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]

Ten things to know about your destination before you go

know before you go travel planningSo you’ve chosen your vacation destination – booked the tickets, agonized over TripAdvisor to find a hotel, and bought the guidebooks or downloaded the apps. Whether you like to plan your itinerary in advance or play it by ear, there are a few things you should research in advance to make your arrival – and your trip – go smoothly.

From airport taxis to local laws to transit passes, what should you know before you go?

  1. Best way from the airport to the city – This should be your first order of business – figuring out the most efficient and/or least expensive way to get to your hotel before you find yourself being hounded by taxi touts at baggage claim or standing in the rain waiting for a bus that comes every two hours. London’s Heathrow Express is a great compromise between an exorbitant taxi ride and a long Tube ride with transfers, but other cities may have cheap cab fares (find out approximately what you should pay before you get in the car) or excellent public transportation systems connecting with the airport. Check out any guidebook or the Getting In section of a Wikitravel article for the best info and check if your hotel offers pick up service for a good value.
  2. How much cash to start with and in what denominations – Now that you know how to get to your hotel, you’ll need cash to pay for your transfer. No matter what the exchange rate, you should find out how much money to withdraw from the ATM or exchange at the airport (note: most airports in the world have ATMs and will give you a better value than exchanging currency, but it never hurts to have some backup cash). Lonely Planet‘s Cost Index is great for determining about how much cash will cover a taxi ride, a meal or two, and other expenses for your first day or so. Some countries will give you large bills that are hard to break – try entering an odd amount like 130 to get some smaller bills or visit a newsstand to get change.
  3. What’s the tipping culture – So you’re in the taxi, cash in hand to pay the driver, do you tip? In many countries, like Turkey, people don’t generally tip taxi drivers, perhaps rounding up to the nearest lira or two, so a 38 TL fare would cost 40 TL (taxi drivers here are so loathe to give change they may eat the cost of a 52 TL fare and give you change for the 50). Likewise for restaurants and cafes, 10% is standard in many places outside of the US and often included in the bill. I’ll never forget leaving a 20% tip on top of an included 10% in a London bar – the waitress was thrilled but I felt like a fool. Figure out what’s appropriate and do as the locals do to avoid stiffing or overcompensating for service.
  4. A few key phrases in the local language – This is a necessity in some countries, and always a courtesy to know a few words of a foreign language. “Please” and “thank you” and “where is the bathroom?” will always be useful, and “two beers,” “another one” and “check” will usually result in good things.
  5. When to leave for the airport when you depart – It’s hard to think about going home when you’re enjoying vacation, but knowing how much time to allow for your departure can help you to maximize your last day. While your airline might tell you how far in advance to arrive, better to ask someone who really knows how long to budget, like your hotel concierge. A Lisbon hotel front desk clerk once saved me several hours waiting at the airport by letting me know the recommended three hours before check-in was overkill.
  6. What’s legal – Learning about the local laws can save you headaches and money. I just discovered that in Warsaw, jaywalking is illegal and punishable by a 50 zl fine, hence why all the residents wait patiently at crosswalks for the light to change. In some cities, it’s fine to bring a bottle of wine or beer into a park for a picnic, but in others, public drinking can get you fined. Knowing what’s legal can also help you avoid (or seek out, depending on your proclivities) potential danger areas such as red light districts. Wikitravel is good at listing info on local laws and dangers.
  7. What days museums are free or discounted – Visiting a museum on a free day might allow you to see something you’d otherwise miss due to the admission price, and free nights are often packed with locals and fun events. Find out what days you can get free to help plan your itinerary. Rick Steves’ guides always have a good summary of free (as well as closed) days.
  8. The real value of a transit or tourist pass – Many cities have a museum or tourist card that you can purchase to get free admission at many sites for a set time. But before you invest in a pass, check out if you really want to go to the included places (cheesy sights like wax musuems are invariably included) and if you’d have enough time to really enjoy visiting them all. Similarly, public transportation passes can be great in a city like New York, where a Metrocard can save you time and money, but if you prefer to walk or cab around town, you might skip it. The single best deal I’ve found is the Japan rail pass, which must be purchased in your home country, and gives free or discounted access to public transit and many of the country’s awesome bullet trains.
  9. Where to get help if you need it – I used to think registering with the U.S. Department of State when traveling abroad was a bit silly but a friend at the embassy in Istanbul stressed how important it is in case of a disaster in locating citizens, as well as to help Americans abroad in trouble. Leave your travel details with friends back home, carry the contact details for your embassy and credit cards and check your insurance policy for coverage away from home.
  10. Can’t-miss tips from locals and travelers – Here’s where social media can really help you have a great vacation – before departure, ask your travel-savvy friends on Facebook and Twitter what their don’t-miss recommendations are for what to see or where to eat. Even if they are well-known attractions, having a tip from someone who’s been there will help you prioritize. You can always ask us at Gadling, chances are one of us has been there and can provide recommendations – just post to our Facebook page or send us a tweet @Gadling.

Other tips you’ve found handy to know in advance? Leave us yours in the comments.

