Travel Smarter 2012: Use your mobile apps better

It should come as no surprise that owning a smartphone in 2012 is a traveler’s perfect tool to better explore, organize and record their travels. And by now, there are literally thousands of app roundups out there to help lead you to the good ones. But this isn’t another one of those roundups. Instead, today Gadling is taking a closer look at how to use your existing apps – the ones you already have in 2012 – to travel smarter.

Consider the issues you typically face on the road. You’re hungry, or lost. Perhaps you’re simply trying to communicate with someone in a foreign language. The truth is you don’t always need to spend $1.99 on the newest “travel app” to do these things. Sometimes the best app is the one you already have on your smartphone.

Based on hundreds of hours on the road, both here in the U.S. and abroad, testing various mobile apps, we’ve compiled the following travel tips to help you get the most out of the apps on your smartphone. Are you a travel app pro? Click through for our tips.Use Your Camera to Save Important Information
Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently, you’re probably already aware of the huge boom in mobile travel photography apps and tips in recent months. And certainly smartphones (iPhones in particular) have proven themselves as clear winners for traveling photographers.

But are you using your phone’s camera to its full potential? Truth is, your smartphone’s camera makes a great storage and communication tool. Don’t want to carry around your map with directions to dinner? Take a photo. How about a snapshot of the street where your hotel is at so you can show the taxi driver? Voila. Have a food allergy? Take a photo of the food to show at the restaurant.

Get a Recommendation from a Local
Many travel apps claim to help you find cool things to do in new places you’re visiting. Problem is, they don’t deliver. The secret is that locals in your destination don’t use them. The trick to getting good recommendations is to use what the locals use, and right now those two apps are Foursquare and Yelp.

If you’re not already using Foursquare, it’s quietly become the new killer travel app. Most people think of Foursquare as “that service that lets you check in to bars to try and look cool.” But with a series of great recent updates, including an ability to share and make lists and the new explore feature, Foursquare is now a powerful tool to help you find good stuff to eat, see and do in unknown places. Check out their Foursquare Cities account for some great user-created tips in cities like Berlin, Milan, Sydney, London and more.

Yelp is another app many of us know from our daily wanderings in our hometown. Ever tried it on the road? Open the app and click on “Nearby” on the bottom menu, then “Hot New Businesses” to find out what local users are talking about right now.

Store Your Travel Research on Your Phone
Now that the vast majority of travel research happens on the web, there’s no reason for all that research to get stuck on your computer when you leave for the airport. Take it with you – use your smartphone to collect it all in one place.

Many people already use mobile reading apps like Instapaper (for iOS) or Read it Later (for Android) to collect long articles for offline storage – why not create a folder of great articles for your trip? Don’t forget to install the app’s “bookmarklets” on your web browser for easy adding. Another great free source of info is Wikitravel – try uploading the whole destination guide for the city you’re visiting to your Instapaper or Read It Later app for easy offline reading. Evernote is another great document storage app you may already have that lets you store everything from web links to photos to audio recordings.

Make Cheaper Phone Calls and Pay Less for Wi-Fi
If you’ve ever placed a phone call from abroad using your cell phone, you probably remember the sticker shock that came with it when you got the bill back. That’s where Skype’s suite of mobile apps can be a real lifesaver. Use your mobile phone over a Wi-Fi connection to make phone calls (and send texts) while abroad to any phone number. Did you know Skype also has an app that lets you pay-by-the-minute for Wi-Fi at over 1 Million locations worldwide? Skip the $8 daily Wi-Fi rate at the airport and login using your existing Skype credit.

[flickr image via Cristiano Betta]

Aquarium crocodile swallows cell phone

crocodileA visitor to an aquarium in the Ukraine was trying to take a picture of a crocodile with her cell phone when she dropped it right into the creature’s mouth, the BBC reports.

Last month at an aquarium in Dnipropetrovsk, Rimma Golovko reached her hand towards Gena the crocodile in order to get a good shot as it opened its mouth. She fumbled and the phone fell right into the Gena’s gullet. The reptile then gulped it down. She told the aquarium staff but at first they didn’t believe her. It was only after Gena’s tummy starting ringing that they realized the crocodile had, indeed swallowed the cell phone.

Funny? Well, yeah, but not for the croc. Gena has since lost its appetite and energy. Considering all the harmful chemicals involved in making a cell phone (they’re considered hazardous waste, after all) it’s not surprising the critter is feeling a little under the weather.

The aquarium’s vet has tried giving Gena laxatives-laced meat, but the it didn’t take the bait. Now he’s considering an operation.

And Ms. Golovko? She says she wants her Sim card back. Well, too damn bad, Ms. Golovko. I’m sympathizing with the giant predator on this one.

