Best travel gadgets for 2021 according to tech experts.

By Paul Ericksen

Tech for Travelers

From making menus and signs readable, to making sure the lamp in your hotel isn't installing malware on your phone through the USB jack on the lamp, check out the list of tech and recommendations Lokal's CTO recommends while you travel for convenience as well as safety w!

Get a SIM card when visiting a new country!

Unless you have an incredible plan, do not use the data plan of what have in your home country! Even if you just find a station in the airport of the location you're visiting, you'll have a much better experience. But if you search ahead of time, you'll likely be able to get far better deals than the stalls in the airport. But do not use your own data! In many places it can cost around $20 for 20 GB which is more than you'll need and far less than your carrier will charge for roaming. If you're traveling with others, make sure you all exchange your new numbers (the SIM card gives you a new, in-country phone number so trade your new numbers with each other to remain in touch). For those who have phones that only allow one SIM card, also realize that when you swap to a new, temporary SIM card, you'll no longer get txt/phone calls for your regular number over cell service. However, for things like iMessage that is just using data linked to your AppleID, you WILL still get iMessage messages but not SMS.

Orange, for example, is a service that is common throughout Europe. If you buy a SIM card for Belgium, it will work in the Netherlands as well. But it counts it as "roaming" when in a different country even though the rates are the same, so make sure your data roaming is on.

So, if you've made a bunch of arrangements through your regular number, but now have a new temporary number, you'll need to let your country planner know! Or at least realize that when you txt someone that you'd arranged tons of plans with, they won't know your new number, so clarify who you are. "Hey, now that I'm in Costa Rica I have a different number, this is {first name} {last name} and we had an arrangement with you to..." etc. Otherwise to them, you're just a random number claiming to be a customer! A lot of the newer smartphones support more than one SIM chip. So, check your phone!

Another common solution is that after your trip is finalized and paid for, to switch over to WhatsApp since that runs over data and will continue to work after you put in a new SIM card.

If they are sending information through the system normally, it'll go to your normal phone number and email address while you have a new phone number that they don't know about.

Translation Apps and how to use them

Visual Translations

If you run across signs or menus, etc that you cannot read because you don't know the language, the BEST solution for this is to download Google Translate before you get to the country.

Download the language packs ahead of time on home wifi so that you don't use your temp in-country data plan to do it.

You tell the app you want to convert from {lang1} to {lang2}, for many of the readers that will be from Spanish to English. Then you just use the "Camera" option and as you point it at your menu or a sign and you can now read words that you weren't sure about. Even if you already know the language enough to be fluent and chat with locals, having this app already ready means you can recognize that the dish is something you won't like or have allergies to.

Spoken Translations

This app also allows for real-time spoken translation for when you've left your comfort zone for what you learned beforehand. It can listen for English and convert it to spoken and written Spanish, as well as listen for spoken Spanish and convert it to written words on screen and spoken English as well. It's an amazing app! You should definitely know at least basic travel phrases to go to a new country just out of respect and to not look like an idiot, but apps like this will help iron out issues where you both lack enough language from each other to understand one another.

Conclusion

For both visual translations (of signs and menus) as well as real-time translation of spoken languages when data connection is available, make sure to pre-download the language packs! Read more information on Google Translate.

Ask about connectivity

For every stay or adventure Lokal Travel lists, we show what wifi and cell coverage is available. Some are very limited! For some travelers, disconnecting from their professional/social-media lives is exactly what they want while for others, not being able to post a 2 minute video to Instagram would be as dramatic as death for them.

So, check the "Connectivity" section of listed lodgings and activities. For custom trips, make sure to ask your planner about connectivity if being always WIFI-connected is that important to you or how the cell coverage is for the service you bought SIM card time from.

Battery backups!

There are plenty of USB battery banks available, some charge from outlets, car lighters or even solar but can then charge your phone's battery quickly. Mobile devices are the primary way people maintain communication with their trip planner, have QR Codes ready to scan for airline boarding, email providers about changes, arrange for transport with apps like Lyft/Uber, etc. So making sure your phone is always charged while not just away from home but possibly away from outlets for extended periods is very important! Have a USB battery bank ready and charged at all times.

