Water lilies and Lake Bled.

Simple Travel Tips: 7 Ways to Prep Your Smart Phone for Travel

Why does summer always evaporate? Right now, I’m reflecting on a full month of travel to Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herszignovia, Italy and Slovenia. I’ve been incredibly lucky to take the time to travel, and I will write about it all soon enough here, and the lessons in simplicity I’ve taken from these beautiful, fascinating and delicious places.

An obnoxiously beautiful beach on the Sorrentine Penninsula, with a view of Capri.

Through these trips, I’ve been refining my pre-travel preparation. In particular, I’ve been finding the most efficient uses of the greatest travel tool available: the smart phone. I am still amazed at the vast resources that my phone provides to me at my convenience.

I’m old enough to remember traveling before smart phones. In fact, I owned my first cell phone after I moved to France in 2009. It was smaller than a credit card and allowed me to master T-9 dialing (a lost skill?). Besides being able to text a friend for an address, the phone was useless as a travel resource.

Instead, I relied heavily on the paper map I picked up from the new city’s tourist information center. (This is a habit I still follow today, though I suppose it’s mostly sentimental.) On the map, I would carefully circle key landmarks, my hostel, and memorize intersection street names to be able to recognize them while walking the town.

It’s hard to imagine that just a few years ago, the little red book of Paris’ streets was the essential and the only tool for guidance. I remember standing on a tiny 5-way intersection as we oriented and reoriented the small pages of the Plan de Paris to find the correct street and direction to our night’s adventure.

The grey but beautiful meandering streets of Paris are far easier to navigate with a smart phone than a book.

While some people reading this might find it hard to imagine traveling by paper map, I’m grateful for the perspective it gives me. Every time I can easily follow the blue dot towards my starred accommodation on my phone’s map, I am thankful for the convenience. Every time I bring up a metro map to catch the right train, I appreciate how much time and brow-furrowing it saves me.

While paper maps harken of a simpler time, smart phone travel offers smoother travel with less waste. Catching the right airport bus can mean a last-minute taxi ride averted. Having good, reasonable priced restaurants (or grocers) marked on a map may mean a plastic-packed street food meal can be avoided. Used wisely, a smart phone can be a simple traveler’s best friend.

In appreciation of this handy travel tool, I want how I’ve made it useful for my travels. I’ve been repeating this process for each trip this summer, and I’ve compiled my list of the more valuable smart phone travel preparations. This combination of apps, notes and downloads has saved time and money, and allowed me to better experience the little things.

Disclaimer: I’ve linked to the apps I use on my iPhone SE, but you may find others equal or better (if so, please comment as I’ve love to hear them!).

Seven Ways to Prepare Your Smart Phone for Travel:

1. Download the Lonely Planet City Guide App

Lonely Planet Guide App screenshotWhen I first explored this app, I couldn’t believe it was free. The Lonely Planet Guides app has dozens of major travel cities available as an offline city map. It includes a brief city description, and long searchable, navigable, savable lists of where to see, eat, sleep, shop, drink and play. It’s been handy to find a nice glass of wine in a quiet Barcelona neighbourhood and to learn more about an intriguing statue inside Dubrovnik’s city walls. Most of the information can be found on their website, but it’s packaged into this wonderful little package. Before traveling, be sure to click on the ‘download the offline map’ option to ensure you have all the interesting facts without data. If your destination isn’t listed, you can also vote to have it be the next one added to the app.

2. Download a Currency App

While mental math is a key skill, there’s nothing more frustrating that miscalculating a currency by a factor of ten. When traveling, I check my math within just a couple clicks to make sure I know what I’m really paying. My go-to is XE Currency Exchange. Before traveling, I add the new currencies I may need, so when I arrive without data, the most recent exchange rate is already loaded.

3. Download the language pack on Google Translate

Google Translate still boggles my mind. When I first used the photo function to automatically translate text in place, I felt the future had truly arrived. (Was anyone else this impressed, or am I a bumpkin?)

