Tech and Travel revisited

Having done quite a bit of travelling over the years, I wanted to share some tips on some of the tech, tools and life hacks which make journeys that bit more bearable…

Apps (ioS and Android):

AppInTheAir: Back around 2009 I started to use the excellent travel itinerary app called TripIt. It was a greatway to organise all aspects of my travel into a single place – such as flights and accommodation details. However, over the last few years I’ve been using an even better itinerary organiser app, call AppInTheAir. It works on both iOS and Android plus it has the additional benefit of being able to important any TripIt data you may have accumulated over the years too. In short what the application does is import any of your flight details into the app. Once inside the app, you get some incredible dashboards and stats from your flights. It will do things such as tell you how many flights you took during a given year, plus the types of aircrafts and airlines you flew on. Additionally, it will plot all your flights on to a map. Another feature that’s nice is that you can compete with other friends/app users on a leaderboard. At the end of each year you can also generate a fun little video which runs through all the flights you did that year. But the best feature is that it automatically generates a globe with all your flights and you can view it using augmented reality through your phone (iOS only I think for now). It’s free – but there’s a paid upgrade which I opted for (I’m a big believer in compensating developers for their work).

Evernote:  I’ve been using this note taking app since 2008. Despite strong competition from the likes of OneNote, I still feel that Evernote just about has the edge. It’s quicker than others and I like the way the tags work. It also plays a bit better than competitors when offline – which is important when travelling. I put my life in it and it’s something I always use when traveling. For example, I have copies of all my key documents such as passports. Another feature I really value is the OCR capabilities (which I feel are still way ahead of competitors). For example, I can scan in business cards and Evernote will extract the details, such as the name and email address and add it directly into my phone contacts.  Another killer feature is the ability to email notes into Evernote. So ahead of any trip, I’ll often forward any information I need to Evernote. Arguably the UI is not as intuitive as, say, OneNote – but I tend to value less design over speed. The app is free, but I pay an annual subscription which gives me more functionality.  Worth adding, that you can migrate your Evernote notebooks to OneNote (which I recently did). As I type, I’m currently experimenting with OneNote – so I may end up switching after-all. Watch this space.

Tile (hardware and an app): One of the biggest fears travelers have is losing their luggage. I’ve experimented with different hardware solutions over the years (such as Bluetooth receivers on luggage belts) but they were all pretty hopeless. Then I discovered Tile. In short, a Tile is a small Bluetooth device which you can put in your suitcase (or in anything for that matter). Whilst Bluetooth has a limited range, the nice thing with Tile is that it crowd sources across it’s massive user base. So using a combination of Bluetooth and crowd sourcing, the app will give you a nice update as where your suitcase is.  It”s a comfort to know exactly where your suitcase is and, importantly, whether it made it to your destination. Highly recommended. Just make sure you go for the slightly more expensive Tile Pro which comes with a swapable battery. There’s a competitor to tile I’ve played with called TrackR – I don’t recommend it.

The Bellroy ‘all conditions essential pocket’

Cables/gadget case. I always travel with a small cable/gadget case. This goes with me everywhere (not just on planes). The nice thing with this case is that it’s small and compact. So ahead of sitting down on a long flight, I’ll take it out of my bag and keep it with me for the duration of the flight. One of my ‘things’ in life is wallets/cases. Specifically, compact ones. I love them. This case is from an Australian start-up called Bellroy. They are incredible. They may a range of compact, quality and elegant wallets all with outstanding industrial design.  This model is called the All Conditions Essential Pocket and I love it. It also includes a tiny/slim pen too. So perfect for completing immigration forms onboard.

Cables and gadgets:

I always travel with these items in my Essential pocket (pictured):

  1. Small Anker 5100MaH battery. This is enough to charge all smartphones at least once over.
  2. iPhone lightening cable: standard, with another length (important if you want to charge your iphone/ipad on the USB port on your seat).
  3. MicroUSB cable: again, a standard length.
  4. MicroUSB to type C adapter: connect this to your microUSB cable and you have a type C charge cable.
  5. 3.5mm phono to phono cable. Useful if you want to plug your headphones into the entertainment system onboard.
  6. Phono to two pin phono adaptor: to plug your headphone cable into the flight entertainment system.
  7. Two Kenu tripods (lightening adaptor and type C). These simply plug into the port of your smartphone and you instantly have a stand. Typically I’ll use them when I’m watching a film, show or podcast on my phone on the flight tray.
  8. Lastly a short combined microUSB cable with a lightening adaptor. Just in case.

