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Author: Kelly O’Neill, Project Manager

If all goes according to plan, I’ll be on a Greek island when this article is published. Yay, me! And as carefree and breezy as that sounds, I don’t travel anymore without the help of some very essential travel tools.

I got the travel bug early in life. And while I don’t travel as much or as extravagantly as some others I know, it’s not unusual for one of the first questions from peers and friends that I haven’t seen in a while to be, “Where are you off to next?” I’m a third-generation soldier, so I grew up moving around the world as the daughter of a soldier. I thoroughly enjoy exploring new countries and cultures. But I’ve come a long way from the days of travelers checks and relying on the Army Community Services to help plan my travels.

I’ve identified a few tools that make traveling easier and more enjoyable – not to mention more convenient.

Evernote                Evernote home page

I’m equal parts planner and spontaneous. I often have big trips on my calendar for many months in advance, but I could just as well pick up and leave without warning if given the opportunity. Even with spontaneous trips, the planner in me needs to be sure I don’t overlook those super-common items in the packing process, such as my passport or the power cord for the smartphone.

So I like to keep a packing list of those little items that won’t make or break the trip, but could be highly frustrating to leave behind (although I guess the passport could be a deal-breaker). I use Evernote to create a standard packing checklist, then customize it for a specific trip. If I’m going on a cold-weather trip, obviously I need to add things such as gloves, hats and warm socks. For a summer trip – say to the Greek Islands – perhaps swimwear and sunscreen need to be on the list. I really like the checkbox feature on Evernote. It satisfies my need to mark things off the list. Evernote is a note-taking app that can be synced between multiple devices. It allows note-taking and snapshots and adding files or webpages, and it’s all easily searchable. In addition to making packing checklists, I use it to make notes of things I want to see or do on my trip. I also keep notes about my international data plan or things to do before I travel.

“Check, Please”

When I started planning a trip to Portugal several years ago, I knew that traveling with eight other people would present challenges in and of itself. Add to that the idea that it was going to be a blend of my family and friends (and some of their family members). The stress of being the one common connection in that group gave me heartburn at first. So I started researching to find tools that would minimize at least one pain point – splitting the costs with the least amount of commotion.

Years earlier, when I took the same trip with my parents and some of their friends, my father played the role of “banker.” He collected cash from each traveler periodically so that he could be the one to pay the bill for meals, museums, transportation, etc. He kept a ledger of what each person ordered during the meal so he could keep tabs on who owed what at the end of each day. The thought of doing that again was enough to make me break out in hives and think twice about taking the trip.

After reviewing and testing several bill-splitting apps, I landed on Splitwise. This handy tool was the answer to my prayers. Not only could everyone simply take turns picking up the check without worrying about getting stuck with a bigger tab than someone else, we were each able to manage the data entry individually from our phones. Splitwise is a tool (web, iOS and Android) designed to manage bill sharing. It allows multiple users to log expenses, identify who owes what portion of that expense and provides a running tally of who owes whom money.

At the end of the trip, we were able to generate a spreadsheet showing all the individual expenses and a final report of who was owed money, how much and from whom. It even provides you a way to make payment through PayPal. Genius! Mind you, I had to provide several tutorials for the eight other people, and, for the even less technically inclined, I just did the data entry for them and cleaned up the errors and duplicate or erroneous entries once we got back home. But it paid off. Whew! Crisis averted.

I introduced the idea of using Splitwise to my travel companions on the Greece trip, and they seemed to like the idea of using it.

Keeping in Touch

I don’t typically worry about keeping in touch with folks back home when I’m traveling. As a single person with no kids or immediate family whose daily life is altered by my absence, I haven’t had a need to call or text anyone on a daily basis. As long as my dog sitter can reach me in case of an emergency, I can usually get by with a minimal international data plan – just enough to allow me to navigate through new adventures and post some Facebook updates or photos. However, this time there’s someone I actually want to stay in semi-regular contact with while I’m away. So I researched options and decided Skype provides what I need in the way of texting and calls while keeping the costs to a minimum. If I just use a Wi-Fi connection, there’s no cost for me to text, call or video chat.

