June 8, 2012

Credit card and phone fees—wasteful ways to blow a hole in your budget

Savvy travelers probably know these things, but I know some who are still behind the curve and going abroad soon. So here’s an update: Though many report having no problems at all using their US mag-stripe cards and ordinary ATM cards abroad, make sure your credit or debit card has a smart chip. The global standard is “chip and PIN” technology, meaning you’ll need to enter a PIN after the terminal reads the card’s chip. Call your credit card company and ask for a new card with a smart chip for the “chip and signature” option. Most cards without the chip will still work sans-PIN at most automated kiosks though, since a signature is generally not needed for purchases under $50.

Another thing to keep in mind when pulling out the plastic abroad: When in doubt, go with the debit card. Though your bank likely charges a currency conversion fee in transactions abroad, credit card fees are usually almost twice as high as debit card transaction fees. Capital One does not charge foreign transaction fees at all, so it may be worth getting one just for your travel use. If you want other card options, the helpful site NerdWallet.com has a list of cards that don’t charge them either.

Roaming charges for calls can be another “under the radar”-type budget buster. Smartphone users can rack up big roaming fees unless they remember to switch on the device’s Airplane Mode and Wi-Fi when boarding the flight to a far-off place. Also remember to switch off the cellular mode.

Data usage costs more money overseas, but the International Data Plans from your provider are rarely the best option anyway; use Skype or Truphone instead (I’m a big fan of Skype) and, with a decent Wi-Fi signal, you can make international calls for dirt cheap. Estimate how much usage you’ll need. There is the ever-handy pay-as-you-go option or a monthly, flat-fee plan that allows unlimited calls in certain countries.

Alternatively, Facebook’s Vonage Mobile app enables globetrotters to make free international calls over Wi-Fi to Facebook friends who also download the app. If caller and recipient have iPhones, FaceTime is a great deal with one flat fee.

Now go have some fun!

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Category: Money Management, On The Road, Travel Tech

May 7, 2012

How many websites do you need to plan a trip?

Planning a trip can be a logistical tangle.  At any one time, I’ll have more than half-a-dozen tabs open in my web browser, each a different website.  For example:

Cross-checking between so many sites can be daunting, even for an experienced vagabonder. The new site Georama aims to change that by tying together different travel needs into one online platform. The slogan is “Plan. Book. Share.”  Still in private beta, but you can sign up to get advance access.

It’s certainly an enticing prospect. You’d save a lot of time from flipping from one site to another. On the other hand, it seems very much like the same idea behind web portals. Yahoo and MSN are prime suspects that the portal model can seem bloated in this age of lean, agile, focused applications.

Would you use Georama? What sites do you use for travel planning? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Category: Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel News, Travel Tech

February 17, 2012

The tech blog that digital nomads have searched for

Electronics to bring on the road.

Electronics to bring on the road. Photo: Abigail Elder / Flickr

Are you a digital nomad?  Chances are, you wrestle with dodgy Wi-Fi, electrical adapters, and figuring out what apps could help you travel more efficiently.  You don’t care which startup just had a big IPO or the latest viral meme.  What you’d like is a convenient guide to what gadgets you need.

Enter Too Many Adapters.  A site by digital nomads, for digital nomads.  They cover all the different types of digital tools a modern-day vagabonder might use.  The back story behind the name is appropriately international:

Suggested in Siem Reap, refined in Reykjavik and completed in Chiang Mai, developing this site ended up being a truly global experience.  Brainstorming for a name took a while, but looking at the mess in our respective backpacks eventually told us what it needed to be.

The site is already off to a good start, with articles on a wide array of electronics.  One of my favorite recent posts was, Could I travel with just a smartphone? Goes beyond a simple tech review to really dive into the feasibility of using a single mobile device for your daily necessities while on the road.  With smartphones becoming multipurpose devices, it’s certainly an attractive idea.  But can its functionality rival that of of a laptop?

I’m amazed at how far things have come along.  Only a couple of years ago, the only electronics I brought on my travels were a digital camera and an unlocked cell phone (not a smartphone).

How about you?  Do you bring a lot of high-tech gear with you on the road?  Or do you keep it simple?  Share what’s in your backpack in the comments.

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Category: Backpacking, Travel Tech

December 2, 2011

Making hostel booking social

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCWvnp7-ikI&feature=player_embedded

Intro video for inbed.me

Over the years, there have been several attempts to combine travel and social networking.  The latest on the scene is inbed.me (that name is just asking for double entendres).

