Travel Tools, Tips and Resources

Travel Tips, Tools and Resources from Piran Cafe
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Where do you find deals on airline tickets?

What kind of cameras do you use?

What’s in your mobile office bag?

Where are the best places to find nice affordable places for a long-term stay?

I’m often asked questions like these and am happy to offer insights whenever I can. I’ve traveled fairly extensively for much of the past 25 years to nearly sixty countries, on trips both short-term and long, and have learned a few things along the way about what works and what doesn’t.

So I’ve set out to produce this resource page as a decent starting point to help answer some of those and other questions travelers may have.

My aim is to make this a fairly comprehensive list of resources, sharing those that I have and often still use. As such this is very much a living document which I plan to update and expand regularly, so feel free to bookmark this page and check back. That said, you’re still always welcome to drop a line directly to me. I’m always happy to help.

Disclosure: A few of the links provided below are affiliate links. That means that when you shop or book through one of the links, I’ll earn a small commission from your purchase during that visit. This comes at no additional cost to you; sometimes you’ll even save money. In each case these are products and services that I’ve used, continue to use and confidently recommend.

Onwards.

Getting Around

Planes, buses and trains.

Flights

Urs Fischer's Lamp Bear in the Duty-free hall at Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar
Urs Fischer’s Lamp Bear at Hamad International Airport, Doha

When searching for flights for travel dates that aren’t flexible, I usually start with Kayak, Expedia, Jet Radar and/or SkyScanner to get a general idea on pricing, options and routes. I then go directly to the airline website where the same flight can sometimes be found cheaper, even if by just a few euros or dollars. Generally speaking, Kayak and Jet Radar have done the best job for me, but be sure to invest the few minutes and consult them all. Try Google flight search, too, which by many accounts in turning up even cheaper deals than some of the others.

And also try different browsers. The same search of the same site on Safari, Chrome and Firefox will sometimes return different prices.

If you don’t mind a little extra email, a good idea is to sign up for fare alerts and airline newsletters. Deals come and go quickly and sometimes are only made available by the airlines; the best thing about this option is that they’re delivered directly to you.

If you’re spontaneous and flexible with both travel dates and destinations, check out Secret Flying, a site that regularly posts info about really astounding airfare deals, like Vienna to Delhi for €249 R/T or Orlando, Florida to Bogotá, Colombia for only $138 R/T. Obviously they sell out very quickly.

Likewise, there’s The Flight Deal, which also does a really good job of finding and sharing extraordinary deals — even one like a $67 Boston-Milan flight one lucky reader nabbed. It was a mistake, obviously, but it had to be honored. But you have to be quick to snag ’em, and free to travel on short notice.

If you’re looking for deals from the US (primarily), try Airfarewatchdog.

To save you some time, check out and subscribe to my oh-so-cleverly entitled Twitter list  ‘Cheap Flights’, that includes several of those in one easy feed.

Another that’s strong in the US that a few frequent traveler friends recently told me about is Skiplagged, a site that finds “hidden city” flights, flights where you end your travel in a layover city and skip the last segment. Those can often be cheaper than a more straight or conventional connection. An example: a direct New York to San Francisco flight will often be more expensive than a New York to Seattle flight with a connection in San Francisco. In that case, skip the last leg. But don’t check any bags.

And if you have as hard a time remembering them as I do, here’s a listing of airline alliance programs and their affiliates.

Trains

Trains are my favorite. Probably because I was smuggled across borders on them when I was six months old.

But also because train windows and the gradually changing landscapes they broadcast are all the entertainment you need. And they allow you to travel city center to city center, with no baggage fees, without expensive and time-wasting airport transfers and long check-in waits. I could go on –for instance tell you about a spontaneous Swiss wine-tasting from Lausanne to Milan– but we’ll save that for another time.

Commuter train between Bled and Jesenice, Slovenia

Some useful sites:

  • Seat 61 – As a lover of trains, this is one of my favorite sites on the planet. Up-to-date and detailed train transportation guides for nearly one hundred countries and just about every major route in the world.
  • Bahn.de – Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway, provides The No 1 stop for timetables for travel throughout Europe. Purchase is also available for select countries.
  • Eurail.com (Global) – Home of the continent’s legendary Eurail pass. Info, planning assistance and purchase.
  • Raileurope.com – Another info, planning and booking resource for travel on the continent.
  • Europe Trains Guide – Another info hub on European train travel
  • Amtrak – The US system: info and booking. I lived in the US for most of my life but never traveled long distance via train. I still hope to one day.
  • Urbanrail.net – A comprehensive and regularly updated site featuring info on underground, subway, metro and light rail systems in several hundred cities around the world.

Buses

Still the preferred mode of transport for the majority of the planet. A few one-stop (or, first-stop) options:

  • Flixbus – A low cost service with over 20,000 daily connections to 400 destinations in over 15 European countries. A route map is here.
  • Busbud – A good way to search, find and compare bus companies and find the routes they serve. Mostly US-based, but strong in much of Europe and parts of South America.
  • South America-bound? A good planning starting point is HorizonTravelPress’s free planner, South America by Bus.