The solar powerbanks have a battery as well, so you can leave it in the window of a tent and let it charge during the day while you're gone and then come home and charge your phone with what it saved up. If you're going to be around actual outlets, then this isn't the best option because a portion of the cost and size is going towards something you don't actually need.

I can't recommend a specific power bank because it depends on your needs (size, capacity, solar, USB-A or USB-C, etc) and budget... besides, the day after I publish a better one may come along. The capacity of the powerbanks is measured in "milliamp-hours" or "mAh" so a powerbank with 30,000mAh has 3x the capacity of one with 10,000mAh and will generally cost more.

Search Amazon for Powerbanks

Be 1000% wary of "free wifi!"

Any time you're in a touristy area and open your phone's WiFi settings, you'll see SSIDs for "Lovers of Free WiFi" or "Free WiFi" etc. DO NOT USE THESE!

It's very easy for scammers to set up an access point but where instead of directly connecting you to the sites you want, it routes everything through it's own code first. This allows the scammer to capture usernames, first/last names, credit card info from thousands of users who wanted something for "free." They didn't set that "free" access point up to benefit YOU! If you've ever connected to one of the "free access points" in a popular area of a tourist city, you've probably recognized that your browser shows you a warning about the certificate of the site and lets you skip past that warning. DO NOT SKIP PAST THAT WARNING. That warning is telling you that the 'man in the middle' (the name of this type of attack) access point is pretending to be the site you want to visit but can't demonstrate that it is that site due to a certificate not being correct... BECAUSE IT ISN'T THAT SITE. Users often see the warning and go "eh, whatever, their site isn't set up right" rather than realizing their personal information is about to be stolen.

DO NOT TRUST "FREE INTERNET" WHILE TRAVELING
When I visited Amsterdam with my parents in 2019, we came across these "free wifi" access points all over and if you tried to access a popular HTTPS site, the browser would warn you that your information could be intercepted. The hackers were smart enough that they only did it for websites of local attactions and the rest were passed through to the original site without giving warnings (because they weren't gathering data).

If the WIFI is being provided by your hotel, cafe, etc, that's different. I'm talking about the random option in your available WIFI hotspots where you don't know who they are and they're offering you free WIFI. Those are most likely scammers wanting your CC info.

I don't want you to come home and find out there had been thousands of dollars of charges on the CC you'd used to pay the $100 for the museum over 'free wifi' while traveling.

I've always hated how it shows up to users in browsers for these types of attacks. Because it words it in a way where you think there's a problem with the site's certificate, and that it's the fault of the site. When it's actually that someone nefarioius is positioning themselves between you and the site you're trying to reach and passing valid info back and forth but they're recording it so they can use your CC. Just buy an in-country SIM card and never worry about needing to find "Free WIFI" around the city, they just want all your info to steal your money!

GPS Pre-download

If you don't know about this already, learn about it now! In Google Maps, when you search a location, like your hotel, etc, if you click the "..." in the upper right corner, you'll get an option to "Download offline map". If you select it, you can then "pinch" the screen to zoom out an download a much larger map. Then select "Download" in the lower right of the screen. Now, any navigation that happens will happen from what's available on your device even if you have 0 connectivity! This is still a great feature to use if you regularly use your phone for navigation around your city. Just download your full city and you can save on data usage. Then when you're at home on wifi, update your 'offline maps' at least once a month.

Some is better than None...

Remember, even if you know very little of the language, it's better to show SOME effort than to expect everyone to speak English to you, even if they know English, not even knowing how to say "hello" in their language is mildly to highly offensive depending on the culture.

If the only phrase you know in the language is "hello, I'm sorry, do you speak English?" even if you botch every pronunication of every word, that is still 1000x better than asking in English "Do you speak English?" Learn just that one question! They will be so much nicer to you!

In 1997, when I was 2 years out of high school, our family took a vacation to Europe. We went to London, England; Stavanger, Norway; Copenhagen, Denmark and Paris, France. Each one had specific meaning to our family for ancestry or other reasons. In Paris, we were in a hotel lobby for our breakfast and my father, who had learned French in '69 but had lost a lot, spoke with the receptionist in what was obvious to a non-French speaker, not clear French. She was very patient with him and understood what he was asking and spoke back to him in French. After he returned to explain what she had said, she answered the telephone speaking perfect English. Of course(!) the receptionists at hotels in Paris can speak English. She noticed that me and my siblings were laughing at how he'd kind of embarrassed himself with how broken his French was when he could have just spoken English to her. She motioned me over and explained to me how much she respected him for speaking French. That even though he wasn't perfect, it showed immense respect for the country he was visiting that he could carry on a conversation while many American tourists can't even say "Bonjour" to her and expect everyone else to accommodate their language.

