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?

A Weekend in Las Vegas


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I was determined to make amends. My boyfriend and I had a three week trip planned to California, so it was then or never. We booked our flights to Las Vegas in the neighbouring state of Nevada and just a few months later we boarded the one hour flight slightly hungover on Valentines Day.

It’s true. There are slot machines at the airport and there’s no shortage of limousines, newlyweds or party-goers. Something in the air made me want to drink and gamble immediately. We collected our baggage, caught a cab to our hotel (US $10) and were playing Blackjack within hours. The next three days were a wonderful, surreal and tipsy experience. 

Everyone needs a weekend in Vegas at least once in their lifetime. Here’s my crash course on how to do it:

ORIENTATION

Las Vegas couldn’t be any easier to navigate. There’s “The Strip” – a long stretch of hotels and casinos where the majority of tourists go and “Downtown” – which is the old part of Vegas. For a first-time visitor, stay on the Strip for the classic Vegas experience. One block back isn’t the same!

WHAT TO DO

1. Gamble

This one’s obvious but did you know casinos give you free drinks while you play? Bottled beer, spirits and wine were hand-delivered at our request, even when I was on a $1 slot machine or just watching my boyfriend gamble. Be sure to tip waitstaff at least $1 per drink. Each venue has its own music, performers and atmosphere and it’s all basically open 24/7. Be prepared to lose track of time because there are no windows. Even if betting isn’t your thing, walking from hotel to hotel and putting a few bucks in a slot-machine is still an experience. Gambling was actually a fun way to meet other people too.

 The Vegas Strip: view from our hotel room
The Vegas Strip: view from our hotel room

2. Walk The Strip

Whether you’ve lost your winnings or just need some fresh air, walking along the Strip is a fun way to spend a few hours. The hotel exteriors are impressive and the atmosphere of other happy (and occasionally drunk) tourists is pretty lively. You may or may not be offered a stripper. Be sure to head to the Venetian Hotel on your stroll and check out the interior. I’ve never seen anything like it – it’s like you’re actually in the streets of Italy! Walk the Strip again at night to see all the hotels lit up. It’s incredible.

 Fountains of Bellagio: There's a show every 15 minutes at night
Fountains of Bellagio: There’s a show every 15 minutes at night

3. Fountains of Bellagio

When my boyfriend said we had to watch the Bellagio Light Show, I was skeptical. But it was gorgeous! We watched the 10 minute display outside the Bellagio Hotel at night and it was fantastic. The atmosphere was quite romantic and there were plenty of other tourists equally in awe. The show is free and happens every 30 minutes during the afternoon and every 15 minutes at night so it’s easy to check out anytime. 

4. Grand Canyon

My boyfriend surprised me with a sunrise helicopter flight to the Grand Canyon for Valentines Day and an early birthday gift! We went with Sundance Helicopters who were really professional and friendly. A limousine picked us up from the hotel at 6.30am and took us to the airport. Once we (and about a dozen others) had checked in, we met our pilots and got in the helicopters. There was an awkward moment where we thought we’d be sharing our helicopter with a heavy smoker but a quiet word with staff meant we were able to switch helicopters last minute and fly with a couple who didn’t reek of cigarettes.

The views on our 45 minute flight to the Canyon were incredible and really made me appreciate how much Vegas was a city in the desert. The moment we actually flew into the Grand Canyon was unbelievable – I wanted that sensation to last forever but in reality, it was only 15 seconds or so. Upon landing, we had time to take it all in with photos and a champagne breakfast pack of pastries, granola and yogurt. Unfortunately my dairy allergy wiped out half of it, so give staff a heads up if you’ve got special dietary needs. But mostly, my boyfriend and I just stood in the Canyon in awe.

I really wanted to hike or explore once we were there but after about 40 minutes, it was time to fly back. A limousine returned us to our hotel and it was all over by noon. It felt like a dream! The trip was about 4-5 hours all up and cost around US $450 (AUD $620, based on 0.72 cent exchange rate). Is it worth it? Yes – if you have the money. But if you can’t splurge on your visit, Vegas is still worth going to. Chances are you’ll even catch some of the Canyon on your flight in or out.

 Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian: this is inside - that sky isn't real! 
Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian: this is inside – that sky isn’t real! 

