As you complete the process of identifying a destination, procuring a rental car or airline tickets as cheaply as possible, and then finding the perfect lodging, you begin to gather a lot of critical travel information (usually in your inbox). Organizing all of this information per trip and sharing it with your family or other travel partners is somewhat tedious. For many years we have sworn by www.tripit.com to provide this service and couldn’t be happier. Our entire family has the TripIt Pro app on their iPhones and iPads, and we use it to collaborate on all the details of a trip.
We are longtime TripIt Pro subscribers ($49/year), and I can’t recommend their service enough. When we begin planning a vacation, setting it up in TripIt is one of the first things I do. Once it is set up, I invite my family members to be collaborators on the trip, and they begin to be notified of any changes to the trip via the mobile apps and via email. Then, as tickets are purchased and lodging details are finalized, I add the information to TripIt, and others are notified of the updates. When the airline emails me a confirmation, I simply forward it to an email address firstname.lastname@example.org and the TripIt system, upon receiving the email, parses out all information and adds all the steps to my trip and plans a day-by-day, hour-by-hour itinerary. As I get specific details on rentals from landlords from AirBnB or VRBO (such as door codes, local shops, etc.), I add this information to TripIt. Every car rental, airline ticket, and train ticket is added to TripIt. Each family member can see this information under their account and as we travel from place to place, we have a common point of reference for all information shared between everyone.
We do not use TripIt for the day-to-day things (such as, on Tuesday we are going to visit the Eiffel Tower at 11:00 a.m.) but instead rely on it solely for the big “travel-day” stuff (such as transportation and lodging specifics and contact information). This is usually much more critical information, leaving our days open for spontaneity.
Once our travel plans are on TripIt, it does a FANTASTIC job of keeping us up to date on everything related to our trip from airline changes to check-in times, arrival and departure gates, airline seat availability, and weather at destination. TripIt knows where we are going, how we are getting there, and sends us all messages that makes our trip that much smoother. In terms of a powerful travel tool, this is one we swear by and use very frequently.
When we initially started traveling heavily, we were very opportunistic eaters. When the family was hungry, we’d stop wandering around and look for a nearby restaurant. Sometimes this worked great and we were blown away by the food and service. Other times we were less than impressed and wished we’d done some research on where to eat.
We recently started traveling a bit with friends who spend much more time in advance researching a city and the local cuisine. We then go into a city with a list of possible ideas on where to eat and try to hit a few off their list. After seeing this process in action (and having some great food in the process!), we have started to put more advance time into planning our own meals on trips. This is made much easier due to the rise in popularity of sites such as www.yelp.com and www.tripadvisor.com in allowing travelers to locate restaurants and to review the food and service at these restaurants.
Both Yelp and TripAdvisor have very nice mobile apps that allow us to quickly find restaurants near us and see them in a list or on a map. We can filter them based on a number of criteria for which price was one of our primary options. Walking into a high-end restaurant with a family of five for lunch on a Tuesday is a very pricey activity. Thus, to stick to our budget, we rely on these apps to recommend highly rated options within specific price criteria. When we want to splurge and spend more money, we used the same apps and raised the price range.
Having these apps available for each family member actually had the added benefit of getting everyone involved with their own ideas. When it got closer to dinnertime, my daughters would each start searching Yelp and TripAdvisor for local establishments and making their own recommendations. They would read reviews and look at user posted images and start letting my wife and me know where they would like to go. In doing so they learned about local cuisine and the local neighborhoods.
On Interacting with Locals
Another key area in which technology has simplified our travel is in helping us interact with local residents of foreign lands. While it is true that finding your average waiter or shop owner who does speak manageable English is pretty easy, we have always worked to at least have a passing capability to interact in a country’s native language and read the basics (like street signs, restaurant menus, etc.).
In a country like France, we are helped by our daughter’s 3-to-4 years of high school French classes, but my wife and I still put in time prior to traveling using various means to boost our own language skills (which are still pretty lacking).
The primary means we have used for years is the Rosetta Stone products (http://www.rosettastone.com). We subscribe to their app service and utilize iPads to work through their lessons. This is a very visual/audible means of learning a language and over time has helped us quite a bit (although we’ve only worked on French).