Mu: fold-able UK travel charger : This gadget is great. It’s a UK 3 pin charger with 2 USB ports and folds up, making it easy to slip into your carry-on bag. It goes with me everywhere, and I can easily pull it out when I’m traveling through airports/lounges – plus it serves as my main charger when I’ve arrived. Highly recommend.

GUARD Worldwide Travel Adapter, 4 USB Ports Universal Travel Adapter International Power Adapter Plug Adapter Converter UK USA EU AUS Asia China Ireland Thailand 150+ Countries – Blue : I quite like this adapter as a solution to countries using different sockets to the UK. It also has the benefit of 4 USB ports.

The Bellroy Passport wallet – I never travel without it

Passport wallet: I use the excellent Bellroy passport wallet for carrying my passport. Bellroy is all about compact form factor wallets – and this wallet is no exception. In addition to carrying my wallet, I use it to carry my various airline cards – plus it can easily hold cash notes and boarding passes. It also comes with a tiny pen built  in – very handy for filing in immigration forms onboard.

Headphones: Generally, I will always travel with two sets of headphones. Firstly, a set of wired Sennheiser earbuds and secondly a set of over-ear noise cancelling headphones. In terms of my noise cancelling headphones , I’ve recently invested in the outstanding Bose Quiet Comfort 35 (series II). They aren’t cheap, but from my experience of buying a set of JVC headphones which literally fell apart – I’m hoping I’ll get what I paid for. So far so good. I’m very impressed with the audio quality and the sound cancellation is incredible.

VPN: Up until very recently I used the excellent VPN service called MyPrivateNetwork, but they sold out to a new company LeVPN (which haven’t been great). I also ran a VPN service on a Asus N66U router I hacked during my time overseas and the service was excellent. Additionally, I had it running on my various hardware when I was off the network. Why do I recommend a VPN service? Simple. Security. I’m generally slightly paranoid connecting to the internet through any local ISP (including the UK). In some countries, services such as WhatsApp might also be blocked. Secondly, a lot of services such as BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime and Netflix ‘geo fence’ their services. Essentially what that means is that you are often unable to access these services outside of the UK.

A VPN service routes your internet traffic securely through UK servers – and ‘tricks’ the service you are connected to into thinking it’s in the UK.  Most importantly though is that it’s a lot safer to connect to secure services such as banks etc via a VPN.  Most recently I’ve been testing a new VPN service called X-VPN. I’ve been impressed, it plays nicely with BBC iPlayer and NowTV. Just remember if you do have Amazon video or Netflix – disable any VPN service first. 

Out with TuGo in with the new…

Occasionally I dip into some of the key web services I depend on to test the market to see if there are better alternatives. For example, as part of my move away from a number of cloud services I’ve come to heavily rely on I shifted across from the likes of Google Apps to my office-suite on my Synology server. Occasionally, I am forced to move from a particularly service because it’s either changed its terms and conditions – or the provider has stopped running it. One recent example of this is O2’s TuGo service. Until the end of last month I had been using TuGo since it launched almost 4 years ago. It was excellent. It gave me the ability to make and receive UK calls via my existing 02 mobile number anywhere in the world using the TuGo app and an internet connection.

When O2 decided to scrap the service last month I was devasted. But every cloud….

Introducing Freedompop

After a bit of digging around I’ve discovered a new entry into the UK mobile market – Freedompop . They seem to be a new Silicon Valley start up that’s launched in the UK. They run off Three’s network and offer monthly sim only tarrifs starting at a bargain £7 a month. But what sold me was that they are completly VOIP based and SMS/calls can be made and received via their excellent iOS or Android app. So, intrigued,  I quickly signed up. I’m expecting my sim to arrive at my home in the next few days and I’ll soon begin the PUK transfer across. However, in the meantime my temporary mobile number was instantly up and running via their app. I’ve successfully tested it and it works a charm. What’s particularly satisfying is just how much better the service seems to be compared to 02. Tarrifs vary – but all are very good deals. UK data allowances seem a bit on the low side – currently the maximum amount is 4GB. However, unused data does roll over.

