Useful travel apps and websites
Most mammalwatchers travel extensively to find animals. Yet few trip reports talk much about how they got to their destination, and hardly any give advice on travel and booking tips. Given that this is a fundamental element of mammalwatching – at least for those venturing beyond their backyard – I thought I’d start a page where we can discuss travel apps and websites and provide hints and tips about what we do to make our travel lives easier. While many of the better-known travel apps are fairly US centric, many are increasingly expanding their offerings abroad making them more useful to people living in other parts of the world. I should add that in the US there is also a whole, complex system of redeeming credit card points for flights (which Jon Hall is a master of, naturally), but I’ll ignore that here as it is only pertinent to the US and there are other sites which explain how it works in detail. I’ll assume that most people are familiar with AirB&B, Uber and some of the other large travel sites, but feel free to add information about those if you have useful tips on them.
When looking for flights my first port of call is invariably the Google Flights website. They offer a comprehensive search tool, and invariably dig up the cheapest flight options. You can’t actually book through Google Flights – the site takes you either to the airline website or an aggregator site where you can then purchase your ticket. And speaking of which, I generally avoid travel aggregator sites like Expedia and Booking.com when booking flights. If something goes wrong, it’s far easier to fix things directly with the airline than having to go through a third party. Others may have had better luck with aggregators and I do sometimes use them for booking hotels.
This is an extremely useful app which I use extensively. What it does is collate all of the information related to a trip (flights, vehicle rental, hotels etc) and puts into one easy-to-see format structured by timeline. It in effect replaces the clunky excel sheets that I used to create for my trips. You first need to download the app onto your smartphone (it does work on a computer as well but I seldom use it that way). The app is free, though they do also provide a ‘pro’ version for about $50. The main advantage I can see with the pro version is that it gives you rapid notice if your plane is delayed or cancelled – typically well before it’s announced at the gate or online – allowing you to get onto the customer service line to change your flight before everyone else does. No doubt useful if you’re a road warrior, but perhaps overkill for most of us. When you download the app it asks if you want the app to search through your emails to look for any travel-related documents, or whether you want to submit the information yourself. Unless you’re happy with an app scanning through all your emails, I would choose the latter option. When you book a flight, hotel etc, you forward your confirmation email to firstname.lastname@example.org and it compiles a new trip profile based on the dates you’ve sent it. You can then see at a glance the dates of your trip, and all of the details such as where you’ll be staying, flight times and carrier, car rental company, costs etc. For flights it shows you the departure time, flight duration, layover time, miles flown, map of the airport etc all in one place. You can also add notes and documents for each entry. If you need to change something, say you’ve decided to cancel your hotel and stay at a different one, just delete the old hotel entry and add the new one. It’s all very simple. Another really useful feature of the app is that it allows you to share your trip details with others, such as family members. They need to download the app as well, but once you’ve shared it with them they can then see your whole itinerary at a glance.
This is a car rental website that Jon Hall put me onto and which has probably saved me several thousand dollars over the years. The website takes advantage of the fact that car rental bookings can be cancelled up to 24 hours before pickup to find you better prices. When you open the website you put in the location you want to pick up and return the vehicle, the type of vehicle you’re looking for, and your email. It also asks you what memberships and credit cards you have in case there are any deals linked to those companies – which I believe is only pertinent for US based users. Once you’ve put in your details the site will send you an email with the best options offered by Priceline. I’ve found the prices they offer to be cheaper than what’s on offer through a usual aggregator site or through the car companies themselves. However, that’s not the best feature of this site. Once you’ve booked your car (obviously you select the option to pay when you pick the vehicle up), you then go back to Autoslash and click on ‘track a rental’. You’re then asked for the name of the rental company you booked with, the booking confirmation number and the price you paid. Autoslash then searches for any better deal that comes up and emails you when it finds one. You then make the new booking and cancel the old one, after which you enter the new booking details into Autoslash so it can continue to find you better rates. I don’t know what sort of black magic it uses, but I’ve had a Hertz rental price drop by $900 using this feature, and the price invariably drops by at least $50-100. Autoslash has apparently recently added an app with a hotel option but you have to pay for it and I haven’t tried it.
This app helps you track a particular plane or flight so you know what the flight status is. It gives you useful details like where your plane is flying in from and any delays there might be. It doesn’t do much that a dedicated airline app (like Delta, KLM etc) won’t also do, but it works for many different airlines and provides you with all the information in one place. Plus I’ve found that it sometimes provides a bit more detail than your regular airline app on why a plane is delayed.
Most people are probably familiar with this app, but just to point out that you can download a language on your phone in advance of a trip, which allows you to use the app even if your phone is offline.