You don't need to know every verb and conjugation. You don't need to know everything perfectly that you're saying. If you show the slightest bit of effort to speak the language of the country you are visiting, the residents are generally more than happy to help you in English if they know it. With the woman at the front desk in Paris, she didn't look down on him for not knowing how to say everything perfectly, she saw him as what she wished from every American tourist.

There are so many ways to learn even just a little. If you can say "hello", "my name is...", "I'm sorry...", "thank you" in the language, that's the bare minimum. If you aren't saying at least those phrases, in the language of the country you're visiting, you're being a bad visitor.

If you want to learn more than just that, you can search YouTube for common travel phrases in {language}. "Where is the nearest ATM?" for example. Even if they know you don't speak their language, they can point and mime the directions. But don't ask them in ENGLISH.

If you're wanting to be more fluent than just the bare minimum, using apps like Duo Lingo can help a ton! I found apps like Rosetta Stone were trying to be too comprehensive and teach me all of the conjugations of "throw" to talk about me throwing a ball for a dog. That's likely not going to come up in conversation while visiting Peru.

Focus on learning how to ask for directions for things, and what their responses are going to include. "right, left, two streets, after, pharmacy" etc. Or have in-country SIM cards with Google Maps using data and find whatever you need. Using Google Translate for pictures/video is incredible! You might recognize a lot of things on the menu from what you studied but maybe you forgot to learn "onion" in Spanish and your partner has an onion allergy/reaction. Learn as much as you can beyond the basics but if you ask someone if they speak English IN ENGLISH where you couldn't even be bothered to learn to ask in their language, you're part of the problem of why American tourists are seen as very rude/snobbish.

FireTV for hotels

When you're away from home, being able to catch up on YouTube subscriptions or HBO/Netflix/Showtime/Disney+/Amazon programs is a great way to unwind and feel more "at home." Anymore, most hotel rooms have flatscreen TVs with HDMI inputs and also have WIFI. So, just bring your Amazon FireTV stick, USB power cable & remote. It takes very little space in your bag, but you can bring a piece of home with you as you travel. Rather than watching random shows on what the hotel/motel has available, you can keep up with your favorite shows. By having that sense of familiarity, you might be able to cancel out the well-known "FNE" (First Night Effect where researchers have recognized for over 50 years that the first night in a new location will result in bad sleep since half of your brain stays awake to monitor surroundings). By bringing more "home" with you, you'll hopefully be able to sleep better by tricking your brain to not see things as totally new.

Sometimes there are content restrictions, where if you're in Kenya, you cannot access your Hulu content. Your FireStick can have a VPN installed on it and allow you to connect to any service you want appearing to be from any country you want. NordVPN is a popular option, but there are many!

Amazon FireTV Stick 4K with TV Controls
Amazon FireTV Stick Light (not 4K, no TV Controls)

Be reasonable with airline workers

If something does go wrong on your travels, make sure you understand that the person at the desk not only had nothing to do with it, but has been receiving nothing but hate for the issue.

During a holiday break from my first year at uni, I was going home for the holidays. The plane me and my friends were to take back to our home city had a "broken nose." The nose of the plane contains radar and other sensors and if something is discovered that could cause problems, it's awesome it was discovered on the ground and not in the air. Yay mechanics that report problems so I don't get on a bad jet!

Of course, this was inconvenient though, as it meant they were re-routing all passengers through other airlines but often just giving many a free hotel stay.

When me and my friends got to the counter, we greeted them warmly, apologized for the other travelers who were blaming them for something they had nothing to do with and showing gratitude that the mechanics reported the problem so we didn't get on a bad plane! We offered her some candy and asked if she wanted a coffee or anything and she refused.

We asked if there were any "barely-likely" options available that she wasn't telling other travelers because it probably wouldn't work out and then they'd just be back in her face yelling that it was her fault. Guess what... THERE WERE OTHER OPTIONS SHE HADN'T TOLD ANYONE ELSE. There was a slight/tiny chance of us flying standby on a competitor but since she knew we wouldn't come back to her with vitriol if it didn't work out, she told us about something she told no other traveler about.

