Iâ€™m in the midst of trip-planning right now. Honestly, I love the research and time investment in planning a great trip, from picking the best kid-friendly hotel to finding out which museums are open on the days weâ€™re in town. Yeah, I’m a travel-research geek. I cull information from a number of sites to plan a great trip for my family. They’re sort of spoiled now, though, and if I mess up — I hear about it!
One thing I’ve learned: Never rely too heavily on one site (even this one!), one friend or one guidebook. Planning a great trip takes intensive Internet time up-front, but it’s better than driving around a suburb at 7 p.m., looking for an open restaurant. And with the right amount of work, your partner and children will think you’re a travel genius.
(unless you chose the fly-in-my-soup restaurant, but we’ll talk about that another time)
Here are online sites I use to plan summer vacations, spring breaks and travel-research trips:
TripAdvisor: I use the TripAdvisor.com to dig up quality hotels in smaller towns outside of Vancouver, Seattle, Victoria and Portland, although the site works for big cities as well. I like Tripadvisor specifically because so many of the siteâ€™s participants go the independent-travel route rather than prepackaged lodging-dining-activity plans culled from a guidebook. The boards can be helpful if you have a question, and most reviews are interesting. I tend to read â€“ but not necessarily believe â€“ the best reviews (couldâ€™ve been written by hotel ownerâ€™s friends) and the worst reviews (written by a competing hotelier?) and then try to find the average. Generally, deal-killers for me include reports of poor soundproofing, bad neighborhoods and of course, bedbugs. (shiver)
Tripadvisor Tip: The best aspects of Tripadvisor are the hotel reviews and forums; Crowdsourcing from the vacation rental reviews or restaurant picks doesn’t work for me.
Chowhound: I love the Chowhound.com message boards. Those of us with pickier palates appreciate this siteâ€™s gourmet reviews. Not that every restaurant recommendation is expensive â€“ youâ€™re as apt to find a glowing review of a hole-in-the-wall burger joint as a upscale bistro. People on this board just love food, in all guises and pricepoints. Itâ€™s also a great way to find child-friendly restaurants at your out-of-the-way destination, if you want to ask a question on the message board.
Chowhound Tip: Itâ€™s not easy to find relevant Chowhound threads using Chowhound’s search tool. I use Google and enter â€œsite:chowhound.chow.comâ€ and then my term â€“ â€œOlympia restaurants kids.â€ Or browse by destination on the board. Example: Greater Seattle Chowhound recommendations and reviews. Remember that not everyone has the same tastes, and this is an anonymous message board. Take everything with a grain of salt and a sprig of rosemary.
Priceline: If Iâ€™m headed into a big city for just a few days or an overnight, I use Priceline.com to pick up my room. Priceline is a cheap way to get a stunning hotel room (particularly in Seattle and Vancouver), so we have more money for eating out.
Priceline Tip: Use my Priceline process to book your Seattle, Vancouver or Portland Priceline stay. I would not use Priceline for a two-star hotel in any city. There’s just too much variance in quality.
Slow Travel: What isÂ Slow Travel? According to the Slowtravel.com siteâ€™s founder, it’s about slowing down your itinerary, finding a “home base” for your vacation and just enjoying your destination without pressure. Slow travel is the perfect way to travel with kids. Most of the Slow Travel forum and site participants are Europhiles with plans for the summer in Tuscany; However, youâ€™ll also find a North America section where you can read vacation-rental reviews , trip reports and other destination-ready suggestions. Or if you’re a local, maybe you can make a few suggestions to visitors.
Google Maps: I use Google Maps to map out my drive and stops along the way (I do recommend stopping at least every two hours with kids, just so don’t drive one another crazy). I find the site’s directions fairly accurate, although it’s always good to double-check directions and suggestions with a real, live human (that road may be under construction or the bus route may not operate on Sundays).
Google Maps Tip: Use Google Street View to check out a hotel or rental’s exterior and surrounding neighborhood. Is the hotel in a dodgy part of town, or is the rental right on the highway? Good to know before you show up. However this visual information, like all information, can rapidly go out of date — make sure the construction cranes are still there before you break up with your hotel reservation.
VRBO or HomeAway.com: If I canâ€™t find an apartment or house review on Slow Travel, I will browse VRBO or HomeAway for a family-friendly Washington, Oregon or BC rental option, particularly if Iâ€™m staying for more than three nights. I hate tiny, cramped hotel rooms as much as the next traveler, and I find that cooking in the room makes more sense, financially.
VRBO.com Tip: Read this CascadiaKids.com article on finding a child-friendly or family vacation rental in Seattle, British Columbia or Washington State.
Other sites worth a mention:
Nwcheapsleeps.org. On her blog, Lauren blogs about various bed and breakfasts and fabulous destinations throughout the Pacific Northwest. Great if you’d prefer to go the B&B route (with kids, or without!). The Cheapsleeps Finder makes searching easy.
Yelp.com for restaurants at my destination. The site provides random reviews — more like a restaurant snapshot than a panoramic perspective. It also doesn’t work well for some cities; Spokane stands out in my mind as an example of a city where you do not want to take Yelp reviews into account. I found that out the hard way.
AAA of Washington for finding and booking hotels that accept my AAA card (10%off).
Local mom blogs for my destination, particularly if I trust the blogger’s taste in dining. I always try to leave a blog comment if I visit and get a great local-travel tip from a blogger!