For Travel Planning, Search Engines May Not Be Your Best Destination
It’s that time of year when many of us turn to the internet for information, advice and maps to help plan a getaway for some rest and relaxation. Many people start with search engines to help them find travel related sites. Others seek out maps to help plan routes or check out street level images of hotels, restaurants and attractions. Still others turn to social rating and review sites, hoping to benefit from the experiences of others rather than relying on marketing hype from travel service providers.
There are a ton of great resources out there to help you research and plan your holiday. But there is no single, comprehensive source that will give you everything you need to know. And some sites with some really excellent resources are sadly lacking in tools or information easily found elsewhere.
This is the first of a two part series looking at the best travel search resources on the internet. I’m going to start, naturally, with the three major search engines. Of the three, just Bing and Yahoo have prominent and rich travel verticals (but don’t count Google out—more on its apparent plans in the travel space later).
Next I’ll look at the online versions of popular travel guides featured prominently at your favorite bookstores. Like their print kin, these are generally rich with information, photos, maps and advice. Some leverage the interactive potential of the web, offering tools, customization, mobile apps and more. Others are essentially online brochures.
I’m purposely avoiding the major online travel agencies like Expedia, Priceline, Travelocity, Orbitz, Kayak and others. They’re useful sites, but their primary function is to either sell you a travel product or refer you a seller’s site. Rather, I’m going to focus on sites that either help you search for travel information, or help you plan and assemble an itinerary independently of how you intend to travel.
So let the journey begin.
Travel planning with Bing, Google & Yahoo
Many people almost reflexively begin travel planning with the major search engines. And why not? All three offer good mapping services—in fact, Hitwise ranks Google Maps as the #1 travel site with a 15% market share, nearly double the share of #2 Mapquest and 5 times third place Expedia.
But as useful as the major search engines can be in helping you plan a trip, they all have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to travelers aid.
General travel queries
For a query like “duluth vacation,” each search engine offers a very different set of results. Both Bing and Google results for the query “duluth vacation” (Bing, Google) skew toward heavily SEO’d property and rental sites, with a few links to information resources. Both also offer a local map and easy access to local search listings, as well as a set of suggested related searches that can help you refine your query. Yahoo’s results are a bit broader, including links to more info from Yahoo’s travel vertical, Trip Advisor and the Vacation Rentals By Owner website.
Bottom line: If you’re just starting your vacation planning, general search engines can help you get a good initial “lay of the land.” But if you have a good idea of where you want to go you’re better off going directly to one of the travel planner sites I’ll be reviewing later this week.
Using maps for travel planning
For a long journey, it’s useful to have detailed driving directions, overhead and street-level images to help you get a sense of place, and particularly if you’re traveling in urban areas, real-time traffic info. All three major search engines have very good and usually accurate (careful, though! not always) maps at Bing Maps, Google Maps and Yahoo Local Maps (this is a link to the beta version which I think is better than the current service).
Of the three, I prefer Google for driving directions, primarily because it has autosuggest enabled, making it easy to select different variations of keywords for your query (though Bing and Yahoo have autosuggest for web search, they don’t offer it for maps). Google also offers alternative routes for some trips. By default, all three mapping services look for the fastest, most direct route to a destination, which in most cases is what you want. But if you’re more interested in a scenic route, especially for longer trips, you’ll want to experiment with adding cities or landmarks as waypoints between your starting and ending locations.
Arguably the biggest difference between the three is in the print versions of your itineraries. Each offers a map of your journey, but renders step-by-step directions differently. Bing’s are visually rich, with road sign symbols, visual turn indicators and nice total miles/time markers for each step. In addition to the map of your complete journey, Bing also includes smaller maps of your beginning and endpoints. In the list of directions, Google offers road sign symbols and visual turn indicators, but the layout isn’t as easy to read as Bing’s—for some, an important difference when you’re simultaneously driving and trying to read directions. Yahoo’s driving directions are the most spartan, but it also offer options for beginning and end point maps. Here are sample driving directions from each of the three—click on the links to see the complete list:
Bottom line: Each of the major search engines’ mapping functions are useful, with just a few variations in features. Which one you ultimately use will likely be more determined by your comfort factor than due to differences in functionality or accuracy.
Search engine travel verticals
At the moment, just Yahoo has a fully-fledged travel vertical with its Yahoo Travel property, with comprehensive booking, research and planning tools. Although positioned as a vertical, Bing Travel isn’t as comprehensive as Yahoo (Bing does aggregate travel articles from other sources and publish some original content, though it isn’t easy to find). However, Bing does offer some excellent and unique fare and rate comparison tools that help you find good deals on travel—it just lacks the guides and other tools that Yahoo offers.
What Bing does that no other travel site does is attempt to predict when to buy, when to fly, and where to stay based on a huge volume of airfare and hotel rate data it processes every day.
At its most basic, you can enter two cities and the dates you want to travel, and like most travel sites Bing will present you with a list of airfares, hotel offers and links to book online. But Bing takes this a step farther, and also tells you if this is the best time to make a booking or not:
If Bing suggests that you wait, when exactly should you book? To find out, click the “Flexible search” link on the menu bar:
Re-run your flight search, and you’re presented with three options: a map, showing your route, a graph, showing you when to travel, and a grid, showing options when you vary the length of your trip. To determine the best time to buy if you have fixed dates, select the graph:
This shows a chart of predicted prices over the coming month for your itinerary, based on historical data and other factors (such as holidays, major conventions or events happening in your destination city, and so on). Note: you’ll need to be careful here, as the chart shows the dates when predicted fares for specific dates should be lowest, not the date you should purchase a ticket. Airline fares constantly change—what this graph shows you is a probable trend in fares, not exact pricing. You’ll need to think about other factors like early purchase discounts when making your purchase decision.
If you have some flexibility with your travel dates, you’ll get another interesting view of predicted prices based on the duration of your stay mapped with suggested departure dates for your trip:
Notice the more than $400 dollar difference if you simply change the dates and duration of your trip! Using these tools, it’s possible to save some serious coin when making your reservations, usually without doing anything other than following Bing’s recommendations.
If you’re looking for a hotel, Bing will also look at historical prices and will offer an opinion about the rate a particular hotel is offering:
Although Google has sent a clear signal that it intends to become a big player in travel with its recent purchase of travel reservations software company ITA, as well getting the team behind travel guide site Ruba to “join” Google, for the time being its only pure travel related services apart from maps are flight tracking and currency conversion—just type any U.S. airline and flight number (united 929) or monetary conversion (100 USD in ZAR) directly into any Google search box.
Bottom line: Bing’s travel vertical offers unique planning tools, and some useful information (if you can find it). But in general, if you’re looking for travel guides, route planning tools and other resources to help you with your trip, you’re better off with Yahoo travel or one of the other travel planning resources I’ve written about in The Thirteen Best Online Travel Guides.
General-purpose search engines try to offer reasonable results regardless of the type of query. But to get really useful travel information, you’re almost always better off seeking out specialized resources. Read on for an in-depth look at the web’s most useful travel planning resources: