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Travel

June 01, 2015

There’s an app for that: Tech-savvy travel

Is the high cost of data keeping you from making the most of technology when you’re on vacation? A savvy traveller shares her thrifty tech tips.

If you’re like me, you probably can’t imagine going on a road trip without your GPS, and you take at least as many photos with your phone as you do with your camera. You know there’s a lot more travel-related help available through your phone or tablet, but you’re reluctant to dive in because you don’t want to run up huge data charges. I was, too, until I discovered these budget-friendly tips for getting the most out of your electronic devices:

How many pesos are in a Canadian dollar? How many rubles? What about the other way around?

Sure, I can do the math in my head, but if I’m on vacation, why not use my calculator? When I enter a new country, I make a note of the conversion rate on my phone’s notepad. Anytime I’m wondering how much to tip or if the price for an unnecessary (but exceptionally cute) item is reasonable, I just copy and paste the rate into my calculator and quickly do the math. Once I’ve done it a few times, I get a good sense of the exchange and feel more confident about handing over my money.

Many apps will do the actual currency conversion on the spot, but I’m conscious of data usage. Using a calculator doesn’t require data, and it’s just as effective as an app – as long as you start with the correct conversion rate.

I don’t have a printer in my hotel room/cabin/yurt to print out my ticket, but I always make my flight.

Most airports don’t require a paper printout of your ticket – you can just use your phone or mobile device to display the digital ticket when you check in. I have to explain this to my father every time he flies; otherwise, he will go out and buy fresh toner for his dusty, old printer. (Dad, I hope you’re reading this.)

Whether you book online or through a travel agent, you can choose to receive your tickets and boarding passes electronically, to be simply scanned at the airport. No paper ticket to lose, no boarding pass to hunt (and pay) for a hotel printer to print, and you’re helping save the forests, too, one trip at a time! Be sure that the airport permits electronic check-in, however – not all do.

Oh, you’re not trilingual either?

There are hundreds of translation apps to choose from, all of which swear they can help you overcome any language barrier in any country. How do you choose a good one?

  • Look for an app that doesn’t require any data to function. The last thing you want is to arrive home to a huge phone bill because of all of the data you used translating. A self-contained app may take up many megabytes of space when you download it, but once you get home, you can delete it until you need it for your next trip.
  • Look for language-specific apps. If you‘re going to Russia, you likely won’t need to know German, so look for an app that specializes in the language(s) of the country you are visiting. The clearer navigation and layout of a language-specific app often makes it easier to use than a multi-language product.
  • Decide whether you want an app that translates typed or spoken words. Apps that translate speech have their drawbacks. Regional accents, slang and acronyms can cause the app to misunderstand what a person is saying. An app you can type words into can be more dependable – as long as you get the spelling right. Such an app is perfect for translating signs, for example, and may give you the option of saving a translation for later reference. But if you want to know what someone is saying, it can be a challenge. If the person you’re speaking to is tech-savvy, they may be able to type what they’re saying straight into your phone, almost as fast as they can speak. (But don’t take your eyes off your phone; see below.)

More thrifty tech travel tips:

  • Did you know the Google Maps app will still show you where you are in the world, even with data turned off? Give it a try next time you’re travelling or even right where you are now. Turn off all possible data sources, turn off wi-fi, walk down the street and watch the little blue dot move with you. Cool, right?
  • Keep your phone and all other electronic devices in your possession. Don’t leave a device on a beach chair or lying on your breakfast table when you go up to the buffet. If you really can’t keep your phone with you (in the pool, for example), do whatever you need to do before you leave your room and then leave your phone behind in a safe place.
  • If you use your phone as a camera and you want to take it to the beach or into the jungle with you, protect it from sand, dirt and scratches with a good case. Perhaps even go the extra mile like I do, and keep it in a clear, plastic sandwich bag, even when you’re using it. I double-bag my phone; it doesn’t look cool, but it gives me a back-up when the first bag gets grimy.
  • When you know you’ll be travelling with a phone, laptop or any other high-value item, check that your travel insurance will cover it.
  • Save your data by asking hotel or cafe staff if you can use their wi-fi for free. This is becoming an increasingly available feature.
  • Keep your emergency and travel insurance phone numbers in more than one place. Saving them on your phone or laptop is excellent, but what if you lose your device (knock on wood)? This is the only point in my travel preparations that I will really diverge from technology and go old-school: I use a pen and paper to write down my emergency numbers, and stick them in both my carry-on bag and my suitcase, just in case – and so my mom doesn’t worry!

Technology can be invaluable when you’re travelling, but it is possible to overdo it. You’ve probably seen those people who only look at the scenery through their devices, not their own two eyes. I frequently make a conscious effort to put my phone away, so no electronic filter can come between me and the sights, sounds and smells of the world around me.

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