Google Trips review: The best app for planning your next vacation

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Google Trips review: The best app for planning your next vacation

CNBC recently took a look at how to vacation in Iceland on the cheap. It’s an article I wish I’d read before my trip there in early June because holy cow, Iceland is expensive. There are waterfall excursions to take, fermented shark to eat, and a bustling nightlife in Reykjavik.

How did I know about all of these activities? Travel agents have been displaced for a few decades now as sites like Expedia and Kayak have made securing travel arrangements easy, but actually planning out a vacation itinerary, day by day, has still involved a lot of legwork – until now.

Google Trips takes everything you love about Google – consolidating a wealth of easy-to-access information – and everything you hate about Google – a creepy-but-convenient intrusion into your privacy – and turns it into the ultimate vacation app. While there are still a few flaws in the app, I found it invaluable on my trip. Here’s why.

Google Trips takes the guesswork out of vacationing

There’s something to be said for taking a vacation one day at a time and giving yourself the flexibility to explore and discover places. But a lot of people, after spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on travel and accommodation, want some sort of structure to make sure they’re getting their money’s worth.

Google Trips creates bundles called, appropriately, trips. Each trip has the destination, the departure and return dates, and a nice cover image of wherever you’re going. Within each trip, you’ll find all of your travel and destination information consolidated in one place – the perfect way to make sure your vacation stays on track.

It’s an automated experience

When you download Google Trips and set up your email account, you’re basically done. Information about when and where you’ll be traveling is automatically pulled in via confirmation emails (again, creepy-but-convenient). If you decide after you book your flight that you’ll also need a rental car, your trip will be updated to reflect that.

Google Trips is even retroactive. I have trips going back a few years that appear in Google Trips. That’s not particularly helpful, but if you want a timeline of your various vacations, it can be nice.

This information is pulled from emails that use the Trips bundle in Gmail and Inbox. If an email is, for some reason, miscategorized, or you have a travel mate forward you a confirmation email, you can bundle it and it’ll be added to the trip that Google Trips created.

All of your reservations are in one place

Between all of the different types of reservations you have to deal with on vacations, it can be hard to keep track of everything. One of the most valuable tools Google Trips offers is keeping all of your reservations together.

Flight, hotel, car, and restaurant reservations are automatically added to Google Trips. That means no more having to track down confirmation numbers or try to distinguish between an email with boarding information and a promotional email from an airline.

You can choose how much hands-on planning you do

During my vacation, I opted to not join any tours because I wanted to be able to do my own exploring on my own timeline rather than be tied down by a group and a tour bus. I had a similar concern with Google Trips: that it would feel too rigid and structured and if I didn’t follow exactly what it suggested, it would be a worthless tool. Luckily, that wasn’t the case, and I found Google’s suggestions to be helpful guides rather than strict instructions.

Google Trips divides activities into a few different categories. There are Things to Do, which mark individual interests like art museums, outdoor activities, and live music venues. There are Day Plans, which are curated lists (for example, it bundles all of the sights in Iceland’s Golden Circle together); Food & Drink is just that; Getting Around gives you public and private transportation information; and Need to Know has odds and ends which, in my experience, appear to be all shopping-related for some reason.

But none of these categories feel restrictive. If none of the day plans interest you, you can create your own. You can even search for places by time of day and days of the week when they’re open, so you don’t find yourself hanging outside of a closed museum. You can save your own places of interest to keep track of what you actually want to do.

All of this is helped by the fact that Google Trips pulls in review and map information straight from Google. That means no getting lost going to a destination, the ability to have a big picture view of where different sights and attractions are, and restaurant reviews from real people (for better or worse). Plus, you can download your trips for offline use so you’re not using potentially pricey data if you’re abroad.

Overall, Google Trips feels like you’re being given the tools to properly plan your vacation rather than being told what your vacation should be.

Kid-friendly vacations are easy

Traveling with a kid can be difficult. Will they get bored at museums? What foods will they like? Where are activity centers where you can leave them for a while so you can actually enjoy your vacation?

This is where Google Trips can be a lifesaver for parents. Family-friendly food spots and "with kids" day plans take the headache out of trying to plan something for the whole family – the app gives you starting points for points of interest that everyone will love.

Google Trips still stumbles in places

Google Trips is useful, but it’s not without its problems. There are a few areas where the app needs to improve if it’s going to become an indispensable tool to every traveler.

Google Trips is still only an app

Having a mobile app is obviously a benefit for Google Trips. When you’re traveling, you’re not going to be lugging around a laptop with you to tourist spots, if you bring it with you on your vacation at all. A smartphone, on the other hand, is almost always within reach.

While Google Trips’ user experience is good, I wish it was also available on browsers for the planning stages. It’s easy to use as is, but I also found myself on my laptop looking up information, and then going back to my phone to make sure it was reflected in the app. If I could access Google Trips on my computer, it could be one of a number of tabs open and would be less back and forth between devices. I get why mobile was the focus, but I wish it would be expanded now that the app is established.

On a related note, integrating Google Trips into Google Flights seems like a no-brainer. Google Flights is great for finding flight information and setting up alerts, and would be a natural fit in Google Trips. I’m hoping the app gets built out more in the future.

Not every destination has the same information

The different pieces of information outlined above are a best case scenario for what you’ll get. Looking at a 2015 trip to Baltimore, for instance, doesn’t have Getting Around or Need to Know sections; however, a 2016 trip to Portland for a wedding that Google Trips pulled in does have this information.

Having consistent information for every destination will be key for Google Trips’ success. I understand small towns not having everything that, say, New York City does, but I seem to recall the city of Baltimore having public transportations and shopping options. Why they’re not included there – or in a trip to Raleigh – are mysteries.

Not all reservations are recognized

As of now, Google Trips only pulls in flight, car rental, restaurant, and hotel reservations. That definitely covers most things, and if you’re going to choose four rentals to account for, it would be those. But I, for example, went whale watching on my trip; having the confirmation for the tickets pulled into Google Trips would have been handy. Instead, I had to find that email in my inbox.

There’s a place to write notes in the reservations section of the app, but again, one of the big selling points of Google Trips is that it automatically pulls in information. Limiting what’s done automatically is an annoyance.

Pulling in information can be hit or miss

Speaking of automated information: my experience with Google Trips seamlessly integrating reservation information has been spotty. When I added a car rental reservation, it wasn’t instantly reflected in my trip, and it took almost 24 hours to show up.

This isn’t always the case. I’ve had most reservation emails show up without a problem. But the fact that it isn’t reliable makes Google Trips just a little bit harder to use than it needs to be. Since the whole point of the app is to remove the hassle from vacation planning, hiccups like this stand out. They aren’t deal-breakers, but they’re noticeable.

Google Trips still has a few snags, but overall I found it to be a welcome addition to my vacation. If you already use Google services – and don’t mind giving them more of a peek into your information – it’s worth a download the next time you travel.