The idea is to solve the problem of that first-night loneliness in a new hostel.  You’ve just arrived, and all the previous guests have formed their cliques, so you don’t have anyone to talk to.  With inbed.me, you can connect to travelers who will be at that hostel before you arrive.  By reading their profiles, you can find common interests and make plans to hang out.  Ideally, you land in a new hostel with some ready-made friends.

It is a cool idea. I tested it out by entering a few cities: Taipei, San Francisco, and Bangkok.  Your mileage may vary, but I often only saw one traveler in each hostel.  Since the site is so new, I think travelers haven’t widely adopted it yet.  If the site gains a bigger audience, then it would become more useful.  Something to keep an eye on.

What do you think of this idea?  Do you know similar websites that do a better job?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Category: Hostels/Hotels, Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel Tech

October 7, 2011

How Steve Jobs and Apple changed travel forever

Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple

Apple founder Steve Jobs, who "thunk different." Photo: andrechinn / Flickr

The media lit up with commemorations of Steve Jobs, the legendary CEO of Apple who passed away on Oct. 5, 2011. While talking about his full impact on technology is beyond the scope of this blog, we can talk about how his products changed our trips: How Steve Jobs helped make Apple a major disruptor in travel.

The iPhone was not the first smartphone that could access the Internet.  However, it was a level ahead of its competitors in offering a fuller web experience.  At the time, web surfing on phones was much more limited.  The iPhone made touchscreens and apps popular.

Photos used to be developed at stores, then painstakingly assembled into binders as photo albums.  Now with the right apps, you can snap a picture with your phone and send it out to your friends instantly.  Apple’s devices pulled off the feat of making the world smaller, more personal, and more connected.

This is only the beginning.  About a year ago, there was news that Apple was developing iTravel, an app for the iPhone.  According to patent filings, iTravel would integrate transportation booking, check-in, and social networking. It would turn your iPhone into an electronic ticket–and ticket agent.  We can only imagine how Jobs would have presented it at a future Apple summit.

Do you use Apple products?  How have they affected your travels?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University:

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Category: Travel Tech

August 26, 2011

Crowd-sourcing for travel advice

Three guys looking at a smartphone.

Three guys looking at a smartphone. Photo: Dave Fayram / Flickr

Many of my best travel experiences have come about through recommendations from friends. The Taiwanese guy who took me to a stylish lounge bar in Taipei with the hidden entrance; the Australian expat who showed me his favorite ramen restaurant in Tokyo; and the list goes on.

Thanks to the Internet , old-fashioned word-of-mouth is now exponentially more powerful. Instead of being limited to our own circle of friends, we can tap a website’s entire community for good information.  Many of these new websites were featured in this article in The New York Times: Crowd-sourcing for travel advice.

The sites themselves have varying business models. Some are independent social networks, while others are add-ons to Facebook and existing platforms.  So you might end up getting advice from strangers, or from your own friends.

How do you feel about using these tools? I prefer to reach out to friends I’ve met on previous trips, since I’m more likely to get a good response.  These friends know me and my travel tastes, so their advice is more likely to be a suitable fit.  But it’s hard to pass up on accessing the collective knowledge of a bigger community.

On a related note, the social media news website Mashable.com. produced a great video on how to use Twitter Advanced Search to mine tweets for travel information.  The trip-planning section starts at 1:14 minutes in:

 

What websites do you use to research for trips? Please share your tips in the comments.

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Category: Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel Tech

August 15, 2011

What if Jack Kerouac had GPS and Yelp?

Since I’ve written quite a bit about how electronic technology is transforming travel, I enjoyed reading “GPS and the End of the Road,” Ari N. Schulman’s essay in the Spring 2011 issue of The New Atlantis. In the essay, Schulman posits that GPS devices, along with “location awareness” apps like HearPlanet and Layar, are diminishing the sense of freewheeling travel discovery and possibility portrayed by writers like Jack Kerouac.

“How would new technology of location affect an On the Road today?” Schulman writes. “Can we imagine its characters, and by extension ourselves, escaping into the Western night, navigating by GPS and choosing where to go with Yelp, supplied with surrounding-relevant multimedia by GeoTour, encountering city streets with their iPhones held up and overlaying the view, and still having the same adventure? Something about this image is absurd.”

