Category Archives: Cool Tools

Essentially, cool travel planning tools.

Cool Tools: AirBNB

(example of a condo you can rent in Hawaii)

My friend Grace, who lives in a one-bedroom in NYC’s Chinatown, was suddenly deluged with family coming in to visit: her mother and father, her sister, her sister’s husband, her sister’s baby; her brother, his wife and toddler. There was no way they were all going to squash into her apartment, especially not with two kids.

She considered Craigslist, a venue she went by before; the problem with Craigslist is it can also result in scams: like the person who subletted someone’s apartment, then posed as a landlord and “rented” the apartment out to dozens of people and taking their deposits (which happened to my friend’s apartment she subletted for a month in Brooklyn). Hotels in Manhattan are pricy, especially by the week.

My super boss’s son, a clueless 18-year-old, and his 12 friends thought they were renting a house in Ocean City, Md. through a rental website and wired money to a man whose English was terrible, with whom they never spoke to, and who disappeared with the money and never turned over a house key.

Enter airbnb. I’m not sure what the Air part means, but it’s a great site that allows you to browse through people’s apartments, homes, cottages and rooms they are renting. Past visitors can post reviews on the site.

It’s a great alternative to a hotel, and it’s safer than relying on Craigslist or any other rental listing site online. I’m a big fan of staying in places with kitchens that cost under $100 a night.

You browse through the places based on location, price, number of people, private house or private room in a house, amenities and so forth. Once you’ve decided on a place, you are put in touch with the owner; the two of you arrange schedules and meeting points, and then you put down a deposit and final amount. Here’s the scam protectant: the owner doesn’t get the money until you’ve checked into the place.

So if some dumb person tries to list a fake place, he or she won’t get the money. Any of it.

Grace was even able to talk to someone about the fact that her apartment didn’t come with electricity and it was 105 degrees in New York City that week. They didn’t have to pay until the electricity was turned on.

Of course, having discovered this little web gem, I’ve already gone hunting for pads around the world. Paris! Berlin! Rio! But we’ll test out airbnb on our hopefully upcoming trip to Kauai over Thanksgiving, so we’ll let you know our experience!


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Cool Tools: FlightViewApp

I got an iPhone. Did I ever mention that? In October, we all caved. Me, Jon, my sister, her husband. We had been flip-phones, sans camera (well, Jon had a camera but no picture-sending ability in his phone plan), for the longest time, and poo-pooed the fashionable smartphones. What makes people so much smarter with it? They just become lazy.

Then we decided to stop sounding like old cranky folks who can’t operate a computer and get with the technological times. The flip-phones became toys for my niece and nephew, and we got the iPhone 4.

Of course, with the iPhone, you have to download lots of apps. So, my co-worker, who is one of these stereotypical slaves to Steve Jobs and Starbucks (the kind I saw at South by Southwest), made me download the FlightViewApp. It really should be called the Stalker App, because that’s what it does – stalks flights across the sky. My co-worker, who traveled with me to Austin but on a separate flight out of DCA, took my flight info and then continually texted me updates about my gate, my flight times, my estimated arrival time, and my connection Dallas.

That’s exactly what FlightView does. Enter a flight number and date, and it will tell you when it lands and where. I admit it was handy when I was still on the plane and wondering where my connection in Dallas was, although part of me still resists being that dependent on my IPhone – and checked the monitors in the airport instead. There is also an “airport delay map” but only of the United States (and Canada) showing weather and delays, which is kind of cool, but not terribly useful to me.

What is cool, however, is the ability to keep track of upcoming flights for yourself and others. Picking up someone at the airport? You can keep that person’s info right on hand, and then check if they’re coming in on time before heading to the airport. It saves from having to dig through e-mails and airline websites to find out whether you’re delayed or not, especially if you’re like me and cut it close – sheerly out of principle because it shouldn’t take an hour to go through security.

