It was another one of those mornings. We woke up on the other side of the world again, which has been happening every day for a long time. Over 20 countries just in the last 7 months of full time travel. It is a humbling experience, but also forces you to learn at an amazing rate. Least of which are all of the helpful tools to assist with a trip of this magnitude. This post details the most helpful mobile technology for planning to be and living as an international traveler.
There is an endless world of information waiting to be uncovered for travelers. As former work force professionals and current full time travelers, we use several helpful software programs which assist with our planning, tracking, security, entertainment and education. After 12 months of reading articles and blogs of world travelers, listening to podcasts, planning and then 7 months of traveling, it’s amazing that we would continue to uncover new relevant tools. In hopes to help others with their plans, we are going to provide a high level overview of some apps and software which are really helping us with our round the world trip. (All information included is as of the original date of this post.)
Organization – By nature, the RTW trip planning process involves lots of bookings, confirmations and a lengthy itinerary. We were keeping all of our reservations flagged in our email, but needed another method to store them in a more organized fashion.
We came across TripIt, which is an app that stores your travel plans like any others, but with one key difference: you can forward your email confirmations and they automatically log in the app sorted by location and date. It pulls in confirmation numbers, addresses, and check-in / check-out times as well. To be fair, we haven’t looked at any other apps to compare, so there may be several with this feature, but this one provides value for us. It isn’t perfect, however. For no apparent reason, plans will link to the wrong city despite correct titling or show the wrong dates. We have had to reassign accommodations from one city to another or adjust dates several different times. Regardless, it is still a lot better than manually keying each entry. This app was free on the iPhone.
Navigation – One of the toughest parts of travel is the sporadic lack of connection (e.g carrier data / 4G). Finding a route the old fashioned way with a tourist map or via the location of the North Star can be a challenge. Fortunately, there are several ways to download mapping software to your phone to be accessed at will and without any phone signal or wifi. Two that we have used are Google Maps and MAPS.ME, both of which allow your phone access to satellite GPS to be shown on a saved map with a navigation feature. Google (instructions here) has an option to choose an area to save to your phone while connected to the internet, and then use regularly while offline. This app has the most business location and information available. MAPS.ME offers a similar product but with a greater level of walking and trail detail offline. We have used this app worldwide with a great level of success. You can download cities or entire countries, search points of interest, and navigate by different modes of transport.
Cost Tracking – We have been following a couple who recently returned from their own world trip. This is one of the numerous sources of inspiration and information which has been helping us with our own planning process. They posted about their year trip which cost around $10,000 per person. While I have no idea how they were able to travel that cheaply, the ability to provide the costs for their trip is helpful to other travelers.
We use an app called Trail Wallet which provides a cost tracking software. The free version allows you to create up to five trips, but there is an paid upgrade to get more entry capacity. The upsides of this tool are the ease of use and the ability to separate by trip and expense category. It is also visually appealing with a pie chart to show how you are spending the money. The downsides are that the options for expense type are pretty limited and there is not a “create your own” category for the mobile app. It would also be nice if it had a master trip function with sub-trips that fed costs into the total. Currently, we do a double entry for our total trip and for each country.
Internet Security – You certainly don’t want to leave a trail of personal information behind while you access the internet which could be picked up by others. This isn’t something we had worried about when we had our own home secure wifi, but it is a different story for full time travelers. We now access everything abroad with connections which likely do not have the same level of internet security. We set up a VPN (Virtual Private Network) for our phones and laptop which adds a significant level of security to our internet. This software fully encrypts data transmission from end to end and stops a trail from being left behind. There is also another major benefit for world travelers as it allows internet access to run through a server location of your choice. This gives you the ability to access websites from any location, even countries which censor internet content. This is also helpful when using streaming content such as Netflix which has different content available depending on the country location.
We had originally downloaded a free VPN app to help secure our internet trail, but later found out that it didn’t offer the protection necessary. After lots of research, we ended up narrowing down our choice to two options, Nord VPN and Express VPN. They are almost identical from reviews and comparisons and were both highly recommended, with one small exception. Nord VPN allows for 6 devices to be simultaneously active under an account while Express VPN allows 3. The paid versions offer significantly more coverage and were not terribly expensive if paid in advance. The month to month cost of Nord was $11.95, but you get a 50%+ discount for paying for a year upfront. We also found a coupon code “70off” which dropped the price to $4.00 per month for a year up front. Here are a few links to review sites and better explanations than our caveman level overview: CNET VPN Review, Nomadic Matt VPN Blog, Secure Thoughts.
Language – Part of the experience of world travel is the language barrier. We try and know some language basics for countries we visit above what we can get from a phrase book. We use an amazing app called Duolingo which we originally learned of from a TED Talk given by one of the creators, Luis Von Ahn (if you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend spending the 17 minutes). “In this talk, he shares how. . .Duolingo will help millions learn a new language while translating the Web quickly and accurately — all for free.”
Cell Phone Number – Most cell providers allow you to keep your phone number but temporarily suspend service for a period of time for a small fee. This fee can range from $5-$10 per month, but the service suspension typically has a relatively short total available window. Our home service allowed us to halt our plan for up to 90 days at a reduced rate. This 90 day window is pretty standard amongst most major US cell carriers. Like us, you have probably had the same number for many many years which is the contact number with all friends and virtually every company which you have ever dealt with. We didn’t want to lose our number, but also didn’t want to continue to pay full price for our cell plan while it wasn’t in use.
We were able to find another option with a tip from someone who works for a cell provider. There are companies which offer cell number “parking” services that allow you to hold your unused number until you are ready to port it back to a provider. The services have various levels of features, but the most basic “deep freeze” option will hold your totally unused number for any length of time for as low as $3 per month per number. The two main competitor providers are Park My Phone and NumberGarage. We have a plan which provides the ability for our phone numbers to still receive voicemail which then arrives in an email. This plan with the extra feature of 100 voicemail minutes costs a total of $5 per month per line. There are also higher level plans which have more benefits such as call forwarding and VoIP. Lifewire has a good comparison article regarding these services and companies.
Photo storage – For those who take photos while traveling, an extended trip provides ample opportunity. With this volume of pictures, storage can become a problem on your phone, camera or computer. Most devices come with a cloud backup service nowadays such as Apple’s iCloud, which provide a secure and seamlessly automatic way to back up your pictures and other data. iCloud now has an option to Optimize iPhone Storage which removes older and less viewed pictures from your phone when they are saved in the cloud and storage on your device is running low.
While the Apple cloud is certainly a good option to use as a backstop, there are other more universally available options as well. Amazon has a paid service for unlimited photo backup (free with Prime account). Google also has a free photo backup service with unlimited capacity for photos up to 16mp and videos up to 1080p, and a paid option for larger file sizes. These services will automatically backup your photos with wifi. They can provide an additional storage area for pictures, which is more universally accessible/shareable from/to any device.
Entertainment – One thing is certain when traveling long term: lengthy transport. Whether it be flights, trains or buses, most travel involves significant periods sitting in a seat. One of our most essential tools is our Netflix mobile app, which allows movie and TV downloads for offline viewing. There is no better way to pass a 10 hour trip than by watching a favorite show or catching up on movies. We stock our queue wherever wifi is strong before a trip, especially before traveling in second and third world countries where networks tend to be weaker. To make the most out of our experience, we also carry a flexible phone tripod to attach to the seat in front, creating a makeshift seat back screen.
Make sure that you check out our other posts on the pre-planning process, pre-arrival essentials, and packing which supplement this information! There are other items previously discussed which were not also included in this post.