Schulman illustrates how Mark Twain’s Huck Finn uses the river as a metaphor for adventure and discovery and escape. As technology constrained the possibilities of river travel in the 20th century, this symbol gave way to the metaphoric “road” of Kerouac’s novel. “Seen in the right way,” Schulman writes, “what the two novels show us is not the virtue of quitting civilization, but the freedom that comes from finding our own way through a world that is not of our own making — and with it, a glimpse of the possibility of reaching out beyond our everyday selves into something greater.” By contrast, the hypothetical “GPS-enabled, location-aware adventures of Sal and Dean or Huck and Jim somehow sound dreary before they have begun, filled with anticlimax, boredom, and restlessness.”

Schulman continues:

GPS navigation, in its present form, …dulls our receptivity to our surroundings by granting us the supposed luxury of not having to pay attention to them at all. In travel facilitated by “location awareness,” we begin to encounter places not by attending to what they present to us, but by bringing our expectations to them, and demanding that they perform for us as advertised. In traveling through “augmented reality,” even the need for places to perform begins to fade, as our openness to the world gives way to the desire to paper over it entirely. It is an admission of our seeming distrust in places to be sufficiently interesting on their own. But in attempting to find the most valuable places and secure the greatest value from them, the places themselves become increasingly irrelevant to our experiences, which become less and less experiences of those places we go.

The argument that the experience of a place is something that “must be worked for, achieved in stages and through struggles” isn’t new (it’s been around since at least the advent of trains and steamships), but Schulman points out how 21st century technologies are transforming our lexicon for engaging with the world:

If feeling “connected” for us means inhabiting the virtual realm, then what we most long to connect to is not what is in front of our eyes. When we speak of feeling “disconnected,” then, we are confessing that we have become displaced: we are losing interest in and forgetting how to inhabit real places on their own. This displacement produces restlessness — but of a very different sort than the restlessness that motivates the traveler to go forward into the world. In fact, this restlessness is opposed to the traveler’s impulse: it seeks its relief not in the real world but the virtual.

Schulman’s full essay is online here. For an inverse perspective — one that explores how digital technology could be broadening the lives of normal folks in Africa — check out J.M. Ledgard’s essay “Digital Africa” in the Spring 2011 issue of Intelligent Life magazine.

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Category: Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Travel Tech

July 29, 2011

Social networks and travel: the hard numbers

Cartoon of a man playing with building blocks with the Facebook logo.

Man building his life with Facebook blocks. Photo: Urs Steiner / Flickr

Social networks have made a dramatic impact on travel. During my first backpacking trip in 2004, I relied on e-mail addresses to stay in touch with the new friends I was making.  I once met a girl in Paris. Later into my trip, I was shocked to run into her at my hostel in Edinburgh.  What a small world!

That kind of thing would not have happened today.  We’d have added each other as friends on Facebook, she would have put a status update on her profile saying she was in Edinburgh, and I’d have messaged her before my arrival.  Since people change e-mail addresses more often than their social networks, adding people is a safer way to stay in contact.  Work and school e-mails are notoriously temporary.

The travel startup Tripl created an infographic that appeared in TechCrunch: More Americans are on Facebook than have a passport.  A sad statistic, indeed.  The infographic says 50% of Americans connect with friends and family on Facebook, while only 37% hold a passport.  It continues on to say that 72% of travelers access social networks while on the road.  As someone who’s waited in line at hostels while guests are checking their Facebook feeds, I was surprised the number wasn’t even higher.

On the flip side, the statistics say that only 7% of travelers use mobile internet on the road.  I think that’s due to the lack of universal standards in networks.  Your mobile phone in one country often won’t work in another, because your telecom carrier handicaps your phone.  That and the absurdly high cost of roaming charges.  From interacting with backpackers, very few use mobile phones abroad unless they’re living abroad.  I usually leave the phone at home and solely rely on public computers to reach my friends via the Internet.

In brighter news, it seems like about half of the users said Facebook photos inspired their trips, and also makes them visit friends who are living overseas.  I will say that a trip is much richer if you have someone to meet up with over there, who can show you around.

How do you use social networks when you travel? Are they more help or hindrance? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Category: Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel News, Travel Tech

May 20, 2011

The art of unplugging for a trip

A jumble of wires, headphones, mobile phones, and gadgets

A tangled web of gadgets. Photo: Peter Kaminski / Flickr

In my last couple of blog posts, I waxed poetic about the life of a digital nomad. As a counterpoint, here’s a fine article that appeared in the Orange-County Register: Digital detox for a trip to Italy. Gary Warner, the newspaper’s travel editor, decided to cut off the electronic umbilical cord for an entire vacation. With today’s gadgets and social networks, many of us have become used to (addicted to?) instant feedback from our friends. Going cold turkey can be tough.