(By the way, did I mention that in other countries like Japan and China, they actually HELPED you load your items into the x-ray? A nice individual helps put your coat and smaller items into a bin, asks you kindly to remove your belt and wallet, asks if you have liquids or a laptop, places it in a bin FOR YOU, and helps you put your other luggage on the belt as well? And there was hardly a line for security. When I flew out of Chicago, the TSA people just barked at me – remove your coat! Take off your shoes! Hurry up! Nobody to help me load it – and the line was significantly long. But this has nothing to do with FlightView)

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In the Suitcase: travel vouchers

So I headed to Austin this weekend for the notorious South by Southwest film/ music/ interactive conference, where the world’s hippest and geekiest self-proclaimed techie heads in their skinny jeans, derby hats and Ipads all jetted in. It is such a huge event that every flight to Austin was oversold and every hotel was booked.

I became one of those oversold people, whose ticket type on American Airlines didn’t deserve a seat nor was I allowed to standby on an earlier flight unless I shelled out $50 – which my company would have paid, but out of principle I refused. My favorite is when the gate agent tells you your ticket type is the wrong kind, as if it was something personal and that I had purposely chosen this particular ticket type (W instead of Q, none of which mean anything to me). In any case, my ticket type was so low on the alphabet and therefore my status as a human being diminshed greatly that I didn’t get my seat until I arrived in Austin.

Meanwhile, the gate was giving away travel vouchers worth $300 if you volunteered to give up your seat for a later time. I was really in no rush to get to this conference and I would have welcomed the free ticket, which I would get to keep, not my office.

I’ve heard and read how easy it is for airlines to hand out free vouchers, and how difficult it is for passengers to redeem these vouchers for an actual flight. Just recently, American was slapped with a penalty for charging its passengers a $30 fee to use a voucher. a $30 fee!! The audacity some airlines have! They oversell their own flights and then charge people whse original flight they couldn’t even honor. Blech.

However, ‘ve used one voucher ever, and that was with United Airlines. They were kind after a delay from mechanical difficulty to hand them out to frustrated passengers. I used ours promptly to book a flight to a wedding in LA.

Vouchers are usually handed out on oversold flights, so if you’re really looking to score them and you have lots of free time on your hands, travel on the really busy times of the day – Friday afternoons, Sunday evenings, during conferences and popular events, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Easter weekend – those will usually do the trick.

You will always be placed first on the next available flight with open seats. If you’re really good, you can volunteer to get off the next flight and earn yourself another free seat somewhere.

Make sure you use your ticket within a year. Most expire after a year is up.

If you get bumped from a late flight and have to stay in a hotel or over a meal, ask for a voucher or how to get your meal and/ or hotel covered by the airline.

Now I arrived in Austin and the meeting I needed to go to doesn’t even start until 3:30, so I technically could have taken the voucher and hopped on a 2:00 flight from Dallas. Next time…

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Cool Tools: Registering with the State Department

My travel health advisor (the one who injected me with yellow fever so I won’t get it abroad) mentioned a Cool Tool: the State Department registry. You register yourself and any upcoming trips with as much information as you’d like to give. In return, you can sign up for email alerts about travel warnings, and they’ll have your information on record if you need to be evacuated, notified, reached, or whatnot.

You list your travel dates, where you’ll be going, with whom you’re traveling, your passport information, and any addresses of hotels or places you’re staying. It makes it easier if an emergency comes up, or if you need to leave the country immediately and the embassy is booking you a ticket. They just pull up your information and get you started. It’s also helpful if you have particularly panicking parents who hear about an incident in, say, Mozambique, and freak out wondering if you’re affected in, say, Tanzania.

I signed us up and opted to let them notify my family of anything necessary. You can also opt in your friends, the US Congress, and the media. I chose not to make it so complicated. I figured my family can always decide who they would like to notify on their own.

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Cool Tools: Mom’s Minivan!

Oh no! It’s summertime and you have to pile the kids into the car for a roadtrip to Grandma’s. And your car doesn’t have a newfangled DVD player anchored to the ceiling! What are you going to do!

