First-Timer’s Guide to Santorini, Greece

For too long I’d scrolled through social media and been tormented by friends travelling through the Greek islands. My only visit to this Mediterranean nation was as a backpacker in 2005, when I revelled in the culture, kebabs and affordability of Athens for a week. Aside from the couple in my hostel room who got intimate most nights, I adored Greece and vowed to return when I got the chance. While I made several trips to Europe in the following years, Greece never quite happened. It was in fact only earlier this year that a friend’s wedding in London prompted a five week trip across the continent with my boyfriend. It was game on, Greece! 

If you regularly read my blog, you’ll know we found a seemingly excellent route from Italy’s Cinque Terre to Santorini but our flight was diverted at the last minute. We instead spent the night in Athens and caught the eight hour ferry to Santorini the next morning. We arrived exhausted, mid-afternoon in the middle of May. In one direction were extraordinary views of the Aegean Sea, and in the other was a parking lot filled with taxis and travellers moving towards a single road up a rocky, barren hill. Our four night holiday had become just two full days, but we met our driver, checked in to our villa and opened a bottle of wine. Let the holiday begin! 

overview

Santorini is the largest of a small group of Greek islands called the Cyclades, about 240 kilometres (150 miles) southeast of Athens. The island is just 20km (12 mi) long, almost a crescent shape with the caldera (volcanic crater) on western side. The three main villages of Fira (also called Thira), Imerovigli and Oia are in the island’s north and on the western side, hence have “caldera” views. The resort-style beaches are on opposite side in the south, with archaeological sites also in the southern half. Santorini has a local population of just 15,000, but numbers swell during the peak summer season (June – August). 

 Oia: a Mediterranean fairytale, even on a cloudy day
Oia: a Mediterranean fairytale, even on a cloudy day

Did you know Santorini isn’t the island’s official name? It was given to the island by the Venetians in 1153, who arrived and saw a chapel for Saint Irene (Santa Irini). The name stuck, but the island remains Thera on all official documents. The capital Fira is a variation of Thera. 

what to do

the views

Sweeping views of the Aegean Sea and the distinct architecture are arguably the number one reason people visit Santorini. From the whitewashed buildings of Fira and Imerovigli to the more colourful townscape of Oia, seeing these villages against the backdrop of the water is unforgettable. Appreciate the different views during the day, sunset and at night when the pools shine turqoise. You can take in the views poolside, over drinks or a meal, while hiking or on a cruise (more details below). Be forewarned – the majority of Santorini is rocky, barren and doesn’t appear on postcards. 

 Imerovigli: watching sunset from our villa on our first night was magic!
Imerovigli: watching sunset from our villa on our first night was magic!

hiking trails

If you’re feeling energetic, there’s a range of walks on the island. The rocky but flat path between Fira and Imerovigli is an easy 45 minutes (no shade) and you can continue north on the more challenging path to Oia. The total walk from Fira to Oia is 10km (6 mi) and takes around 3 to 4 hours. Bring water and sunscreen as there’s little shade unless you retreat to a cafe. My boyfriend and I were still fatigued from hiking in Italy, so we just did the short Fira to Imerovigli section on our first day.

Those who are more adventurous should head to Skaros Rock, accessed from Imerovigli. We didn’t have time during our trip but the hike takes around two hours, and is reportedly challenging at times due to steps and some climbing to reach the top. Only about half the groups we saw from our villa during our stay reached the summit. Bring sunscreen and water, and possibly snacks if you’re going to stay out there. 

 Hiking: views on the trail from Imerovigli to Fira
Hiking: views on the trail from Imerovigli to Fira

ancient sites

Take a history lesson and visit Santorini’s two archaeological sites, Akrotiri and Ancient Thira. Akrotiri is in the island’s south-west, near Red Beach. Entry is €12 or there’s a combined pass with other attractions for €14, although there are some free admission days throughout the year too. Read more here. Ancient Thira is on the top of Mesa Vouno mountain, in the south-east side of the island near Pirassa Beach.  Entry is €4 or you can also get the combined pass. Click here for more details. 

caldera cruise

We lost a day in Santorini because of our flight diversion, but otherwise I would’ve been cruising! While there are mixed reviews online, a work colleague who’d recently been to Santorini highly recommended my boyfriend and I see the island from the water. There are a few companies offering tours of the caldera and hot springs before finishing in Oia for sunset. One for next time! 

