From Wi-Fi-enabled smoke detectors to running their own mobile network, Google does a lot more than just search these days. Now you can add vacation planning to the list, with the recent launch of Google Destinations.
Essentially, Google Destinations allows you to plan out all the details of your next big vacation. As well as finding you the cheapest flights and hotels, it also suggests itineraries you can follow and activities you can do when you arrive. But is it any good?
Getting Google Destinations
You could be forgiven for thinking Google Destinations is an app. After all, the promotional videos and stock imagery show it being used on Google’s flagship Nexus Android phones, rather than say, a Pixel C tablet or a Chromebook. But it isn’t. Rather, it’s a new feature built-in to the Google search engine, available only via a smartphone.
I should clarify, Google Destinations is only available on certain smartphones. While it worked just fine on my cheap Huawei Honor 3C from 2013, it wasn’t available on my Microsoft Lumia 640XL from 2015, which is my day-to-day phone.
Anyway, I digress. Using Google Destinations is really simple. You just have to open up Google on your phone and search for the name of the place you want to visit with “destinations” attached to the end. If you search for “Europe Destinations”, it will bring up a list of popular European cities like London, Paris, and Barcelona. It will also list the average flight price for that city from your location, as well as the average nightly hotel rate.
This list, I add, is heavily curated. Most of the cities listed are in Western European tourist hotspots, like Spain, France, and Italy. Eastern Europe and the Baltic states were very poorly represented.
It should also emphasize that Google Destinations isn’t only for far-flung European destinations. Pick any American state, and it’ll give you similar results. It even had a decent number of results for states that aren’t exactly bustling tourist hotspots, like Idaho and Wyoming.
Even more impressively, I was able to use Google Destinations to explore individual Australian states, like Victoria.
Once you’ve picked where you want to visit, Google Destinations will give you an overview of it. This includes a list of some of the major attractions, with a small paragraph explaining the history of the city.
Even better, Google Destinations will show you the average monthly temperature for the place you’re visiting!
Flights and Hotels
The core of Google Destinations is a flight and hotel booking engine. This will be familiar to anyone who has ever used Google Hotels or Google Flights. But there are a few interesting tweaks that make it a little bit different.
For those who are conscious about their budget, Google Destinations will show you the cheapest times to visit a specific place, based entirely on Google’s data. So far, so very SkyScanner.
Hotels can be booked based on their star rating, user ratings, and their price.
But what makes Google Destinations different is the level of handholding it offers. It will actually build a flight and hotel package for you, based on your destination and your budget.
While this isn’t that impressive for frequent travelers, I imagine it will be quite attractive to first-time flyers, and those who don’t take that many vacations.
Unusually, Google Destinations includes a curated list of pre-written itineraries for specific destinations.
These show you the local attractions you can visit, and more importantly how you can get there, by either walking, driving, or using public transport.
So, suppose you want to spend a day walking around London, seeing the sights and taking in the historical monuments. Google Destinations will show you how.
Of course, the biggest weakness of this is that it’s completely contingent on the user having access to mobile data, or the foresight to take lots of screenshots of it. It’s for this reason that I thought Google Destinations would make more sense as a downloadable app than as an extension to Google Search.
Speaking of things that didn’t quite make sense, let’s talk about activities. Google Destinations will let you search for places based on the things you might want to do there.
Searching for “Ireland surfing” will list all the great places to surf in the Emerald Isle. When you search for “Colorado skiing”, Google will list all the best slopes in Colorado. You get the idea.
Interestingly, you can access this facet of Google Destinations through an ordinary computer, but the rest requires you access it through a phone.
This was the least impressive part of Google Destinations. I felt like most of the suggestions would have been utterly obvious to the person searching for them. After all, if you’re a surfer and you’re thinking of taking an Irish vacation, you probably know that the Digle Peninsula has great waves.
Is It Worth Using?
Google Destinations is undeniably sleek, but is there any substance to it?
Well, kinda. I think it’s a product that makes a lot of sense for Google. After all, when people start planning their vacation, they do so with a Google search. They’ll look for hotels or flights, and ultimately end up booking them through a third-party travel agent like Kayak or Expedia.
This doesn’t really benefit Google financially. But with Google Destinations, they’re better positioned to slurp up more referral bonuses and commissions from hotels and airlines. You can expect Google to release more products like this, especially as advertising — their traditional source of revenue — continues to be threatened.
The majority of end-users don’t care about that though. They simply want to know whether Google Destinations is a good place to book their next vacation. And for the most part, it is.
The flights I found were comparable in price to those I found through SkyScanner and directly from the airline. In recent years, SkyScanner has been able to position itself as the default flight search engine for most people, in the same way Google became the default search engine.
But despite that, I’d still recommend SkyScanner over Google Destinations for the simple reason that SkyScanner makes it easier to drill down on results and find the cheapest deals.
As for hotels, it’s a bit murkier. Google Hotels aggregates its results from a number of hotel search engines, as well as directly from the hotel operators, much like Trivago does. From that, it is able to find the cheapest rates for a property on any given night.
But hotels are different from flights, insomuch as price isn’t always the deciding factor of whether someone will book a room. People’s decisions are swayed by loyalty programs or whether they have status with a particular hotel chain. Google Destinations fails to take this into account, which disappointed.
The itineraries were a nice touch, but, like I said, they’re pretty useless without a mobile data connection. I was less convinced about the activities Google Destinations suggested though, with many of them being quite obvious.
I didn’t mention it earlier, but I thought it was quite nice that Google Destinations lets you search for local restaurants before you make a booking. This isn’t something I take into consideration when planning a vacation, I imagine it’d be a different story for someone with a specific dietary requirement.
Overall, though, I got the feeling these features were merely an afterthought, designed to funnel people to Google’s travel booking products. They’re not as fleshed out or developed as I’d hoped, and they don’t really offer value on their own, especially when compared to a good travel book.
In short, Rick Steves has nothing to fear from Google Destinations.
Have You Tried Google Destinations?
What did you think? Will you be using Google Destinations to book your next trip? Do you have other apps or services you’d recommend? Tell me in the comments below.