5. Shop

Even if you don’t want to spend money, you’ve got to at least walk through the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian. It’s stunning! If you want to indulge, you’ll find a great range of stores including Barneys, Banana Republic, Coach, Pandora, Steve Madden and Kate Spade New York. Here’s the full store directory

I never miss a chance to stock up on American brands and our trip to the Las Vegas North Premium Outlets didn’t disappoint. We spent about three hours here, shopping sportswear like Nike and Asics along with staples including Steve Madden, Calvin Klein, Kate Spade, GAP and American Apparel. The mall is modern, mostly outdoors and only a short, 10 minute Uber ride from the Strip. Bonus: you can see downtown Vegas on the way! 

There was an Urban Outfitters and Sephora next to our hotel too.

6. See a Show

During our visit, Britney Spears was in town and there were heaps of other shows including Stomp and a few musicals. I’d never seen a live magic show so we splurged on two tickets to David Copperfield (US$240 / AU $340). It was a huge disappointment. He had great reviews but I couldn’t follow some tricks and others were so tech-laden it didn’t feel magical at all. I’d recommend heading to a same-day show discount seller on the Strip. There were a few booths and plenty of shows on offer.

 Gordon Ramsay BURGR: I ordered something vegetarian at 2am.
Gordon Ramsay BURGR: I ordered something vegetarian at 2am.

FOOD

There’s no shortage of restaurants in Vegas! I guarantee any cuisine you want is there. We had gorgeous Mexican along the Grand Canal at Canonita, Chinese at P.F. Changs in our hotel and even a boozy 2am dinner at Gordon Ramsay BURGRs. We didn’t have a bad meal once and it was all pretty affordable too. Especially when you’ve been knocking back free drinks (but tipping!) in the casino for a few hours.   

 Planet Hollywood: view of our hotel from across the street
Planet Hollywood: view of our hotel from across the street

WHERE TO STAY

We stayed at Planet Hollywood for three nights, which was perfectly located in the centre of the Strip. Our Hip Room (AU $170/night) had a king bed, massive bathroom and sensational views of the Bellagio Fountains. Breakfast was included and came in the form of a $10 Starbucks voucher per person each day that could be used anytime. It proved really handy for times we slept in or just wanted fruit and coffee to go. We liked the Hollywood theme throughout the rooms and casino, as opposed to other accommodation which had a more European vibe or catered for an older crowd. 

Overall, I LOVED Vegas and have vowed to return for my 40th birthday with as many friends and family as I can! It really is mind-blowing how an entirely man-made city can thrive in the middle of a desert on entertainment, booze and tourism. Despite its representation in movies, Vegas was really good value and far cheaper than a comparative three night stay in New York. If you haven’t been and you love a good dose of consumerism, make sure Vegas is on your list!

QUESTION: What’s your Vegas travel tip for first-timers? 

Three Days in Santa Monica, California

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Santa Monica is the absolute embodiment of California culture. Health foods, sunshine and bohemian beach fashion are everywhere. My boyfriend had been there before and assured me I’d love Santa Monica. He was right!  We stayed three nights in February as part of our three week California-Mexico trip. Despite being winter, each day was glorious and sun-soaked and Santa Monica formed some of the best memories of the holiday. If you’re looking for a base in Los Angeles and want to be beachside, I can’t recommend it enough.

Three days would be plenty, although my “do it in a day” suggestion is below too. If you’re not a shopper or sun-lover, you could sub a day with other LA sightseeing, like Hollywood Strip or Universal Studios. More on those another time. For now, here are my Santa Monica highlights!

 Santa Monica Beach at sunset
Santa Monica Beach at sunset

DAY ONE 

Santa Monica Beach

The sandy shores of Santa Monica Beach span far and wide. Embrace the Pacific Ocean with a surf, swim or stroll before paying homage to Muscle Beach, which spurred the US fitness revolution from the 1930s. There’s some equipment if you feel like a work out, otherwise watch the talents of athletic types, circus folk and ordinary citizens. It was too cold to get in the water during our February visit, but people watching and having sand between our toes still felt pretty good. 

Santa Monica Pier 

It’s the most iconic feature of Santa Monica and you can’t miss it! Santa Monica Pier boasts a ferris wheel, rollercoaster, arcade, plenty of restaurants and a few stores. There are historical walking tours on weekends but I adore the atmosphere of carnivals after dark, and the Pier is perfect for an old-fashioned date night. We walked the length of the Pier one mild evening and rode the famous ferris wheel. To be honest, the ride was a bit disappointing as it only went around a few times and didn’t reach that high. But it sure was romantic to snuggle up and take in the night lights.

