We're already a few days into 2017, so chances are most of us will have already broken a New Year's resolution or two by the end of the week. That's because people usually make resolutions that are way too difficult: dieting, staying sober throughout January, becoming a gluten-free vegan who only eats raw food – that kind of thing. So here's a simple resolution: become a better traveler.
There are a hundreds of new and recently upgraded apps, products, and travel companies that will help you save money and have a better time when you're on the road, but here are 10 of the very best.
Just like Google Flights came along to change the way we book air travel, the 2016 launch of Google Trips has revolutionized the way we plan travel. The free program automatically organizes hotel reservations and plane tickets through your email, creates personalized itineraries according to your online activity and length of trip, and includes guides to hundreds of locations. Yes, it's a bit stalkery, but it's also incredibly convenient.
Its offline capability also means you can download maps, walking directions and guides to your phone so you don’t need to use up your data in a foreign country. But if you are online, the app will update information, like operating hours and current things to do, in real time.
Photo courtesy of screenshots/Sidekix
Think of Sidekix as Google Maps, Foursquare and Yelp all rolled into one. This app really embodies the idea that "it’s all about the journey, not the destination." It will pull up a map using your current location and populate it with great restaurants, bars and places of interest nearby. As you walk, new recommendations will pop up with detailed reviews.
It will also plot out walking routes for you according to the most interesting path (depending on what you’re into) instead of the most efficient, so you can have an unexpected adventure along the way.
Norwegian Air and WOW Air
In the last couple years, these two European budget airlines have made transatlantic travel infinitely more affordable, and in 2016 both airlines really amped up their route map. Norwegian now offers flights from a dozen US airports to more than 100 destinations in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and WOW has flights from nine North American locations to nearly two dozen cities in Europe.
Both carriers are of the Ryanair and Spirit variety (see: cattle cars, cramped legs, frills not included), though not quite as offensive. That said, what can you expect for a flight across the pond for prices that can drop as low as $100?
Tinder has long been one of the most underrated travel apps out there. It’s a great way to connect with locals – or fellow travelers – to see a side of the city you never would have otherwise had access to (example: I cut the infamous Saturday morning line at Berghain thanks to meeting the right person on Tinder).
The problem, of course, is that there are certain expectations involved with what's normally a dating app, and swiping right can cause a lot of problems if you're in a relationship. But this year, Tinder changed that (sort of) with Tinder Social.
The function is about as simple as the original, but allows you and a group of friends to search for other groups to meet by selecting activities that interest you and choosing from groups of males, females and/or mixed groups to meet.
Every major US carrier has massively devalued their frequent-flier programs in the last three years (in some cases multiple times), so we all knew it was only a matter of time before Alaska Airlines made serious changes of its own. And the very end of 2016, shortly after acquiring Virgin America, was that time.
Only instead of following the common path, Alaska decided to differentiate itself by making its program Mileage Plan (a longtime travel-hacker favorite) even more valuable.
Alaska remains the only US carrier to award miles and status based on distance flown rather than amount of money spent, the only carrier to still allow free stopovers on one-way award tickets (even for domestic flights), and it just announced changes to its award chart and – shocker – they're actually positive: the cost of the shortest flights dropped from 7,500 miles to 5,000, awards can now be upgraded and you can earn more points per mile on partner airlines.
As airline miles have devalued, credit card points have become increasingly more valuable, largely thanks to Chase and its Ultimate Rewards points system.
UR points can be transferred to numerous hotel and airline loyalty programs at a rate of 1:1, and can be used directly to buy flights and hotels at a 20 to 33 percent discount – a better value than using airline miles in many cases. And depending on which Chase card you have and what your spending habits are like, you can earn the points a lot faster than you can airline miles.
For example, the new Chase Sapphire Reserve card awards 3 points per dollar spent on all travel and restaurants, and 50 percent bonus on points redeemed for travel. It also offers reimbursement for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, access to hundreds of Priority Pass lounges at airports around the world and 100,000-point signup bonuses worth at least $1,500 of travel. Frankly, airline loyalty programs better step up if they want to remain relevant.
The miles-and-points game can be a deep, dark, labyrinthine rabbit hole for beginners, and Slingshot aims to ease the pain for overwhelmed travelers who don't have time to read the fine print. According to the company – which launched out of beta in August – more than $12 billion worth of miles and points go unused every year, “enough to buy every person in New York a roundtrip ticket to Europe.”
Slingshot analyzes information from credit card offers and award charts, then gathers personal information such as a user’s favorite destinations, preferred loyalty program, spending patterns and current mileage balances to develop a tailor-made plan to help travelers earn and maximize points and miles, and use them to earn free flights and hotel stays around the world.
For several years, T-Mobile has destroyed the competition when it comes to cellular use abroad. T-Mobile has free calling, texting and data within North America, and free data in more than 140 countries worldwide. The only downside is that in the US, there are definitely certain cities where T-Mobile users have subpar service (speaking from personal experience).
Enter Project Fi. Google's new cell-phone plan automatically connects you to the best cell signal in the US regardless of network, and for an extra $20 a month and $10 per gig of data, you can use your phone in more than 135 countries at no extra charge. This is likely the most efficient international plan for non T-Mobile users; the only downside is that it's only compatible with a few phones: Pixel, NexusP and Nexus 5X.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is one of the most underutilized tools in the traveler’s arsenal. VPNs help you protect your data and hide your actual location. Why does this matter? Well, for starters you can watch that Netflix or Hulu show you wouldn’t normally have access to while away from home, you can make free calls on Google Voice and even avoid local censorship laws that might block you from a certain site.
Perhaps most importantly, you can also search prices for flights, hotel rooms and products using different global locations to comparison shop. That round-trip ticket to Cartagena might be a lot cheaper if you’re logging in from Colombia than from the US, for example. Unfortunately, setting up a VPN can be a bit pricey and a real pain. But Opera just launched a completely free version of its product that’s also incredibly easy to set up.
These days, travelers increasingly mix business with pleasure (please don't call it “bleisure”), and extend trips for days or weeks thanks to the ability to work remotely. But such great flexibility depends on great Wi-Fi, and working away from home can turn into a nightmare if you wind up at a coffee shop whose internet suddenly breaks down or a place where you can’t find anywhere to plug in your laptop.
Enter Cafe Wifi. This app uses crowdsourced information to map out where you should spend your day working remotely based on Wi-Fi speed, power outlets, meeting spaces, quality of food and drinks and a number of other factors.