 Amoudi Bay: viewed from the top of Oia
Amoudi Bay: viewed from the top of Oia

amoudi bay (oia)

If you cruise the caldera, there’s a good chance your vessel will end in the port of Amoudi Bay at Oia. But you can also walk or drive down from the village and enjoy fresh seafood or a drink. I’m told this is one of the best swimming spots in Santorini. We only had time to gaze down at Amoudi Bay from Oia, and my heart broke a little. I told myself there’ll be other islands. 

beaches

I love the water and desperately wanted to be beachside after a mostly chilly month in Europe. You’ll find Santorini’s most popular beaches along the eastern (non-caldera) side, near the Ancient Thera site. There’s Kamari Beach, and then the resort-like strip of Perissa and Perivolos with sun beds lined up on black sand. We spent several hours lazing by Perivolos Beach but the water was too cold for me! It wasn’t busy, however it a cooler day during the shoulder season.

 Perivolos Beach: more resort style, with plenty of dining and bars opposite
Perivolos Beach: more resort style, with plenty of dining and bars opposite

Less for sunbaking and more for sightseeing are Red Beach and Black Beach. We followed signage while quad biking to reach the parking area for Red Beach, which is then a five minute rocky walk to a viewing area before another 10 minute walk to reach the beach itself. I don’t recommend the path for the frail or elderly. Black Beach is also in the south of the island, however we relied on Google Maps because there was no signage. We gave up after making a few wrong turns. 

 Red Beach: more for sightseeing than sunbaking
Red Beach: more for sightseeing than sunbaking

wineries

Being wine lovers, my boyfriend and I weren’t going to miss the chance to drink Greek vino! We booked a tour of Santo Wines weeks in advance and added on six glass of wine tasting and a food platter for sunset (€38 each). The walking tour was around 30 minutes and we learnt about the island’s unique grape growing method, where vines are woven into a basket shape to protect the grapes. Our group then watched a short video about Santorini’s history, which was interesting if a little cheesy. The best part was sitting outside and simply admiring the caldera views with my boyfriend while we enjoyed our enormous trays of wine samples and local produce. 

The wine itself was average and we weren’t tempted to buy any, but the overall experience was magical. Bring a jacket for when the sun goes down and also some spending money, as there’s a sizeable store selling pasta, olives, tomato paste and other produce. Our hotel arranged transport which was €20 return for the two of us. 

 Santo Wines: the six glass wine tasting & food platter
Santo Wines: the six glass wine tasting & food platter

shopping

The biggest collection of shops I saw were in Thira, but they were very touristy. Sometimes that’s fun though! There are plenty of stalls selling dresses, shoes and hats plus standard souvenirs. I was much more interested in the stores in Oia, which looked more artsy. 

food

 Pita: stuffed with fava at my request on Perivolos Beach
Pita: stuffed with fava at my request on Perivolos Beach

Visiting Santorini is like an immersive in the Mediterranean diet, albeit with more wine. Local highlights include:

  • fava: a dish made from split peas, similar to Indian dal or hummus
  • sesame stick: breadsticks coated in sesame seeds
  • capers: edible flower buds from the caper plant 
  • olives: and luscious olive oil

Seafood lovers will be in heaven and there’s no shortage of cheese or salads either. During our three night trip, we had everything from beachside pitas, grazing boards and wine, to fine dining with caldera views. The latter was a brilliant coincidence, as our accomodation Kapari Natural Resorts (see “where to stay” below) boasted one of Santorini’s top restaurants. It was too cold to sit outside, however we spent several hours enjoying three courses and a bottle of white wine recommended by the in-house sommelier. The bill came to just €110, including €45 for the wine. Excellent value – but be sure to book ahead! 

 Kapari Wine Restaurant: my dish of fava, capers and tomato
Kapari Wine Restaurant: my dish of fava, capers and tomato

drinks 

 Kapari Natural Resort: complimentary wine and fruit
Kapari Natural Resort: complimentary wine and fruit

Everyone we spoke to (hotel staff, other guests) recommended a different bar but they can be tricky to find in the village mazes. In the end, we just drank whenever and wherever the mood struck us. The warm days called for Mythos beer while we drank local white wine at night. 

