Travel apps and planning tips

A few years back I did a review of my favorite apps for traveling. Given the pace of change and the changes in my own life I thought it was time for an update. I’m going to mix apps, web tools, and some general strategies here, under the umbrella of “thoughts for better travel.”

PreCheck and Global Entry

The single best change since 2012 is that I’m now enrolled in Global Entry and PreCheck. That means that going from the front door of the house to the gate at the airport is often less than 15 minutes. Which is insane. Global Entry has recently gotten even faster as well. If you get on a plane with any regularity, it’s a must.

Miles

I’ve often said that I aspire to one day be the type of person who can use all of the mileage optimization strategies discussed on flyertalk. Well, maybe not be that kind of person but, at least reap the benefits. I’m not there yet, but I have become somewhat more thoughtful about the mileage accrual game. I’ve switch to a mileage-perks credit card (FlexPerks TravelRewards from US Bank in my case).

I’ve also gotten slightly more likely to pay a few extra dollars for a flight on an airline where I’m building meaningful miles (living in Minneapolis, that mostly means Delta). In general, things like in-flight wifi or direct flights win out, but given two otherwise similar flights, I’ll pick the one that I’m more likely to build miles on. Between the card and the airline programs, I can now comfortably count on at least one free international ticket a year, which goes a long ways on the travel budget.

Data

One of the biggest changes since my last post is the rise of free international data roaming. Both Sprint and T-Mobile now offer this, as does Google through ProjectFi. While it’s not fast – all of the providers cap you at roughly 2g speeds – it’s very usable. One of the things people often overlook is that even though it’s throttled, the data transport still takes place over modern networks (4g or LTE). That means that latency is very low, unlike actual 2g (where latency could be thousands of milliseconds). It often feels faster than it actually is.

With T-Mobile (my provider of choice), you can easily add a temporary bucket of high speed data as well – a couple hundred megabytes for a very reasonable price. It’s active as soon as you call, and is useable for tethering. On our recent trip to Portugal, Kat had some work files that needed to get uploaded, and the hotel wifi was too slow to get it done. I called T-Mobile, added a few hundred meg, tethered the computers and got the work done at full LTE speed.

The comfort that comes from not having to worry about running out of data or overages is immense. I love being able to lookup details about a location, get a map route, or tweet a photo from anywhere. I happily tolerate the less-than-stellar domestic cell coverage offered by T-Mobile in exchange.

Booking and Planning

Many general recommendations haven’t changed much. I rely heavily on TripAdvisor when traveling overseas, and Yelp when traveling domestically. Booking.com is my go-to for hotel booking. The big change is that hotels are no longer the first “go-to” when doing a longer stay. They’ve been supplanted by AirBnB. In addition to cost, AirBnB often means staying in more interesting neighborhoods, with better accommodations, and offers a chance to meet some locals right away. That said, the Booking.com mobile app has been a lifesaver a few times.

TripIt is my “travel planner” app of choice, but mostly on account of momentum rather than features. I’m disappointed with the lack of growth in their toolset, and the value proposition for their paid platform isn’t very strong. Evernote on the other hand continues to be the main repository for everything else in my life.

When booking tours and guides, I generally start with Viator and Viator Guides.

Oh, and of course, paper guidebooks. Always paper guidebooks. They’re an important part of the fantasizing.

Getting Around

We’ve recently started using Uber more extensively when traveling. I love the freedom it offers, especially when traveling in a non-English speaking country. Anything that helps you feel free to get lost is a positive in my book. For domestic travel, I also love using Car2Go, but unfortunately their reciprocity is limited overseas.

Other Apps

The Rick Steves audio guide app is a lot of fun if you’re in a city it covers. Being guided through a city by an audio recording is a very different experience from following a book. The other guide apps, like TripAdvisor, GuidePal and Triposo and sort of “fine” but they’re generally automatically generated bundles of data, and rarely offer much in the way of place-specific value.

Finally, the Google Translate iPhone App, combined with free international data, makes for some incredibly helpful experiences. Holding your phone up to a menu and seeing an instant visual translation is pretty darn close to Star Trek-level technology.

Gadgets and Accessories

Honestly, I’d much rather travel light than travel perfect. I don’t bring noise canceling headphones, special pillows, or extra battery packs. I bring my phone, my wallet, a guidebook and a good pair of shoes.

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