Tools of the Road

I am a planner. I love to plan travel. It gives me a bit of a high hitting that “confirm” button and handing over my money to make another travel adventure a reality.

Along the way, I’ve discovered a number of tools online which have made booking travel easy, painless, and on budget.

Whether you’re travelling for 7 days or 7 months, there are a multitude of tools you can use to plan your trip.

Skyscanner

skyscanner

Let’s begin with airfare.  For years, I relied on Kayak to show me the best possible price for a flight. Their notifications have been top notch, and I’ve often been able to get the flight I’ve needed at the price I want.

However, in a long-term trip, you are always making travel decisions on the go. Sometimes, you’re just looking for a flight “anywhere.” And, you don’t mind mixing and matching airlines if it’ll give you a cheaper fare. All of these things are easily done using Skyscanner.

Before booking a plane ticket, I now check Skyscanner to make absolutely sure I’m paying the best price, and that I’m seeing all the potential routing options available.

Baolau

baolau

In addition to Skyscanner, there are a number of great little regional travel booking sites you can use if you are focusing on a specific part of the world.

Because the booking engine for Vietnam Railways supposedly doesn’t work so well with international credit cards (according to a few bloggers – I haven’t actually experimented with it myself), Baolau is a good alternative to find transport between cities as you make your way north to south or south to north.

After inputting your departure city and destination, Baolau gives you an overview of travel options including plane, ferry and bus. Once you’ve made your payment, an e-ticket is sent to your e-mail address, and you’re off and running.

Hostelworld

hostelworld

Once you get to where you’re going, you need a place to lay your head.  Hostelworld‘s mobile app is handy for making reservations on the fly. An added feature of the app not found on the website is you can “favourite” hostels as you go, building a list of places you want to stay in advance of your trip.

Travelfish

travelfish

I think it’s possible to still have a sense of wonder and discovery going to a place while still getting the lowdown on what to expect and what to watch out for when you arrive.  That’s why travel blogs are so great in my mind – you get the benefit of other people’s experience without having to go through all the hardships they did to learn what a place is like.  Maximum enjoyment, minimum frustration.  It’s efficient.

For Southeast Asia, I’ve come to find that one of the most reliably objective sources of travel guidance is a site called Travelfish.  They operate an independent site (read : no endorsed travel, so you know they’re paid out of pocket to get the scoop), and provide extensive travel information guides for every part of the SE Asian backpacker trail.

The Wikis

I’ve always been a fan of Wikitravel and Wikivoyage (aka the Wikis), and their user-curated pages of information on destinations.

While their SE Asian guides are fairly extensive, the quality lacks at times on some pages with people putting in overly personal experiences versus good solid general guidebook information.  Travelfish is a much better resource, but if you need to know something quick like getting in/getting out/visa requirements for a destination, the Wikis can get you pointed in the right direction.

Tunnelbear

tunnelbear

Prior to arriving in Vietnam, I wanted to add a VPN to my digital devices in order to keep my data safe on the abundant array of free wifi networks across the country (and to make sure my access to important communication avenues like Facebook and Skype were unfettered).  After doing some reading, I settled on subscribing to Tunnelbear, and I haven’t been disappointed.

For those who don’t know, a VPN is a service which creates a secure tunnel between your computer and another computer network.  The connection runs over the public internet wherever you are, but given how the technology works, you can dig a tunnel from where you are (Vietnam for example), and pop up in a secure server on the other side of the world (Canada, US or the UK for example).  This means that if anyone was to eavesdrop on your data transmissions over a free wifi network (and it can happen), all they would see is encrypted data which they could not read.

Tunnelbear takes all of this technological magic and makes it dead simple.  Using a simple interface, even the most basic computer user can make use of Tunnelbear to establish a secure VPN connection.

I’ve been impressed not only by Tunnelbear’s simplicity, but the quality of service.  I also like that privacy is a main focus of their business plan – not just circumventing location for things like being able to watch different countries Netflix, etc. It does exactly what it says it does, and for a very reasonable price.  I’m a fan.

Currency Conversion

googlecurrency

Quick : how many Canadian dollars is 270,000VND?  How many pounds is 32 ringgit?  (C$16.52 and £5.38 as of this writing for those playing the home game.)

When you’re on the road, you’re always dealing with currency that is nothing like at home.  Sometimes it’s easy to figure out the conversion off the top of your head.  While I was in Malaysia, I could easily divide a price by three to figure out how many Canadian dollars I was paying.

But in some countries, where taking out a million whatevers from the bank is a common practice (and only spending C$61 in the case of the Vietnamese Dong), figuring out the math can be tricky.  Now that I’m settled in to Vietnam, I know I can break out my calculator on my phone and divide the price by 16,000 to get the value in dollars.  But I wouldn’t have known this without services like Google’s built-in currency conversion or the XE.com app on my iPhone.

For Google, it’s a simple search – asking it the value of one currency in another (ie : “100 CAD in VND” to get the result in the screenshot above).  For XE, the values update live as long as you have a connection to the Internet.

xeapp

Both of these tools are so critical when trying to figure out how much you’re really spending – especially if the budget is tight.  (My other hair raising moment was spending $3535 in Hong Kong dollars to book my flight home to Canada – roughly C$622.  But I wanted to be absolutely sure!)

Google Hangouts

Finally, one last tool that I think is critical for every North American traveller who wants to call home, but doesn’t want to (or can’t) load up local airtime on to their SIM card in another country.

Google Hangouts has a fantastic feature my friend Brett (who is from Canada but now lives in New Zealand) introduced me to on a visit home a year ago.  Calls to all Canadian and US landline phone numbers are free using the app.  Absolutely free.  All you need is a solid, stable Internet connection, and you’re off and running.  While we can Skype, Facetime and do all other sorts of communication with our families at home, sometimes (especially if your parents are of a different generation), a good ol’ fashioned landline call is what you need to get the message across.

Hangouts has been pretty good so long as I’ve had stable internet – although I’ve found that network congestion on Hotlink in Malaysia and Viettel in Vietnam have both made it dodgy at times to stay connected.  That said, if you have a stable connection, you basically have the ability to make free phone calls.  And – everyone likes free.

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What are some of the tools you use on the road to research, plan, and book your trip – or to stay connected to family and friends back home?  Let me know in the comments below.

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