Penman No. 100: The Digital Tourist (1)

L1090980Penman for Monday, June 9, 2014


SOME FRIENDS who perhaps still miss the days when you dressed up for plane flights (even if it was only to Hong Kong) and carried your paper ticket in a cardboard sleeve asked me upon our recent return from Europe to draw up a digital roadmap for tourists. In other words, what kind of digital resources can tourists and travelers avail themselves of to ensure better, cheaper, and safer travel? By “digital resources,” we mean things that you can find online on the Internet, like hotels and their rates, or carry around with you on your mobile phone or laptop, like travel apps that can record and remind you of your bookings.

It used to be that all you needed in your carry-on was an alarm clock, the kind with two brass bells that roused you like your mother from your jetlagged slumber (if you remembered to set the alarm the night before). But now we travel with smartphones, laptops, tablets, and a raft of batteries, chargers, and adapters, the better to maintain that indispensable virtue, connectivity, also known as your digital tether to home, office, and social network. (All this should make us want to ask why we even left home and what a vacation is supposed to mean, but as everyone knows all too well these days, leaving home means bringing as much of it with you.)

So herewith, some of my favorite digital-travel tips and tricks:

Where to go. While our destinations are often chosen for us (a conference here, a wedding there), sometimes we actually have that rare and precious option of deciding where to go, budgets and schedules permitting. Everyone will have his or her own bucket list—I’d still like to visit South America, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe someday—but Beng and I prefer to go around Asia for quick, cheap holidays, and are always on the lookout for special deals from regional airlines. Sign up with Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines, among others, for regular advisories on their packages. This way, we’ve visited Beijing, Kota Kinabalu, Hanoi, Shanghai and many other places nearby at giveaway fares (about P5,000 round-trip, all-in, for two of us to Beijing). Be open and adventurous, and be ready to book a trip months in advance to get the lowest fares. That also allows you to reconfigure your calendar around those trips.

How to get there. Again, check out airline offers, as well as travel agency packages. Make sure to factor in taxes and surcharges, which can bloat the final bill. What you want to get is the “all-in” price. Factor in baggage allowance; some airlines will charge you even for your first checked bag, especially on local flights. Budget airlines can offer aggressively low fares, especially off-season (that’s why we went to Beijing in December—freezing, but fewer fellow tourists to nudge you around), but it won’t hurt to check as many rates as you can. There are many online guides where you can check prices and book flights—Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, etc.—but I use SkyScanner ( a lot; it gives you the price in pesos, and immediately identifies the lowest price, with many other options. Sometimes it’s also good to check directly with the airline; recently, I found that Air France, on its own website, was offering a flight from Paris to Madrid that was lower than anyone else’s. Also, sometimes, cheapest may not always be the best for you. Cebu Pacific has great regional fares, but they often mean arriving in your destination around midnight, costing you a day and some anxiety in a strange airport. Adding a little more could also mean extras like a better plane and a better layover (we chose to fly BA to Madrid and back via Heathrow, to try out the new A380 and even marginally revisit London, one of our favorite cities). For local travel, don’t forget to explore your train and bus options—ground travel may be slower and not always cheaper, but you’ll see a lot more of the country.

Where to stay. Beng and I are lucky to get special rates from the Starwood chain (Westin, Sheraton, Le Meridien, etc.) because our daughter works there, but when we have to find other hotels, then TripAdvisor and are our best friends. As a rule, I never book a hotel (even a Starwood one) without checking the TripAdvisor reviews, which can reveal problems like “great hotel, but terrible location” or uncover pluses like “free, strong wi-fi, two minutes’ walk from the Metro.” TripAdvisor can rank hotels according to your budget and other preferences, assigning one to five stars. Once, on a lark, Beng and I decided to go slumming in Hong Kong and stay in the cheapest dive we could find, so I reversed TripAdvisor’s rankings and found a one-star place on Nathan Road. It was cheap—and fun; we survived! is another great guide to hotels and bed-and-breakfast places; they allow you to book often without any downpayment, cancellable without penalty within 24 hours of your stay. I booked our Venice hotel in Mestre and our Madrid airport hotel on this site. (A tip about Venice and Mestre—hotels in prime tourist spots like Venice can cost a fortune, but staying in places like Mestre, a very short train ride from Venice, can save you precious euros better spent on food and sightseeing.)

What to do. Every destination will have scores of travel guides online, but again, TripAdvisor’s thousands of reviews will give you a good sense of what’s worth visiting and what you can forego, especially on a tight budget and schedule (we passed up going to Halong Bay in Vietnam—pretty pictures, but a very pricey day trip). Like I wrote in a recent column, this is where we often let Serendipity take us by the hand and just let one streetcorner lead to another. Unlike many others, travel for us isn’t racking up a series of posed shots before famous landmarks; it’s about seeing what most other people will miss, or doing what most other tourists won’t. I don’t necessarily mean “going native,” which no one can honestly do on a three-day parachute tour, but finding or straying into unusual places, like that dusty, forgotten museum in Shanghai filled with dinosaurs and ancient, mummified Aryans, or that bookshop in Hanoi selling bright purple ink for 20 pesos a bottle.

Before I forget, and even before you begin your digital tour, scan, save, and upload (to one of your own email accounts) copies of your passport, visas, and travel insurance. (Yes, you can and should book travel insurance online—it’s one of those things you’ll be happy to never need.)

Next time, I’ll list and discuss specific apps—WorldMate, Metro, and FlightBoard, among others—and other tools (maps, photos, currency exchange) to help make that next trip of yours a more pleasant and fulfilling experience—as long as you don’t lose your tablet or smartphone.

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