A friend of mine has recently introduced me to the Pimsleur (http://www.pimsleur.com/) method of learning a foreign language, and this is something I will consider moving forward (although I haven’t pulled the trigger yet). Pimsleur is delivered as a series of audio lessons where the learner progresses through progressively more complex topics repeating after a native French speaker in various conversational roles. I could see having these lessons available on my phone or in my car as being very valuable when leading up to a trip.
Finally, as a last resort (which is much more common than you’d think), my whole family has the Google Translate app on our iPhones. If you have experience using the website (http://translate.google.com), then the basics of this app are pretty straightforward. You can enter a word or phrase, tell it what languages you are translating from and to, and it will provide the translation. That is the most basic usage. The native iOS app is actually MUCH more powerful. We can use our phones’ camera to point at, for example, a French dinner menu, and it will automatically recognize the font, scan the words, translate them to English, and perform an onscreen replacement of the French words with their English equivalents. This was CRAZY to use at first, and we couldn’t believe how easy it was. We started to use it pretty frequently on our trips, and it actually helped our family start to learn more of the basic language as we went. It is important to note that it does require an internet connection.
On Seeing the Sights
Another question we get asked frequently is, simply, how we know what to see when traveling (besides the obvious things in a major city). There is no magic bullet here, and most of the time it’s us asking friends what they liked about a region and doing research on the web or in books and magazines. Some of the places we have learned the most about an unfamiliar location include:
Rick Steves’ Books
We are actually big fans and own a large number of Rick Steves products. We’ve learned a lot about the culture and sites in various locations, and many of his books have been the genesis of our own adventures. He focuses mainly on Europe (or areas very close to Europe), and that has worked well for us. You can find out more on his site at: https://www.ricksteves.com/.
We’ve brought up www.TripAdvisor.com for a number of things already, and that is primarily because they do so much. The vast majority of TripAdvisor content is user generated and moderated. This means the recommendations and information you get comes from people who have been to these places and had these experiences. When going to a new country or city, I usually hit TripAdvisor and search for the place. They have a section of each major page called “Things to Do” that lists, in user rating order, the most popular stuff to see or do in any location. This is very helpful in our planning. It definitely goes beyond the obvious like “See the Eiffel Tower in Paris” and includes many smaller (but very popular) things such as specific tour operators and their offerings. If 10,000 TripAdvisor users gave a 5-star review to Acme Boat Tours in the Cinque Terre region of Italy, I would definitely consider the trip the next time my family is in the region. This is the type of thing I wouldn’t generally know about without Trip Advisor.
FaceBook and other Social Media Sites
As I start researching a trip I will start to search around FaceBook and Twitter for pages or groups specific to traveling to a region. I then follow or join these groups just to troll their content and start to gather ideas and tips for things to see and do in a region. While preparing for our last trip, I liked 20 or so French travel sites and now my FaceBook feed does include numerous posts about all things France. Many of our travel ideas came from these pages and were things I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.
Sometimes, after a trip is complete, I may remove myself from a few pages but usually remain a member and continue to dream of returning.
Getting to the Sites
Many of the urban areas we’ve traveled too recently such as Paris or Rome have a very nice public transportation system. Prior to our trips we researched and found some nice mobile apps for each city that provided info into their metro and train system and provided maps for each. We went on our trip with these apps already installed and ready and used them very effectively. Also, when Internet is not available (or is limited), using something as simple as your iPhone map app to figure a local route to a site is not always a possibility. A company called Ulmon (http://www.ulmon.com/) provides a very nice iOS app called CityMaps2Go, which provides a full city map with major sites and installs the whole map locally so Internet isn’t required. By having this type of app loaded for the cities I care about, our urban travel was much easier.
Experiencing the Sites
Many of the bigger sites and museums on our last trip also provided their own official “apps” to enhance the visitor experience. These apps included such things as audio guides, maps, additional info on the site or exhibits, etc. Just in Paris alone, the major sites we utilized this type of custom app for were:
- Louvre – http://www.louvre.fr/en/louvre-audio-guide-app
- Versailles – http://en.chateauversailles.fr/application-iphone-en
As you travel I would research the major locations you intend to visit and search your own app store for either official or 3rd party apps that you might find to make your experience better.
Be sure to come back next Monday for the final installment on the On Travel and Technology series!