So far so good. Like I said every cloud…. I’ll report back once my PUK transfer is complete.

 

What’s on my iPhone: my vital apps

Following on from my recent post attacking my iPad, I thought I would write a post on my iPhone – and how/why it is the single most important weapon in my tech arsenal.

I rely on my iPhone 3GS daily for pretty much everything. It is invaluable daily and essential when traveling. The iOS 4 update a few months ago suddenly made it even more compelling.

I thought it would be interesting to share with readers what sits on my number 1 screen and why.

1) The folders

There’s no way I can go into detail about each individual folder, but logically each folder is labeled according to function. All the folders lucky enough to sit on screen 1 are there for a reason. I’ll start with highlighting a few apps that sit in the folders which I depend on. First up ‘SlingPlayer’. My client software into the world of SlingBox. Secondly , within my productivity folder  is a scanning app known as Jot Note Scanner . Essentially, a tool that enables me to scan in any document (via the camera and the clever software) and upload to a number of cloud services. I have found this a vital workflow app and I use it daily to throw documents into my Evernote account. It pretty much handles all documents from images to receipts.

2) Apps (outside the folders)

Basically, all the apps that sit outside my folders are there for a reason. I depend on them constantly. Mail, email – obviously. Messages, SMS messages – obviously.

What’sApp is an incredible app. It enables you to SMS/picture message friends using the application. It’s also cross platform, working on Blackberry and at beta stage on Symbian. This also completely eliminated the need to send out pricey SMS messages to friends and family overseas.

Next up is Evernote . I upgraded to the premium service – so I can access my notes offline (great when traveling or without access to the web). The evernote concept is basically cloud computing. However, through its multi-platform applications it means you are never far away from your data. So for example, stuff I throw into it from my iPhone syncs up with their cloud service and is available on my other computers instantly.

3) The dock

Moving further down into the dock you will see the phone app (although these days I hardly use it). I pretty much use Twitter exclusively as my social network of choice – so the Twitter app was a no brainer. Skype is there too. I have posted a number of times concerning Skype. So no need to say anymore. However, I will add that iOS4 has really transformed my use of Skype. Essentially, I leave it on 24/7 (battery permitting). A critical app for me – given I am overseas. Not only does it eliminate the need to use the landline for calls – but I have the SkypeIn package. I still cannot believe that for around £4 per month, I get a London telephone number and can make unlimited calls to UK landlines.

4) Other contenders

Multi-tasking has also helped in quickly accessing other apps which I frequently use. One of those apps I use daily is TuneIn Radio .  I love radio, and have tested most of the radio apps in the Apps Store. However, this is the one I always return to. Not only does it have an elegant user interface – but accessing global radio stations is simple. The ability to schedule alarms and record shows also make this a killer app for me.

It also goes without saying that I still use the default iPod app. I consume all my podcasts, music and  AudioBooks via the app. However, I still maintain that Apple need to improve this key app. When traveling (without a laptop) keeping up to speed with my favourite podcasts is not easy. What Apple need to do is provide a simple way of automating podcast updates through this app. This is a big frustration for me – and I think Apple need to do something major to move us away from the tethered sync and go approach.

Also worth plugging the Kindle App too. I don’t read as much as I should. But being able to purchase Kindle books via Amazon and have them auto-sync to my iPhone and iPad is amazing. Sure, Apples’ iBook store can do something similar. But I feel much more comfortable with buying books through Amazon. It gives me more flexibility should I ever decide to ditch the iPad and get a Kindle 3 .

Last up I wanted to mention the travel folder I have. I don’t use this folder daily, but some of the apps in there are worth mentioning. First up is the Tripit app. When traveling I simply forward on travel reservations etc.. to my tripit account and they appear in this application in an elegant itinerary format. Second up, is Navigon . In my view this sat-nav app has the edge over  Tomtom. I use it when I’m back in the UK.