Lodging and Accommodations

Great views of the Pacific from the terrace of the Maremonti in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador
Winner, 2013 Road Office of the Year – Maremonti, Puerto Lopez, Ecuador

For places to lay my weary head, there are four ways I generally go:

  • For longer stays (and many shorter ones too), I almost exclusively book via AirBnB. It’s a home away from home, generally authentic (define that as you will), and laid back. More often than not, my hosts have become friends. If you’re not yet an AirBnB member, sign up via this link to get a $20 credit towards your first booking. Advice? Be very honest in your reviews so everyone wins.
  • Booking.com – Features a great international selection at every price point and type of accommodation. Highly recommended.
  • Agoda.com – Another popular site that some prefer, especially for parts of southeast Asia. I generally check Booking.com first and then go to Agoda for a comparison.
  • Hotels.com – Generally my third port of call where I’ve found some exceptionally good deals on higher end hotels.
  • Couchsurfing – Helps you find a free place to sleep and not always a couch. While I still occasionally host, I haven’t used the service to find a place to crash in three years. But I have found it useful for its list of local meet-ups and other events.
  • Secret Flying – Mentioned in the flight section above where their main strength lies, this site also seeks out and occasionally finds extraordinary deals on accommodations. Worth checking out for last minute or near last minute travel.

Travel Gear

Fisherman repairing his net, Essaouira, Morocco
Fisherman repairing his net, Essaouira, Morocco

I really don’t think the internet needs another long or short-term travel packing list, so I’ll skip that here. But I will mention a handful of items I’ve found to be essential, whether on a weekend work trip or an eight-month digital nomad gig.

  • 60-Liter/25in Osprey Sojourn Wheeled Bag. I purchased mine in December 2012 and still use it regularly. Here is my detailed review after its first 10,000km during a seven-month overland trip from Tierra del Fuego, Argentina to Cartagena, Colombia, a journey it survived with nary a scratch.
  • I always bring a small well-worn backpack or shoulder bag for use a day bag. Keep it small. Security is important, and so is a spot for a water bottle.
  • Packing Cubes. With little fuss they help keep your clothes organized and make your packing much easier, too. A fabulous invention. I’ll never travel without them again.
  • Silk sleeping bag liner. Works great by itself, too, it’s light, and a savior when you want or need something clean to sleep in or on.
  • A 4 Mode Energizer 7 LED Headlamp. And a small flashlight.
  • And earplugs. Don’t forget earplugs.

OK. If you’re really curious about specifics, check out my packing list for my seven-month overland trip through South America in 2013. More items I use and wholeheartedly recommend are included in this small, but growing Amazon shop I set up.

Photography

What's in the camera bag for a 7-day trip?
What’s in the bag? June 2014 Edition

While I take lots of photos and earn part of my income shooting editorial and travel stock images, I am not a full-time or even half-time professional photographer. As such, I’ve kept my stash of supplies to a minimum, particularly when traveling. So consider this a brief checklist and starting point to help get you on your way and shooting the streets.

Cameras & Lenses

My general kit is not only light (by DSLR standards) but also pieced together with a fairly strict budget in mind. Since late 2012, my DSLR of choice has been a Canon 60D and a trio of lenses:

  • Canon 18-135mm 3.5-5.6 – A great range for a standard workhorse lens, which it is. I used to use this 70% of the time.
  • Canon 70-300mm 4-5.6 zoom – Like the 18-135 above, this is a solid lens for the focal range at this price. Keep in mind that it’s not really suitable for low light situations. For that you’ll have to pay two to three times the price.
  • Canon 85mm 1.8– Great for portraits and low light. At this price point (US$350-375), it performs exceptionally well.

I also carry around a GoPro Hero2 (seriously outdated) but the novelty of that wore off quickly and I rarely use it. I get more use out of my Sony Handycam HDR-CX350 that I bought in 2010. I’ll probably begin using it more again in 2017, too.

On my wish list? Eventually, something a little smaller. Like a Fujifilm X-T1.

Accessories

These I also try to keep to a minimum when on the road.

Filters

  • 8 Stop neutral density filter – a (typically) gray filter which reduces the amount of light that enters the camera which allows you to use larger apertures and longer exposures in brighter conditions. Those beautiful shots of silky smooth oceans, waterfalls and skies? Those were made with an ND filter.
  • Circular polarizing filter – a filter that allows you to control how much light enters different parts of your image (top or bottom, left or right), particularly useful for landscapes.
  • UV filters – while they do help cut back some ultraviolet light, their primary use is to protect your lens from scratches and cracks and from the elements, keeping out salt spray and dust. It’s easier to replace a $25 filter than a $500 lens, no?

