How modern technology has transformed expat life: travel

This is the third in my series on how modern technology has transformed life as we know it living overseas. In my first post I wrote about how our work life has been affected, and in the second I discussed communication.

Now in my third and (probably) final post on this topic I want to talk about travel.

Of course, it isn’t just expats who travel. But it is undeniably a huge part of our lives – not just travel to and from our countries but travel around them and to other countries in the region. After all, isn’t the ability to explore one of the best things about living abroad?

When I was young and lived in the Philippines, we were restricted to phone calls and travel agents when we wanted to book our holidays. No internet, no mobile phones, no apps – how on earth did we manage? It’s funny to look back now and think about being completely incommunicado for weeks on end; and can you imagine those long road trips without being able to plug the kids into their electronic devices?

Anyway of course things have improved quite a bit since then and if I am honest I can’t keep up with many of the latest innovations. So to help others out who, like me, are a little behind the curve in these matters, here are some of the better technical innovations to help us get around:

Getting there

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In order to travel somewhere you first have to get there and unless it’s within a reasonable distance this usually means flying. Here are a few suggestions to help ease this burden:

Kayak is a site which basically promises to scan all the available flights for your dates and come back with the cheapest suggestion. However, don’t forget to use filters otherwise you may be booking to go from A to B via about eight different places with a three day stopover on the way….

Skyscanner is similar to Kayak. Note: they now also do car hire, hotels etc

Flight Aware this brilliant little site keeps track of all the flights in the air at any one time – great for checking if your flight is likely to be delayed. Also helpful if you’re picking people up from the airport. Careful though, it can be addictive (am currently watching the Emirates flight that’s just left Jo’burg and the SAA from Durban that’s about to land….just for the heck of it).

Getting around

If anyone hasn’t downloaded the Uber app to their phones, I suggest you do so straight away. I can’t begin to explain the feeling of freedom it gives me to know that if I am stuck anywhere in Pretoria (or other South Africa cities) all I need is my phone to get me somewhere. The fact that it is cash free is genius.

The post that initially started my hunt for technology to help the modern expat was actually based on an idea about how useful I found my GPS. As above, I love the freedom it has given me not to worry about getting lost. I love it so much I even wrote this post about it.

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Google Streetview and Google Earth have been revolutionary in how we can now view the world. We used Streetview to explore our neighbourhood before we even visited Pretoria, and who hasn’t checked out their hotel on Earth in advance of booking that holiday? But Google maps is the one that I now use the most often – either as a GPS when the one in my car is having a bad day or as a way to find out how long it will take me to get from A to B. If you haven’t watched the film Lion yet I thoroughly recommend it as a way to see the real power of Google maps!

Finding a place to stay

I rarely book anywhere these days without first checking reviews on Tripadvisor. I try and read as many reviews as possible because I realise how easy it is to post fakeness but generally I do think that as long as there are enough of them you can get a fair idea of what you are getting yourself into.

There are several ways to book private accommodation these days. Probably the best known is Airbnb, a brilliant way to find well-priced accommodation in exactly the location you are interested in (their use of maps for searching makes it so easier to pinpoint where the homes are). VRBO (which stands for Vacation Rental by Owners) is another one.

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If you are up for it, trying out a home exchange can be a great way to score cheap accommodation. It’s not something I have tried yet but with the way Sterling is dropping I suspect this is going to become more and more popular in years to come. This site claims to have 65,000 homes in 15 countries.

When you are there

Ok so you have arrived and checked in – what’s for dinner? Trip Advisor (see above) can be helpful here too but there are other ways to find local restaurants, bars, cafes etc as well as local attractions, shops and even services. Yelp is one such site. Zomato is another. But please, distract me quick before I spend the rest of the day browsing restaurant menus…..

Converters

Finally, life can get complicated when you are on the move. Here are two ways to help you keep track – firstly, to make sure you know how much things cost are currency converters like this one (although to be honest these days if you just put the currency you need converting into Google it will tell you – sigh, is there anything google can’t do?). Secondly, do you ever wonder what time of the day it is back home (easy when you live somewhere, not so much when you are travelling)? Or in that other country where you want to book a flight but are not too sure what time you are going to arrive? Then you need a time zone converter.

So that’s just a quick run down of some of the sorts of sites and apps that are out there now to help us when we travel. I am quite sure there are many, many more (as a quick example, in London we used this app to tell us how long we had to wait for the next bus). In fact, this post really is just a “for starters” and I would love to hear if you have any more great travel apps that you would like to share. If so please post in the comments section below.

Otherwise, bon voyage!

Photo credits: BA plane – Nick Fewings, Crooked House by Don McCullough

How modern technology has transformed expat life : part 2 – communication

Before Christmas I wrote the first of what I hope will be a series of three or four posts looking at how modern technology has changed expat life (hopefully for the better – although I think there is a sting in that tail and refer you to this post I wrote about facebook envy).

In my first post I looked at how the world of work has been affected and how much easier it is now for us all to work remotely. This is potentially a huge game changer for the expat partners who may otherwise have to give up their jobs or even career to follow their spouses overseas.

