One of the great things about traveling is having the opportunity to disconnect from real life, even if only for a short while. It's hard to do. A new study shows that many of us find it challenging to get away from work and really enjoy our vacations - in fact, only 58% of Canadians even use all of the vacation time we have, which, not surprisingly, is bad news for productivity. And those people who do go away often end up taking work with them.
I make it a personal rule to leave reality at home when I travel. No logging into VPN, checking business emails, or sitting on a beach working on a report. After all, what's the point of taking the time off if you can't use it to recharge your batteries?
However, there's no denying that the convenience of having access to certain tools can make the difference between a disastrous trip and a great one. Whether it's being stranded in an airport during a travel crisis casued by a volcanic eruption, using Skype to stay in touch with friends and family back home, or simply arriving in a new place and looking for a place to stay, things to see, or people to meet, it is possible to disconnect from life back home while connecting to life on the Road.
There are certain sites and digital tools that I consider indispensable for frequent travelers. Here are a few of my favourites:
- Matrix by ITASoftware
The software that powers all the big sites, without the distractions of ads, pop-ups and other annoyances. I've been using the original version of this tool for years, when it fell nicely in the category of "best-kept secret". Its recent buy-out by Google means that it's been getting lots of attention lately, and I'm not too sure how I feel about that yet. But it's still hands-down the best airfare search tool on the web, and my typical starting place when searching for fares. You can't actually book through ITA, but you can see the fare codes and constructions, send them to a travel agent, or reconstruct them on the airline's website or with another booking tool. Tip: iPhone users should check out the OnTheFly mobile app.
As much as I love ITA, its major drawback is that it doesn't include many of the low-cost budget carriers, especially in Europe, where they're abundant. Enter WhichBudget. Plug in your cities of departure or arrival, and it will let you know "which budget" airlines service the route.
Like ITA Matrix, Momondo searches the major airlines. Like WhichBudget, it includes a fair number of budget carriers as well. It's not quite as powerful/customizable as the others, but it's a bit easier to use for less seasoned travelers, and also includes other travel options such as ground transportation or nearby airports by default.
Forget what you think you know about backpacker hostels. They're not just for the 18-year-old party crowd anymore. Today's range of hostels include the bare-bones all the way up to comforts that rival nicer hotels and B&Bs. The conveniences offered by hostels, including travel information, full kitchens, and opportunities to socialize, are unrivalled for most types of trips. Hostel booking sites have been around for years, but they've gotten quite a bit better in the past couple of years. Hostelbookers is one of my favourites, since it includes unbiased ratings and reviews, online booking for many locations, and plenty of options for more upscale accommodations as well.
One of a number of travelblog sites that allow you to log, document and share your trip. The Travelpod team in Ottawa has worked hard to make this one of the better tools out there, introducing powerful options for mapping, photo albums, mobile blogging, connecting with social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter, and connecting with the traveler community. It's a bit ad-heavy and far from perfect, but it's still my favourite way to journal from the road.
The CouchSurfing community has been around for over a decade. The idea of sleeping on a stranger's sofa instead of in a hotel might be weird for some, but don't knock it till you've tried it. Well-established CouchSurfing communities exist in cities and towns all over the world, and there's just no comparison to getting a local's insider view on a destination. My one qualm with CouchSurfing is that its website could probably use an overhaul.
Need to keep all your travel plans organized? TripIt is a powerful site that organizes all your flight, hotel and travel confirmations for you, builds a master itinerary, add maps and directions, and more. It's equally useful for business or pleasure travel. I only use the free version, which I find plenty powerful for my needs; they also offer a pro version that adds features such as mobile alerts, airline points tracking, and alternate flight search tools.
- Open WiFi Spots
If you're like me, you aren't interested in paying ridiculous roaming charges to access data from your laptop or mobile device while on the Road. Open WiFi Spots maintains a free database of places where you can access free WiFi. Unfortunately, it's very US-centric at the moment, but its international database is slowly improving.
This site by TripAdvisor maintains a database of most of the plane models and configurations used by the world's airline, and contains vital information about different seat numbers and rows - including which seats don't recline, which ones have that precious extra couple of inches of legroom, and which ones are near the lavatories. It's tough to experience true comfort on a flight without upgrading to first or business class, but SeatGuru can help you go beyond the standard "window or aisle" choice and make the best of flying on a packed sardine-like plane. It has a handy mobile version, too.
- LonelyPlanet ThornTree
The mother of all online travel communities. Destination advice, itineary feedback, news, road reports, and discussions about anything and everything. 'Nuff said.
Those are some of my favourites. What are yours?