As a frequent traveler, I always turn to a few time savers: building your own Google maps, using an itinerary management app and keeping important travel notes in a digital spreadsheet.
Smartphone? Check. Spare battery? Check. Power cables? Check. After deciding which gadgets to pack for your summer vacation, you can move on to the harder — and more fun — part: planning what you are going to do.
Flipping through printed travel guides and paper maps is passé. Tech tools are far more efficient at keeping your plans organized and easily accessible. As a frequent traveler, I always turn to a few time savers: building your own Google maps, using an itinerary management app and keeping important travel notes in a digital spreadsheet.
Not everyone wants to be as organized about trips as I do, of course; some people may simply want to roll with whatever comes their way. At the end of the day, your goal is to have fun on vacation. Planning a trip thoroughly with tech tools may sound like giving up spontaneity.
Yet in reality, it frees up time that you would have otherwise lost whenever you asked yourself, “What am I going to do today?”
It can reduce family arguments about what to see next on a trip. And it still allows for discoveries along the way.
So here’s a guide to using tech to plan your trip for maximum enjoyment.
Building a custom Google map
Why fumble around with a printed map when you can tailor a digital one just for your trip? (Even in areas with spotty cell service, you can make use of digital maps so long as you download offline maps ahead of time.)
The My Maps web app from Google has been my most powerful travel planning tool for years.
Using the Google map creator, you can look up points of interest like museums, restaurants and hotels and pin them on a map. To make the pins easy to read, you can color-code them or mark them with symbols — like an icon of a spoon and a knife for restaurants, or an icon of a bed for hotels.
You can add notes to each point of interest, like a few words about the type of food at a restaurant. You can also create “layers” to help organize your trip — for example, I create a new layer for each day of the trip. After making your custom map, you can call it up via the Google Maps app on a smartphone, in a menu labeled Your places.
The main benefit of this exercise is that the visual context of a map can help you plan each day around the proximity of points of interest. For example: When planning a trip to Taiwan this year, I created a layer for Day 1 and pinned a museum in northern Taipei along with some restaurants and a fish market in the area. After visiting the museum, I tapped on the nearest pin and loaded directions to walk to it. Using this routine, I visited nearly everything I wanted to see on the 10-day trip.
There’s another way custom maps save time. When your friends are visiting a country you have traveled to and bug you for your “bucket list” recommendations, you can simply send a Google invitation to the friend to view your map. That is far more useful than sharing a list of places to go.
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Pulling up itineraries can be a hassle because over the course of a longer vacation, there are so many items to juggle for flights, car rentals and hotel reservations for each city you visit.
There are plenty of tech tools that automatically organize itineraries. My favorites are the free mobile apps TripIt and Google Trips. They can scan your inbox for itineraries, hotel bookings and car-rental reservations, and then compile that information into an all-in-one itinerary.
Between the two apps, I prefer TripIt. It has a simpler interface that shows my trip information in a cohesive timeline; Google crams extra features into its app like coupons and recommendations for things to do.
Here’s how TripIt fits into my planning. I create a separate email account just for trip itineraries. After booking a flight, a car rental or a hotel, I forward the confirmation emails to that email account. When I am booking hotels or figuring out what to do each day, my TripIt timeline serves as a reference for where I am going to be.
Spreadsheets are your friend
If you want to be an extra-thorough planner, a spreadsheet can go a long way.
Here’s how a travel spreadsheet looks: One sheet labeled About includes information about the country, like the exchange rate or cultural etiquette (to tip or not to tip?).
Another sheet, labeled Pre-trip Checklist, contains a packing list and tasks like informing your credit-card company that you are about to travel. An itinerary sheet summarizes the general trip plan, including the cities you will be in on each date. Finally, the Lodging sheet has a quick list of hotels along with their addresses and the check-in and checkout dates.