Hacking The Travel Bug
NEW YORK (MainStreet)It's no secret that the Internet has turned travel on its head. Thanks to resources like web-based booking, online currency conversions and networked ATMs, everyone has become his own travel agent and can make plans on the fly. Sometimes literally. Travel websites have dropped the barriers to entry, turning formerly insurmountable problems like tracking political unrest into little more than an inconvenience. (As this writer once discovered firsthand.) A good browser history is, these days, an indispensible part of any traveler's toolkit.
Over the years I've collected a number of different websites that help with the many moving pieces of going overseas. They range from the useful to the outright essential, but one thing's for sure: like the old saying goes, you should never leave home without them. With that in mind, here are a few links that have earned a place at the top of my bookmarks.
This might seem obvious, in fact it's incredibly obvious, but it needs to be said. Google is one of the most useful sources for just about any kind of information out there, and travel is no different. Thanks to streamlined features added over the last five years, many questions don't even need a link to a second website. Essential information like currency rates, local weather and mapped directions simply pop up as soon as you plug a question into the search bar.
Google is neither a dedicated travel site nor a surprise to anyone out there. While I've tried to make this a list of the surprising, obscure or often overlooked sites that you may not know about, I depend on this search engine for so many essential details that it demands a spot. The fact is, when I don't know where else to go, it's a safe bet that Google can at least give me a place to start.
Never book a foreign ticket until you check your visa. This is a critical document that's very easy to overlook during the excitement of planning a big trip, and many people do. Yet forgetting to line up your visa, or doing so without knowing a country's entrance requirements, is a potentially catastrophic mistake. I've seen people turned back at the airport more than once for failing to have the right paperwork, or for scheduling a stay longer than their destination allows.
Remember: you can buy the ticket, and no one will say a thing. The first sign of trouble won't come until you show up at the check-in counter, bags in hand, on the day of departure. By then it will be too late.
Don't let this happen to you. The U.S. State Department has listed all of the entry requirements that apply to American citizens for every country on Earth. It's a quick and painless process to look up what you need to do in advance of any given trip. Visas can be a complicated, confusing issue, but this site does an excellent job of clarifying them as much as possible. It's the closest thing you'll get to an authoritative handbook, and it can save you a lot of trouble down the line.
There are a lot of different booking sites, but these are my two favorites.
ITA offers a lot of flexibility in searching for available dates and cities and displays its findings in a convenient, calendar style presentation. Although Kayak offers the same service, ITA has searched foreign routes far longer, and in my experience tends to do so considerably better. I've consistently found the best prices through ITA's software, and the calendar allows me to easily shop around for better ones when my dates are flexible.
By contrast, Momondo uses the more traditional format, pulling up a list of flights for the date you specified listed by cost, time or airline. Although a small bar graph shows price fluctuations over several weeks, it isn't nearly as clear or useful as ITA's system. Where Momondo shines, however, is in pulling up budget airlines. Low cost carriers such as Easyjet and Air Asia often offer the best fares on any given route but tend to fly below the radar of most booking sites. While Momondo isn't perfect in finding all of them, it does a better job than most other sites and is well worth a look when you're shopping for prices.
Ordinarily I don't much care where I sit on the airplane. If I can shuffle around to something better, like anyone else, I'll always try but in general when safety's not a factor price comes first.
There are exceptions, though. While a good paperback or some articles to write are more than enough to pass the time for a few hours in the air, on something like the 19-hour Pacific crossing, comfort becomes more of a factor. By the time I'm scheduling nearly a full day on the plane, my seat and entertainment start to matter a lot more. A long haul is a lot less painful if I have a personal screen to watch my movies on, and is downright pleasant if I can plug my laptop into the armrest.
This is where Seat Guru comes in. Somehow the authors of this website have managed to compile just about every detail on every aircraft in service today. Information like entertainment options, seat size, food service and much more is all up there. When trying to decide if a flight is worthwhile, simply look up the carrier and equipment and you can find out exactly what you're getting for your money.
When price is king, Seat Guru is just a source for some interesting trivia, but when you're shopping for some comfort and convenience, it can be a invaluable.
I've written about Seat61 before, but Mark Smith's website deserves a place of pride among any list of online resources.
Rail travel isn't much of an option in the United States. For most destinations outside of Boston to Washington D.C., the "Northeast Corridor," taking a train costs as much as a flight and lasts as long as driving. Thanks to this Americans tend not to think of rail when we're making our travel arrangements overseas, but internationally trains are often an excellent choice. Not only can they offer a fast, cost effective option, but one with a bit of character and a chance to see the local scenery as you relax with a good book.
As far as actually finding that train, I look no farther than Seat61. This website has information on every rail route I know about, and many that I don't. Not only that, but Seat61 is full of information about carriages, timetables and how to buy the tickets once you've picked them (a sometimes surprisingly difficult task). As an added bonus, scroll down the site's main page for an excellent picture of London's iconic King's Cross Station.
