Apps to make travel easier

Not so many years ago, travellers around the globe could be observed standing on busy street corners flicking their eyes from the map to the street with a constant look of confusion on their faces. Then they could be seen making their way to the nearest phone box, tourist office – or later an internet cafe – to contact accommodation, book a show, or find out the train timetable. Thankfully those days are behind us – well, except for those older tourists who still faithfully cling to the old ways.

Smart phones have a few (only a few, in my opinion) redeeming features in modern life, and one of them is the ability to travel with greater ease, not to mention security. For Cass and I this has been the major difference in travel logistics from when we were young, solo backpacking tourists in the early 2000s. Since taking to the road back in April we have experimented with a wide range of apps to assist in almost every aspect of the travel experience – buying tickets, weather forecasting, communicating with loved ones on the other side of the globe or finding a good place to eat. The following five apps are those that have made travelling easier and have allowed us to break out of that old paper-map-wielding-tourist mould.

Galileo

Maps are vital for travel, especially if you are like us and like to travel off the beaten path. Galileo is the perfect fit. While we sometimes use Google Maps for getting easy directions to follow en route, it’s not the best app when you have no service, or when you want to find a walking trail to an intriguing lighthouse you’ve spied atop a hidden headland. Galileo is our go-to map app.

fullsizeoutput_1f71

The purple line is the Camino de Santiago de Norte

The vector maps can be used offline (you can download entire countries as you need them) and the walking trails, bike paths and small roads are usually more accurate than Google Maps (especially in less populated areas). You can save your favourite places, make bookmarks and record where you are travelling in real-time.

For me, though, the most fun feature is that we can download files from websites, tracking devices and use them while travelling. Before walking the Camino de Santiago, we downloaded the Camino del Norte map onto Galileo. Whenever we couldn’t see an iconic yellow arrow or scollop shell, we could easily find the route even when we were out of service range.

WhatsApp

Not used as frequently in Australia, WhatsApp is a must-have for travelling in Europe. Everyone uses it, and everyone has it. For those that don’t know it, WhatsApp allows you to message, voice call, video call and send photos on a secure encrypted platform. It is a vital tool when contacting accommodation or people you meet. It’s also useful for contacting home, as the video call function works better than Skype. As it uses data instead of your mobile service, it saves money too.

Home Budget

I use this app for budgeting and keeping our spending in check. The best feature is that I can easily change between currencies. I can also track how much is in my bank account and it is useable offline. I’m sure there’s other great apps for this same purpose, but I have been using this one for years and it hasn’t disappointed yet, so I’m sticking with it.

There’s more about Home Budget in our article on travelling Europe for €25 per day.

Duolingo

Nothing irks me more than a tourist that doesn’t even bother learning how to say hello, goodbye or thank you in the local language. Over the years, I’ve encountered too many people shouting a slow, simplified English at locals in an attempt to communicate. In nearly all the countries I’ve been to (one major exception, but I’m not going to country-shame), if you try and speak a little of the local language, people instantly become more helpful and willing to converse with you in whatever way they can.

Cass likes to learn on the ground as he goes, (and that works for him) but I’m a planner, so I like to do it in advance. Usually a few weeks before we get to a country, I use Duolingo to learn some basics in that language. It’s been helpful in most places and I can now have a (very) basic conversation in a number of languages – a Jack of all trades, master of none.

Trip Advisor

I’m reluctantly including Trip Advisor, as it is not usually how I’d like to travel. I don’t like an algorithm or a guide book telling me the places to go or what to see and do. This is one area where I don’t like to plan. I like to arrive in a place and discover what there is to see and do by walking around and talking to people.

fullsizeoutput_1f74

But, there is a major advantage to Trip Advisor. For our first few months travelling, we found eating out very difficult. We love to cook at our accommodation, but it isn’t always practical. Our kids were fussy eaters (thankfully this is taking a turn for the better – after nine months on the road!) and to further complicate things, I don’t eat a lot of meat. Spain is a very omnivorous country, and most of the places we can afford to eat include meat in every dish.

After a few months, we started using Trip Advisor to find places with vegetarian options, as well as something that our kids would actually eat. The filters made it much easier to find nearby options and some of the best places we have eaten have come from Trip Advisor recommendations.


 

There’s a multitude of great travel-oriented apps out there, and we use a whole lot more than those listed here, but these are the core group that make our lives a little bit simpler every day so we can focus on enjoying the real adventures.

Eurail Passes; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Fifteen years ago I travelled Europe for two months on a Eurail Pass and it was one of the best ways to get around. I found it so easy to hop on and off, and didn’t need to book ahead. For this trip with the family, we were very unsure about whether it was going to be a good option for us. We wanted some flexibility, but also wanted to be able to get around as easily and as cheaply as possible. A quick Google search brought up a lot of articles bemoaning the cons of the Eurail pass, and TripAdvisor is brimming with reports of negative experiences. We read Nomadic Matt’s article, which weighed up the pros and cons, but mostly looked at it from a single person’s point of view. Given my previous experience with Eurail, I was pushing for it all the way. Cass was a little more wary.

