4 Last Minute Christmas Gift Ideas for the Traveller

Biplane flight over Seattle

Biplane flight over Seattle

Christmas is upon us, you still have not finished the gift buying and the shopping malls are turning into a haven for psychopathic Christmas excess. If you are shopping for the traveller, avoid the shops and get them a gift that tells them you know what matters to them.

  1. Buy them a ticket to a favourite destination or check out the sales page of your local airlines or railways to find a new adventure for them. (Check JetStar for cheap flights in Australia.)
  2. Book a weekend adventure, and enjoy their excitement on Christmas Day and share the adrenalin rush of a new adventure. (Try Adrenalin for Australian adventure packages.)
  3. Buy a travel ebook or audio guide for their next vacation destination.
  4. Enrol them in a frequent flyer program or buy an executive lounge membership with their favourite airline.

Buying a SIM card in Italy

Our first full day in Rome, and after some great sightseeing, food and a quick siesta after lunch we headed off to take care of our domestics. First stop the Internet cafe, I checked my email then while Colleen attended to her blog I headed up the street to find the cell phone retailer.

‘Buon giorno, parli inglese?’

‘Si, a little.’

I thought, ‘Great, I do not have to do the phrase book shuffle.’

‘I need a SIM card for my phone.’

‘I can sell you one, I need your phone and passport please.’

This is just too easy, she examined my old T-Mobile GSM cell phone that I unlocked when we left America and satisfied herself that the local SIM card worked with my phone. The SIM card cost €8 with €5 credit to get us started but I added another €25 to last us the month, more than we needed as it turned out.

With a copy of my passport filed to fulfil the local security requirements, I signed the paperwork–all in Italian so I could have been signing over my first-born child–and the seller activated the SIM. Simple, a quick check to make certain it worked and I was out the door with my new Italian cell phone number. The whole operation took less than 20 minutes, and is certainly a lot simpler than getting a SIM in Australia where my Government issued passport is insufficient evidence that I am in fact me.

We mostly used the phone to SMS the kids each day and receive their messages of love, good wishes and frustration when we appeared to have too much fun without them. For the record we had great fun and highly recommend teenage-angst free travel for everyone. It also came in handy to arrange meetings with our guides, make reservations or contact the hotel if delayed.

After a month in Italy, I checked the credit balance and we still had €25 (we did not phone many people but SMS’d daily) so we called the kids from the airport to use the remaining minutes.The overseas phone calls drained the credit pretty quickly but SMS proved very inexpensive.

A local phone number makes life much easier when you spend an extended period in one country but be sure you understand the call charges and roaming costs if you head into a neighbouring country (they can be substantial). The process in most European countries and the USA is similar to my Italian experience, so I recommend getting a local number when possible always compare the costs against your usual plan.


How I Replaced my Laptop with an iPod to Travel Lighter

Are you lugging a laptop around the world to upload your digital photos and send email?


Even the lightest laptop is eating deeply into your carry-on baggage allowance and for us that means we may have to check a bag, a situation we prefer to avoid. But we kept on carrying our laptop because we needed it to save our photos, surf the Internet, send email, watch movies and–and do all the same things we do at home. Boring!

Our Data Requirements

Let’s analyse the requirements more closely, we need:

  1. a way store all our photographs;
  2. our itinerary and booking information;
  3. to be able to contact family and friends;
  4. access to self-guided walking tour information; and
  5. some entertainment for those rare dull moments on the road.

Travelling with an iPod

An iPod or similar device is the obvious solution for our walking tours unless you want an upper body workout by carrying the laptop. We can also access our itinerary on Tripit (See my review here.) using their iPod application, check email and entertain myself with an iPod but we cannot upload photos. This is the biggest weakness of Apple’s iPod, one I hope they resolve soon. The iPad has a camera connection kit that provides a USB port or SD card reader, if only it worked with the iPod Touch. How about it Apple?

Fortunately, memory card prices have reduced significantly and we managed to buy two 8Gb cards for less than $100. So, we decided to head off to Italy without the laptop.

The combination of an iPod and memory cards met most of our digital needs although the lack of free WiFi in Europe limited email access. However, easy access to Internet cafes, and text messaging from our Italian phone (more on phones next week), kept us in contact with loved ones.

On the up side, we carried our data with us everywhere and could easily check itinerary details on the move. We also had maps and directions to key locations saved as PDF files that helped us find our way quickly to scheduled events or our hotels. Best of all, it reduced my bag’s weight by over 1.5kg (3.3lbs) that would have forced us to check at least one bag.

