Everything You Need to Know About Google’s Crazy New Travel Planner
This piece originally appeared on Travel + Leisure.
Ever wish you could get an idea for your next vacation and book it—under budget—in just one click? Google is making it a near-reality. Today, the company has launched a mobile-only search tool called Destinations on Google that functions like a digitized travel agent: fast, comprehensive, and scary intuitive. It'll help you narrow down where (and when) to travel, combine multiple destinations into dream itineraries, and let you set parameters on cost to keep you in line. And it'll do it all within a single browser tab. Here's how it works.
Step 1: Toggle Google's Trip Planner With the Right Search Term
Next time you open Google on your phone, try a search term like "Caribbean destinations" or "Europe destinations"—using the word "destinations" is what will pull up the new feature. You'll get a series of information cards on various cities, presented in order of popularity (as determined by search volume and location data).
On the information cards for each destination, you'll find the cheapest week of the year to travel and the average price of flights from your current location, along with the average cost of a three-star hotel. It's officially the best new way to get a sense of what it'll cost to go where.
Step 2: Find Your Dream Trip
There's a small menu in grey type above the destination cards that allows you to filter by desired travel dates, budget, or in some cases, interest. Select "architecture" instead of "hiking," for instance, and your suggested European destinations will shift from Majorca and Mount Etna to Amsterdam and Madrid. (Food is notably missing from the “interests” list.) Click a specific month of the year and the cards will show you the most affordable week to travel within your time frame; selecting a budget of just $1000 for seven nights might rule out pricey cities like Paris or London.
Step 3: Learn more about a place, or go ahead and book.
Courtesy of Google
Once you've decided on a destination, you have two options: you can "explore" to learn more about the local highlights, or "plan a trip," which simply means selecting your dates, flights, and hotel.
In Explore mode, the most useful feature is a section of recommended itineraries, based on where travelers actually go (and in what order)—Google can figure that out by looking at anonymized location data—as well as popular search combinations. In Barcelona, for instance, Google recommends an itinerary called “Top Sights in theEixample District,” stringing together main squares, key architectural sites, and urban gardens; it also provides walking times between each point of interest, courtesy of Google Maps.
But "Plan A Trip" is where Google's breadth of data really shines. Here, an algorithm calculates your total trip cost, adjusting the dollar amount instantly as you toggle through calendar options. It also adjusts flight options seamlessly, presenting three or four optimal itineraries up top and the rest sorted by price. And it sorts hotel choices based on your star preferences, showing you only what's bookable for your desired travel dates.
Just like that, you've conceived and booked your entire trip: in no more than three steps.
But is it really that easy?
Studies have shown that travelers visit upwards of 38 sites when planning a trip, and Destinations on Google will help cut down the research tremendously. Will you be so impulsive as to research and book a trip—on your phone—in one sitting? We think it’s a stretch. But it’s not impossible, and this tool certainly makes it more plausible.
Even if consumer patterns keep shifting towards mobile, we did find a few other limitations. When searching for Caribbean Destinations, for example, we only got four hits—and they weren’t sortable by interest. It’s the only region that didn’t turn up spot-on results, but it’s a big missed opportunity—not only is that part of the world a popular choice for American travelers, but its destinations can be difficult to differentiate from one another. It’s one of several examples that prove the limitations of data-based computing: Google is all about data, but data will never make it a true travel expert.
Much to that point, the itineraries and activity suggestions are also based on search volume—that means you’re getting the most obvious choices in each city (the Acropolis in Athens, the Empire State Building in New York City, and so on). For an overview, it’s great, but for savvy travelers, it’s expected. And forget about booking excursions via this platform—Google’s intent is to keep you within their ecosystem as much as possible, and the company doesn’t have a platform for selling activities… yet. So for that, you’ll have to head elsewhere.
Our last complaint: the budget filter, one of the most useful features of the tool, is overwhelmingly rigid. It’s impossible to change the length of trip from the standard one-week option, which makes it impossible to use it to plan impulsive weekend getaways—something you’d more readily tackle on a smartphone screen.
The Bottom Line
More than anything else, Destinations on Google is best for figuring out where you want to go. The ability to scan destinations based on real-time pricing data, input your budget parameters, and sort by interests offers an unparalleled source for realistic and actionable trip ideas. And at another juncture in your process, you may end up booking your flights and rooms on Google’s Flight and Hotel search tools. They really are quite powerful and successful on their own. But if you’re anything like us, you’ll want to take steps in between—whether that means comparison shopping, itinerary mapping, or simply digging deeper than Google’s top search results.