As mentioned under things to do, head to Santo Wines and do wine tasting at sunset. This was one of the most memorable experiences during our three night stay. If we’d had longer, I would’ve spent a day simply reading and drinking while occasionally looking up at the sea.

where to stay

There are three main options if you’re visiting Santorini for the first time:

  • Fira (Thira): the island’s capital and the biggest of Santorini’s three towns. Good for shopping, nightlife and central location. Closest to the airport and port. 
  • Oia: the northernmost and second largest town. It’s artsy, colourful and boasts Amoudi Bay. About 30 minutes (15km/9mi) drive from Fira.
  • Imerovigli: the smallest of three villages, but walking distance (45 mins) from Fira. It’s more like a cluster of cliff-side villas and restaurants than a town, although you’ll find a convenience store and some cafes at the top. In my opinion, it’s the most romantic of the three. 
 Kapari Natural Resort: incredible views in Imerovigli
Kapari Natural Resort: incredible views in Imerovigli

Here are some crude analogies if it helps. For those familiar with the Indonesian island of Bali, Fira is like touristy Kuta, Imerovigli is like the romantic and relaxed Seminyak while Oia is like the artsy and further away Ubud. For those who know New York City, you’d call Fira midtown, Imerovigli Chelsea (close by but less hectic) and Oia would be the East Village or Soho (further away but distinctive vibes). Feel free to dispute these or make your own suggestions in the comments section below! There are other towns to stay in of course, however if you’re visiting for the first-time you probably want to be centrally based with the greatest number of amenities and attractions.

 Kapari Natural Resort: the bedroom and bathroom in our enormous cavern-like villa
Kapari Natural Resort: the bedroom and bathroom in our enormous cavern-like villa

We splurged for the final leg of our Europe trip, staying at Kapari Natural Resort in Imerovigli for €330 (AU$510) per night. The price included a delicious buffet breakfast with made to order dishes as well, which we enjoyed outside overlooking the caldera. Our villa was spacious, cool and well equipped. The kitchen had a stove, kettle and refrigerator although no tea or coffee was supplied. The cavern-like style meant there were few windows, so we couldn’t see the caldera unless we stepped outside. Staff greeted us by name when we arrived and gave us a brief overview of the island and facilities. They continued to welcome us back each evening. 

We booked through boutique hotel website Mr & Mrs Smith which secured us free hotel transfers and a bottle of wine and welcome platter. The hotel’s pool was very small (but we soon saw this was the norm) and cold, but again, it was mid-May. Next time, I’d try find a villa with views from our room or stay in Oia for something different. 

 Map: supplied by our ATV company (click to enlarge)
Map: supplied by our ATV company (click to enlarge)

getting around

It’s easy to walk around Santorini’s villages, but the winding paths can make trying to find a specific location difficult. This is especially the case in Imerovigli, where the nearly identical white properties and low-lying walls can feel like a maze. As mentioned, Fira and Imerovigli are walking distance while Oia, the beaches and archaeological sites will require transport. Your options are buses, taxis and minivans although we only saw cabs around Fira’s main square. We were quoted €40 for a return trip from Imerovigli to Oia in a minivan, which seemed outrageous for a 15 minute journey. We declined.  

Rather, the best way to get around the island is to hire a quad bike (or “ATV” as they’re called locally). We arranged ours through our hotel for €56 for the day, which included a few Euros for insurance. There were cheaper bikes but we paid more for a sturdier option. We rode to the southern tip of the island, checked out Red Beach, had lunch on the eastern beaches before heading to Oia in the late afternoon. It was a memorable day, although the weather turned cold and rainy at the end. Be warned there’s no gas station in Oia so fill up at Imerovigli before going further north. 

getting there

 Santorini Airport: not exactly the paradise 
Santorini Airport: not exactly the paradise 

You can reach Santorini by ferry or plane. We attempted to fly and could see Santorini from our window (check out Getting from Italy’s Cinque Terre to Santorini) but ended up Catching the Athens to Santorini ferry instead. Our hotel included transfers from the port (about 20-30 minutes) and to the airport (about 20 minutes). I can’t speak to catching taxis or buses except to say the port was very busy. 

