My Longboat Captain and First mate.
I was hanging out on Khao San Road enjoying my last beer in Thailand. It’d been a whirlwind 12 day trip, exhausting, but in a good way. I was speaking with a couple from Australia, who joked, in a friendly way, that I’d seen more in two weeks and they’d seen in three months.
For a minute they must have been thinking “over scheduled American can’t relax”. Seeing more with less time was my plan all along. I met more than one person who was visiting for 3 to 6 months. With SuperK and kids back home, I did not have that luxury this trip.
I did, however, find that having a rough outline of a schedule, and using mobile apps, I actually ended up having more free time than I’d planned on. There’s a lot written about travel hacking and grabbing flights and hotels at the lowest price. There’s not as much about hacking your trip once you arrive.
For me, the planning process is part of the whole journey. Just 3 or 4 years ago, you’d have to carry around a thick travel book and clumsy maps and do your best at navigating the chaos of a city like Bangkok. This is not just about tourist attractions, In fact, mobile apps allow you to find the best restaurants, bars, hiking trails, and off the beaten path destinations.
Here’s a list of the apps I used for my Thailand visit, as well as recent family trips. All of these apps are multi-platform and sync across my desktop, tablet and mobile device.
This app is indispensable for travel planning. Evernote allows you to save a copy of any trip-related email, reservation, photos of scribbled notes, and make them accessible and searchable anywhere. I found the best way to use Evernote for travel planning is to create a tag for your trip, in this case “Thailand”. When you visit a website to make a reservation, you can simply clip the reservation into Evernote and tag it with your trip name. I added a #Thailand to tag any trip related email and forwarded the message to my Evernote account.
I saved all types of information regarding the trip in Evernote, including interesting bits I found on travel websites like Nomadicmatt.com. Flight info, recommendations from friends, important addresses, and even a few reminders that you can also add to each note. Once you start using Evernote, you can add the web clipper to your browser making this simple. If you meet some interesting people on your journey you can take a quick photo of their business card or “them” and tag it with the trip. All the info is saved and automatically updates your contacts. With little effort on my part, I met folks from Switzerland, Australia, England, Canada, Malaysia.
Also add a photo of your passport and important credit cards including healthcare information. Evernote has optional two step authentication so the data is safe.
This app includes the ability to save specific sites, restaurants, neighborhoods you like to visit to a map style interface which is indispensable when you’re in a new city for the first time. When you arrive at your destination, stars show up on the map interface in reference to your current location. Even if you didn’t do any research, you could use the what’s nearby feature to see the highly rated attractions and restaurants within a quick walk. The App even points you in the right direction and tell you the number of yards to go. The true value is the number of reviews for even some obscure spots. For instance, I had dinner at Lemongrass the 494th ranked restaurant out of 6916 restaurants in Bangkok. It was fantastic.
The app helped me find several highly recommended spas where I could get a 1 hour deep tissue massage or a 1 hour foot massage for about $7 US. I am not a big spa guy, but these massages included reflexology and were a fantastic value. A 100% tip will get you a big smile and is well worth it.
TripAdvisor also has a city guides app that lets you pre download all of the latest information in major cities to make them more accessible when you have limited mobile access.
Or the “where the hell am I?” map. In a couple of instances, I was on a hike well outside of the city of Chiang Mai. Google maps app was indispensable in pointing me in the right direction to get back to town. It’s a good idea to drop a pin using by holding a spot on your Google maps current location, and save your starting point or hotel location so you can always find your way back. Just think of it as a compass. Take a screenshot of it in case you lose connectivity.
Google Translate App
I was skeptical, but this works, you simply speak your hotel address or common questions like “where can I find a taxi”. The app will translate for you via voice or text. I found the text was easiest to use especially if I wanted to just show a Tuk-Tuk driver my hotel address. Without this, several drivers had no clue where I was going, until I was talking Thai. Translate saved me a lot of time versus using flailing gestures and pointing at maps. When you translate, use the full screen and large mode as many are extremely nearsighted and that tiny pin on the Google map means little to them. Metered taxis are also a great way to get around Bangkok. A 55 minute ride to the airport was about $14.00 US with tip. Just make sure you ask them to use the meter, or negotiate a price if you know what it should cost. In Bangkok, you can go almost anywhere for about $4 US.
I utilized the Kindle app on my iPhone and iPad. It gave me easy reference to local information. Some guides include links to maps to make destinations easy to find. There are many inexpensive travel guides for every city that can give you some interesting back story on what you’re looking at. Especially useful if you like to go at your own pace and not wait for a tour guide. Quick city specific guides with suggested itineraries work best, check out Nomadicmatt.com
When you’re traveling solo, it’s fun to keep in touch with friends by posting photos on Instagram and Facebook. You’ll get lots of responses and maybe even some tips on other places to see. I tended to take a bunch of pictures during the day then post them later in the evening or in the morning over breakfast.
A few other apps I used
Kayak.com is site to find great prices on airfare and hotels, including local fares in Thailand for short hops. I like to include hotels.com in my comparison search on kayak as I get one free night with each 10 nights I book. They will usually match the price if necessary. Both the Hotels.com app and Kayak have excellent versions for tablets and smartphones. Triposo has a nice Thailand specific app for iOS devices. Similar to the Trip Advisor city guides but with a slicker faster user experience. I had no problem finding three and four-star hotel rooms for between $45 and $70 per night.
If you’re a heavy app user like myself, you need to have 3G or 4G access at your destination. This would cost you a fortune if you were going through a US carrier. I highly recommend using an unlocked phone and visiting a popular mobile carrier at the Bangkok airport (I used True Mobile). They will quickly swap out your Sim card and set up your phone for a month of heavy access for about $25 US. With very heavy use, I only used about a third of my 1.5 GB maximum data downloads. If you have a newer phone that’s on contract, or can’t be unlocked, any old phone that has 3G capabilities or higher will work fine. More info on unlocking phones here.
Apps with location-based features tend to use more data and battery life than other apps. I highly recommend a small battery backup you can keep in your backpack. I would charge this up at the hotel at night and I used it daily.
Get your head out of your phone and look around.
The phones and apps are helpful but once you know for you where you’re going it’s really important to get your head out of your phone, look around and talk to people. Think of the apps as just a quick tool to get you to your next destination. It’s also very important to be heads-up while walking because traffic in Bangkok does not really follow any order and they drive on the Brit side of the road. People also like to ride motorcycles on the sidewalk and right through markets. I would try to memorize my route and go in the general direction, sometimes just to get a little lost on purpose, this is a great way to see and learn a new city.