Kindle tips for travelers


The iPad may be the current darling of techie travelers but some of us are waiting for the first generation kinks to be worked out and a decrease in price (or a sudden cash windfall) before taking the plunge. While still a “monotasker” compared to a tablet or laptop computer, Amazon’s Kindle is still a great tool to carry books on the road with a lightweight design and almost limitless capacity to store whatever travel guidebooks, beach reads, or other reading materials you desire. Combined with the easy ability to search within a book for a place name or keyword, a much lower profile than carrying a tourist map, and limited but free web browser, Kindle is a good choice for travelers. Here are a few other ideas beyond ebooks for your next trip:

  1. Google Maps are a fantastic resource when traveling, but lose their usefulness once you are without internet access or unwilling to pay for data roaming. Whether you download individual maps of city neighborhoods or get all fancy with creating your own Google Map of destinations and recommendations, having a “hard copy” on your Kindle is handy when you are offline and want to quickly locate that vintage store in Berlin a friend told you about.
  2. Many free PDF travel guides are available online including In Your Pocket and Arrival Guides. While not as extensive as a guidebook, they provide a few suggestions for where to stay, eat, shop, and what to do in many cities and often cover less-traveled destinations such as Eastern Europe. Lonely Planet has also introduced Pick and Mix chapters for purchase, perfect for when you only need a chapter of a guidebook rather than a whole country book.
  3. Create your own travel guide by saving magazine articles, blog posts, and web pages for your destination with content more recent, relevant and varied than any guidebook. Tote along Gadling’s guide to Paris’ Japanese quarter, The New York Times‘ 36 Hours in Copenhagen, or the Wikitravel page for Mumbai.

How to save documents for your Kindle: most Mac browsers have a Print to PDF feature and PDFs are easily read on the Kindle. PC users can download a program such as PDFCreator to save PDFs. If you have another format including HTML or a Word document (good if you are copying and pasting text), you can email to Amazon and they will convert and send back. Then you can add documents via the USB cord to your Kindle, simply drag and drop into the Kindle documents folder. While many files don’t have the same functionality as ebook format, you can zoom in and often search many of the file types.

While many of these documents can simply be printed, printer access is often scarce on the road and this method saves a lot on paper. Any other travel tips for Kindle? Leave ’em in the comments below.

The Frankenguide: Make your own DIY guidebook

Whenever I travel somewhere new, instead of dropping $30 on the newest Lonely Planet Wherever and lugging it around in my already-small pack, I’ll create what I call a “Frankenguide”: a mishmash, do-it-yourself collection of torn-out pages from an official guidebook, printed websites, Wikitravel guides, pages from history books, and anything else that might come in useful when I’m on the road. Bind it together with some staples or paper clips, toss it into a Zip-Lock bag, and off I go. It might not look pretty, but it gets the job done and is infinitely customizable. Here’s how you can make your own:

First start with the official guidebook. I usually go with Lonely Planet just because, but any guidebook will do — choose your favorite brand. But instead of buying a new one, I’ll opt for an older, dated model which costs a fraction of the price. The sections I pull out of the book for my Frankenguide are the timeless bits of information: historical backgrounds, landmark descriptions, stuff like that. All of the information that has an expiration date — hotel and hostel reviews, restaurant listings, and so on — stays in the Lonely Planet. Instead, I get this information from a variety of places that have less of a chance of being outdated. This means I don’t bring along Lonely Planet’s list of restaurants in San Francisco, for example, because I could easily hop on Yelp with my laptop (or the nearest Internet cafe) and figure it out as I go. Further, the guy working the newspaper stand is probably going to have a good idea of where to get the cheapest, best-tasting Dungeness crab in the area. Ask the locals.

Next I’ll go to WikiTravel and look up my destination. More often than not, there’s some extra information in the guide that I don’t really need. So instead of printing the entire thing and wasting countless sheets of paper, I’ll open up a new Word document (or whatever) and copy and paste the bits that I can use. This also allows me to format the text to suit my needs, and add pictures or maps as necessary. You can also load a book template into Word so that you can maximize the space used on each sheet of paper. Print in two columns, front and back, and fold the pages in half, book-style. Pound in a few staples, and you’ve got yourself a decent little home-made guidebook.

The rest depends on your trip, and only limited by your imagination. If your trip to San Francisco is centered around exploring the hippie culture in Haight-Ashbury, for instance, fire up Google and find articles, websites, landmark descriptions, maps, and other information that will guide you. This neighborhood guide from the Chronicle would be perfect to include, for example. Throw in some conversion charts and a list of common phrases if you’re traveling internationally.

Your final product should end up being much cheaper and lighter than a new guidebook. Further, it’ll be completely relevant, and void of any unnecessary information. Now have at it!

The image above is the remains of Lonely Planet: South India after I pillaged its pages. Click to enlarge.

Wikitravel to publish hardcopy editions of its guides

I’m a big, oscillating fan of Wikitravel. For those of you not in the know, Wikitravel is the Wikipedia of guidebooks. In fact, I rarely travel with a real guidebook anymore these days. Usually my pack is stuffed with what I like to call a “Frankenbook”: bits and pieces of various guidebook pages torn out and stapled together with online print-outs — mostly made up of Wikitravel guides.

My inkjet printer will be out at the bars tonight celebrating, because the Wikitravel team just announced that it has begun publishing hardcopy editions of various guides from the website. And best of all, it’s printed on-demand, so you get the most recent update (within the month) when you order. They write,

“At Wikitravel Press, we select the best ones, give them to our carefully selected local editors to polish and fact-check, and then typeset them with our revolutionary one-click Yucca engine. This lets us update the guides from top to bottom every single month. When you order online, a fresh copy is printed just for you and shipped to your doorstop in less than a week.”

How cool is that? For more information, go here.

[Via Boing Boing]