With the summer now in full swing ramping, it’s time to turn our thoughts to last minute family vacation planning. Yikes. Like you, every year I resolve to book my family summer getaways months in advance and, like you, I wait until the last minute to do so.
This year will be no different as I scramble to set up cheap airfare e-mail alerts, comb through my in-box culling the endless stream of hotel offers and parse online travel agent come-ons. (One clever agent colored outside the lines this year with a teasing, “Congratulations, you’ve won a great offer!” e-mail subject line.)
In our Internet-of-everything, mobile-device-driven consciousness, the power of researching vacation options, first instantly comparable and then immediately shareable, resides entirely within the buyer’s ability to remain tenacious and focused. The relentless, singular pursuit of “The Best Travel Deal” surely matters, but let’s take a breath here. Has the recent and complete digitization of our daily lives really affected the summer vacation planning experience in any meaningful way?
It’s worth remembering that not so long ago arranging any vacation began with a phone call to an airline or travel agent. Imagine that, planning a vacation with the help of a real person, on the phone. And I mean talking into the phone, not tapping on it. Yes, my Millennial pals, it was, at times, a truly grueling and demoralizing experience. Long phone hold times, the inevitable unlucky draw of a rude or impatient call center agent, then hanging up the phone with a general feeling of helplessness and dread: did I really get the best price for the best flight available? Will the hotel be under construction and bug infested? Travel shoppers were truly at the mercy of the airlines, travel agents and printed brochures (which were outdated the day they arrived on the racks.) We might have fared better with the travel agents, but their allegiance was suspect. Think “commissions.” No, there is no love lost for those pre-digital days, the many hours wasted on the phone, comparison-shopping, committing to a purchase and then hoping you didn’t get screwed.
But, again, what impact has this digital infusion into our lives had on travel planning and the vacation itself? For starters, the checklist of things-not-to-be-left-behind includes lots of plugs and wires. And if you’re traveling internationally and plan to stay connected, you’ll need to include in your Hefty bag of accessories a power adapter or voltage converter. But let’s back up: if your family is like my family, planning your trip begins with comparison-shopping flight and hotel deals online.
The world wide web of comparing everything with everything all the time—Online travel planning starts with, yes, the online travel agencies (or OTAs, which is industry jargon for websites like Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity and Hotels.com). These sites are still your best option to compare airfares and hotel rates, and then book all of your holiday travel needs, from flights to rooms to rental cars. Rezdy, a data site for tour operators, claims that 57 percent of us will make travel reservations online. I don’t know why this number is not 100 percent, but never mind. Rest assured, this number will continue to grow as more people become more comfortable with ignoring travel agencies.
Mobile first—By far, smartphone apps drive the biggest innovations impacting the travel shopping experience as well as the actual experience once you arrive at your vacation spot. Apps empower us to share our vacation memories before they become memories. All airlines now offer apps for smartphone check in, with common feature sets including the ability to view flight status, change seat assignments, then check-in while on route to the airport—provided it’s more than one hour prior to your scheduled departure. A boarding pass on your smartphone is scan-able at the security desk and then again at the gate—very convenient and one less piece of paper to lose. But keep your battery charged. Download your airlines’ app well before your trip to allow adequate time to climb any learning curve. You’ll find that the apps’ menu options are very similar across all the major airlines, but still allow yourself time to gain minimum familiarity.
Social mobile geo goo-goo—So-called ‘geo-location’ apps like Swarm (formerly the fun part of Foursquare) are great for making the experience of getting from point A to B more entertaining, while also making point B the place to be. “Check in” at a restaurant, café or bar, read what others have to say and peruse the photos they’ve posted. I’m brutally candid with my check-in reviews; if I stumble upon a restaurant that can’t be bothered to sweep the floors or wipe the tables, I will inform my network. It’s the right thing to do. But more importantly, if it’s a good experience I’ll shout accolades from the rooftops, or in this case, Instagram and Twitter. Help others enjoy that previously hidden gem of a dessert spot; it’s the right thing to do.
These geo-location apps are extremely valuable particularly if you’re visiting a place for the first time. Yelp’s app is a priceless resource, and unlike the static guidebooks of yore, it’s organic and aggressively updated content, relevant feedback, real world commentary with recent photos.
Your smartphone is the only camera you’ll ever need, ever again—Once upon a time, cameras had film, and that film had to be sent out to be developed before you could bore your friends and family with your vacation adventures. No more! Today, on any given trip I am likely to take hundreds of images with my iPhone, and, thanks to Facebook, Instagram and Flickr, upload and share those precious, brag-worthy moments instantly. With hashtags at the ready, my photo essays are meme-enabled, and all of this “content” is effortlessly searchable across the social media #universe.
Social media: buying and sharing stuff—The quiet power of social media is its inherent advantages as content curator. A short list of good Twitter handles to follow includes @traveldeals, @airfarewatchdog, @CheapTickets and @BudgetTravel . For reviews and news you can use, you can’t beat @TravelLeisure and @nytimestravel. Twitter and Facebook are chock-a-block full of deals and occasional steals for all things vacation planning-related. Facebook is now all things to all people for everything, including travel reviews and holiday deals. There are literally thousands of travel-related pages, but here’s one I like: https://www.facebook.com/besttraveldeals.
So, go forth online and in-app, and start planning that dream holiday getaway. It may take many hours, and it will be onerous at times. Stay tenacious and focused, and you will uncover that great getaway nugget. But always remember, as challenging as this might be, imagine what it was like to make do with just a phone and the Yellow Pages (don’t ask) back in the stone age… back before 1994.
Have a wonderful summer, enjoy that well-earned family vacation, and don’t forget to #share.