This past summer, I visited more than twenty-five European towns and cities. Every few days, I had to orient myself to a new town, find where I was staying, know who to call if I couldn't find it. To get there, I usually had to find a bus, train, or flight in a place I had never seen before; I had to know what track to get to, and where to make tight connections. I might be sleep-deprived; my phone might've stopped connecting to the local mobile phone network -- or, as in rural Scotland, there just might not be any network available. Thankfully, the age of paper travel documents is largely behind us. So I started writing emails to myself.
Travel apps have made life much easier. Almost everywhere I went, I was able to use rail and bus tickets from my phone. Sometimes, this meant saving a PDF to Google Drive. More often, I had to install each provider's unique app, whether that was Virgin Trains, SNCF, the Swiss rail system, or Deutsche Bahn. Room reservations might be accessible through Booking, AirBnB, or something else entirely. While these apps often provide useful information -- when my train was canceled in Germany, for instance, the DB app saved me -- each one has been programmed differently. Some of them might be very dependent on a good mobile phone connection; they might crash frequently, or run slowly. And all of the information is hidden away in separate apps.
Each time I was headed to a new place, I sent myself an email covering the days ahead. I'd take a little time each week, or a few days before a move, sit down with my laptop and write up an email for each step. This let me consolidate everything I needed to know in one place, and make sure that I had considered all of the things I should know when arriving. The emails would have everything I would tell someone if I were giving them directions to come and meet me in that city. One way or another, all of these questions need to be answered any time I arrive somewhere new, and it's often much easier to know before arriving than trying to figure it out on the spot. That's especially true in places where there are often touts waiting to take advantage of confused travelers.
- How long will it take me to get to the station or airport? What time should I leave?
- How do I get to the station or airport?
- What time does my train, bus, or flight depart?
- How can I identify my train, bus, or flight?
- How do I check in for my flight, or show my ticket for my train? Is it an app, a PDF, or a printout?
- Have I uploaded any travel documents into an appropriate cloud storage and made sure they are available offline?
- Have I made sure the app has my travel documents?
- If entering a new country, will I need to demonstrate proof of onward travel? Do I have the documentation uploaded to my cloud storage and available offline for easy access? For countries known to strictly enforce this, is a printout a better idea?
- How do I get from the airport or train station to my next hotel? (This creates many more questions).
- Am I arriving in a country that uses a different currency? How much of that currency should I withdraw from the ATM?
- Do I need to buy a ticket or transit card? How much should I expect to pay for it? Where can I buy it? What is the ticket or card called? Wikivoyage can often help answer these questions.
- What bus, tram, metro, or train line do I need to take to my hotel?
- How long should the trip roughly take? That way I can guess if I've gone too far.
- If public transit isn't an option, what is the most trusted service available for a driver? What approximate route should the driver take, so I know if we're going off course?
- What is the address of the hotel or apartment?
- Are there any useful maps, PDFs, etc. I should upload to cloud storage and make available offline?
- If there is a local script, e.g. hangul in Korea, how is the address written in that script (so taxi drivers can read it)?
- Can I have a Google Maps link to be able to navigate to the hotel without pasting in the address?
- Is there a better solution than Google Maps for this area? For instance, in South Korea, Naver Maps is much better. In Ghana, OpenStreetMap and the related Osmand app often have more information.
- Have I downloaded offline maps for the area? What about in Osmand, which is often useful as a fallback?
- What is the phone number to call if I have any trouble finding the place?
- Is this the last place I'll be spending Euros (or pounds, or zloty)? Then I should remind myself to pay my hotel bill with my remaining cash, so I don't have to exchange it before I leave and lose money to currency conversion fees.
Of course, this doesn't have to be in the form of emails. You could write them in a Google Doc or a 1Password secure note. Before moving to Project Fi, which has eliminated my need to get new SIM cards in every country, I used to scribble all of this in a waterproof notebook. Emails, in fact, have the disadvantage that they can't be edited after sending. On the other hand, you might CC a friend on each email you send yourself, so that someone else knows your plans; of course, there are other collaborative tools that are better at this as well.
Email clients like the Gmail app often make messages available offline by default. One of the biggest risks of moving away from paper is that it's much harder to predict how mobile apps deal with network issues or what software bugs they might be hiding. Each one will behave differently, and they will fail. It's best to stick to applications with well-known, predictable properties. I also like using my email inbox as a short-term to-do queue; it means I don't have to check a separate app to think about what I'm working on.
Whatever method you choose, make sure that it's quickly and easily accessible in any circumstances. For instance, Google Drive and Google Docs have an "Available Offline" feature, but you have to remember to turn it on.
Many people don't like planning ahead too much: it can ruin the joys of discovery and of spontaneous travel. Being able to answer these questions in advance helps, not hinders, spontaneous travel. It means being able to make plans with confidence, and do so repeatedly. These questions can get you to a new town; what you do there is up to you.
On the other hand, when I was in Krakow this past summer, I met an Indian man who had traveled extensively within India, often by bicycle. There, he would simply cycle from place to place, sleeping in different villages each night. He was having difficulty adjusting to Europe, he said, because traveling in Europe without advance planning was very difficult and often meant spending much more money on lodging and transportation. It's always good to understand your destination.
Finally, a specific note about going paperless. If you are traveling on an international train in Poland, for instance, from Berlin to Warsaw, always print out your train ticket. Poland's rail operator insists on paper tickets for these routes, as well as for overnight trains. They explained to me that this is because they cannot read the barcodes on Deutsche Bahn-issued tickets; however, since they can't verify that a print-at-home ticket is any more real than a smartphone ticket, this doesn't make very much sense. That is, however, the rule.