This app has been useful for me to ask for directions to a monument or to offer a poorly pronounced but happy ‘Delicious!’ in tasty foreign restaurants. Yes, English is global. However, using the local language allows you to communicate with people outside the tourism industry and to communicate respect for their place and culture. It works offline with a basic vocabulary in many languages. Before traveling, search for the language(s) on the app and click the download arrow. When you arrive, you’ll

It works offline with a basic vocabulary in many languages. Before traveling, search for the language(s) on the app and click the download arrow. When you arrive, you’ll have a better voice.

4. Starting Language Learning with Duolingo

If you don’t have Duolingo on your phone, stop reading and download it right now. It’s the most useful (and cutest!) way to pass the time. Learning a new language is always a good idea, for the world and for your brain.

Plus, it’s a great, free way to learn the basics of a new language before arriving at your destination. The languages offered are limited, compared to Google Translate, especially depending on your native tongue. For English speakers, there are 29 options to choose from. You can learn Spanish, Turkish, Hungarian, German, Vietnamese, Ukranian, Swahili and more. (While preparing this post, I discovered you can learn Esperanto and Klingon on the app!)

5. Download Relevant Podcasts

Whether before your trip or on the train, listening to a travel podcast or a local podcast on the destination city or country fuels the excitement. A good podcast can offer essential background and thoughtful insight through storytelling.

I also am a huge fan of Rick Steve’s Travel Podcasts. I once thought he was a travel guide for my parent’s generation. However, his travel advice is valuable for all ages and budgets. His interviews pull interesting stories and tips from local guides. And as a lover of a walking tour, his audio tours are fantastic. I recently followed his tour and map through Pompeii. Not only did I save 8 Euro on the (admittedly more extensive) official audio-guide, it provided a curated tour that I could feel satisfied with or supplement as desired.

Google Maps screenshot
Each star is actually a group of useful locations I’ve previously marked in Maps before leaving.

6. Make Your Mark on Google Maps

Although I’m wary of Google’s all-encompassing and all-knowing abilities, I can’t help but acknowledge how darn useful it is. Without data, the little blue dot on Google Maps can still guide you to your destination.

Before departing, I save all key locations under the ‘Favourites’ or ‘Starred Places’ function either on my laptop or on my phone, ensuring they have all loaded on my phone. The locations include accommodation, museums, well-reviewed restaurants and bakeries, bus and train stops, and anywhere else that would be useful to have on a map.

7. Create a Local Note

Some information isn’t captured in emails or in apps. Each trip, I compile museum opening hours, screenshots of bus schedules, interesting local website links, a metro map, directions to (free walking) tour meeting spots, and other information that might be useful. It’s nothing fancy, it’s just a quick cut and paste of information to the basic notepad program that is both on my computer browser and phone (for me, Notes). A draft email can also serve this purpose. The idea is to simply save you from having to re-research the local information you found before leaving home.

Bonus: Password App

In the age of digital privacy, good and changing passwords are crucial. Most people set strong passwords, but don’t need to remember them as their personal devices have them saved. Then, there’s that moment when you need to print a ticket from your email from a hostel computer. Which brilliant combination did I use last time…? Then, to reset your password from an international, unrecognized computer can start a rabbit-hole of email access issues. It’s far better to avoid these scenarios by either properly memorizing those key passwords, or using a password app. I quite like LastPass as it has a great auto-add/update on browsers and its mobile app is very searchable and easy to use. This is a bonus one as I’m wary of advising on online security. But, no matter the solution, passwords are an important thing to remember while traveling.

Water lilies and Lake Bled, captured on a smart phone.
Water lilies and Lake Bled. For all its benefits, not to mention that most of my photos are captured on my smart phone.

I hope you find this list useful when you’re preparing for your next trip. Is there anything I missed? I’d love to hear your favourite travel apps and tips in the comments below.

Croatian Road Trip Tip: Follow the Sunshine

Croatian Road Trip Tip: Follow the Sunshine

Last month, I was lucky enough to have my parents and my younger sister visit me in Budapest. It was a busy trip, as I would say they wanted to fit an entire European summer vacation into two and a half weeks. As part of this vacation, we enjoyed a Croatian road trip.

Not a bad view from the passenger seat.