Warner is no Luddite and tech-basher. He does acknowledge how technology can enrich travel and make it more convenient. However, he does point out a big danger: technology can bring home on the trip with you, with all its attendant baggage and stress. In his words:

I found the computer and phone gave me an agitated feeling. My body might be on the road, but my head was at my desk thousands of miles away. Even GPS had stripped away the serendipity of getting wonderfully lost. Did I really need–did I really want–the “least time” route from Skye to Inverness?

Warner’s observations are similar to the ethos our own Rolf Potts trumpeted in his book Vagabonding.  An over-reliance on things like the Internet might blind us to the exotic locale we came all this long way to discover.

Here are some things I do to moderate my dose of technology:

–Leave your devices at home.  This is the most drastic step–but also the most effective.  It’s easy to resist temptation when it’s “out of sight, out of mind.”  I’ve done all my trips without carrying a laptop.  Internet cafes are everywhere, even in some of the least developed countries I’ve been, like Burma.  You can get online when you need to.

–Get online early in the morning.  People are asleep, businesses are closed, so you’re not missing out on anything.  If you check e-mail sometime later in the day or evening, you risk losing your chance to meet cool new people or have an unforgettable experience.

–Batch your Internet time.  Compress all your activity into one hour or two, and then log off once your time is up.  When you start racking your brain for websites to look up, it means you’ve finished your necessary business and should get offline.

–Read, but don’t reply.  I’ve easily wasted hours by writing blow-by-blow accounts in e-mails to friends.  Unless it’s really urgent, it’s better to postpone replying to every message you get.

–Don’t get caught up in documenting every aspect of your trip.  With blogging and social networks, it’s easy to get sidetracked by “recording” your travels with photos, video, and text updates.  Rather than living our travels.  This is why I always write posts on my travel blog after I’ve returned from a place, not while I’m there. While I do keep a travel journal, I strictly write bullet-point lists of key events and details, not full-length stories.  I save that heavy-duty writing for my blog (Marcus Goes Global).  Your record-keeping style may vary, though.

Have you ever been cut off from the Internet for an extended length of time?  Were you excited to get online and see all the messages from your friends?  But have you ever been disappointed by what was in your inbox?  Warner sure was:

Of course, I re-toxed as soon as I got home. Though it was past midnight when we finally came in the door from the airport, I pulled my devices from the drawer and fired them up.  More than 1,200 emails, more than 1,000 tweets from feeds . . . When I scrolled and clicked through it all, I found I had missed absolutely nothing that mattered.

In a way, this reinforces that we can live without technology.  Warner’s home life didn’t collapse while he was unplugged.  For more, please check out Rolf Potts’ interview with Gary Warner.

Have you met people who couldn’t seem to get offline?  How do you keep from over-using technology?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Category: Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel Tech

May 19, 2011

Tweeting from the summit of Everest

Often while traveling, it seems that there’s no place immune from a wireless connection. Hotels, cafés—even buses allow you to connect with the world using your cell phone, laptop, or notebook.

It’s been many years since I’ve heard someone make a call from an airplane using those seat-back phones: “Hey, you’ll never guess where I’m calling you from.” I suppose that’s part of the allure for calling or tweeting from remote places. Recently, mountaineer Kenton Cool tweeted from Everest’s summit, and then called his wife. If you thought Everest was one of the few places that were immune from social networking, you can cross it off your list now.

Only a few years ago, I was completely off the grid when I visited my home in Honduras. I’d have to take a boat ride for an hour to use the telephone—when it worked. Cell service was nonexistent. Now, I can email from my place while looking at three cell phone towers on the nearby mountains.

Lamenting the days of getting off the map and away from technology is a waste of time. Ultimately, it’s all under your control. Want to get away from email, Facebook and Twitter? Don’t use it. You don’t even have to leave your gear at home. Just determine when you want to connect and when you don’t. This week, I’m in Colombia and will be in the jungle part of the time. I’m relishing the ability to shut everything off and ignore my electronic leash.

How about you? Do you yearn to shout from the social network mountaintop when you’re connected in a remote place, or would you rather just enjoy and talk about it later?

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Category: Lifestyle Design, Travel News, Travel Tech
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