October 7th 2013

By Ellen Barone If you google 'travel' you’ll get an overwhelming list of more than 2.6 billion search results. Is it any wonder online vacation planning can feel like a daunting task? We all know about mega travel sites like TripAdvisor, Travelocity, HomeAway, Orbitz and a gaggle of other helpful incumbents including Expedia, Kayak and LonelyPlanet. But here are 10 lesser known, simple, smart, and innovative travel planning tools you might not know about. And yes, you may use a few of these already — but there's probably at least one you don't.
  1. Airbnb - Home sharing for globetrotters
When I posted a shout-out across my social networks for favorite travel resources, Airbnb, the vacation rental site, was the clear winner. When I asked why, one seasoned globetrotter replied, 'Great places, unique stays, and I rent my own place out a LOT on Airbnb which pays for my travel. In fact, at this very moment I am in Ecuador, and I have someone staying in my place that rented through Airbnb!'

A poster child for the new 'sharing economy', Airbnb’s revolutionary simplicity, smart technology, and efficient design has made it easy for people to list, discover, and book unique accommodations across the globe. Airbnb currently lists hosts in 192 countries. Free apps for iOS or Android devices.
  • Adioso - A flight search engine that thinks like you do.I’d never heard of this site until a month ago when a Facebook friend suggested I might like it. Now it’s a favorite. Why? Not only does it yields incredible cost-cutting results, but it allows me to search in a manner that makes sense to me. Unlike most flight search engines that require you to enter departure and return dates and airport codes before you can even begin your search, Adioso allows you to search with as little information as you want. If you search for something like, 'London to Greece in March for 7 to 10 days,' or 'San Francisco to anywhere tomorrow,' the results will provide you with suggested itineraries and prices. Better yet, it enables you to follow prices and alerts you when prices go under a set amount. Love this site.

  • Skyscanner - A no-middlemen search engine for the cheapest flights, hotels, holidays and car hire.Although it’s been online for more than a decade and is a popular choice among Europeans and Asian travelers, Skyscanner still flies under the radar of many North Americans. Those in the know, however, swear by its fast, flexible search results for the cheapest flights, hotels, vacation packages, train journeys, and car rentals. What I like best about Skyscanner is that once you’re ready to book, you are connected to the website of the travel provider or a travel agent of your choice to make the final booking directly. No middlemen is a real advantage when the unexpected happens. Free apps for iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry and Windows 8.
  • Tripit - A perennial favorite that gets better with age.I’ve been using the free version of Tripit, an itinerary management service, for travel organization, since 2008. I love the ease it provides of forwarding confirmation emails to my account, for example, and automatically creating trip itineraries that I can access any time online or on my mobile. In addition, I can sync upcoming trips with my calendar feeds and social sites to help family, friends, and co-workers keep track of my plans. I recently upgraded to the pro version ($49USD/year) to take advantage of convenient new extras like a preferred seat feature, real-time mobile alerts for flight delays, cancellations and gate changes, a frequent traveler points tracker, and VIP privileges. I love it when a perennial favorite gets better with age. Free mobile apps for iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry, and Windows Phone 7.
  • Smart Traveler - The official State Department app for U.S. travelers. This app, put out by the U.S. State Department, is a handy tool for easy access to frequently updated official country information, travel alerts, travel warnings, maps, U.S. embassy locations, and, my favorite feature, entry/exit requirements including any necessary medical vaccinations.Hint: For a bit of fun, shake your iPhone to learn about a random country. Information comes from content that is also posted to www.state.gov and travel.state.gov.
  • Spinlister - Rent a bike from a local.I haven’t tried this yet, but I love the concept: 'connecting awesome people with great bikes from around the world.' With Spinlister you can rent a bike from people in the U.S. and more than 40 countries. When you need a ride, just type in where you'd like to ride and Spinlister gives you the best bike rental options for that location. If you'd like to list your bike, snap a few pictures, register and start sharing. Pretty cool.
    Free mobile apps for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad.
  • Pack for a Purpose - Bring along needed supplies.Next time you head off for a vacation in the developing world, leave some room in your luggage to bring along a few supplies for those in need. I first discovered Pack for a Purpose when an eco-tourism outfitter I traveled with recommended it to their guests. But anyone can participate. On its website, Pack for a Purpose provides current information, direct from the source, for community projects in need of specific items such as school and healthcare supplies. Just select your destination, pick a project, and choose the items to bring, then drop them off at a participating lodging.
  • AFAR - Experiential travel guides created by travelers and local experts.The first thing you’ll notice on this site is the gorgeous photography. But AFAR is much more than a pretty face. Featuring 25,000+ unique travel experiences around the world, you’ll find local hot spots and lodgings, tips on where to eat and drink, travel articles, Q&A forums, and insider recommendations from other travelers and local experts. Register for free via your Facebook account or e-mail address and join an interactive community of well-informed globetrotters. Participants can post questions, share photos, and bring their expertise to the conversation. It’s pretty awesome. The AFAR platform also includes its award-winning AFAR magazine; the non profit foundation Learning AFAR; and immersive travel series AFAR Experiences. Free mobile apps for iPhone and Android.
  • Foodspotting - Find and share great dishes.A visual search site for great food, Foodspotting is where tech-savvy foodies go to find and share great food. Browse the photos and find what you’re craving and see what foodspotters, friends and experts love in your location. Or, make recommendations by snapping a photo and tagging the location anywhere you find interesting dishes. I love this site for unearthing new foodie finds at home and on the road. Try it. It’s addictive. It’s visual. And it’s social. Just like good food.
    Free mobile app for iPhone and Android.
  • DogVacay - Board your dog in a real home while you’re away.Any dog owner knows the anguish of trying to find a safe, loving and affordable pet care solution when they go away. Enter DogVacay, a website that helps dog lovers find pet care in real homes with vetted and insured hosts ready to treat your dog like a member of their family. Simply browse hosts in your area, schedule and book online. Reservations include complimentary insurance, 24/7 customer support, daily photo updates, and a 100% money back guarantee.

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