In North America, the road trip has a certain romantic appeal. It combines adventure, independence, landscape and opportunity. There’s the ability to add to and deviate from plans, to set your own pace, and the best ones have a great soundtrack. It’s been romanticized by writers, by musicians and now by Instagrammers. I’ve done road trips across Canada and France and can confirm it’s a fantastic way to explore. In fact, the road trip may be the one good thing our North American car culture has to offer.


Mom: I’m so happy to be on this road trip! Dad: How many Split decision puns can I make before the border?

In April in Croatia, our little rental car allowed us the flexibility to travel with one guiding principle: follow the sunshine. We had a rough schedule, some accommodation booked, and Dubrovnik as only must-do. Otherwise, our days were flexible. With the forecast for rain looming, we wanted to take advantage of the warm Adriatic weather as best we could.

By following the sunshine, it led us to a lunch and long walk through the capital, Zagreb. The forecast called for rain and 8°C in our planned destination of Plitvice National Park, so we skipped it and headed for the coast.

Zagrab Croatia

Waking up on the Adriatic, we enjoyed a leisurely morning walk by Zadar’s sea organ (perhaps one of the most clever urban designs) and Roman ruins. When the weather started to go south, so did we.

Children for scale.

An impromptu visit to the Krka National Park (pronounced Kirka, if you were wondering as we did) by boat then by foot to explore its seven cascading waterfalls.

Krka National Park, Croatia
A moment of calm before running to catch the last boat back to Skradin town.

An exciting rainstorm with thunder echoing against the Dubrovnik Old Town walls.

Dubrovnik Croatia
Well, it did look ominous on our walk down to the Old Town.

Followed by a quiet yet stunning golden hour as the Old Town.

Dubrovnik, Croatia
But after the storm, that light…. Also, that shrapnel!

A pit-stop in Makarska for snacks and coffee on the water.

Makarska Croatia
Mountains, coastline and palm trees in Makarska

And finally, a late-night but rain-free exploration of the Split Diocletian Palace after a delicious meal of pizza, pasta and Rakija.

The Iron Gate entering the Roman Diocletian Palace.

Our Croatian adventure was jam-packed but still flexible enough to make Split decisions. (You’re welcome.) We were able to do this by focusing on research rather than planning. We knew the options, and Croatia as many great ones, and were able to chose. Most importantly, we had a car-wide understanding that no route would be a bad one. With this agreement and a weather forecast, we finalized our plans on the highway.

Croatian Road Trip
On the road to through Bosnia onto Dubrovnik


The Day 50,000+ People Reminded Me: Democracy is Fragile

The Day 50,000+ People Reminded Me: Democracy is Fragile

On Sunday afternoon, I attended the impressive rally calling for the Hungarian President to veto the legislation that would rule Central European University’s current operations illegal. It’s a political play by the Hungarian government to assert power and limit academic freedom. Wiser people with better context can explain the political context herehere and here. For me, it’s a short-sighted step that prioritizes politics and control over transparency and academia. Last night, the president signed it into law (which spurred on spontaneous protests at the official residence).

At Sunday’s protest, it was beautiful to see tens of thousands of people united for freedom. The crowd was the full range of Hungarian demographics, with a smaller mix of global geographies, which CEU is often responsible for inviting to the city. Here, you could feel the energy of the crowd and the real desire for openness and change. It’s not about which party’s struggle for power is less corrupt, but about corruption itself. About representation itself. CEU, though important, is now but one of the issues to protest.

Photo taken by (the much taller) Mr. Stahl.

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What I learned from 29 countries when turning 30

What I learned from 29 countries when turning 30

As I struggled with the idea of leaving my twenties behind, I scrambled to put together a list of accomplishments that allowed me to feel this youthful decade was valuable, fun, engaging, impactful, and overall worth it. I think it’s a common process that many 29 turning 30 year olds go through. And it’s disastrous.

There’s no grading scheme for a life well lived. There’s no meter to say “yep, you did alright, kiddo”, which I wish would be whispered in my ear by a wise old man with a southern drawl. It’s just life. Your decision, your stories, your relationships and that glimmering hope that you’re not screwing it all up.

In 29 years on the planet, one thing I have prioritized is travel. I was lucky enough to travel for work and for pleasure and for volunteering, and one of the reasons D and I decided to move to Budapest for his studies as it is a central point from which to explore. I believe travel is important to broaden your perspective, to understand the world and to try all the delicious things.

