Traveling both internationally and abroad has changed drastically over the last generation.
When my mother traveled Europe for a month as a teenager a Eurail pass meant you show up at the train station when you are ready to move cities. Now you often need reservations, and if it is an overnight train there is an additional cost per segment with spots filling up months in advance.
The major change has been one thing: Technology. From planning the trip to uploading pictures after you get home and everything in between, changes and advancements technology has changed the way we travel. My wife and I have traveled extensively across the United States and Ecuador, and will soon be headed to Europe for some adventures there.
I often hear that people are too afraid to travel with a bag full of electronics, as theft is a real concern in many countries. This is true, and I am not advocating for carrying thousands of dollars worth of items with you around the world, rather how even the smallest usage of technology can drastically improve your trip.
However, remember to be cautious when you travel to new places domestically and internationally. Make sure to keep an eye on your stuff and an eye on you surroundings, enjoying your trip with your third eye.
So without further ado, here is my technology travel guide, both for travel within the United States and internationally.
Technology Travel Guide
Technology has drastically changed reservation requirements for travel. Gone are the days arriving at the train station, expecting a ticket or landing in a city and finding a cheap place to stay. Travel and lodging require reservations to get the best prices and choices.
The best way to get the cheapest place to stay is not be bound to one form of lodging. A combination of International Youth Hostels, Airbnb, VRBO and CouchSurfing will provide the best price and accommodations depending on the city and the desired number of days there. CouchSurfing is free, but often requires planning months in advance. This platform is more about meeting others and having a cultural exchange, rather than crashing on someones couch.
Hostels have often been thought to be the most economical way to travel, but online reservation systems have pushed prices up in many places, and they do fill up early during holidays and vacation times. The accommodations are nothing exciting, but they are the perfect place to meet other travelers.
On Airbnb and VRBO you rent out an apartment or house on a nightly basis. There is nothing better than your own bedroom and bathroom at half the cost of a hotel. If you take into account the money you can save by cooking at home, it can easily equal out to staying at a hostel. This is also the best option if you are traveling with two or more people, bringing down the cost per person.
The most important thing to do, no matter where you plan on staying, or how you travel, is to make reservations early! This will give you the best possible prices and give you a good idea on how much the trip will cost. Reserving all legs of a basic flight plan is key to planning. Remember, you are not bound to the city you are flying into, a last minute bus ticket is relatively inexpensive to visit nearby cities and landscapes.
Once you make your reservations, you should organize the information on your phone in a note taking application. Do not rely on email access to see the confirmations. At the same time, print them out and throw them in a folder for your suitcase, as a vital backup.
The biggest change in photography has been from a roll of film to digital prints. You are no longer bound by the 24 exposures on a roll, and can take thousands of photos with ease.
Let’s be honest though, after finishing a trip there is hardly time to go through and organize the endless photos, and nobody wants to see you upload three albums of photos to Facebook from a weekend trip.
Camera vs Cell Phone:
First, you need to figure out how you are going to take photos, and for what purpose. While I do own a DSLR camera, most photos I take while traveling are with my phone. My phone, the ASUS ZenFone 2, has a 13MP camera, more than sufficient for photographs to share with friends online and ever so occasionally print out.
If you are looking to make professional quality enlarged prints or to sell your photographs, go ahead and bring your nice camera. For the average person though, a cell phone is more than enough, and much more portable. So, I bring both, my cell phone for personal photos and my Canon for professional related photos.
Either way, it is important to get an SD or microSD card with enough space to hold all your pictures. If you have an iPhone, there is no easy expandable memory space for you, the best thing to do is sync them to the cloud or transfer them to a laptop.
This Spring I backed a Kickstarter campaign, for the Prynt Case, which effectively turns my wife’s iPhone into a Polaroid camera. This means we have approximately 100 photo prints for our entire month long trip across Europe.
The key is to take photographs as if you have a limited number of exposures. If you focus on taking one great photograph, rather than taking as many as possible, hoping one is good, you would be surprised how many photos are amazing on your first try. Yes, it might take you five shots to get the perfect one, but delete the other four right then. The number of mediocre photos add up quickly.
If you do have the opportunity and capabilities to do so, it is also nice to upload photos during your trip, either daily or every few days. Your friends and family are more likely to look through a handful of photos at a time, and it means you need to provide fewer personal updates to others.
Accessories and Gadgets
If you plan on using any sort of cell phone, iPod, tablet or other USB charged device on your trip, an external battery pack is a must. You do not want to be stuck carrying around outlet converters and hunting down power sockets in the middle of the day. No need to sit in a corner at lunch waiting for your phone to charge, when you can bring your own power.
When your cell phone is the camera of choice, your battery will die in the middle of the day. While you can pick up a battery pack once you are already traveling, it will cost you twice as much as if you buy one before you leave.
I own a 5,200 mAh battery pack which provides enough power to fully recharge my wife’s and my phone. This has proved to be more than enough for us, based on our phone usage. If you also use an MP3 player or tablet, you might want something with a little more juice. Amazon sells a sweet 10,000 mAh battery pack, enough to recharge a normal phone 3-5 times in a day for only $30.