When my brother was deployed to Egypt last year, we got my entire family using Viber to call and text him. We made sure to time our calls when he was on Wi-Fi, but the calls were of pretty good quality. My dog sitter, originally from Ireland, told me how much she likes using WhatsApp to talk with her family in Ireland. Of course, it’s not easy to convince someone to add a new tool to their toolbox if they already have one that has similar features, so that’s why I plan to use Skype for this trip.

Facebook Messenger

Facebook Messenger

I’ve avoided activating Messenger notifications on my phone (I just don’t need more alerts). Messenger seems like a pretty good option for not only staying in touch with someone back home, but a really simple way to connect with my fellow travelers. There are 12 people on this Greek Islands vacation, some of whom I only met because they’re going on this trip. These are not people I necessarily need in my contacts list long term, so I can use Facebook Messenger while we’re traveling to call or text any of them to make plans to meet up for any of our outings.

AAdvantage

With American Airlines being a Dallas/Fort Worth-based airline, it’s become my go-to airline. I have a credit card that rewards me with American Airlines miles for all my purchases, and that’s how I’m able to afford these amazing trips. I use the AAdvantage app to check the status of flights and check in for certain flights. The app also has the layouts for several major U.S. airports and provides baggage tracking.

Smartphone Settings Updates

Unless you’re independently wealthy, traveling abroad probably requires some adjustments to how you use your “smart” devices. I always start by checking with my service provider to determine the smallest data and calling package available. I buy the smallest plan because I can always retroactively upgrade it if necessary. On previous trips, my international package included 120 MB of data, 15 voice-calling minutes and 100 outgoing text messages. This time around, it looks like the smallest package only includes data (200 MB), but instead of including a set number of minutes and texts, it charges a reduced per-minute rate for all calling minutes and includes unlimited outgoing texts (including video/image) and incoming texts that are in accordance with my current plan. AWESOME!

The thing I need to remember is to change the settings on my phone and other data-sucking devices to make sure I’m not using data when I shouldn’t. I typically turn off my cellular data and switch to airplane mode to make sure I’m not using data unintentionally. If there are apps that I need to be able to use, but want to avoid other apps using data in the background, I’ll take the extra step of changing the settings on those apps. For example, while iMessages are good for those of us with limited texting plans here at home, they count against my data when traveling outside the country, so I’ll be disabling iMessages before I leave. It’s also best to switch email accounts to “fetch” data manually instead of “push.” This will ensure that the mail server is only downloading new messages when I open that mailbox. That way I can make sure I’m on a Wi-Fi connection when I open the mailbox instead of using data to push email on a regular basis and rack up huge charges by consuming my data.

XE

This currency exchange app is handy for figuring out how much things cost. I wish I had remembered to use it when I traveled to Sweden several years ago, as I might have found different trinkets to pick up as gifts.

This trip is different from a currency standpoint, too. I’ve had enough people in my ear questioning the dependability of the Greek infrastructure that I’m buying some euros before I leave – which I’ve not done in probably 20 years of traveling. I have always been able to count on getting cash from the local ATM upon arrival. What’s different this time is that I have a very short layover in Athens before catching a flight to one of the islands, and I just don’t know what to expect when I arrive on the island with respect to ATM availability and my possible need for local currency to even get to my hotel. So I’m caving to the pressure and buying some euros before I go.

Gotta Go

That about sums it up. These are just some of the tools I use to stay informed, connected and sane during my travels. It’s time to get packing and get going.

References

  1. Gerstenfeld, Adam. “8 Free Talk/Text Apps Every Study Abroad Student Needs to Know About.” USA Today, February 27, 2015.
  2. Bertucci, Kristie. “10 of the Best Messenger Apps for International Travel.” Gadget Review, December 8, 2015.
  3. Pathak, Khamosh. “How to Make Free International Calls With Facebook Messenger.” Guiding Tech, July 24, 2015.
  4. What to Do Before You Leave…And While You’re Traveling.” AT&T.
  5. Evernote.
  6. Splitwise.
  7. XE.
  8. Skype.
  9. WhatsApp.
  10. Viber for iOS.