If you’re new to filters, good introductions are here and here.

Tripods

I own several but usually travel with one of these two:

  • Velbon PHD-41Q Pan/Tilt Head with a quick release; durable for its compact size and weight (430g/15.2oz) with a load capacity of 3kg/6.6lb.
  • And a larger and heavier Velbon Sherpa 800R. Weighing in at 4.3lb with a maximum height of cm/66.7″ it provides much more stability that the lighter PHD-41Q and is built to last. It’s a discontinued model but worth searching auction sites for. I recently spotted one on Ebay for $US140.
  • Between those two and the impossibly versatile (and very heavy) Manfrotto Bogen 3021 that I’ve had more than 15 years, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever buy another tripod again.

Memory Cards

I’ve used and been happy with Lexar Professional 400x 32GB since I bought my camera in September 2012. If you’ll be doing HD video with your DSLR, you need the speed.

And always carry a spare battery (or two), even on day trips, and don’t forget your charger.

Post-production and editing

For my needs, I have little use for Photoshop. Anything I need to correct or adjust can easily be done in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. Besides its relatively powerful editing tools, Lightroom allows you to easily tag and group photos to help keep you organized. Highly recommended. (Amazon link.)

Mobile Office

Road Office Quito, April 2015
Road Office Quito, April 2015

I’ve been a Macbook Pro user since the waning days of 2009. Never say never, I know, but it’ll be difficult to convince me to go back to a PC. Feel free to try, of course.

The single most important pieces of equipment I carry, other than the laptop itself, are external portable hard drives. I carry four, with everything backed up twice. Overkill? Maybe, but it makes me feel much more secure.

After some comparison shopping early on, I settled on Transcend‘s military drop tested models, both the 1 TB and 2 TB. As the name implies, they’re extremely durable, rugged and fast. Best of all, their price has come down gradually since I bought my first pair, with the 1TB going for about $55, the 2TB $95.

Don’t put off backing up your files regularly, especially when you’re on the road. Things will get lost. I promise.

Mobile Phone? I didn’t jump aboard the smartphone train until late 2013 and will never be one to continually upgrade. I’m pleased with my Samsung S4 which I bought to replace the S3 that was stolen on a crowded street in Marrakech a few years back. If you’ll be on the road for long periods of time, buy one that’s unlocked so you can use local SIM cards.

Ebook reader? I’ve been a happy camper with my Kindle Paperwhite since December 2012. At some point, I’ll upgrade to the Kindle Voyage. But I’m in no hurry.

And to carry it all?

I tried two very similar bags on two long-term trips: the Borealist AT by Mountainsmith for a 10-month stint and a Lowe Compurover AW for a seven-month journey.

They’re both similar in size, shape, weight and utility and I can recommend both models. Both are discontinued but you may be able to find them on close-out at your larger local pro retailer. I found an unused Lowe Compurover AW available via Amazon available at the moment (20 Jan 2016) for US$150, and used models from $60. Note that the current Borealist model is nothing like the one I had and used.

A Pre-Departure Checklist

More specifically, items to add to your pre-departure checklist, meaning both five months prior to a stint of long-term travel or five hours before your next flight departs. Here are a few things that I find critical that I’ve noticed others had wished they’d done:

Whether you’re leaving for seven days or seven years, it’s essential to make copies of all your documents. Scan and/or take photos of everything –passport(s), IDs, credit cards, medical insurance info, drug prescriptions. Save copies to your laptop, tablet and/or smart phone, and email them to yourself and to family or a few friends that you trust. That will ensure that everything is usually just a few taps or an email away.

While you’re standing in line to check in at the airport, train or bus terminal, snap a few pictures of your bags, both carry-on and those you’re checking, so you’ll have photos on hand (and in hand) in case something gets lost in transit.

And in no particular order, a few more general planning resources:

Trip Advisor – Some hate it but many more love it. Loads of restaurant, attraction, hotel and hostel reviews.

XE Currency – Up to the minute currency exchange information with useful calculators.

The Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (US CDC) One of the best resources for checking which vaccines or medications, if any, are recommended for your particular destination.

Visas – There’s no one-stop info site that I’m aware of, and obviously this will vary depending on where you’re from and where you’re going. Check destination embassies and consulates in your home country or check foreign ministry websites of your destination country. Send emails inquiries and call as well.

Wikitravel – A good open source travel guide for hundreds of destinations around the world. The recommendations are good but even more useful to me is the practical and logistical information on local public transport, customs and holidays. Bear in mind that some are more regularly updated than others. After you visit an area, why not consider adding a few updates of your own?

Let’s Connect

And finally, if we haven’t already, let’s connect. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google+.

Any suggestions or experiences you’d like to share? I’d love to hear them in the comments.

v 1.3 | 12-Mar-2017

 

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1 Comment

  1. Noel Francis says

    Thanks a lot for these travelling tips Bob. This will definitely help me in the next few months.

Thoughts?