Or perhaps, you’ve decided your kids have had enough watching of the boob-tube (picture the fat people in Wall-E with screens permanently attached to their heads) and maybe it’s time to re-visit some fun car games that reigned your road trips as a child. After all, it’s creativity that shapes young minds, not passive TV watching. Plus, part of traveling together is the idea of being together as a family. Enter

Here’s an extremely creative alternative to the DVD player. Hours of fun with pen, paper, aluminum foil and string! Play car bingo! Help your kids create a travel journal! Sing songs! Yes, you’ll have “99 bottles of beer on the wall” stuck in your head forever (my dad still does) but it will be that much more of a memory for your family than that time they watched “Finding Nemo” in the backseat.

The activities are divided up by age and also include tips on plane travel and car sickness.

Also note that these activities don’t require just a car, except maybe the License Plate Game and Car Bingo. But involving your kids in observing the world outside their window and encouraging them to learn from what they see is a far more valuable experience than watching the same movie again and again. I particularly like the Counting Cows game. After a while, maybe they’ll fall asleep, too.

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Cool Tools:

So you’re a “budget” traveler like me, which is a euphemistic way of saying we’re cheap. Rather, I’d like to think of it as being “practical” or “reasonable” or, mostly, “not being ripped off”. “Cheap” implies that I would put others in a poor position to save myself a few $ but really, I end up putting myself in the poor positions instead, with frogs in my room (India) or boiler-room temperatures (Costa Rica).

In any case, us “budget” travelers every once in a while could use a splurge, and with some careful planning, you, too, can enjoy five-star luxury for two-star prices.

Enter, a luxury travel site that is members-only and posts 18 listings. These can be currently available, or available at a future date. If you’re flexible with your travel dates, or with your location, which can be difficult unless your only desire is to get away and you don’t care where as long as it’s away, there’s significant discounts to be found here.

For example (and I thank the Chicago Tribune for its legwork): The Palomar Hotel in San Francisco has a deluxe room at $260/ night in mid-June, but Jetsetter offered it at $165. $165! I’m about to pay about that much for a Holiday Inn off the Garden State Parkway sort of near the Jersey Shore. Another find: The Standard Hotel in Miami priced at $206 for June (off-season, not bad) and Jetsetter delivered it at $135. Hotels aren’t limited to just the United States, though it seems a large percentage are within the country.

When I went on to test out the site, I gave it my e-mail address and then was stuck on a “waiting list”. According to the Trib, there’s already more than 200,000 members but I am just not special enough to earn my way there, yet. Apparently if you’re already a member, you can send an invite to your friends to join like a country club. Jetsetter is affiliated with the Gilt Groupe, an exclusive member-only site that offers luxury brands at a discount (can’t you tell by the addition of the letter “e” at the end of “group”?) Like anything, be patient when it comes to travel, except when a fantastic deal shows up.

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Cool Tools: The portable safe!

Guidebooks and people are always warning about valuables on trips. “Make sure you lock them in the hotel safe!” is a popular piece of advice. Well, if you’re a budgety traveler like I am and sometimes stay in places that don’t come with fancy-schmancy safes, then you’re in a bit of a pickle.

Fear not, I came across this great product that’s actually been out for a few years now: the portable safe.

Pacsafe makes all sorts of anti-theft travel gear, from bags and money belts to locks and cables and even this handy portable safe. You fold it up like a handkerchief and put it in your bag until you reach your destination, then you can stow away all your valuables into it, lock it up and lock it to something heavy (like a bed or bathroom sink leg).

Sure, you’re skeptical like me: “why don’t they just cut through the bag and take it?” Well, because Pacsafe uses these super-strong steel cables to make a net that is supposed to be slash-proof and secures your belongings inside it.

Need something bigger? There are two versions for laptops and other electronics that can also fit into any carry-on you might have with you. You can lock it to something inside your bag to prevent people from stealing out of your bag, which has happened to me, except they took an empty wallet (I carried all my cash and credit cards in my money belt for fear of being robbed out of my backpack – and it paid off).  But the best place is somewhere hidden in your room, locked and secured to something immovable, and then lock your room.

The small version retails at $45 and the large one at $90, which are not cheap. However, it’s like buying insurance – saving yourself the headache of replacing your passport and spending more money just to replace the missing items. I’m fairly excited to test one out this summer when we head out to Tanzania and Kenya!

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