Santorini Airport is very basic. There’s a cafe inside but after clearing security, you’ll have a kiosk and plastic chairs with one lonely person in passport control. The day we left, our flight was delayed two hours because airport workers were on strike. 

money

Greece is part of the European Union and therefore uses the Euro (€). We paid by cash and credit card, only using an ATM once (there was one at the top of Imerovigli next to the convenience store). Santorini isn’t as cheap as you might assume. For example, I got a manicure and pedicure for €45 (AU $70) while my boyfriend got a 60 minute massage for €60 (AU $95). As mentioned, transport can also be expensive. 

language

English is widely spoken but be polite and learn some Greek. My head was already filled with French and Italian, but our waitress at Athens was kind enough to teach me the following: 

  • efcharisto (ef-ka-RIS-to): thank you
  • parakalo (parra-kar-lo): you’re welcome/ please
 Greek lesson: I got some tips from our waitress in Athens
Greek lesson: I got some tips from our waitress in Athens

other tips

  • Don’t expect all of Santorini to look like the postcards. The three main villages are small and beyond them, you’ll find mostly barren rock and the occasional industrial area.
  • There’s not much privacy either. You’ll be able to see the rooftop, paths and balconies of almost every other property around you from your doorstep. 
  • Dress codes are very relaxed. Think maxi dress and sandals for ladies, while guys will be fine in button-up shirts and shorts even for higher-end places. Leave the heels at home.
  • There’s no shade and the sun will radiate off the white buildings. My boyfriend and I can handle sunshine but we got seriously burnt on the return leg of our Imerovigli to Thira walk. 

I didn’t want to leave Santorini, and losing a day of our trip meant we barely saw Oia. The weather in mid-May was also too cool at times to lay by the pool. If we had more time, I would’ve climbed Skaros Rock, cruised the caldera, dined at Amoudi Bay and explored the beautiful art stores of Oia. But I’m grateful we made it to Santorini at all! It was 12 years since my first visit to Greece but I loved it just as much. And I guarantee there’ll be a third visit, although I’ll head to different islands and stay much longer!

QUESTION: Have you been to Santorini? If so, what’s your best tip for first-time visitors? 

My Pre-Holiday Checklist

Jetsetting around the world may seem glamorous but any traveller knows it takes a lot of work. Even if you’re on organised tours, there’s still the real life stuff at home to take care of before you fly out. Will someone watch your dog? Check your mail? Will your medications last the whole time you’re away? Have you got a miniature toothpaste for the plane? 

My boyfriend and I have been home from Europe for a month but it’s almost like deja vu as we prepare for our next trip. We’re going to China in just 60 days! On top of planning the holiday itself (five cities in three weeks), we need to get our visas, check whether our travel insurance will cover some pretty intense hiking and organise foreign currency.

But there’s all this other stuff too. Like freezing my gym membership. Making sure I have enough iron tablets for the journey. Putting our mail on hold. I’m determined to avoid the last minute rush and panicking. My weapon? I’ve created My Pre-Holiday Checklist! You can download a printable PDF of this list at the end of this post too.

ASAP after Booking Flights

1. Check your passport expiry date

Some countries will refuse you entry if you have less than six months remaining on your passport. Don’t risk it! The current fee for renewing an Australian passport is $277 and more if you need a rush service. Read more on the Department of Foreign Affairs website.

2. Check visa requirements

Depending on your destination(s), you could need a plethora of visas to gain entry. Find out visa applications specifics by visiting Consular websites in your country of residence. Note how far in advance you need to obtain your visa, along with fees and any necessary documents or photo requirements. For example, our China visas require us to submit a full itinerary and apply one month before arrival. I’ve also heard of Australians forgetting to apply for their ESTA under the United States Visa Waiver Program when visiting Hawaii. If you have a criminal conviction such as drink-driving, you may be ineligible for visa-free travel in some countries so be sure to read the fine print. 

3. Check bank card expiry dates

Order replacements now if any of your debit or credit cards expire while you’re away. Be careful if you used any of them for bookings – you may need to show the original card at your hotel or when collecting tickets, for example. 

4. Organise vaccinations (if applicable)

Some vaccinations are recommended for all adults in general, but you might want extras depending on where you’re travelling too. Be aware some vaccinations can require repeated doses over several months to be effective, others may need a booster after 12 months. Vaccinations can also be expensive, so that’s another reason to plan ahead. You can read more on the World Health Organisation website or have a chat to your GP. 