As much as I am frustrated with Apple these days, I have to give them full credit for the iPhone. I have been a user since the second generation, 3G and still enjoying it as much as I did when I first got it.  I have toyed with ditching the platform for a decent Android phone. But, until Android scales up the quality of its Market Place apps, I cannot see myself going anywhere else (except the iPhone 4 of course).

Electronic toilets and deadly dingos

So we are down to three more nights in Australia. So far so good. This trip has been a brilliant experience. I thought it might be useful mid tour to give you my thoughts so far.

Taipei, Taiwan

A fantasic place. Despite the jet lag messing us around I enjoyed the city.

Our hotel, located in the business end of town was great. Evidence of a tech society was everywhere. Even our room toilet was connected to the mains. I didn’t want to risk a surprise by pressing a button, but I think one of them involved shooting water up at speed…..Oh and the heated toilet seat was a nice touch.

I was equally impressed and disappointed by the tech hardware available. Not surprisingly, MSi and Asus were everywhere for sale. The Eee PCs were popular – along with similar MSi UMPCs. There were some genuinely exciting new model desktops available – such as the new touch screen Asus desktop. A clear copy of the iMac form factor, it ran Windows XP. No idea if it will launch in Europe – but I was impressed. The price point was good too – around £450.

On the negative side I was disappointed by the prices for tech. Given that fifty percent of all laptops are manufactured in Taiwan I was expecting bargains. Sure, you expect ‘tourist inflation’ in the markets – but the prices were all listed in the shops. An Eee PC, running XP, for example came in around £300. That’s roughly equal to UK retail prices.

There were no official Apple stores in Taipei (which I knew anyway). There were a couple of Apple authorized retail shops. Prices were equal to, if not higher than the UK.

Interestingly, iPhone 3G’s were available for sale everywhere. I’m guessing they are all grey imports from either China or Australia. They are not officially available in Taiwan yet.

Hervey Bay and Fraser island, Australia

Put simply stunning. We drove up from Brisbane (450kms or so). Had one night in Hervey Bay, one night on Fraser island (under canvas) and a final night back in Hervey Bay.

Our accomodation in the Bay was a self catering two bed apartment. Stunning modern finish and a small garden. Great stuff.

Fraser island made the holiday. If anyone is planning a vacation to the east coast, Fraser is a must. It’s the single biggest sand island in the world. We had a two day wilderness tour. We were taken to the island on a ferry and met our specially adapted bus. We visiting the bulk of the island, visiting several of its unique ecosystems from rainforests, transitional forests through to sand dunes, lakes and beaches that stretched out for miles.

We also saw several dingos and learnt all about the history of the incredible island via our excellent guide, Alex.

I’ve posted a whole bunch of pics on my flickr accout. Honestly, words cannot describe this place. An entire diverse island built on sand……stunning.

Goldcoast, Surfers paradise

We drove down to the Gold coast (500kms ish). Just a short over night visit. Turned out to be just the right amount of time for me. Basically a ‘costa’ style coastal stretch with high rise buildings along the coast. Out visit also co-insided with thousands of ‘schoolies’ partying hard in the town. I won’t miss this place.

Sydney

A short flight took us down the coast to Sydney. I have to say, I loved this place.

Given this is a tech blog I did have an agenda for visiting……the brand new Apple store on George Street. Located in the heart of the CBD the store was beautiful.

Spent an hour or so in there. And to make things even better, they had their discount day when we were there. Managed to pick up a bargain Kingston Power-charger for my iPhone along with a discounted iPhone dock. Fantastic.

Oh and apart from the Apple store, there was lots to see. We were based on the north side of the city and had stunning views of Sydney bridge and the opera house (which is actally not that impressive to be honest – smaller than I thought)

Melborne

Flew down this afternoon. We are here for three nights to catch up with friends and catch our onward flight to Mauritius. So far so good. Much colder than I expected. Only expected to reach 20c tomorrow.

Well that’s all for now. I am enjoying the break and I hope my Tweets are well received. Incidently, for a vacation like this, Twitter is a great way to communicate. Can’t praise it enough.