Barbeque lunch in the Wadi Rum desert, Jordan
Barbecue lunch in the Wadi Rum desert, Jordan
In my scramble to pull together what I’ve done in my twenties, I haphazardly had put together my list of countries I visited in my 30 years. Some I’ve explored thoroughly, and some I’ve visited only a city. It wasn’t planned, though that would have been clever (and I would have made 30!), but by adding in Canada (which I allow as I’ve traveled to every province and two of three territories) and remembering that afternoon in Monaco, my list totaled 29.

Midnight walk in Doha, Qatar
Midnight walk in Doha, Qatar
Here, I offer the distilled wisdom I’ve collected is from the from these twenty-nine countries, to be taken with many grains of salt.

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Hungarian lesson at the Christmas Market

“Puszi! Puszi!” And Other Lessons in Hungarian

I finished my second Hungarian class just before the holidays. The finale was fun with a trip to Vörösmarty tér to put my fledgling magyar mumblings to use in the midst of the bustling Christmas market. Stumbling over double-letter letters (gy and ny ain’t easy) and creatively applying my limited vocabulary, my classmate and I successfully ordered a lángos and forralt bor, asked for prices and made small talk with patient, pleasant Hungarian vendors. With my head brimming with newly found knowledge and Hungarian wine, I wanted to share some of my favourite Hungarian language phrases.

This language is notoriously difficult to learn. Many people use this as an excuse not to, and in Budapest, you can generally get along fine without it. I can’t say I’ve reached the level of learning where I see this tremendous complication, though I can see it in the distance. For anyone considering learning it, go for it! For a beginner, don’t get scared off – basic Hungarian it’s no more complicated than any other language, and its full of verbal delights.

Heros Square
Heros Square: a monument to Hungarian history

The language has an interesting history, and the Magyars are fiercely proud of their difficult nyelv. This video provides the best summary of Hungarian I’ve heard yet, as well as a handy dose of Magyar history:

Yet, they are among the most generous, patient and encouraging people to language learners. Nearly every Hungarian has met my bumbling efforts with a kind smile, surprised eyes and a reply.  A friend recently told me that when foreigners learn Hungarian, it’s as though we’re stroking the soul of the country. If that’s not encouragement to learn, I don’t know what is.

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Serenissima in Venice: Six Tips for Traveling Simply

Serenissima in Venice: Six Tips for Traveling Simply

Venice is a marvel. It holds the heavy weight of an empire, full of marble and fine art, on pillars imposed on a lagoon long ago in the time of Barbarians. The whole city seems to be floating, and in many ways, it is.

Water is essential and yet a dilemma for the city. Water allowed a faux-city of fishermen to evolve into an empire that connected East and West. Yet, the city floods annually, creating an on-going challenge to protect the impressive infrastructure from damage and decay. It is difficult to imagine how marble was shifted into place from neighbouring islands, piles and boats to act as waterproofing of palaces. It’s a wonder to see and even more fun to navigate. No cars or even bicycles can cross the city, so you have to enjoy on foot, which allows you to take in impressive architecture, explore quiet canals and bump into locals in tiny passageways.

 View from the Rialto Bridge, Venice
View from the Rialto Bridge

After four beautiful days in the Most Serene Republic, I came away with a feeling of awe. I encourage you to visit as it’s a top destination for good reason. As climate change causes sea level rise, Venice’s floating illusion may not last. Get there soon, and try a few tips and lessons from my trip.

Traveling Simply: For the Budget

Venice is known to be an expensive city. At first, I thought it was tourist-trap inflation, but after arriving, I realized the challenges and costs of living in a place that floods nearly a third of the year and where everything has to be carried by hand or trolley. With this in mind, the prices are fairer, but they are still high. I discovered that, with a little planning, you can still enjoy the city on a budget.

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Bridge in Theth

News of A Coup in Theth

I recently returned from a delightful week along the Adriatic. Over nine days, Derek and I explored coastal Montenegro and the Albanian Alps. It was beautiful, welcoming and we left every stop with a desire to stay longer. The trip was full of learnings, but there was one that was very particularly striking, and though personally embarrassing, worth sharing.