One month before departure

1. Buy travel insurance

Whether I’m going away for a week or a month, I always have travel insurance. Except for one time, when I forgot to activate cover on my credit card before departing. This horrible realisation hit me while my boyfriend and I were sitting on the runway at Athens International Airport, where we were stranded after a flight diversion. Thankfully we had alternate cover but I’ll never forget to activate my insurance again! Be sure to check your chosen policy covers things like car hire, riding a motorbike or quad bike, and even cycling if applicable. 

2. Order foreign currency/ travel cards

I suggest organising foreign currency a month in advance for a few reasons: 1) you’ve ideally saved most of your holiday cash by now, 2) you’ll need some time to compare rates and fees and 3) foreign exchange bureaus can have horrible hours. While you might be fine grabbing cash from an ATM when you land, you’ll likely end up with big denominations and you probably won’t be familiar with what each note looks like. Travel cards can also take a few days to compare, activate and load. Obviously, buy your cash earlier or wait if you expect a better exchange rate. 

3. Check your medications & prescriptions

It could be asthma, vitamins or birth control. Check your quantities and visit your doctor or pharmacist now if needed! 

4. Put your mail on hold

This may not be necessary if you’re just going for a week, but most of my holidays are three weeks or longer. If you’re in Australia, it’ll cost you $24 to hold your mail for the first week and $8 each week thereafter. You can do it all online too via Australia Post. Alternatively, enlist your neighbour to mind your mailbox.

5. Freeze memberships & subscriptions

I freeze my gym membership each time I go overseas and I used to get the newspaper delivered, so I’d put that on hold too. Other examples could include grocery deliveries, language or music lessons, sports club memberships, etc. Scanning your bank statements for regular debits is a good way to remind yourself of ongoing commitments. 

6. Grab travel essentials

The sooner you get your non-perishable travel essentials, the better! My shopping list includes mini-toiletries for the flight, travel-size toothpaste, dry shampoo, baby wipes, a good book and of course some travel-friendly snacks. Don’t forget electronics – check you have travel adaptors, power packs, camera cables and so on.

7. Birthdays? Special occasions?

Have a look at the dates you’ll be away. Any birthdays or special events? Organise cards, gifts or flowers now. The same neighbour watching your mail might be able to post items closer to the special day, or why not give your little brother or sister a pile of presents and delivery instructions? Yes, I’ve done the latter (thanks sis!).

8. Donate blood

Travelling overseas can make you ineligible to give blood for a short time afterwards. Before I’m treated to the wonders of the world, I like to roll up my sleeve and give something back to the community. I hate needles and dread the appointment for days, but I always feel proud afterwards. Bonus: you can book an appointment online via the Australian Red Cross website.

One week before departure

1. Share your itinerary

I use TripIt to easily send my travel plans to friends and family electronically. If you’re Australian, register your holiday with Smart Traveller so authorities can try locate you in case of an emergency.

2. Clean out your fridge

If you’re going away for any length of time, you’ll likely be out for dinner with friends or family the week before you fly out. Eat or freeze anything that won’t last the distance. 

Download a print-friendly PDF of this checklist by clicking here.

QUESTION: What would you add to this pre-departure checklist? 

Essential Apps Before You Fly


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mso-ansi-language:EN-US;}On my first big holiday, I carried a discman and a case of 10 CDs. I had Lonely Planet’s ‘Europe on a Shoestring,’ travellers cheques and a Nokia 3310. It was 2004 and calling home involved getting a phone card, finding a pay phone and hoping someone picked up the landline. I also had an address book to write down the details of newfound friends. Thankfully, email and Internet banking were a thing.

Fast forward 12 years, and my phone is my life. It contains my calendar, emails, Runkeeper, food tracker, music and messaging.  But it’s when I’m travelling my device really shines.

I’m assuming Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Skype are already smartphone staples and maybe you don’t want to use them on your holiday anyway. While I’m all for a digital detox, going offline, and so on – I also want to know the latest exchange rate before I blow $500.