But technology is there to help us in many ways other than for work and in this post I am going to have a look at communication.

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Way back when we lived overseas when I was a child, 99% of communication was done by letter (snailmail as it became known). Once a week we could send back and recieve letters through the diplomatic bag. Every post had a day when the bag came in; in every household eager wives (for it mainly was wives in those days) and children awaited news from home. Birthday presents, Christmas cards, even my O level results arrived this way, along with those long letters from parents and grandparents full of the news of Aunt Edna’s hip replacement and how the tomatoes were doing. It all seems so trivial but those everyday stories of home were what we craved. Every so often, we got a phone call – I remember this being the case when my grandmother died. But usually the only news we got from home was at least 5-7 days out of date.

To expats today this must all seem very strange. Can you imagine putting your child into boarding school and then having to wait a week to hear how they were getting on? Nowadays of course we have so many – maybe even TOO many – ways to communicate when we move away from our friends and family. Here are just a few of them:

Skype and FaceTime

There are of course now many more face-to-face ways to talk to people but these are prehaps the best known. Skype was the one that really broke down the barriers – for the first time we could not only speak to but see our loved ones without having to pay astronomical international call prices. FaceTime is useful because it is on phones and Ipds so more portable (ok I know, I am a bit backward here – you can get Skype on phones too now, right?). But both are excellent ways not just to talk but to share – how many grandparents have watched their grandkids growing up through the wonder of this kind of technology? Personally we have been able to build a great relationship with my broter-in-law in Florida thanks to Skype and FaceTime and there is nothing I like more than sitting down for a cup of coffee with friends in England, all over the internet.

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Messenger, WhatsApp, Snap Chat etc

More immediate and probably now the most used type of communication is instant messaging. I love that you can connect so quickly and easily with anyone, anywhere in the world. Whilst Facebook is still perhaps the number one way people keep in touch with each others lives (see below for more on Facebook) I think we have started to move off the public pages and into more private spaces.

Of course we don’t just use these services to keep in touch with people back home or to communicate with friends new and old in other parts of the world; group messaging has become a real boon to expats making contacts and friends in a new country. What easier a way to organise a meet up than one Whats App group message? So much better than the old days of having to send separate emails or individual messages and then send them again when one person can’t make that particular time….

Expat Facebook groups

Another thing that I have noticed happening more and more commonly now is the use of groups for particular needs and interests and the ones aimed at expats have to be one of the greatest innovations to have hit the expat scene in a long while. As soon as you know where you are heading, you know you will probably be able to find a group to help you with your questions. I admin one here in Pretoria, where people come to ask questions about anything from where to get passport photos done to whether you need a pool heater (as an aside, there is good writing material in some of these groups – I always laugh when I see the posts asking whether anyone has a golf buggy for sale…). In the meantime, we have a separate “buy and sell” page which is a great place to get rid of all that stuff before you move on or conversely buy it when you first arrive; and (perhaps this is more pertinent to South Africa than many places) a travel page for sharing information about places to go and things to see.

Video and photo sharing sites

Another way we can keep in touch is by sharing our photos and videos. Some do prefer just to do this via facebook but equally many prefer to keep these things private. You can set up a You Tube video channel and set the settings to ensure only people you invite can view, and there are also lots of cloud-sharing photo sites (I am told Flickr is good for this, as well as Google Photos). So when you store your photos you can alert your parents back home and they can view at leisure. No more labouriously sending photos back as email attachments, two or three at a time (particularly painful for those of us without a speedy internet connection).

Blogs

Finally, I had to include this one as of course one of my main methods of communication is via my blog! In my case, it is not really aimed at friends and family but many people do initially set up a blog in order to keep the folks back home abreast of their new, shiny overseas life. In a way it is just a public diary for many people (although how public is up to you – again, like a YouTube channel, you can set it up so that only chosen viewers can see it). But even if this is not the intention of a blog site it is still a way to communicate. I, for one, have met several people in real life thanks to my blog – and have many more friends who I have never actually met but who I have close and important relationships with because they found me this way. After all, it is just a way of bringing people together with a commonality so why not use it as a basis to make friendships?

 

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So those are our main communication channels – let me know if you think I have left anything out. Next time I want to look at ways that we use modern technology for travel. After all, for so many of us travel is one of the more important aspects of our lives – so we may as well use the best tools available to help us enjoy it.

Photo credit: Yining Zhang

 

How modern technology has changed expat life: part 1 – work

Over the last few years there has been a surge in the number of apps you can now download on to your ever-increasingly sophisticated smart phone. So many that I suspect most of us can’t keep up – I am sure there are now apps to help you with doing just about anything and everything short of putting the rubbish out (ok – have just Googled that and apparently Coventry City Council have an app called Your Rubbish….).

But for expats, many of these apps are improving our lives in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. Not just phone apps, but modern technology generally – the whole idea for this post started after I called a last-minute Uber following a minor car emergency when my husband was out of town. A year or two ago I would have been stuck as normal taxis are just too risky to use for us here in Pretoria. By plugging straight in to the Uber app on my phone however I was able to rescue a tricky situation and get everyone to where they were meant to be on time.   Working, travelling, communicating, living – all things that we can now do easier, quicker, better thanks to technology. And as expats this can include the sort of improvements in our lives that means living overseas doesn’t have to be as isolating, as boring or as lonely as it used to be.

