This is the second post in a five-part series. Over the course of these posts, we will cover general travel tips & tricks, our favorite apps and companies, travel hacking strategies, packing lists, and our choices for travel items/gear.
No introduction necessary! Let's get right to the good stuff. The only thing I'll mention is this: On your next trip, strike up a conversation with the table next to you at lunch, ask if they live in the area, and what they would recommend to someone new to their city. These will likely be some of the best things you'll ever do that aren't in a guidebook.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Here are some of our current favorite travel apps, companies, and experts we utilize when planning a trip.
TripIt: I've been using this for over 10 years and couldn't live without it. You simply forward your confirmation emails from your flights, hotel, event tickets, etc. to firstname.lastname@example.org and it will populate everything into an itinerary for you! (You're welcome.) You can share & collaborate on itineraries with your friends too. The free version is wonderful. There is also a premium version with additional features.
(we had the free version until about a month ago, when I decided it was worth it to upgrade now that we're moving around every 3-5 weeks.)
Rome2rio: Ever wondered the cheapest way to get from London to Berlin or the most direct route from Oslo to Bergen? Rome2rio will tell you! It will give you all the available options via bus, train, plane, ferry & car. I use this as my research tool only. While you CAN purchase tickets thru their site, I'm always cautious about utilizing a 3rd party site for any travel bookings. In the event of a snafu, you will 100% get better customer service and support if you booked directly. As a research tool, this website & app are great!
Google Maps: We couldn't live without it. Did you know you can use Google Maps without cell service? You can also download a large section to utilize offline, so if you're traveling internationally and don't have data, download the map you need ahead of time and you can still utilize GPS! There are many other great features within Google Maps. We love the "pins" you can add to any map. We each use a "green arrow" for places we want to see, "yellow stars" for places we've been, and "pink hearts" for our accommodations. We also always mark our "home" on each visit -- whether that is your hotel, AirBnb, or other accommodation. This makes it easy to utilize a taxi, Uber, or other transportation option. Google Maps also has a "My Maps" feature that is totally customizable. Here is a great YouTube video explaining how you can plan your entire itinerary on Google My Maps.
City Mapper: This was recommended by a fellow traveler while we were living in England and we quickly saw its value. This gives you all transportation options within a city and is available worldwide. Super helpful if you're trying to utilize public transportation. It also gives you locations of e-scooters and ride-shares. We're still learning how to fully use it but love it so far.
Smart Traveler: The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service by the US Department of State. It allows (US Citizens) to log their international trips with the nearest Embassy/Consulate. Three reasons to utilize this service: 1. they keep you informed about safety conditions in your chosen country; 2. contact you in case of an emergency such as a natural disaster or civil unrest, and 3. will help family & friends contact you in case of an emergency. This is a no-brainer as far as we're concerned. Real-world examples: we received almost daily emails while living in Paris regarding the protests with helpful information on which areas of the city to avoid. Additionally, when we were in Belgium in March of 2020, they sent us information regarding borders closing during COVID-19 with instructions on what we should do and who we could contact for help.
US Department of State Website: While we're talking about STEP, I'll mention the US Dept of State website is also a great place to find information regarding international travel. Searching by country, you can find a wealth of general information as well as entry, exit & visa requirements. Additionally, you can find embassy & health information, travel advisories, and the most recent government messages pertaining to each country.
FlightAware: Track any flight around the world in real-time and check airport delays/cancellations. Their Misery Map feature is also pretty cool.
MyTSA: Real-time information regarding wait times at any US airport. They even have a message area for questions and can give you wait time estimates based on historical data.
Splitwise: Literally the life hack for group trips - it takes the hassle out of splitting expenses! Instead of asking for separate tickets at dinner every night on your girl's trip or figuring out who owes who for the Uber from the airport, put your expenses in here and the app figures out who owes who and how much at the end of the trip.
AllTrails: Our favorite app for finding hiking trails and guides all over the world.
Google Lens: We use this almost daily in foreign countries. Point your camera at a menu and it will auto-translate. Point it at a building or landmark and it will find its Wikipedia page. Point it at a plant or animal and it will bring up Google images of similar items to help identify it. So many valuable ways to use it!