If you haven’t experienced American fair food, you can get your funnel cake fix or root beer float right here. If you prefer sit-down dining, restaurant options include Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Read more about the Pier here: http://santamonicapier.org.

DAY TWO

Go Shopping

Repeat after me… THIRD STREET PROMENADE. Every retailer you could ever want is in this glorious street and when I’m in the United States, that’s exactly what I want! This pedestrianised, open air mall spans about three blocks and features Urban Outfitters, Banana Republic, M.A.C., Victoria’s Secret, Apple, Lululemon, Zara, Tiffany & Co., Free People and Anthropologie, along with Barnes and Noble, Paper Source and Papyrus. I literally spent an entire day here, stopping briefly in Starbucks to refuel around 4pm when my hotel buffet breakfast had worn off. 

Most stores are open until 9pm so you can literally shop all day, all night. There’s also a movie theatre and plenty of dining options around too, along with a valuable set of public restrooms near Athleta. Click here for a directory of Santa Monica Place, and here for another broader list.

All that shopping is bound to leave you thirsty, so head to West 4th and Jane and sample the best local beers. It was this venue where my boyfriend and I first discovered “sours,” a type of beer that’s tarty and almost cranberry like. Staff kept replenishing the paddle with other feature brews while we played a fierce competition of Connect 4.  

 Cycling the Santa Monica coast
Cycling the Santa Monica coast

DAY THREE

Cycle the Coast

Whether it was the sunshine or exercise endorphins, cycling along the Santa Monica coast was an absolute highlight of the trip. We rented our retro bikes from Santa Monica Beach Bicycle Rentals on 4th Street for US$15/each for the day (and yes, it’s right near the aforementioned West 4th and Jane pub).

From there, we cycled on the grass-lined, coastal footpath of Ocean Avenue before making our way down to the beach path. We continued at a leisurely pace past runners, families and tourists to another famous LA beach, Venice. Cycling was such a good way to take it all in, and we kept riding until Marina Del Ray (about 4 miles or 6 kilometres). Getting across the Marina looked like it’d take some time, so we turned around and had lunch in Venice.

  Simmzy's:  Beer served in skateboards
Simmzy’s: Beer served in skateboards
  Simmzy's:  Quinoa, edamame and peanut bowl plus BEER
Simmzy’s: Quinoa, edamame and peanut bowl plus BEER

There was a huge line outside Venice Ale House so we went to Simmzy’s, which had great online reviews and importantly: BEER. The daily selection was served to us on a skateboard (yes, a skateboard) and the food was great as well. We asked staff if we could try another round of beers and they were happy to oblige. I think we went a third round too. The cycle back was a bit wobbly but we survived.

ONLY HAVE ONE DAY?

Start with hiring bikes and cycle along the coast to Venice Beach. Try some beers and food, cycle back and check out Third Street Promenade. As the sun sets, head to Santa Monica Pier.

GETTING THERE & AROUND

Santa Monica is about 30 minutes by car or cab from LAX Airport. Once you’re there, you can easily get around on foot. We relied on buses, trains and ridesharing to get us to other parts of LA as the Santa Monica Metro station was still under construction during our visit (it opened three months later, in May 2016).

WHERE TO SLEEP?

We stayed at the DoubleTree Suites on 4th Street, mostly because of its location. The hotel is 10 minutes walk to Third Street Promenade and 10 minutes walk to the beach. My boyfriend also had Hilton Honours Diamond membership, meaning we were guaranteed an upgrade, free Internet and free breakfast. We had a 10pm flight so baggage storage was also important to us, something not guaranteed with Airbnb.

Our king bedroom suite (US$250/night + 11% tax) was bright, spacious and while the style was a little dated, the fit out felt fairly new. The breakfast buffet was huge – cereals, breads, pastries, fresh fruit, cold cuts, hot items such as beans and sausage, and made to order omelettes. It was for this reason we hardly ate lunch during our stay! The gym was also near new (although I did most of my cardio on Third Street Promenade). 

Staying in Santa Monica was a real insight into just how diverse LA is and gave me such a real appreciation for Californian lifestyle. Given flights between the US and Australia are so cheap lately, there’s a good chance I’ll be passing through this city again soon. I know where I’ll be staying! 

QUESTION: What’s your favourite ‘hood in LA?