So I thought I would ask around and get some suggestions from fellow expats as to what apps, tools and other technology they love and would recommend to others. I had so many brilliant replies that I had to divide them up into several blog posts, and start today with WORK.  The list below isn’t exhaustive by any means so please feel free to add any that aren’t on it in the comments section.

Work and study

As someone who remote works, I know how important it is to be able to sit at your desk in one country and be able to easily and effectively communicate with someone in another. The improvement in WiFi and 4G in many countries has made remote working a real possibility for so many people. As it becomes more normal in our home countries so it will give us the opportunity to bring these jobs with us when we move. But apart from the ability to connect, what else has been happening to make remote working so much more realistic than it used to be? And how much easier is it is now to be able to study online?

File sharing

You remember how it used to be – someone would email you a file as an attachment, you would open it, change it and email it back. In the meantime the same document has been sent to someone else who has added their own changes. The document owner now has to take all the changes from all the different versions and merge them into one….well, no more. Now you can of course simple share a document with all in your team and everyone can see the same document and change it as required. Dropbox is probably the best known file sharing tool but there are plenty of other services out there.

Affordable webinar platforms

Webinar is basically a Web-based Seminar – so a way for lots of people to “attend” the same lecture, meeting or presentation using video conferencing software. Webinars are also interactive so not just receiving info but adding to it as well.  Video conferencing itself has of course been around for a long time – I used it when I was working in Jamaica back in the early noughties. But the key here is affordable – many small companies or businesses can’t afford the sort of full-on video conferencing facilities and technology needed for the old-fashioned way. A key to opening up remote working to expats like you or me is for companies and organisations of all different shapes and sizes to be able to take us on. This is one way to help that happen. Webinars are also an important and integral part of studying from a remote location. One webinar platform that was recommended to me was Zoom.

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Working in your pj’s: one of the advantages of remote work

Social media management tools

Many of us who work remotely also manage social media. Whether this be for a specific job or for our own blogs/websites, what we realise is important is being able to manage our posts across different time-zones. And unless you want to be getting up at 3am to make sure your tweet is sent at optimal time for the US West Coast, you need to reply on clever social management tools. I myself use Hootsuite to manage my Twitter feed (although in all honesty my management of Twitter is very patchy!). Someone else suggested Buffer and someone I know in the UK who I work with remotely on website design and admin recommends Sprout Social. The beauty of some of these platforms is that you can share your posts across multiple disciplines eg Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc – all at the same time, and all while you are peacefully sleeping.

Project management

When I was having the front cover of my book, the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, designed, I employed a company that used something called Basecamp. It meant that several of us all working on one project could see what everyone else was doing, could comment on progress, could discuss changes – all in one place. It meant things didn’t slip through or get lost – everything was always where it should be. This is of course a useful tool whether you work remotely or in the same room as each other. But for those of us who ARE working in a different time zone to our clients/bosses/contractors this is a great way to keep on top of a complicated project. Or even a simple one.

Online study

Of course studying remotely has been around for a long time but we are well past the days of having to stay up until 2am to watch the Open University lectures from men in questionable jumpers and bad facial hair. Nowadays you can study from the comfort of your home for courses ranging from just-for-fun short tutorials to full on degrees and post-graduate studies. Coursera is one such organisation bringing together online courses from a number of different providers – in fact, they even have a course called Communicate Effectively in a Globalised Workplace! Another company offering a huge variety of online courses is Udemy – anything from mastering meditation to learning software development. One particularly neat feature of Udemy is that they offer courses as gifts – so if you are still stuck for that last Christmas present for someone special…

Personal digital assistants

I will admit when I first heard about this, I thought we were talking about virtual assistants. By that, I mean people in other places who help you with things like typing up a document or doing your accounts. All useful but obviously becoming obselete now we are in the brave new digital world. So what is a Personal Digital Assistant as opposed to a person personal assistant? The ones we probably know best are those like Siri or Cortana attached to the devices we use everyday. These are still more useful for the kids to play games with, if you ask me. But I am told the future is coming and soon we will be asking these guys to do all sorts of things for us. If you don’t believe me read this. And although it looks like we will be using digital assistants to help us in many ways, from telling us what the weather will be like to re-stocking our fridge, I am sure there will be many ways they will also be able to help us work from home. I just don’t quite understand yet how….

Others

I was recommended a number of other apps and tools that I thought were worth a mention. These included Prezi – a cloud-based tool for creating and storing presentations; Figure It Out, which helps you keep track of time across different timezones; Wunderlist – which is a virtual, shareable to-do list (also great for when you move); and Join.me which I am told is a good way to share screens and team calls .

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So that’s some of the best tools around for remote work; in my next post on this subject I want to look at how technology has helped us communicate, keep in touch with home and make and keep friends in our new location.

Photo credit: Kevin Schraer