Google Translate: Another we use almost daily in countries where we don't speak the language. Use the conversation button in the app to translate someone speaking in real-time, in addition to responding, for easy communication exchange. You can also translate whole documents from another language. SIDEBAR: We've found the translation isn't always spot on, in fact, it can give you quite a chuckle sometimes. (see photos below 🥸🤣) For the most part, you get what they're trying to say.
Oanda Currency Converter: They have an app and a website. It's really nice to understand what you're paying. Easy to use and convert from one currency to another.
TooGoodtoGo: Popular in Europe and now moving into North America. Restaurants, grocery stores, and bakeries list items that haven't sold for a fraction of the original cost (sometimes 75% off). Many times it's a "surprise bag" which could be filled with bread, pastries, fruits, and veggies or it could be an entire meal. You purchase through the app and they tell you a timeframe you can pick it up. Helping to reduce food waste globally!
We always like knowing some basic words and phrases in the language of the country we are visiting. It goes a long way in making connections with the local people, even if they do speak English. Here are some of the apps I use to help me learn. Each one I like for different reasons, so find which one works for you.
Reading and Books
I've always loved to read, but when my kids were small it was hard to find the time or energy to do so. As they grew, I picked up my habit a little more fervently every year. The last several years I've read 50+ books each year and loved every single second. It helps when you have idle time in airports, train stations, and long car rides while traveling. I have an entire folder of reading apps on my phone to give you an idea of how geeky I am! Only fitting that I should give you my picks for favorite apps in this category.
Audible: Listening to audiobooks has become one of my favorite ways to pass time while traveling. One of our credit cards gives us a free premium subscription as a perk and I absolutely love it! You can listen to books, podcasts, and original stories.
Libby: You need a library card from your local library to use this app. Once you get your card connected everything is FREE. You are basically checking out ebooks, audiobooks, and magazines for 14-21 days like you would at the library. You can place items on hold that are already checked out. MY ALL-TIME FAVORITE APP!
Kindle: While a Kindle is a physical device to read books on, it is also an app you can use on your phone, tablet, or computer. Books are purchased through Amazon or you subscribe to Kindle Unlimited for a monthly fee which gives you access to over 1 million books, and other items.
Hoopla: This is another app that my local library supports and allows me to check out a certain number of items for free each month. In addition to audiobooks, ebooks, and magazines, Hoopla also includes movies and music. If an audiobook or ebook isn't available on Libby without a wait, then I typically check on Hoopla. Another great free resource for reading.
Goodreads: Have you ever started reading a book and after a few chapters you remember you've already read it? Well, I have. More than once I'm afraid to admit. Goodreads keeps track of the books I've read, the books I want to read, and the ratings I've given them. You can also follow along with your friends who read to see what they're reading. I've challenged myself to read 60 books this year and am already half done! Send me a friend request through the app if you'd like to see what I'm reading.
Download the app specific to whatever transportation you're using. Examples: If you're flying Delta, utilize their app. If you're renting from Avis, download their app. Utilizing the app unlocks features that may not be available on the website, such as instant messaging.
Google search for the rideshare apps utilized in the country you're visiting. We've used Uber, Lyft, Bolt, FreeNow, and BlaBlaCar so far.
FlixBus: Bus service known for being clean, comfortable, and inexpensive.
Trainline: Used for booking rail tickets within Europe. We have heard from multiple residents this is what they use, even though it's a 3rd party app. As an alternative, you can download each train line's specific app.
Turo: Like the AirBnb for cars. You rent someone else's vehicle. Typically cheaper than a rental car company. Insurance options available.
Again, download the app specific to whatever accommodation you're utilizing. All major hotel brands have their own app. Other options we use include AirBnb, Hostelworld, Agoda, and VRBO. I know there are tons of other options, but this would be 30 minutes long if I listed them all.
Only need to stay one night? As an alternative, look at booking an overnight train with a sleeping compartment to your next destination. Might be cheaper plus a fun experience.
