings', 'Excursions', 'Transportation', 'Hikes', etc. In each file will be at least one document (or spreadsheet) of links. When things move to the "shortlist", that's when I start using my notebooks.

In the early stages of research, there are few things as overwhelming as an internet search that returns millions of results, many of which are not relevant. We need to be able to filter those results efficiently. Due to my involvement in many complex internet games and my graduate studies, I have learned some of the search parameters and keywords that search engines use to return better results. Very few of us 'mature' travellers were ever actually taught this information but have sort of stumbled our way through. Here are a few of the search indicators that can yield better search results, no matter the information you're searching.


Google Travel for Travel Research


As we all know, Google is far and above the most common search engine and is the inspiration for the new English verb, 'to google'. Google has also produced many tools to support users. One of those tools is Google Travel, also available as a free app. By beginning your search at www.google.com/travel/, much of the research organization and search parameters are embedded behind the user screen. Do your queries here and use tabs to park the information until you are ready to do the comparisons.


Google Search Basics:

Use Tabs and Windows: Tabs are useful for holding pages open to look at images, make comparisons, and quick references. Keep similar information in different tabs in a different window. Only bookmark sites if the entire site is useful, otherwise copy and paste ONLY the relevant information and link into a document. Remember the goal is to reduce the amount of information to the point it becomes useful rather than overwhelming. My experience tells me that most people keep more researched information than will be used. Pro tip: if you accidentally close a tab, or want to find a page you saw previously, you can find it by looking into your History in the menu bar.


As a highly visual learner, I almost always will open an Images tab as research inspiration. Those images inspire to find out about the location and plan a visit. Other tabs will include area maps, lists of things to do in my chosen location, tours offered, entry requirements, travel advisories, and transportation options. After an intense planning session, it isn't unusual to have more than 20 tabs open. Before closing each tab, decide whether you will want to return to the same page. If so, copy the link into a document you keep on your computer. If you are a nerdy spreadsheet fan you will have many opportunities to indulge.


Search Terms: Keep your search simple. Get rid of extraneous information by learning to focus your query. Search engines look for links to every word typed into the search box. Let's imagine that you wanted to find an Australian hotel mentioned by a friend.

Use Quotes: Searching for Hotel Sydney returns 238 million results for all hotels, books, movies, etc that include either word and alternate spellings. Putting quotes around "Hotel Sydney" gets 1.6 million results that only link to sites with both words in that exact order.


Focus by using + or -: The addition and subtraction signs can further reduce the number of results to find Hotel Sydney in Australia, but not the Hotel Sydney in New South Wales.


Information for Specific Sites: Sometimes we want to look on a specific site for information. To do this we use a colon followed by the site name to return only mentions from that specific site.


Conversions and Calculations: When comparing costs or distances, it isn't unusual to find information in unfamiliar units. Google will do all the conversions, using current rates. To convert a price in euros to the Canadian dollar, type "x EUR to CAD". Google also converts distances, weights, temperatures, and other measurements. Rather than pull up your calculator, enter your equations into google using the asterisk (*) for multiplication and the forward-slash (/) for division.


You are now armed with some knowledge to refine your internet searches and begin to do any research needed to plan your dream trip. I hope there's some new information for anyone who was feeling overwhelmed by google results. Do you have a hint to help you get the most useful search results? During the dream phase, I'll often pull up google travel and play with the explore button and consider where I might want to go next. Next week, in Travel Planning 102, I will share some of the research I find useful prior to booking, and the research done after booking to enhance my adventures. The following week Travel Planning 103 will share my favourite travel apps that help keep me organized.


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