Over the years, I’ve gone from super-anal, stressed out travel planner to go-with-the-flow, slightly stressed out traveler. A lot of this is due to my expert business and adventure traveler of a husband. We’ve both done a good amount of traveling: business, military, solo, adventure, family and the most complex kind. The kind that combines 2 or more of the above. So when travel expenses are limited by different variables like travel preferences (luxury or boutique or hostel) or our bank account, locating the best budget friendly travel sites means we can do more with less expense and maximize the travel experience for all of us. These are our family favorite sites that we frequently revisit in our couples/family traveling over the last 10+ years. We use them for all types of travel, business, solo, adventure, family (with and without dogs) and multi-purpose (i.e. events like weddings combined with business).
There are nearly as many useful apps and tools as there are countries to visit. These sites and apps promise easier travel planning or expense recording, but honestly, you won’t know if it works for you and your family if you can’t try it first.
But if you’ll trust me, I’m here to tell you that either my husband or I have used them for our own business and personal travel planning. Also as an executive assistant in recent years, I used many of these same sites and tools when planning national and overseas itineraries for C-suiters and their travel teams. Unless otherwise noted, the links below are international or have international links.
If you read all the way to the end, I’ll also list some fantastic travel bloggers who provide fab travel tips… cheap, free, luxury, and everything in between. Some have affiliate links (nothing wrong with clicking them to help support like-minded travelers if you so choose).
For airline booking, you can use these sites to compare prices and stay within budget. *compare these prices with your favorite airlines’ posted flights
- Skyscanner: definitely my favorite resource
- How to use it: compare airfare for destinations and dates, filter by price or departure/arrival time
- What’s so awesome about it: you can choose to purchase flights through their links with discount sites or through the airline’s company site and you aren’t paying any fees to Skyscanner
- Special mentions: you can also check discount long-distance carrier, Condor Airlines
- Tip: Check out the typical weather for any stopovers during your travel dates. One winter, I was delayed in Atlanta every time I flew through from Washington DC to San Antonio. EVERY TIME.
- Tip: Add extra time or days to your travel plans if you’ve got unique travel situations like ferries or sea planes. Last winter, I traveled with Lufthansa (a personal fave airline) to Vancouver, British Canada. My final destination was the eastern side of Vancouver Island, which could be reached by bus, ferry, or seaplane. The bay is known for heavy fog during the winter months, effectively grounding planes and ferries between the mainland and the island. I ended up taking a seaplane there and a small commuter flight back, altering my original travel plans twice and returning a day earlier. I opted to stay in Vancouver city to ensure I wouldn’t miss my flight home to Germany (found a discount for a 4 star hotel via one of the hotel links below!).
- Tip: carve out some quiet time to go through Google’s powerful ITA matrix like the Pros. You can’t book here but you can use the information to head over to the airline website to purchase tickets. If it saves money, why not do an extra step or 2? Or you can use kayak or Skyscanner (who uses the matrix too!)
For lodging options, if you’re a frequent traveler, check out your options related to your mileage or lodging program. Here are our family’s favorites, depending on where we are traveling (USA or international). This is not an all-inclusive list, but the ones we use at least annually for business or personal travel.
- Airbnb: we’ve used this successfully throughout Europe (Brussels, Copenhagen, Berlin) and several friends have too. It pays to read reviews and look closely at the details in each listing, i.e. extra fees, stairs or elevators, parking space included.
- VRBO: Vacation Rentals by Owner; great for short and long term stays. We used this recently in Austria when we shared a great home with 4 other families.
- Booking.com: filters for hotels, apartments, vacation rentals.
- Hotels.com: same as Booking.com.
- Tablet Hotels: I love looking here for boutique hotels, which I prefer out of all hotel types. There just seems to be more personality and savoir faire, you know?
- wombat’s CITY Hostels: award-winning hostels with great amenities; Berlin, Budapest, London, Munich, Vienna
The following are loyalty programs with major hotel chains you may already know:
Car rental agencies and their loyalty programs:
- My favorite agency, when available, is the Emerald Program for National Car Rental, but it’s not always the cheaper option. Other popular agencies that are usually colocated with major airports in the US and globally.
- Comparison sites: Skyscanner, Kayak.
- Don’t ignore agencies that are not airport locations; sometimes the vehicle type you want is available there but not at the airport. Also, online prices may be significantly lower than in person reservations.
- If you need booster seats for little ones, reserve them early or bring your own. We are huge fans of the Bubble Bum inflatable, foldable booster seat. (US readers can order here)
- myTaxi app: I like that you can track your driver as well as drivers that are within your area. We use this app often and we’ve also collected cards from the drivers we get, preferring to call them first to see if they are available.
- One thing I noticed in Berlin that probably applies to busy urban areas: if it’s rush hour, the taxi that’s closest on the map may have a hard time getting to you if you’re in an area that’s congested and has a lot of one way streets.
- Uber: Even with all the negative press and legal challenges Uber has faced on the global front, it’s an excellent concept that widens the competition. I’ve only used it in a couple of European cities (Berlin, Copenhagen), and haven’t had any problems.