We had promised La Chica that we would take her to Paris for her Birthday, so we knew we would have some expensive travel coming up – we had to explore all our options. The cost of train travel is not necessarily cheap, but it’s a fantastic way to travel. You get to see the countryside, there’s no pressure of negotiating traffic and you can get up and move about when it’s  a long journey.

The Good

fullsizeoutput_1cd0The best feature of a Eurail pass for family travel is that kids under 11 years of age travel free.  That makes family travel cheaper than all other transport options by far.

We also waited for a Eurail sale where they were offering 30% off the usual price. We ended up buying a Three Country Family Pass with 6 days of travel in 2 months. Here’s how the costs worked out (all prices in Australian Dollars):

Usual cost of pass for two adults & two children (under 11) $1182.00
Minus 15% discount for travelling together at all times -$177.30
Minus sale discount of 30% -$301.41
Total cost of Eurail Pass $703.29
Price per trip (6 trips) $117.22

Barcelona to Paris without pass for two adults & two children one way is $724.95 (as at 15 June 2017). So we knew the Eurail pass was going to pay for itself just on this one trip.

The Bad and the Ugly

Hurdle number 1

Our first experience trying to book a Eurail seat reservation (required in Spain) was a challenging one. We were in Guadix wanting to book a trip to Sevilla, and we were staying 4kms from the train station without a car. Cass and Los Chicos walked all the way there, only to be told that they couldn’t make Eurail reservations at that station as it was only a small one: we would need to call or go to a bigger station. We tried calling Renfe (the Spanish train network). We called 10 times. Each time, we were on hold for half an hour. When we finally got through and started asking in broken Spanish for our reservation, the operator would cut us short and put us through to an English-speaking operator. While being transferred, it would hang up. Every time.fullsizeoutput_1cd3

On the eleventh call, after the usual hold time, the first thing I said (in carefully rehearsed Spanish) was ‘Please don’t transfer me, I’ve called 10 times and it hangs up every time. Please help me in Spanish’. He tried to transfer me but I managed to convince him not to. We finally muddled our way through the Eurail reservation in my limited Spanish and his limited patience, and got to the point of payment. My travel debit card wouldn’t work. I tried my credit card. No luck. It turns out that foreign credit cards and debit cards don’t work with Renfe.

So. We ended up paying full fare for a ticket to Sevilla (where we were going anyway) and then booked our next trip at the station there.

Hurdle number 2

After our previous experience, we thought we would get more clever about booking our trip from Spain to France. We did some more research on reserving Eurail tickets on the Eurail website. We even downloaded the app.

It turns out that you have to book more than 7 days in advance if you want to book using the Eurail website or app, and then they will post it to you. Wait…what? We don’t have a fixed address, how will they post it to us? We’re travelling on our Eurail pass!

Ok, so then you can book an e-ticket up to 2 days before your departure. Good. But only for travel within Spain or Italy. France not included. That rules that out.

So. We ended up going back to Sevilla and booked our next two trips in person there. We waited in line for over half an hour but it all got sorted and the Renfe staff were very helpful. It did cost an extra €90 to book all our seats, but financially we were still coming out ahead by a long shot.

Hurdle number 3

So now we realised that the only way to book tickets was going to be to go in person to a big train station. In Paris we went to Montparnasse station to book our departure from Paris and the queue was ENORMOUS! It was a ticket system and they had 5 tables operating, but it took a long time. There were a few chairs but nowhere near enough for the number of people waiting. We waited for over an hour and a half with tired, hungry children. I think that our children have relatively long attention spans, and we entertained them as best we could, but it wasn’t easy as there wasn’t much room to move or muck around. When we finally got our turn, it was all very easy to book. But by then our patience had waned and we weren’t feeling very positive.

Hurdle number 4

We hired a car for a few days in the north of Spain and made a special stop in Burgos to book our next Eurail trip, as it was a big station. The Renfe staff told us that there were no seats left. I couldn’t believe it as we had allowed plenty of days before departure. It turns out our Eurail pass is a first class pass, so automatically pulls up only first class seats. This is the only type of Eurail pass available to people over 28 years. I asked if we could book second class seats with our first class pass? Turns out you can. Thankfully. And there were second class seats available. Good. This was an easy hurdle to jump. Good to remember to ask for second class seats (the difference between first and second is pretty much negligible on Spanish trains anyway).

The Finish Line

Eurail passes are definitely not easy to use. Fifteen years ago they were simple, but that was before online bookings were the easiest option. If you could book online with foreign credit cards, it would be the perfect pass.

We’ve only got 2 more travel days left on our passes now, and we feel like we’ve finally got the system sorted out. There’s been a lot of stress and annoyance at how difficult our Eurail passes have been to use, but they’ve already saved us somewhere around $1000, so ultimately it’s worth the hassle. Hopefully some of you can benefit from our mistakes.

We’d love to hear about other experiences with the Eurail pass. Leave us a comment below.

DISCLAIMER: We were not given this product nor were paid to review this product. We paid for it with our own money and these are our own opinions.


Let the journey begin with Rail Europe