We, our entire group of 6 passengers, were all able to get on that other flight as standby! Airline workers are humans. Yelling won't get you what you want! If you treat them with respect and show kindness to them, they may tell you about something that has a 1% chance of working since they know you won't be back in an hour yelling at them that it didn't work out since you're super nice to them. They are PEOPLE. Treat them as such, even if your only motivation is to get what you want, still being a decent human to another human is a good way to live!

Make sure you get on WiFi when you can!

If you're on iPhone on Android, if you've set yourself up correctly, your photos are being backed up via iCloud or Google Photos or both (or other options provided by Samsung, etc)! If you have your phone set to the WiFi of the hotel, make sure when you connect that you see that your pictures are transferring. With some mobile settings, they will ONLY transfer while plugged in.

If you get an in-country SIM card with a lot of data, then you can use that for sure. But be careful with your usage because if you run out of data while you're needing to use Google Maps to find the nearest bus stop and see when it's arriving, that's typically higher priority than having your photos backed up while away from wifi.

Let's say you do 4 days of a 7 day adventure then lose your phone, it was stolen in town, destroyed or lost, if you've done everything to have your photos backed up, at least you'd have the memories you'd captured. The phone is replaceable, the photos aren't.

Use Airplane Mode when no service

If you're going on a long hike and you're not expecting to have any service, putting your phone into "Airplane Mode" prevents your device from using battery to both run the antennae and processor looking for a signal. This is important for any time you're going to be away from cell towers for an extended period. Lokal offers many trips where cell coverage is weak or not at all!

When outside of cell coverage, your phone starts to kind of freak out. During this mode, it continuously scans for a cell signal to get connected again. This requires that battery is used to power the antennae at full power as well as run the code that searches through all of the possible frequencies to connect with and it can severely reduce your battery life!

You can go from having your phone power off within 8 hours to lasting for several days when it's in airplane mode and no longer looking for a tower.

Just remember once you're back to civilization, turn your Airplane Mode off

AirTags or Tile

Tile has been around for years. Essentially, it's a small piece of plastic with a battery, some electronics that use very low energy Bluetooth transmissions. Any time another Tile user passes by a Tile that is away from it's owner, it's logged and the owner can see where it is on a map. As the owner, you can also make them make a sound and locate them when they are nearby but you can't see them.

You can use Tiles for anything! Your car keys, your pet, your wallet, but with travelers it's used for luggage!

Apple came out with a competing product in April of 2021 and if you have an iPhone, I would definitely recommend AirTags over Tile. Tile has actually filed a suit that AirTags are anti-competitive since it works with so many millions more iPhones where as their service only works if the user passing by your luggage also has their Tile app installed. Think of how many hundreds of millions of iPhone users there are and what a tiny percentage of users of iPhones or Androids have Tile installed! If someone passes by your luggage, and they have location sharing on, it will report back to Apple that user's location when they passed by it and you'll know where your luggage is!

View Tile's Amazon Store
View AirTags 1 pack or 4 pack
View AirTags and related products on Amazon

USB Data Blockers! Protect yourself from "juice jacking"

Here's something many travelers never consider because they don't know that it's possible! Be wary of free USB charging! (This does not apply to Chi/wireless charging)

Malicious users (which there are many who prey on touristy areas!) can give you a convenient option to charge your device but actually they're stealing your data and even installing malware on your device without you knowing. It's not yet super wide-spread, but is a growing issue.

Here's a Norton Security article about Juice Jacking.

There's a very simple fix, use one of these to block the data wires of USB cables so that only power is transferred.

Be sure to watch the video on either of these links. Hackers can own your phone and see everything you do even after you're not connected because they install malware on your phone to collect bank account numbers, passwords, they can even remotely take a picture without you knowing.
USB-A to USB-A blocker
USB-A to USB-C blocker

Stay safely connected!

Header photo courtesy of NASA.

If you think there's a product that should be listed here, contact paul@lokaltravel.com with the subject 'Travel Gadget Product Recommendation' to bypass spam filters!

Paul Ericksen

Lokal's Chief Technology Officer (CTO).

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