We hiked the stunning pass from Valbonë to Theth, and begrudgingly, we left the awe-inspiring Shala Valley. As we were bumping along the winding mountain road leading from Theth back to the lakeside city of Shkodër en route to Montenegro when the Australian, Amanda, asked what I thought about the coup in Turkey. Feeling both shocked and sheepish, I admitted I had no idea what she was talking about.

The Road Into Theth
Our drive looked like this one, but up the side of a mountain.

As we jostled around gravel corners, I gathered the news about the attempted coup and the growing fall-out and consequences from the better-informed Canadian, Finn, and Australian company in the 4×4 taxi. I was grateful to hear more about such a significant event, and was itching to get to an internet connection to read more. It’s not every day you hear the word ‘coup’ in the (second-hand) news.

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Castle and Chain Bridge

Five Things that are Simply Budapest

I’ve been in Budapest for just over four months, seeing autumn into an unseasonably and certainly unCanadianly mild winter. Though my Hungarian language skills are still lacking, I don’t consume nearly enough pork (i.e. almost none) to manage Hungarian dishes, and my Hungarian travels outside of Budapest number only two, I have been soaking in the ebb and flow of Hungarian life. In these days, I’ve begun to distill a few things that are, to me, uniquely Hungarian.

You Say Goodbye, and I Say Hello

But we both mean ‘see you later’. I did a number of double takes as I would leave a shop or a restaurant and say “goodbye” or “viszlát”, and they would reply with “hello!”. In Hungarian, the greeting ‘szia!’ is similar to ciao and aloha in that it can be used for greeting or parting. Hungarians have adopted the most popular English-language greeting ‘hello’ into their own daily language with the same dual use. Though it takes some getting used to, it makes it really easy to pretend I speak Hungarian when entering anywhere in Budapest.

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Basilica of St Peter and St Paul

A Christmas Abroad in Prague

Prague Old Town Square Christmas TreeI never thought I’d say “I’m going to Prague for Christmas” but that’s what happened this year. Just a seven hour train ride from Keleti Pályaudvar to Hlavni Nadrazi and we arrived in the beautiful capital of the Czech Republic. This was the second time that I have been outside of Canada for December 25th. I am lucky as I most often spend Christmas in Cape Breton with my family or, in recent years, in cozy Manitoba with the Robinsons. Being abroad at a time when most people’s hearts are at home is strange, challenging but full of new opportunities.

Prague has been at the top of my ‘To Visit’ list for years. I’ve heard magical descriptions of the city’s impressive and well-kept architecture hugging the Vltava River, it’s inexpensive and delightful food and drink and rich cultural scene. Prague was as promised. In December, the city was vibrant with Christmas markets and the bustle of happy faces with mulled wine and chimney cakes. We explored and celebrated and discovered Christmas abroad. Here are some reflections on what made this expat holiday a happy one.

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It’s a Small World After All

When Derek and I planned to leave Alberta and then Canada for two years in Budapest, it seems like a great distance for quite some time. We’d be far from familiar faces and family feasts.

However, in this modern age of globalization and …Facebook, for good or for bad, our communities are now more distant-but-connected than ever before. This weekend reminded me of how small the world can be, as I met up with three friends from three different times in my life, here in my new city of Budapest. The meet-ups centered on local food and drink, of course, which took me on a tour of some enjoyable spots in the city.

Coming from Cape Breton via London, a family friend was in the city filming two episodes of a fantastic CBC series. The television show is set in World War II Paris, and I’ve been told that Budapest plays that role particularly well. I don’t think I’ve seen him in well over five years so on Thursday, it was a treat to catch up. To add to the experience, we caught up over delicious food at a Hungarian restaurant Pozsonyi Kisvendéglő in the XIII district. This was my first experience with the gigantic portions of Hungarian plates. My friend ordered bone marrow, after a previously delectable experience at this restaurant. I had pike with parley potatoes. In Canada, this meal would have been the equivalent of 2-3 servings. And man, it was tasty – the fish, even deep fried, was flaky and fresh. Over beer, house wine and Palinka, we caught up on Canada, the UK, our siblings, our careers and European lives so far.

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