There aren't many centralized resources out there for job seekers on the road, but Idealist is one of the best I've ever found.
This website is a collection of jobs, internships and volunteer opportunities all built around nonprofit and public interest work. The website's mission makes it perfect for many travelers, who often want to give something back and are rarely in it for the money. (Those who are have a rather dismal surprise ahead.) Although the lion's share of postings are volunteer opportunities and unpaid internships, that mostly reflects today's job market rather than the site itself.
Finding a job overseas is a tall order. Lots of people are looking for one, and it's enough of an employer's market that they often don't even have to advertise. In fact, one of the most difficult parts of the process is even figuring out where to start. This is why I so often recommend Idealist. Finding work overseas is tough, and finding someone willing to pay for it is even tougher; however, Idealist.org is a great place to start the process.
It doesn't cause problems often, but every once in a while it's very worth knowing about a country's current events before you visit. At time of publishing, in fact, an excellent example was unfolding in Turkey. Ordinarily this is a country that has my unreserved recommendation. Turkish food and culture is outstanding, the landscape of Anatolia is breathtaking and Istanbul is hands-down one of my favorite cities in the world. However, as I write this, violent protests have spread across the country and caused enough trouble to deter even an adventurous traveler
Local conditions and politics can change your travel plans, and that's as it should be. Sometimes conditions on the ground change, and things start happening that you just don't want to be a part of, such as the 2010 Bangkok riots or Egypt's 2011 "Arab Spring." Government agencies and other sources post up travel warnings, but these can be alarmist, tending to err on the side of caution and often warning people away from completely harmless destinations.
Don't completely ignore these warnings, but do a bit of research on your own. Find out what's happening in a country and decide for yourself whether it's worth a visit. For that kind of global coverage, you can't beat the BBC.
There are a lot of great hostel booking websites out there, but Hostelworld is far and away my favorite. In addition to user reviews, Hostelworld often features its own write-ups that I've found surprisingly valuable. I'm ordinarily not a big fan of guidebook reviews for something as subjective as a hotel or restaurant, preferring instead to see for myself what an author meant by "cozy" or "obnoxiously loud," but I've found Hostelworld's reviews to be generally straightforward, fair and heavily mixed with what the users have to say.
This site also has the extremely useful feature of showing properties that are both available and booked for any given dates. If I just want to find out what's in a city, or what price points I should plan for, it's often useful to plug in dates and pull up a list of what various properties have to offer. Most other hostel booking sites I've seen force you to play a game of chicken with the calendar, only showing what's available at any given time. This is unhelpful if I just want background information rather than an actual booking. Hostelworld instead pulls up full listings for properties and rooms, a feature surprisingly useful enough to have made this my go-to site for accommodations.
Honorable Mention: Mr. & Mrs. Smith, an outstanding booking site dedicated to boutique hotels the world over. If you're looking for comfort with a personal touch, this just might be the website for you.
Let's face it, even with the help of astoundingly clever travel writers like myself, sooner or later you'll search for an answer and come up empty. Maybe no one has written a blog post about how to say hello on Rangali Island (assalaamu alaikum), or what type of spider is crawling on your mosquito net (does it matter at that point), or some other issue too obscure to even think of in advance, but sooner or later it will happen.
When that time comes, I recommend Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum. This is one of the biggest forums of world travelers online today; in fact, I'm not aware of any larger at all. It's a modern day explorer's society, and I can almost guarantee that wherever you are, there's someone on this forum who's been there too. Whatever your question or problem, someone somewhere has faced it before, and this is a great place to find them.
Of course it is a forum on the Internet, so all of the usual rules apply. There are trolls and spammers, and the usual supply of condescending jerks, but no more than anywhere else online. For the most part the Thorn Tree is just a collection of very helpful people who love to travel, and who collectively have set foot on just about every corner of the Earth. Odds are, whatever you need to know, someone here has the answer.
The Atlas Obscura is a great resource if you're looking for a place to go or just need inspiration to get out the door.
The headline attractions around the world are easy to find. We all have our bucket list with places like Machu Picchu, the Pyramids of Egypt and the Great Barrier Reef, but what about when you want to be surprised? That's where Atlas Obscura comes in.
A travel blog started four years ago by two men, Atlas Obscura is now a major project with contributions from all across the world. Its mission is to "celebrate a different way of looking at the world," and boy, does it succeed. On this site you'll find photo galleries of ghost towns, articles about sunken cities and links to museums on subjects you may never have even heard of. Spend a few hours here and you can put together an itinerary that will keep you guessing every step of the way.
The Atlas Obscura may not land you within 100 miles of the nearest Hilton, but following its lead is a great way to find edges of the map you never even knew where there. And after all, isn't that what travel is all about?
Eric Reed is a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com