Add an iGo folding keyboard to the mix and you can even easily write your blog entries or capture your travel journal without wearing out your thumbs. Rolf Potts demonstrated tested the iGo folding keyboard during his recent No Baggage Tour, and it is on my wish list for the next trip.

We did not miss the laptop in Italy, and I have used the iPod exclusively on business trips this year without ever wishing I had a laptop with me. So, goodbye to the laptop and another couple of pounds of weight to carry, I do love to travel light.


How I used Tripit during our Italian Vacation

According to their website, Tripit allows travellers to keep all their travel plans in one location to build an itinerary, get organised and stayed informed. Sounds great, I wanted to reduce the paperwork I needed to carry on our trip to Italy and Tripit offered an easy solution.

I signed up a free account with my Google account and and opened a new trip for our Italian vacation. Then I forwarded our flight details to Tripit, and they were automatically translated into our itinerary. Checking the translation revealed no errors, so I continued forwarding our confirmation emails for tours, accommodation and travel bookings to Tripit. Despite a growing list of supported sites, Tripit could not process every email but they quickly advised me when this occurred and I could enter the information manually. (See an example itinerary here.)

I downloaded the Tripit iPod/iPhone App to access my data on the road, and looked forward to not carrying a load of paper on this trip. I updated the application a few days before the trip without updating the itinerary, and put my iPod Touch into my bag.

Luckily I decided to check everything again before we left, and found I could not access our itinerary on the application. At first I thought the Tripit application needed to have an Internet connection for me to see the itinerary and this would have been a disaster for my plan. I established a wifi connection, retrieved the itinerary, and prepared to test the application.

When you open the Tripit application, it attempts to update your itinerary but if you do not have an Internet connection you can simply cancel the operation and your previously downloaded data is available. Confident I had the right tool we headed off to Italy.

Jet lagged but ecstatic to be back in Rome, we headed to our hotel. I used Tripit to show our taxi driver the correct address and he dropped us right outside the door 15 minutes latter. We headed up the stairs to reception and immediately we faced a problem, the owner to see our confirmation email but as I dragged out the iPod she waved me away saying that she needed to see a paper copy. Bugger!

I explained we did not have a paper copy, and after a little fussing she checked us in using our passports to check against her reservations. Was this a flaw in my plan?

We took a risk and moved to our next stop without a printed confirmation, and checked in without a problem. In fact, no other hotel asked for anything other than our credit card and passports, the latter required by law in Italy.

Tripit is a great tool and while it is usable without an Internet connection, you can only access all its potential when it can access the Web but for my money it is the best itinerary tool available.


Five Great Gifts for Travellers

What are you buying the travellers in your family this Holiday Season?

The choices can overwhelm the unwary shopper, so to help you I’ve created this short list of five great gift ideas to make any traveller happy this year.

  1. Rick Steves Travel BagRick Steves Convertible Carry-on Bag. A sturdy soft suitcase that converts into a great backpack to easily hump your bag from the train station to your hotel. It fits neatly into the overhead storage of most airliners, and its lightweight lets you cram in a few more luxury items for the trip. There are a number of compartments to separate your dainties, security pouch to store documents and with their holiday special you receive a set of packing cubes for free. There are back-to-basics and wheeled models to satisfy everyone’s one bag dreams.
  2. Archos WiFi 605 Portable Video. Pack light, it is my travel creed but I always needed a laptop to hold the hundreds of photos I take on a trip. It pulled double duty to check email or watch a video but mostly it is 4lbs extra to carry everywhere. The Archos 605WiFi handles all those tasks and light enough to fit in your day bag. (I reviewed the 604Wifi earlier this year.)
  3. Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM Zoom Lens. For Canon dSLR owners, there is probably no better travel lens than the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM Zoom. It meets all my criteria for a good travel lens but is at the high end of the price spectrum but well worth the expense if you can afford it.
  4. A Cook’s Tour, Anthony Bourdain. Anthony Bourdain’s first travel book (and Food Network TV series) ignited a strong desire in myself to go beyond the normal travel experience and try find the heart of each destination. Tony’s hyperbolic prose brings his experiences to life and he also provides some behind the scenes commentary on television work.
  5. Vacation Planning #9An Airline Ticket to Somewhere. What better gift for a traveller than travel, check out the current specials and pick a destination that they may not pick for themselves and buy a ticket (or two). Unexpected trips are often the best, so surprise someone this year.