Anyone who has gone on a trip in the past year probably has a horror story. Canceled flights have abounded. Customer service wait times with airlines can be hours long. In some places, the costs of rental cars and plane tickets have become astronomical.
Many of the economic problems birthed by the coronavirus pandemic — including high gas prices and burnout-induced resignations — have hit the travel industry especially hard, just as people have resumed taking trips and leaving home for vacations.
So nearly three years into COVID-19, travelers still need to take a modified approach to planning their getaways. That’s where these tech hacks come in. When the virus was more deadly, trip planning mostly involved doing online research to see where we were allowed to go and what was required. Now using tech can help make travel less chaotic and more comfortable, and assist in avoiding customer service snafus.
The most important timesaving tech travel tip right now is to avoid apps and websites that book through a third party, even though they can save you money. That’s because if something goes wrong with your flight or hotel room, a middleman is yet another party to deal with, which could lead to even more hours wasted on hold.
“If you book through a travel agency, you’re asking for trouble,” said Brian Kelly, the founder of the The Points Guy blog. “Go direct. The more people you put in the way, the more complicated things get.”
Here are some of the most useful tech tools that travel experts and I are using at this “new normal” stage of the pandemic to make our excursions more pleasant, including apps to monitor flight changes and find the best seats.
Travel hacks for smoother, cheaper flights
In an era of sky-high inflation when everyone is trying to save a buck, it is still possible to score a good deal on a plane ticket without booking through a third-party agency. The key is to use services that track each airline’s ticket costs and set up alerts for price drops.
Kelly’s tool of choice for scoring cheap airfare is Google Flights. With this web tool, he plugs in travel dates and destinations and then toggles on the option to track prices and receive email updates as soon as the airfare plummets. Then he buys the tickets directly through the airline.
The next step is to maximize comfort on the plane by getting the best cheap seats. For that, there’s SeatGuru, a web tool that lets travelers plug in their flight number to review an aircraft’s detailed seating chart. It highlights information about the seats, including those with extra legroom, and those with limited recline or overhead storage, which is more detail than the basic diagram that airlines show.
After booking, the last step is to monitor the status of the flight — a crucial step because cancellations and delays have become so common. Web tools such as FlightAware and Flightradar24 give up-to-date information on an aircraft’s precise location and insights into an airline’s track record for on-time arrivals and delays.
A bonus tip: Lounges can get very crowded nowadays, so when Kelly arrives at the airport, he uses the app LoungeBuddy to look up the ones he can slip into easily.
Tech to stay organized
In the early stages of the pandemic, travelers had to peruse travel and tourism websites to learn about the thicket of coronavirus restrictions and requirements for their destination. Now there’s a shortcut.
Henry Harteveldt, the founder of Atmosphere Research Group, a travel analysis firm in San Francisco, uses JoinSherpa.com, a web tool that pulls up the travel requirements for departures and returns. If you’re flying to Chile from San Francisco, for example, the site loads a list of all the health documents and quarantine requirements to enter the country, as well as the documents needed to get back into the United States.
Juggling travel documents and itineraries can still be a hassle because we have to carry more information than we used to. I use several tools to keep my itinerary and health documents tidy.
My favorite for organizing itineraries is TripIt. It can scan your inbox for itineraries, hotel bookings and car rental reservations, and then compile that information into an all-in-one itinerary presented as a neat timeline.
Here’s how TripIt fits into my planning. I have 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. Then TripIt automatically scans that inbox and updates my timelines.
For health documents, I always carry two digital forms of my vaccine records just in case there’s confusion. The first is the digital QR code provided by California’s Department of Public Health, which I store in my phone’s wallet app. (Check your state for a digital QR code for vaccine records.) The other is a photograph of the physical vaccine card, which I save inside a notes app to make it easy to find later.
Keeping track of luggage
Airport staffing shortages and surging demand for air travel have driven a spike in incidents of lost luggage. That makes wireless trackers, such as Tile and Apple’s AirTag, especially useful. These are miniature beacons that can be slipped into a piece of luggage and, in the event that a bag or suitcase is lost, the Tile or Find My app on a smartphone can be opened to pull up the tracker’s approximate location on a map.
Even if your luggage isn’t lost, a tracker can offer peace of mind. Kelly said that when he recently traveled through Europe, his AirTag told him precisely where his bag was when he arrived in Paris.
Yes to hotel apps
To manage hotel reservations, just make sure to download the hotel’s app, if it has one. That’s especially important now because many large brands let you check in via the app, and the sooner you do, the sooner your room will be ready.
Don’t skip this step. If you forget to check in and you show up many hours late because of a flight delay, the hotel may give away your reservation, Kelly said