I love gadgets — I bought one of the first Pong games (from Sears, still have it in a box), tried out interactive TV when it was a great idea but nobody knew what to do with it, bought a Fat Mac (the “big” 512k version) and was on GEnie and CompuServe waaaay before the Internet was a name, let alone a household name. So it’s no surprise that when I travel, I use every gadget and app I can find to make life easier. Unfortunately, sometimes the gadgets themselves make life harder, but all in all, it beats heck out of being without them.
Now, before you can say, “But vacation is a time to unplug from those things”, I don’t check email on my phone constantly, I don’t even read my Kindle at restaurants. I use gadgets as a way to make travel easier and more enriching. Here’s what I travel with:
Netbook – I have a little Gateway netbook that I use here and at home. I have Outlook loaded on it as my main organizational tool – all the phone numbers I could need, including emergency contacts for each of my destinations (Embassy, English-speaking hospitals, ambulance, police), taxis, the places I’m staying, etc. Plus the calendar with travel information. Email, of course, for staying in touch. I sync Outlook with my phone, so have this all at my fingertips.
In addition, I have an Excel spreadsheet with all my travel details… conditions of each flat rental or hotel stay (payments due, deposits to be returned), transportation options if I haven’t finalized them yet, etc.
I’m downloading my photos onto the netbook and syncing them to Google Drive as a backup. If I have a strong enough wi-fi signal, I’m downloading them from Google Drive onto my PC at home as a second backup, using TeamViewer. And for security when using a hotel or flat wi-fi signal, I have a free VPN program called HotSpot Shield.
I also use the Internet to research more about things I’ve seen (I learned more than I ever needed to know about pilchards during my stay in St. Ives), book ongoing travel (there are still a few holes in my plans) and consult TripAdvisor.
And of course, I’m using it to write my private journal and this blog.
Camera(s) – I have a really nice Panasonic Lumix G-2 with two lenses, a 14-42 “normal” lens and a 45-200 telephoto. That telephoto is the only reason I have a photograph of the Queen which is recognizably the Queen. I have two batteries and a brand-new multi battery charger (since the one I bought at home THE DAY BEFORE I left has died!). I carry it all in a bag that I can wear around my waist (yes, dorky-looking) or over my shoulder. The bag also carries a small flexible tripod, lens cleaners and extra SD cards.
Just before I left, I bought a small Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100, intending to mostly use it at restaurants, as the Lumix is lousy in low light. And as it’s turned out, I’m taking most of my pictures with it. It’s small enough to fit in my day-time bag (instead of dragging the big camera bag along) and does some marvelous things, including panoramic photos. And it takes great food photos, even in the darkest restaurant.
Kindle – I love my Kindle for travel! Not only does it keep me occupied on long flights and in places where the only English tv is the news, but I can download PDF files of my travel documents onto it as yet another backup.
Cell phone – I’m using my Motorola Droid Razr Maxx with a local SIM card for each country. SIM cards in Europe are ridiculously cheap, and except for Belgium, I’m in each country for at least a month, so worth the small investment. I use the GPS and data constantly, along with other apps.
Cell phone apps – These are the apps I’ve found most useful, in order of usage:
Google Maps – I love Google Maps! When I’m researching my trips, I put everything I want to see or do onto a Google Map for each destination. Each item is marked with a symbol indicating restaurant, hotel, attraction, scenic stop, etc. It syncs to my phone, so when I’m out and about, I can use the map as a GPS to get me to my destination, tell me what else is in the area (like a recommended restaurant), etc.
I used it in London to get transit information, although a couple of times the bus didn’t go where Google said it did. But by following the bus’s progress on the map, I could tell when it diverged from my intended route, so jumped off and found another bus. Google’s transit directions tell you how to walk to your bus stop (and in London, each stop has a specific name and designation — like Theobald’s Road Stop H — so you know you’re at the right stop). It tells you the bus route number and direction (like Route 29 toward Clapham Field). And it tells you how many stops and the name of each lie between you and your stop. And then can give you walking directions from the stop to your destination. This isn’t available everywhere, but this was the first time I’d taken buses in London as opposed to the Tube, and Google Maps made it really easy!
Skype – I have a relative who’s somewhat concerned about me wandering around the world on my own, so we’ve agreed that I call her every night, or she’ll set the Embassy on my trail! Skype is costing me a whopping $3 a month for unlimited calls to the US. It’s also helped me call home to check voice messages, conduct occasional business with insurance, etc. The connection quality depends on the wi-fi signal, which was not good for the two weeks each that I was in Cornwall and Oxford.
EveryTrail – I’m just starting to use this, but really like the concept. I’m having a few problems with the execution, as uploading trips is a hit-or-miss affair (more frequently “miss” than “hit”, I’m afraid). But it enables me to answer questions like… “What was that little town I drove through right before getting home?” You can also download other people’s suggested tours and hikes, as well, although so far I haven’t done that.
Field Trip – This is really fun, especially when wandering about a city and open to new discoveries. It’s a location-based app that triggers an alert when you are near a location where there is content loaded onto their servers. Content covers various interests, such as architecture, historic places and events, art and museums and “lifestyle”. You can pick and choose what alerts you receive (I’ve skipped Offers & Deals and Lifestyle). And the content is created by a number of sources, some of whom appear to be random individuals, some recognized authorities such as the Archaeological Institute of America, Arcadia Publishing (the folks that publish all those sepia-toned paperbacks of hyper-local history), and even Rand McNally.
In Honfleur, the publisher Geocoded Art alerted me that the street I was walking on had been painted by Henri Le Sidaner, and showed me the painting. The street today looks remarkably similar, and the old well is still there and working! Not earthshaking, but something that was fun to learn that I would never have known otherwise.
If you’re the type who walks around with your Bluetooth earpiece on all the time, you can even have it read the alert aloud. I’m not, so I don’t.
Various transit agencies – In London, I had the TfL app which was more accurate than Google Maps, but much harder to use (slow and not as intuitive). In Belgium, I’ll use MetrO, which I’ve used in the past (on my old Palm Pilot — I told you I love gadgets).
City guides – I have City Maps 2Go (which does not need a live data signal), some walking tours from CityWalks (which you can customized to create your own walking tour using their database of sights), some audio tours from Rick Steves. Most of these are free, some charge a couple of dollars for the tours that you download. I’m not crazy about any of them.
ViaMichelin – Now that I have a car for a week, I may be using this more. I can find gas stations, parking lots, etc., as well as nearby restaurants (and hotels, if I needed them). It’s tied into the Michelin red and green guides. It seems to require a fairly strong data signal, however, which I’ve not had.
These other apps I have on “standby”, in case I need them:
TeamViewer – An app to access my documents on my PC at home. I could just picture the IRS contacting me, wanting some documentation and not being willing to wait until my return. So far, that hasn’t happened!
mydlink Lite – An app that allows me to view, in real time, the security webcam I set up at home. It’s kind of reassuring to look in every once in a while and see that it’s all still there, waiting patiently for my return. (I have motion alerts with photos sent to my email, just in case something happens.)
The downside of travel tech – stuff breaks! So far, the Kindle and the camera battery charger died and had to be replaced. Luckily, the Kindle died en route to London, so it was somewhat easy (if horribly expensive) to replace. The battery charger was a bit harder, but thanks to the Internet and my mobile phone, I found a replacement (and actually a better one) just 20 miles away from my flat in Honfleur. (Of course, low-tech stuff breaks, too — I had to buy a new bra as the clasp on mine broke!)
This might seem like a lot to carry, but since there’s no way I could physically carry the number of guide books, maps, novels, etc. that I would need over 5 months, this is actually a lot more convenient.