Thursday, March 23, 2023

Overwhelmed with travel planning? We tried 3 apps to help.

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Before a recent trip to Oaxaca, I did a little experiment. Instead of my usual, obsessive planning, which involves reading hundreds of reviews, contacting friends, calling businesses to confirm hours, and compiling my findings into a time-stamped itinerary, I did the bare minimum.

My lack of preparation showed.

My Airbnb’s 4.8 star rating was more a reflection of the low price and central location than the quality of the place. Opening hours listed on Google for restaurants and shops were hit, resulting in some ruined dinner plans and taxis across town. A day trip to Hierve el Agua, a mountain site with nearby petrified waterfalls and mineral springs, included a return trip that took four hours due to protest blockades that I later learned are common along that route.

I called my lack of preparation an experiment, but it was really the result of feeling burned out from a process that usually takes me eight to 12 hours of planning for a trip of any length.

According to a pre-pandemic survey of 7,800 tourists by, the average person spends 10 hours or more researching a vacation. Forty percent of respondents said they would be willing to pay more to avoid all that planning. The oversaturation of choices, review sites and booking platforms has taken its toll.

What if you have plenty of time to do the legwork, but also don’t have a great couple to throw down a personal planner or a packaged experience? A handful of new websites are trying to address our collective travel planning fatigue by referencing curation, convenience, or your existing social network.

I’ve tried three of them on recent trips, including a members-only website that lets you share your home among mutual friends and an Instagram-like app dedicated to travel.

If you’re tired of Airbnb, you might consider MyPlace, which is basically Mente for vacation rentals. Listings are shared among friends (and friends of friends).

Instead of a rental service filled with hosts trying to make a profit, the website works like a shared calendar. Members can decide who views their listings, then set costs according to two contact levels. You can invite your closest circle for a free stay, say, or set up a favor exchange (like a vacation home) for a group of friends and offer to cover a cleaning fee for mutual acquaintances . You can still set a nightly rate, but the platform is trying to phase out this option by this year to encourage members to stick to sharing.

To join, you must either be invited by someone already in the network or apply for the waiting list, which requires you to bring at least one friend. (There are currently 7,500 people on the waiting list.)

I was added to a beta group of more than 2000 members. Browsing the lists, I lived out my peripatetic fantasy, made possible through the generosity of stylish friends who did the same. From a four-bedroom villa overlooking Joa Beach in Rio de Janeiro to a beautiful A-frame in the heart of the Catskills, many of these homes seem worth planning an entire trip around.

The site’s viability depends on users engaging with it more like a social network than a marketplace. Instead of reviews, hosts who receive a stay request often DM the mutual friend for an approval. If one leaves a house in bad condition and cannot make amends with the host, one risks being ostracized by the community.

Ultimately: Planning your trip around the availability of a friend’s home not only helps narrow down your options, but provides a source of information that is likely to be more in line with your tastes and preferences. As the platform expands its member base and narrows its sharing rates, it could be a potential first stop for travelers trying to decide where to go next.

What to expect next: In the spring, MyPlace expects to launch from beta and introduce an app, with a homepage that will act as a resource of available homes and dates in your network.

With an Instagram-like interface, this free app shows travel activity from friends and others you follow, allowing you to curate and filter your feeds.

The main screen displays recent activity, an “explore” tab lets you search for places by keyword and location, a “trips” tab lets you create destination itineraries, and a profile page helps you keep track of your notes and lists of desires. At each location listed, you’ll find the basics, like photos and opening hours, plus user reviews and tags like “pet-friendly” and “good for groups.” Creating a listing or recommending an existing listing doesn’t require writing a review, so you’ll often find listings that only have basic information (pictures, keyword tags, opening hours) followed by how many people have recommended it (if has anyone beyond the person who created the listing).

Since launching in August 2021, the platform has amassed close to 150,000 members, resulting in recommendations and reviews in more than 3,500 cities.

To plan an upcoming trip to Istanbul, I started at the city’s homepage. Many of the immediate listings were familiar sights and unreviewed restaurants, but scrolling on, I spotted Pandeli, a blue-tiled restaurant above the Spice Bazaar, where I had a memorable meal a few years ago.

I clicked on the profile of the person who had listed it and discovered her collection of 38 rooftop restaurants, hip cafes, and other places I’d heard good things about or wanted to try.

Because many sites had no descriptions or reviews, I had to do some additional research. But the leaders saved me a lot of research time.

After creating a wish list, I switched to the map view on my planning page to organize the days by neighborhood, adding times for each stop and tapping each listing’s opening hours to make sure they lined up. What would likely have been roughly three hours of switching between multiple tabs was made simple.

For those who prefer more freeform travel, the “explore” feature tracks your location and shows nearby pins.

Ultimately: The search potential will improve as membership grows, but what will keep you hooked is the app’s smart organization features. Instead of being scattered across spreadsheets and Google Maps pins, routes can live in what looks like a fun memory bank.

What to expect next: The app’s algorithm will continue to evolve, directing you to like-minded travelers and tailoring recommendations to your preferences.

For $250 a month, this membership-based app lets you submit unlimited itinerary requests, each reviewed by a team of travel planners who send recommendations in less than 24 hours.

Along with covering the basics, such as whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure, who’s going with you and how familiar you are with the destination, the app’s questionnaire includes your activity preferences, hotel budget and desired location.

The prompts come with nice multiple-choice answer sets to choose from. For example, in response to what you would like the general theme of the visit to be, you might decide to “completely relax”, “do as the Romans do”, “have an adventure”, “see all the sights” or “Start the party.”

I tested the app before a recent trip to Maui. I’ve visited twice and felt like I knew the island well, but I was traveling with a family that had never been. Within hours of submitting my request, I received a brief overview of what to expect, a bulleted list of must-knows and three to six suggestions each for restaurants, bars, experiences, coffee breaks and accommodation options.

I was surprised to see more than a few places I hadn’t heard of before, like a wood-fired pizza kitchen called Marlow in the uptown of Makawao, which was a hit with the whole family (catch the sunset from the balcony of the adjacent brewery, Mahalo Aleworks).

Places I’ve been to before, such as the Lehua Lounge at the Andaz Maui and the popular pie shop Leoda’s, I would have recommended myself.

Where the guide fell short was in its experiences, which included packaged sailing, snorkeling and rafting trips, but no DIY options. Two sample itineraries I searched for other destinations had much better variety.

Ultimately: If you travel often enough to justify the high price, Brevity is your best bet to save planning time. The number of suggestions is matched to the length and nature of each trip, so you don’t have to sift through a ton of options, and recommendations focus on helping members avoid tourist traps while not shying away from popular stops that are worth the crowds.

What to expect next: The company is currently building an algorithm to introduce more affordable membership levels by summer. This includes a no-cost tier to give new users a free itinerary and a $30 per month option for unlimited access to programmed routes, which will cover at least 250 cities after launch. Those who stick to or opt-in to the $250 per month tier will continue to receive staff-curated recommendations.

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