“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Value of Tech on the Road

Thailand.  I'm in love.  This winter saw my second trip to the country and I can see why friends love it so.  Sunny, warm, inexpensive, friendly, and yes, safe.  Although I try not to visit most countries more than once (Mexico being a glaring exception because it's so close to home and quick/easy/cheap to get to), I learned the value of returning to a familiar place.  Orientation is faster.  Remember a few more words than last time.  Knowing how much that cab ride really should cost.

This time, I decided to tackle a couple more new adventures, such as navigating Chiang Mai's songthaew system.  They're the red pickup trucks that roam the streets with a couple benches in back.  You flag them down, tell the driver through the window where you want to go.  He either waves you off, or nods for you to get on.  Don't take offense if he says no, he likely isn't going the direction you are.  It helps to ask the fare before you get it.  Not knowing Thai isn't an issue, just wave a 20 baht bill and see if he nods.  Done.  Fare set.  Hop in back!  When you've arrived at your destination, he'll either slow down and pull over, or you can knock on the back window or ring the buzzer on the ceiling indicating when you want to stop.  Hand him the bill through the front window and you're set!  I'd advise that you have a reasonable sense of direction, though.  It can be difficult to know when you've arrived at your destination when you've never been to where you're going before.  This where some tech helped out.

Before I ventured out, I staked out the area I was heading to on Google street view so I'd recognize my surroundings when I arrived (Wararot Market!).  The TripAdvisor City Guides app showed my progress on our ride over with its offline maps with real-time location tracking (without using the phone's data plan!).  Google Maps has also been recently updated to make maps available offline, so I'm eager to test this out overseas later this summer.  City Apps syncs with your TripAdvisor profile so all saved locations show up on the offline map.

One of my favorite and necessary apps on the road is TripIt.  It's an itinerary-building app to keep day-by-day details of flights, hotel reservations, tours, directions, maps, notes, links, and has a budget tracker.  The data also works offline, so when I'm checking into my hotel or flight, the app is immediately available to recall confirmation numbers.  Or remembering where to meet the food tour guide in the market.  If you subscribe to the Pro version, it tracks your frequent flyer and hotel reward stay points, plus alerts you to flight and gate changes.  The minute I begin planning a trip, I start a new TripIt itinerary.  Adding info is a breeze.  Just forward you email confirmations to a plans@tripit.com and the itinerary automatically populates.

I didn't think I'd need to sign up for an international calling plan before I left, but it turned out I needed my phone more than planned.  A $5 international plan on Sprint would have saved me about $35 off my bill, so note to self next time.  Confirming restaurant reservations, calling for a new van when our driver never showed up, and connecting with friends meeting up is when a good old fashioned phoned call came in handy.  Text messages are considered part of a voice plan so if you turn off your data, texting should still work.  Just remember that outgoing texts usually cost more than incoming ones.

XE Currency app is also one of my favorites.  It's great in a pinch when trying to calculate currency conversions on the fly.  Sometimes I keep my data signal on my phone on but only allow it for certain apps.  XE is one of those that I'll allow.  When you're overseas and using data apps on your phone, try to keep the time short, and know what you're looking for and need before you open an app.

GateGuru has been helpful when navigating gigantic airports like Hong Kong, Seoul Incheon, or Beijing.  When I have a layover, the first thing I need off the plane is Starbucks, followed by some quality airport shopping (I go gaga over airport shopping, no idea why).  Connect to the airport wifi if you can, and use GateGuru to locate a coffee shop, airline lounge, ATMs, and other amenities.

Lastly, before I leave home and am preparing for a big trip, I use PackTheBag, a packing app.  When I begin planning a trip, I set up the packing list and set out a suitcase.  Whenever I think of something to bring with, I toss it in the suitcase and check the item off the packing list.  Next trip: remember to pack the wine bottle packing materials.  This is a hint for the next blog entry.  Enjoy!

Beijing Day 5: Summer Palace on a Clear, Sunny Day

Our last day plan was to visit the Summer Palace.  An ancient canal ran from central Beijing out to the palace, and fortunately we picked an excellent day to take the slow boat to China.  The rains of the past week cleared the thick smog and we were able to enjoy a warm, clear, sunny day.  I had no idea that Beijing was surrounded by mountains.

The boat ride was a pleasant change from walking, taxis, and subways, and along the canal we passed couples out for a walk, friends strolling, a naked old man sunbathing (I didn't look twice), an man fishing with a trident (I had to look twice), and a girl taking her pet squirrel out for a walk on a leash (I had to stare).  What we didn't find out in our research that the boat ride was cut in half.  The boat docked where we had to exit (we were "shooed" because we didn't realize we get to get off), then followed the crowd to another dock where we boarded our last boat.  This wasn't anything I saw mentioned on TripAdvisor so we were a bit confused about the unannounced transfer.

The total trip was under an hour and left us at the south entrance of the palace grounds in front of a large lake full of rowboats and dragon boats.  Plenty of locals and tourists were out enjoying the grounds and weather, eating ice cream cones and snapping pictures. We climbed the central pagoda of the palace that overlooked the city and it was nice to see the entire metropolis without the smog.

Carrie and I have a tradition finishing our trip with a fantastic meal on the final night.  Usually it's off the Top 50 list, or another highly-rated restaurant.  Our choice this time was TRB, which coincidentally was at the end of the alley of our hutong.  After a week camping in Mongolia, followed by a hot summer week in Beijing, hiking, walking, rain every day, and a 3-star hutong hotel, I was ready to spoil myself.  Tasting menu, wine pairings, linen napkins, Michelin-ranked restaurant. This was long overdue.  

There was something about China.  Two weeks isn't a long time to be away from home, but for some, it really is.  Near the end of the trip I started to feel comfortable being away.  I wasn't ready to go home.  Fortunately, the portion of the return trip I was looking forward to was in First Class.  I settled in to a spacious "cubby" with linens, pillows, and a duvet.  It was a bit odd being the first person to board the plane.  The flight attendant handed me pajamas (which are now my favorite set in which to bum around at home), and shortly after a lovely steak dinner, my bed was made up and I relaxed with some bubbly, Maleficent queued up on the video screen, and a comfortable bed.  The 14 hour flight seemed to only take a few hours.  Breakfast was served while I was in "bed", still cozy in my PJs, brought to me when I roused from sleep and freshened up.  I had every plan to visit Carrie and Danielle during the long flight, but the creature comforts at the front of the plane kept me in place.

I would return to China.  It was fascinating.  A culture so entirely opposite of my own, it was a feast on the eyes and mind.