This is not something you need to wait to travel to purchase either. These come in handy on busy day out of the house, just throw it in your bag and you are good to go all day. My power was out for a few hours the other day and it helped keep my phone going until the lights were back on.
Anything with a battery needs to be charged. Chargers need outlets. If you are leaving the US, you will need an adaptor, there is no way around this. If you have plans on ever traveling again in your life, you need a universal plug adaptor. I suggest an all-in-one adaptor rather than separate ones for different outlets, as no one wants more things to keep track of. There are many different options, but I would suggest the Orei M8 Plus Travel Plug with Dual USB. Not only does it work in 150+ countries, it also includes two USB charging ports.
Cell Phone Data:
Roaming data can easily rack up hundreds of dollars in fees when traveling internationally if you are not careful. Prepaid international data plans can easily cost between $30-$50 with barely enough data to check your email daily.
With the ever increasing number of WiFi hotspots in the world I suggest forgoing a data plan, or if you can switch your regular provider to T-Mobile.
Most hotels, coffee shops, museums, and even public areas provide free WiFi. While you will probably encounter hotspots throughout the day, if your hotel or hostel has Internet access, research and plan activities in the morning and evening, so you do not have to spend half the day looking for a hotspot.
I also mentioned switching your regular service provider to T-Mobile. With their Simple Choice Plan you get unlimited data in over 120 countries worldwide! This is on top of unlimited talk, text and data in the United States. The individual plan starts at $50 a month, depending on how much high-speed data you want.
I am on my family’s plan, meaning my service costs approximately $30 after fees and taxes. Even if you are a young adult and paying your own bills, being on a family plan can save over a hundred dollars a year.
Cell phone data might come in handy from time to time throughout the day, but with constant data you might spend more time Tweeting than enjoying your trip. If you need directions or suggestions for food or local attractions, do not be afraid to talk to a real person! Most people would be more than happy to help you out.
Cell Phone Talk and Text (SMS):
Applications such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype provide free voice and text messages to other users regardless of what country they are located in. If your friends and family don’t utilise any of these, a simple email can reach any of them in no time at all.
With these features, you do not need any more specific international talk time. Text messages are included with T-Mobile’s international coverage. It states that texting international numbers is free, but might cost to send them to an international number when you are abroad. Other than that you can always text a US based number!
Unless you have a specific need for a local phone number, it is best to leave the local SIM card behind.
Cell Phone Apps:
There are four main apps that I use when traveling: Google Translate, Maps, WhatsApp and Notes.
- Google Translate, for iPhone or Android, will help you get around in any country or language. They provide everything from translating text, speaking the translation, to live translation via the camera. Can’t figure out a sign, or what is on the restaurant menu? Just open the app and point your camera at it. It is like magic. While it has the most functionality when connected to the internet, do not forget to download the local language pack for where you are traveling. This allows for almost complete capabilities on the fly.
- Maps, I use Google Maps. It gives me a great idea on how far of walk, drive or bus I have to take on a daily bases while traveling. If you have data on your phone or are near WiFi it is perfect for finding my way or realigning my internal compass. Try to use the location services sparingly while out for the day, as GPS will burn through your battery. It also has a lesser know ability to save maps for offline use, which I would suggest for downtown areas.
- WhatsApp is the best way to keep in touch with friends and family back home and those traveling with you. You can have text or voice calls with anyone around the world, and send them pictures, voice and video messages. You can even send your GPS location if you are lost or trying to meet up with friends. As I write this my wife is in Argentina, but she can call every evening when she has internet access.
- Notes application is the perfect place to organize reservation information, flight/train departure info, and a pre-researched to-do list for each city you visit. Make sure it functions offline; any built in note taking app is more than enough.
You might notice I did not recommend any direct travel related apps, such as TripAdvisor. You should already be make plans of destinations, monuments, museums, restaurants, etc. that you want to visit along your trip. Once you are already traveling and you run out of plans, or are looking for more ideas on what to do in a city or country, visit a tourist information center, pick up pamphlets at the airport or terminal, ask the front desk at your hostel or hotel, or just ask anyone.
While this is a technology travel guide, there are some things that you can still not trust technology with. Think reliability.
I would always suggest bringing a local map and important reservation information in paper form. Paper will never run out of batteries no matter how long your trip is. This is a technology travel guide and while technology can make trip planning a breeze, it screws you over if it fails and you have no backup plan.
It is always best to get a street or road map before you leave, just to be sure. However, you can often pick one up for free at the airport or bus station, either printed by the government or an advertising company.
The best non-technology idea to take advantage of is other people.
Locals know the best places to see, eat and sleep in their city, often to places of the tourist map. In a recent trip to the Galapagos the hostel owner suggested a local restaurant that was cheaper for two meals than one at a restaurant on the main road. Other tourists are happy to suggest places they have visited or their future plans. You can even form a group and save money on everything from food to travel costs within the city and make some new friends!
Technology is always changing, so too is this Technology Travel Guide. If you have any suggestions or must-have technology travel apps, gadgets or ideas, please let us know in the comments!