- I first heard of them from a MailChimp account manager I met at a European blog conference. Her Uber driver arrived faster than my myTaxi driver, so I downloaded the app ASAP. It’s in most European cities, too, but not all areas are covered.
- SuperShuttle: Though technically not a taxi, but usually a minivan, this is my mother’s favorite mode to get to her nearest international airport. Personally, I think it takes too long, but it’s super economical if you’re not in a rush. It’s all over the US and in some international sites (Amsterdam, London, Paris, Cancun and Los Cabos).
- We’ve used them in the states (Washington DC, San Antonio) and in larger cities in Europe. If the cost is equivalent to a taxi, why not? The drivers meet you at the gate and can provide a couple of extra hands if you have a lot of luggage to move along.
- When in London a couple of years ago, I used the same hired car driver for my team that I used later when I was on holiday. He proved his worth when he recommended day trips and local restaurants too. I have this same driver on my WhatsApp and have recommended him often to friends traveling to London.
- How to find reputable hired car drivers?
- If I’m traveling for business, I’ll ask my contact at my destination for references.
- If for personal travel, I’ll check in with a number of sources including the local travel bureau or city website.
- If you’re traveling in Europe, regional and long distance trains are sometimes the cheaper way to travel compared with airfare. Here are a few sites I’ve used or noted are popular in the different travel forums I follow:
- If you’re traveling throughout Japan, the famous Bullet train or Shinkansen is a popular way to travel around the countryside.
- The key is to plan ahead of time and keep in mind these variables:
- Travel time from point A to B to C etc. If you’re going to spend more than a few hours in transit, you may want to consider an overnight train with a sleeping car or couchette.
- Also consider transfer times and additional costs for local travel from the station to your lodging, etc. If you’re on a high speed train and you have a lot of moving parts and luggage (i.e. little kids and multiple pieces of luggage), keep an eye on the train schedule as you move along. You will want to be positioned near the exit with your luggage when the train reaches your destination. Take your cues from fellow passengers; they may even be able to give you a hand if you have little ones and a lot of gear.
- Additional overall costs may include rental and/or public transportation such as…
Buses, street cars:
- Great options in modern cities and small towns.
- If you’ve got time before you get to your destination, download travel apps if they are available. Or ask your hotel or hostel’s front desk for maps and bus schedules.
Cycles, rickshaws, carriage rides:
- When you’ve got a 6 year old or a romantic date, these are a good way to see the local sites quickly around popular city centers like:
- Copenhagen: Bike taxis and rental bike agencies
- Paris: velotaxi (add backlink to old post)
London, Genoa, Paris, Vienna, other major and some mid-size cities: hop-on/hop-off bus or little open-air “trains”
- London’s Hop on Hop off bus
- Rome’s Hop on Hop off
- Genoa’s Hop on Hop off
- Mainz, Germany’s Gutenberg Express
- Wiesbaden, Germany’s Neroberg Mountain Train
- Tokyo’s Hop on Hop off or Skybus tour
- Honolulu’s Hop on Hop off Aloha Bus tour
- Amsterdam’s Hop on Hop off tour
- Singapore’s Hop on Hop off tour
- Bangkok’s Tuk Tuk tour
- Carriage rides… romantic any time of year. We’ve used them as recently as last week in Vienna.
Cruiseships and Ferries:
- Cruiselines in Europe are a popular way to travel up and down major rivers like the Danube and the Rhine as well as around the Mediterranean.
- It’s a great option to use in Northern Europe for travel between major ports i.e. Copenhagen – Oslo. We like DFDS Seaways–for about 200 euro, we got a clean, 4 bunk stateroom for an overnight trip and access to a wonderful dining room, shopping, wi-fi, and a kids’ club.
Budget friendly travel sites and podcasts:
- Travefy*: I’ve really enjoyed using this site. You can build itineraries, with or without travel dates, and search for things to do within the app or add links and ideas as you go along. It’s relatively young in the travel app game, but the site’s robust, the customer service is prompt, and the fact that I can share the itinerary with others, like friends, family and clients, is fantastic.
- Betty in the Sky with a Suitcase: a family fave podcast by a flight attendant
- Rick Steves’ Europe: a fab guide for first time travelers to Europe
- Travel Fashion Girl: One of my favorite sites for travel packing lists
- Million mile secrets: traveling around the world on airline miles and hotel points
- Travel is Free: founded by a couple who travels around the world for free
- Cruise Critic deals: great site about cruise lines and cruise traveling tips and hints
- Travelettes: you don’t need to be a gal to appreciate the fab hints sprinkled all over this site
- Yonderbound: a new player in the online travel lodging business. Tag line is “Inspire people to travel, while making money along the way”
- Travelin10: travel podcast
- Virtual Tourist, wombat’s CITY Hostels and Airbnb also has fantastic city profiles
- Trip Advisor: great for checking out reviews of lodging, tourist sites, even restaurants
*Affiliate link: I’m an affiliate with this site which means that by listing it here, (1) I’ve personally used it and (2) I believe it’s worthy of my personal list.
I’d love to hear about your favorite travel planning sites, tips and hints. Add to the comments below or send me an email!