Kvetching about Hostel World in my last post got me thinking. I am five months into my year long (or longer) trip. So what am I really using and what isn’t working out? Some stuff has definitely been country or region specific. The spice kit I desperately wanted in South America has been replaced by the chopsticks and metal soup spoon I carry around in Southeast Asia.
So here’s the list of awesome stuff:
– Wikitravel: My go to for travel information. I cannot recommend it enough. Like wikipedia but for travel information. Like Wikipedia, you occasionally get some self serving bad information but overall the guides are more comprehensive and the lodging and food recommendations way better and updated. How can travel books keep up with the internet? I just wish it had more maps and less pictures for when I look it up on mobile.
– Unlocked smartphone with local sim cards with Skype and Google Voice: The cheapest way to stay connected. In Thailand you can get a sim card for $1.5, minutes for less than a cent, and unlimited data for the month up to 1 gb for $13. Skype forwarding to my local number is about 2 cents a minute. Compare that to AT&T who charges me $25 for 50 mb of data that doesn’t even work in every country. Easy choice. Skype call forwarding to my international numbers costs me somewhere around $10 a year. I also use Skype when I have wifi to call for free. Google Voice I use so I can receive text messages for free. The one downside is it cannot SMS to international numbers. I’m hoping Skype or Google Voice adds this soon, I’d happily pay for that service.
– ATM card: I mentioned this in my first post of what I’m packing. Internet banks are awesome, I haven’t been charged an atm fee anywhere. I’ve also had less issues using most banks than people I’ve run into. I had one fiasco where they made an expensive call to me when I withdrew a higher amount, but that has been resolved with call forwarding (see above entry).
– Friends (of friends) and strangers: Strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet. As awesome as random strangers have been to me, I’m equally awed by the friends of friends who are nice to me. People who have barely met me or never met me are incredibly generous. Many of them have let me stay with them for days. Thanks friends, for being awesome and having welcoming friends.
– Computer, phone or tablet: Something to connect to the abundant wifi in cheap guesthouses and hostels. I personally prefer something I can type, but any device that can connect to wifi will allow you to keep in touch and look up useful info. The internet is the best travel guide ever. I have worked on the road, so the computer came in handy for that too. The phone is the obvious multitasking choice for those packing light or who don’t e-mail much. My phone has been more reliable for Skype for shoddy wifi connections than my computer.
– Kindle: I love carrying a kindle instead of a heavy book. I generally love flipping the pages of real paper but for travel purposes this has been awesome. My previous city local libraries and free classics make getting a new book for free easy. I appreciate being able to buy a book anywhere I can get a connection and there are many cheap options. A kindle can be used to connect to internet and e-mail but it is slow, unreliable to load, and ridiculously hard to type on. The free 3g in many countries is nice.
– Local blogs: Although these vary in quality greatly and are often poorly organized, they are the best source of information. Sometimes I curse as I see great websites full of information only in the native language.
– A small booklet and pen: For writing down contact information and drawing things when you can’t hand gestures what you need to a non-English speaker. It’s super useful for communication of all kinds.
The mixed bag:
– Couch Surfing: It was awesome in Brazil and America. I haven’t had any luck yet in Asia. So far I’ve had one flake, what may be a cult, and a boring guy. It’s a bad sign when a boring guy is the best of the bunch. I’m still optimistic.
– Lonely Planet: I’m carrying this heavy book but find I rarely use it. It is useful for the maps of each place and for situations where I end up somewhere unexpected. Otherwise they’ve long since outgrown their budget roots (no, I don’t want your recommended $200 hotel) and are less than useful in their recommendations. Recommended alternative: Wikitravel.org.
The awful stuff (with recommended alternatives):
– AT&T: First and foremost, just like in America, AT&T is awful. According to this article, I got off “easy” with a few hundred dollars worth of data charges. I hope they enjoyed the phone calls I make every two weeks trying to get the charges reduced. Their employees range from useless (trying to sell me the same international plan that doesn’t cover Laos or Vietnam) to friendly. This was after their snide in store service when my phone broke on my Christmas in America. Salt in the wound was the text messages sent to ask how my service was. Clever, AT&T, send individual texts for the questions so that you can charge someone 20 texts for a survey about your awful service. Honestly, get a local sim and use Skype (see Skype entry). My family feels better knowing I have an American phone number for emergencies, but it’s mostly just an expensive headache. Their website remodel means I haven’t been able to check my international data usage in weeks.
– Hostel World: While I use this website a lot because it usually has the most cheap guesthouses and hostels, it’s rarely the cheapest option. Also their awful web design means I can never filter my search for how much it costs for one person. You tell the site you are looking for a room for one, and it spits out how much it costs for a private room, for a triple. I end up having to click through to every page to really see the final cost price for one. Awful. Recommended alternative: booking.com or agoda.com in Asia (still awful but better prices, they often have 50% off flash sales).
– Workaway: I haven’t tried to use this again after I got zero responses in South America. A successful workaway-er in Brazil told me that I need to approach it more like a job and e-mail at least twice with more references. Seems like this is more for your long term 6 month or more volunteer, not the fly by the seat of your pants with a weeks notice traveler like me. Recommended alternative: I haven’t found one yet. Lonely Planet led to some awesome friends but no volunteering. Wikitravel led me to good ones in Luang Prabang.
– My continued bad packing resulting in a huge, heavy pack. I ran into my parents in Beijing and didn’t offload enough (maybe only 6 pounds or so). I’m carrying rather heavy jeans because I like being warm and looking like a non-backpacker every once in a while despite their slow drying. I’ve only rarely used the sleeping bag and camping towel, in instances where I didn’t necessarily need to either. And I have yet, luckily, to need my silk sleep sheet. Or I have bad standards. My overabundance of hygiene products (I dislike buying expensive travel portions so often) and packing for multiple climates also makes me unwieldy. Recommended alternative: don’t be me and get used to less hygiene products and needing to change clothing daily like many backpackers seem to. I can’t get over this.