Technology makes travel easier.
I decided to bring my laptop with me, because I wanted to get a lot of work done while traveling. I wanted to learn a new programming language, contribute more to open source projects, and stay up to date with new startups and tech commentaries. I wish I could say that’s how it played out, but the truth is that I’ve done a poor job of balancing work and play so far. I’m only one month into my travels, so I have plenty of time to get back on track. But it’s fair to say that this particular use of technology while traveling has not gone as expected.
One of the biggest departures from my expectations has been the role played by Internet tethering. Before I left, I decided against buying a MiFi dongle and instead just jailbroke my iPhone to unlock Internet tethering. I thought I would be coding non-stop while on the long train rides, and I anticipated using my iPhone’s Internet connection to push code, get help, and promote my work.
The reality has been that I’m exhausted when I board most trains and end up relaxing in the lounge car, catching up on my journal, or watching a movie. I code occasionally, but not so much that I need a constant connection to the Internet. So far, my trip would not have been too different if I left my iPhone un-jailbroken. Free wifi at hostels and most cafes in cities has been sufficient.
Most of the time, I leave my phone in the “Airplane Mode” (no cell, data, or Internet connection) to preserve its battery throughout the day. I rely on my phone so much that I want to ensure I’ll be able to use it all day as needed - even if my night ends up running to sunrise. If I switch it off of Airplane Mode, it’s probably to use one of the following features:
Cabs are an expensive last resort, but figuring out a new city’s public transportation system can be difficult. With Google Maps on my iPhone, I can usually get bus and light rail directions to my destination.
I really like WikiTravel.org for understanding a city and learning what to do there. Their travel guides are written by their users, and the resulting collection is very informative.
I use an app called Tourist to browse the guides on WikiTravel. Tourist lets me download a city’s WikiTravel guide, so I can view it even without an Internet connection. This is useful, because I can take periodic looks at recommended attractions in my area without leaving Airplane Mode.
The guides on WikiTravel are organized. I can dig deeper into a city’s guide by selecting a particular district - like the Castro in San Francisco, the Bywater in New Orleans, or South Austin in Austin. I can get information on how to get around the city, where to eat, what to see, etc. (And, of course, I can also choose to leave my phone in my pocket and ask locals for their personal recommendations.)
It can be difficult to keep track of the various trains, buses, hostels, vacation rentals, etc that I use for each segment of my trip. TripIt.com does a great job of organizing my trip details. Their actual website kind of drives me crazy, but they have two killer features.
First: Automatic extraction of trip details from an emailed reservation confirmation1. After I make a reservation, I almost always get an email confirmation. Then I just forward that email to email@example.com. TripIt reads the email and adds the details to my trip. I’ve successfully added plans from email confirmations from Airbnb, HostelWorld, and Amtrak - and TripIt supports a thousand more sites. This feature hasn’t failed once for me yet.
The second killer feature is a comprehensive API and reasonably active developer community. In other words, anyone can make an app that accesses TripIt’s data. TripIt themselves have released an app to browse your TripIt plans, but I think the guys behind TripDeck have outdone them. The interface is cleaner, faster, and more usable.
The combination of TripIt’s itinerary importing with TripDeck’s iPhone interface lets me avoid the usual headaches around complex itineraries. I never need to…
- hastily open GMail to find out what time my train is leaving or what the address of my hostel is.
- manually enter any information into my itinerary.
- worry about time-zones - TripIt takes care of that.
- print anything out or write anything down.
I travel with a backpack, so I try to be efficient with my cargo. A single book is about the same weight as a Kindle but about twice as thick. It’s also less durable (I keep the Kindle in a case). I understand the visceral joys of a real book’s smell and the feel of the pages, but I can enjoy them when I’m not living out of a sub-20 liter backpack. I was skeptical about bringing a Kindle before I left, but it’s proven to be a very useful asset.
I left my Nikon DSLR at home. Instead, I’m borrowing my mom’s compact camera. The quality is good enough, and I’m thankful to not be stressed about damaging my bulky Nikon. I love to take photos, but I don’t believe the purpose of my travels is to maximize every level of enjoyment. In the tradeoff of those extra pixels of photo quality versus space in my backpack and stress, I think I come out ahead.
It did occur to me to get an iPhone 4 and not bring another camera at all. I decided against this mostly because I didn’t want to renew my contract with AT&T so close to the likely Verizon iPhone launch.
Other itinerary organization websites offer this feature, too. But in my experience, TripIt does a better job than the rest. ↩