Luggage Storage Apps/Options
What happens when you land at 8 am but can't check into your hotel until 3 pm? Or, do you need to check out by noon but don't fly until 9 pm that evening? You want to sightsee without your luggage! Here are some options:
Check with your hotel. Most will allow you to store your bags for free both before check-in and after check-out.
Many airports, train, and bus stations have storage lockers you can rent. Check their website or ask an employee.
Favorite Bloggers, Instagram Feeds, Travel Content
Who's been to where we're going? This is my first question when I start my research. Here is my current list of favorite travel bloggers, content creators, writers, and websites:
Two Wandering Soles: Katie & Ben hail from Minnesota and have been writing about their travels since 2014.
Kara & Nate: This is the first YouTube channel we watched from the beginning. They have come a long way since they started traveling in 2016. I suggest watching it from oldest to newest!
Rick Steves (Europe): Rick is the King of Europe Travel. His guidebooks and tours are hot sellers and his website is a wealth of information on anything Europe related.
Anywhere We Roam: Paul & Rick have great practical advice and their website is simple and easy to navigate.
The Man in Seat 61: Anything you've ever wanted to know about train travel anywhere in the world. Amazing information! He also has recommendations for cities, hotels, and other things to do.
Our Escape Clause: Kate & Jeremy have been traveling full-time since 2016. I can always count on great suggestions from their archives.
The Blonde Abroad: Solo female travel blogger since 2011 with fantastic content. She recently had a baby and got married, but continues solo travel adventures as well.
Nomadic Matt: The original blog I stumbled upon in my early days of travel. Budget-savvy, backpacking-style travel with great destination content.
Help - I Hate Planning Travel!
Don't want to plan your next vacation yourself? We get that too. While I thrive on researching, planning, and booking our travel, not everyone feels the same. It can be overwhelming sifting through the mountains of info on the internet. Despite what many people think, Travel Agencies & Advisors are still flourishing! If you want personalized recommendations, knowledge, and expertise, then contact Katie Rahr Kappel, owner/founder of Mode Travel Agency, headquartered in West Fargo, ND. Katie and her team tailor trips based on your own needs and wants. To get started, you can email her at email@example.com. (this is not sponsored, I have used Katie and she is amazing to work with!)
What We're Up To and What's Next for Us?
After spending six weeks in Paris, we moved to the countryside of southwest France for a slower pace. We are staying in an adorable AirBnb (pictures below) that can only be summed up as French cottage charm. Our original plan was to be dog-sitting for the next 2 1/2 weeks near Angouleme, France, however, the 85-year-old owner fell ill and ended up in the hospital. He is doing ok, but unable to travel, so we snagged this farm-like cottage at the last minute.
I am loving the countryside and the break from city life. We have been spending our mornings driving the country roads, gaping at the rapeseed & grain fields, slowing down for the quaint, sleepy villages, stopping to take photos of the old churches along the way, and just savoring the slow pace. If you follow my Instagram you've been able to see the amazing trails right out our front doorstep. This place is going to be hard to beat!
We will be home in less than a week and will spend about 2 weeks in North Dakota & Minnesota catching up with friends & family, eating our favorite foods, attending our daughter's college graduation, and pet-sitting for a 2nd time for two of our favorite kitties, Abby and Ella. I am crossing my fingers and toes that the snow and ice will be gone in ND/MN before we get home. They have had a long, snowy winter and just last week got 6" of snow.
Mid-May, we head to NYC for a long weekend then fly to Ireland. We will spend almost a month exploring the island before heading to Germany for a few weeks. We have a dog sit in Edinburgh, Scotland in July and plans to vacation with friends in Croatia in September. Still deciding where to spend the 2nd half of July and all of August. We need to be outside the Schengen zone so that limits our choices.
I'll leave you with a quote I recently came across which speaks to my soul!
"Different places expose you to different versions of yourself; different aspects of your personality need the right conditions to come out. In this way, traveling is never about a place, really, but about the reflection you see when you’re there. And, sometimes you want to bottle that reflection. Sometimes, you want to be that person forever." - Ash Aimbirge (fellow nomad)
Cheers, Peace, Love, and Kindness,