[Photo courtesy user MathKnight via Wikimedia Commons]

Going back to basics on the road – when high tech becomes high burden

In the past two decades, the high tech arsenal of the frequent traveler has gone through some major upgrades. What started with the brick phone, has evolved into a package of smartphone-digital-camera-socialmedia-netbook -3G equipment. On any given day, even the most amateur of travelers may be carrying over $1000 in high-tech gear. During one of my recent trips, I came to the realization that all this technology has stopped me enjoying travel as much as I should.

On the road, too many of us are more focused on making sure we keep our Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare account up to date, than actually looking out the window to enjoy the scenery. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating a return to complete non-tech, but there are ways we can stay connected and entertained without technology becoming a major part of our trips.
Social media

If I had to pull some kind of numbers out of my ass, I’d say that 50% of travelers are engaged in some form of social media when they travel. Some may keep this limited to a daily Tweet, others spend half their time making sure everyone in the world knows they just checked into the local coffee shop, museum, restaurant and attraction park on Foursquare. If you spend more than one hour a day updating your social media life, take a break. For starters, you need to determine just who you are doing this for.

I’m sure many of you social media aces think all your followers are constantly waiting for your next update, but you need to remember who you are traveling for – you don’t take trips for your followers, you take trips for your own enjoyment. If you fail to see just one amazing landmark because you were glued to your PDA or smartphone, then social media has failed you.

This doesn’t mean social media has no place in travel – I think there are plenty of things your online friends can help with. Especially when it comes to recommendations or other tips, the world of social media can be a great help. But don’t let online tools replace the old fashioned “ask a local” – remember when we used to do that?

Digital photography

Look, unless you are on a paid assignment from Newsweek, there is no real reason to be traveling with a $4000 camera and a bag full of lenses. Don’t get me wrong – I’d never recommend traveling without a camera, and I am jealous of great photographers, but just like with social media, spending too much time with your camera is going to divert your attention away from the reason you are on vacation.

The current generation point and shoot cameras are great for travel – you turn them on, take a photo and move on. There is no fiddling with the lens, no switching out the lens to something better, and no setting up tripods to get “the perfect shot”. At the end of the day, all your want to achieve is a collection of memories of the sights and sounds you saw, and perfect photos are really not required to bring back memories. In fact, the best way to record the feeling of your destination may be with something as simple as a $100 HD camcorder.

When shopping for a good point and shoot camera, you’ll want something that can last all day on a battery, can record HD video (with good audio), and something with good build quality. With a compact camera, you just pop it in your shirt pocket, without having to worry about dragging your massive camera bag around all day.

[Image from: Flickr / Claudio Matsuoka]

Ditch the laptop

In recent years, bulky laptop computers have become lighter and more powerful – making perfect travel companions. But at the end of the day, they still won’t last more than ten hours on a battery, and you always run the risk of breaking them or having them stolen. Yes – the iPad is a great alternative, but that hardly fits in the challenge of switching to a low-tech world, does it?.

For the first time in almost 15 years, I traveled with a notepad last week. And it was fantastic. Not a battery powered touch screen notepad – just a classic Moleskine and pen. Going back to how we kept notes back in school was weirdly satisfying, and I was able to put thoughts on paper much quicker than with any of my digital tools. Best of all, if you can’t completely break free from technology, you can scan notes or digitize them for use back home.

A perfect hybrid of old and new comes from Livescribe, who sell a pen that can record what you write, along with your voice. Simply jot your thoughts on paper, and when you get back home (or your hotel room) you transfer them to your computer.

Mobile phone simplicity

I’ve become so accustomed to my smartphone that I don’t ever foresee making the switch back to a “dumbphone.” Still, there are some advantages of a basic phone over a fancy smartphone:

  • Battery life – do you remember when your phone lasted 4 or 5 days? I’m betting that wasn’t with a smartphone. Today’s basic mobile phones have battery life in the 100’s of hours, some even last more than a week.
  • Price – I’m sure most of you spend well over $60 a month for the luxury of a smartphone, a switch to basic will save a fortune.
  • Risk – Walk down the street of some cities with your iPhone or Android phone, and you are an immediate target for a quick theft. Very few muggers will even consider the hassle of trying to steal your $20 Nokia from you.
  • Ease of use – Forget fiddling with syncing or configuring your email client, With a dumbphone, you just pop a sim card in it, and make calls. Not much more involved.

One affordable move could save you a fortune – switch to the combination of an iPod Touch and a basic mobile phone. With this, you get the best of both worlds – the same apps, email and Internet as on the iPhone, and no insane monthly data costs. You’ll need to learn to find free Wi-Fi to get online, but when you save $40/month, it may be worth the hassle.

Turn your phone off when told to – or risk being kicked off your flight

Anyone that has flown knows that the cabin crew will make a big deal about having all passengers turn electronic devices off as soon as the cabin doors are closed. Of course, there are always a couple of people that need a little extra reminding. Then there are of course those passengers that need to make a call that is apparently so important, they’ll ignore all requests to turn their phone off.

