The following is a shortlist of our editors’ favorite Web sites for researching and booking the nitty-gritty details of trip itineraries. If you think planning a trip is almost as much fun as taking one, then these picks are for you.
Talk Travel Now: What sites do you find particularly helpful in your travel planning?
Book activities before takeoff. National, regional, and city tourist-board sites often have links to theaters, nonprofit associations, or commercial companies with calendars and online booking capabilities. So do sites like Citysearch.com and WhatsonWhen.com. Some of the world’s top museums let you buy tickets to special exhibitions with a few clicks or a phone call. And did you know that Ticketmaster.com serves not only the United States but also several foreign countries? For discount tickets, try the Theater Development Fund. For opera, head to Operabase.com. But the mother of all sites has to be Viator.com — it lists and lets you book shows, tours, day trips, and other activities all over the world.
Ship your luggage ahead. Shipping luggage via an air-freight service like LuggageConcierge.com or SportsExpress.com, or VirtualBellhop.com is a great way to cut down on backaches, hassles, and stress. Plan to send your bags ahead by several days to U.S. destinations and by up to two weeks to some international destinations. It will cost least $100 to send a small piece of luggage, a golf bag, or a pair of skis to a domestic destination, much more to places overseas. All the freight services insure bags (for most, the limit is $1,000, but you should verify that amount), and you can buy additional insurance for about $1 per $100 of value.
Pick the cleanest beach. The Blue Flag Programme acknowledges beaches that meet high standards in terms of ecosystem protection, water quality, beach cleanliness, and waste management. It was started in France by the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) during the “European Year of the Environment” (1987 to you and me), and has since spread to the rest of Europe and beyond. Today the list includes both beaches and marinas — 3,300 of them, in fact — in 36 countries, with more countries adopting the program each year.
Plan your theme park strategy. Founded and edited by a former attractions host at Walt Disney World, ThemeParkInsider.com now taps readers for ratings and reviews of parks around the world. Listings have sections on hours, reservations, strategy, and current park buzz.
Find Wi-Fi hot spots. Users review Internet connectivity and other tech services offered by hotels on Geektools.com. Jiwire (www.jiwire.com) is a private company (a mobile broadband advertising network, to be precise) that offers a very public service. Its Web site helps you find Wi-Fi public hot spots — roughly 150,000 of them — in 137 countries.
Book an airport parking space. A couple of clicks on AirportParkingReservations.com and a small deposit are all it takes to book a space at one of more than 65 airports in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Choose from self-park, valet, outdoor, and indoor lots. Free shuttle service and luggage assistance and discounted rates are among the perks of using this site. Booking spots through Avistar Parking may yield a 10% discount on already low rates. And ParkSleepFly.com has money-saving packages from airport-area hotels that offer a week or more of discounted or free parking to overnight guests.
Check out airport security wait times. The Transportation Security Administration helps to make up for the hassles of beefed-up security with a section on its Web site (http://waittime.tsa.dhs.gov) that helps you estimate — based on historical data — how long it takes to clear checkpoints in U.S. airports.
Check out your flight status. Flightstats.com reports on flight delays, airport weather conditions, and on-time performance, among other things. You can sign up for e-mails or mobile-phone alerts. Official Airline Guides (www.oag.com) can fill you in on flight status, flight duration, airline routes, and more. Orbitz.com is one of the first booking sites to add a blog (the OrbitzTLC Traveler Update) for travelers to report on things like airport delays.
Check in online. More and more airlines are not only allowing you to check in online but also to pick a seat and book bags in advance. Hyatt, Hilton, and Far East Hotels are among the hotel chains that allow electronic room check-in. More companies will certainly follow their lead.
Firm up those dinner plans. Research restaurants on Fodors.com and online reservation services like OpenTable.com, which covers most states, including 20 major cities, and has limited listings in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. DinnerBroker.com has restaurants throughout the United States as well as a few in Canada. For good nonfranchise road-trip options check out Roadfood.com and DinerCity.com.
Calculate how much your drive will cost. Input your route and the make and model of your car on the AAA’s fuel-cost calculator and voila! Although figures assume there are no traffic jams (which you probably should factor in), gas prices are updated regularly. Use it to budget for a road trip or to decide whether to fly or drive.
Find a decent bathroom. The Bathroom Diaries is flush with unsanitized info on restrooms the world over — each one located, reviewed, and rated.
Map out public transportation. Hopstop.com has transit maps and can give you bus and subway directions between sights in Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. More destinations are in the works. SubwayNavigator.com helps you conquer underground systems in more than 100 cities around the world.