Here are my essential travel apps:

1.     Skyscanner

Download this free app to kickstart your trip (or bookmark the site on your work computer). Skyscanner compares flights on all airlines, and even mixes and matches flights in case the cheapest option is to fly there with Jetstar, and come home with Virgin. By far, this app’s best feature is the ability to search “EVERYWHERE” because sometimes, you have a spare week and some cash. Other times, you really want to visit Melbourne and just want the cheapest flight in coming months. Skyscanner has you covered for both those scenarios and unlike other websites, it doesn’t remember your searches and bump up the prices. You can also create price alerts for your searches. 

2.     Trip It

You’ve booked flights, hotels, a day tour and an ice hockey game… how on earth do you keep track of it all? Download TripIt and forward every email confirmation to plans@tripit.com, where they’ll instantly be generated into single itinerary. You can then share the plans with your travel buddies (and give them editing access too) or quickly email a link to your family. It’s a lifesaver when you need your hotel address for immigration forms or want to check flight times but you don’t have WiFi. Bonus? TripIt is free! The paid Pro version will send alerts if your flight times changes, which is handy too. 

3.     Xe currency

A simple but essential app allowing you to list up to 10 currencies and have up to the minute exchange rates. XE Currency easily calculates any amount of local currency into your home dollars, or vice versa. It’s handy in the booking stages (particular for hotels or tours) to see what the damage is. Take care if you’re abroad and the rates prompt a spending spree though – your banks won’t be giving as generous rates and international transaction fees can have some bite too.

4.     Yelp

You want cocktails in Copenhagen? Feel like sushi in San Fran? Yelp is your saviour. This app is the gateway to thousands of reviews on food, services and places across the world. I’m all for exploring a new city and letting the streets guide the way, but think of Yelp as a compass to guide your journey. I did a search for dumplings in Washington D.C. and ended up at a great place called CopyCat Co. It’s a cocktail bar above a Chinese restaurant, so you can get exceptional drinks with a side of gyoza and Sriracha.  As Yelp reviews promised, the crowd was awesome and staff mixed some of the best drinks I’ve ever had. The night was an absolute highlight of our trip to the capital. Thanks Yelp!

5.     For fitness fans: MindBody

I downloaded MindBody while in New York in 2015. It’s fantastic! Search for classes such as yoga, spin or boot camp in your neighbourhood. Best of all, you can book and pay via the app which avoids the need for pre-class paperwork. I used this app to check out Sacred Sounds Yoga (Greenwich Village) and my first hot yoga class at Modo Yoga NYC (West Village). It was a breeze! I was really excited when I saw Perth businesses were signed up too. TIP: You can also search for beauty and spa services.

6.     For music lovers: BandsInTown

An app that scans your music library and suggests gigs you might be keen on? Yes, it exists! Bandsintown also lets you set a location and a radius, so in the months leading up to New York I received local concert alerts and could buy tickets. Skrillex on Halloween = score! My boyfriend and I even got pre-sale tickets thanks to this app. Live music is great anytime, but even better when you’re raving with local crowds. Double points for this app working in your home city too.

7.     Get some language skills: Duolingo

Why play Candy Crush at the bus stop when you could learn a language instead? Featuring Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, Italian, Swedish and more, Duolingo is easy to use and most of all, it’s FUN and FREE! Download a few months before your trip to get as savvy as you can. Will you become fluent? Probably not. But will Duolingo enrich your knowledge of the country and help you avoid Googling menu items? Absolutely.  

8.     Manage money with a buddy: Splitwise

You paid for Universal Studios and dinner, but your friend got the cab to the airport… so that’s like… uhhh… FORGET IT. Sometimes you’re in a cheap destination and no-one cares about a few dollars. Other times, you’ve had a six course degustation and also pre-paid the helicopter tour for two while your buddy covered the Broadway tickets. The ‘back and forth’ of who paid what is an unwelcome chore on vacation and, unless you have a joint account or are wealthy enough not to care, SplitWise can avoid those “keeping track” conversations and calculations. Set it up before you go and then keep tabs along the way.

and on a serious note…

While you’re planning a holiday and thinking digital, it’s worth signing up for the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller alerts. I tracked the spread of Zika virus while in the USA in 2016 before we went to Mexico. Thankfully, it didn’t hit Cancun but the email updates were a good way to stay informed without trawling through news sites. Register your trip as well in case a disaster strikes. It’s unlikely, but letting the government know your whereabouts gives them a head start for any rescue or other efforts that might be needed. 

QUESTION: What are your top travelling apps?