A 20 year old man from Colorado fits that profile – and his phone call was so important, that it triggered a fight when he refused to turn his phone off. By the time the fight broke out, the plane had taken off from Charles De Gaulle airport, and four American security agents got involved.

With a disruptive passenger on board, the pilot took no risks, turned the plane around and landed back at the airport where the man was handed over to French police officers.

To make matters worse for this idiot passenger, United Airlines refused to fly him back home, and canceled his ticket. The flight ended up being delayed by almost two hours, causing a considerable inconvenience to everyone on board.
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Dim Sum Dialogues: The Chungking Mansions

This is Nadim.

Nadim is originally from Pakistan. He came to Hong Kong seven years ago with his wife and two children to find a better life. He tells me that he never envisioned his better life to be what he has today, but he’s happy, and enjoying moderate success selling mobile phones out of his shop.

The shop is actually a small stall, at most ten feet wide and four feet deep, situated in a maze of hallways perpetually bathed in dim fluorescent light. The stalls next to him sell a variety of cheap suitcases and even cheaper t-shirts and jackets. No one mentions the word ‘fake’, but it’s quite apparent that most of the items have emerged from a mysterious cloning lab in the heart of mainland China. Thirty footsteps down the hall brings you to the counter of a small Indian restaurant with fresh naan, thalis, curries, and samosas. Next to that is a convenience shop, stocked wall to wall with canned goods, bottled liquor, tobacco and candy. Ten more steps and you’ll be surrounded by head-high stacks of bootlegged Bollywood films.

Welcome to the Chungking Mansions.

The mansions are a series of five 17-story high blocks, connected by a two-level foyer with shops, food stalls, and currency exchange bureaus. On any given day an estimated 4,000 people live here, not including the backpackers that take advantage of an array of cheap guesthouses in the building, and the curious shoppers that wander through the halls. On a weekend, the five lines that form for the elevators in each block display Hong Kong’s multiculturalism at its best. Indian hawkers wait with their filipino girlfriends, young dreadlocked australians rub elbows with african women in brightly patterned dresses, and the chinese security guard carefully monitors the live CCTV footage that comes from inside the elevators.

Chungking, which means “great (and returning) prosperity” is just blocks away from the world-famous Peninsula Hotel in the Tsim Sha Tsui, or “TST” district. TST’s waterfront property offers the best panoramic views of Hong Kong’s iconic skyline, making it some of the most prime real estate in the city. Yet the Chungking Mansions have avoided any signs of gentrification, and seem to be proudly surviving as the central hub for minority culture in Hong Kong. Moreover, it’s an important place of business – a living example of how a low-end globalized economy functions.

I stand outside the entrance to the building, chatting with one of the many touts that persistently offers tailoring services and “copy watches”. The favorite line among this crowd is “Hey boss, guess how much for a suit!”, with the occasional peddler that approaches us to offer a slew of drugs. The tout says to me, “See, you can find anything you need in Chungking Mansions. Anything from A to Zed – you tell me, I can find it within twenty minutes.” I consider testing his offer, but decline and watch as two young men struggle to maneuver four grossly overstuffed suitcases down the entrance’s steps.

The young men with the suitcases are most likely carrying mobile phones. Nadim told me that most of the business he sees is from wholesalers that buy these cheap phones in bulk, and take them back to countries like Kenya, Zambia, and Nigeria. Apparently, one fifth of all of the mobile phones in sub Saharan Africa have passed through the Chungking Mansions at some point – and 70 percent of Kenya’s handsets come from here. Serious traders come to the Mansions with money and a destination, and everything else is handled for them.

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The mobile phone trade might be cheaper across the border in Guandong, but the trading laws and security of Hong Kong are more appealing to the Nigerians and Pakistanis that can’t easily obtain Chinese visas.

The Chungking Mansions have even been able to resist interference from the infamous Triad gangs – but still have issues with gangs of different nationalities that spar with one another. One restaurant owner tells me “These guys that deal drugs back here think they are big time dealers, but really they’re nothing – they are very small time in the scheme of things.”

The building has a bad history of electrical fires and suspicious activity. Signs can be seen at bars around Hong Kong advertising the disappearance of a female backpacker in March, last seen at an apartment in the Chungking Mansions. In 1988, a fire broke out and killed a Danish tourist. A series of arrests in the 90’s spurred the management to install 208 CCTV cameras throughout the building. Of course, it’s really not an extremeley dangerous place, but travelers that stay here should be aware of their surroundings, and shouldn’t entertain invitations into private rooms within the building.

A group of retired Americans in full tourist garb passes by Nadim’s stand, the fluorescent lighting only making their pale skin stand out more against the rest of their surroundings. I ask him what he thinks about tourists here, and he responds “I think it’s good – I don’t think you can come to Hong Kong and not see the Chungking Mansions. If you come to this city, and you don’t see this place, then you haven’t really seen Hong Kong.” Nadim has a valid point, and for a place that’s been dubbed “Asia’s World City”, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of globalization in action.