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Taking the trial out of travel (Part 1)

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As foreign travel becomes more of a mission than a pleasure, sites and services are emerging to help reduce inconvenience, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Foreign travel should be fun. But, in recent years, security controls, delays, high cost and the pervasive bureaucracy of airlines and airports has turned it into a trial. Add business travel to the mix, when you have to lug equipment with you worrying about compatibility with power supplies around the world and it becomes almost a matter of luck whether a trip will be successful.

At the same time, though, more and more resources are emerging to reduce the element of luck, and help travellers regain control. Here are some of the best I have found.

Power socket guides

Not sure what plug you will need for what country? Or whether you need to take extra plugs at all? One of the best resources in the world to keep this one firmly plugged in is at http://www.worldstandards.eu/electricity.htm. The site provides a comprehensive country chart with the types of plug in use in each country. For a point-and-click option, it includes a colour-coded socket map of the world, along with both diagrams and photos of each type of socket and plug.

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AC_power_plugs_and_sockets) provides a less structured approach, but offers far greater depth as it drills down into the detail of each plug and explains the history and standards behind each.

Too much information? Not when you’ve been stuck with a powered down laptop in a foreign country where the nearest electronics outlet is at the airport the one you just left behind..

Seat selection

Nothing can make or break a long trip more than having a good or bad seat on a flight. With most airline web sites allowing online booking only in the last 24 hours before a flight, it is usually a matter of luck to get an aisle seats or one of the emergency row seats.

However, if you know in advance what type of aircraft you will be boarding, you can identify ideal seats by their exact seat numbers. Your airline won’t tell you? There is a site for that. Visit Seatguru.com, type in your flight number and date of flight, and it will not only tell you what plane you will be boarding, but will also show a detailed seat map.

Seating plans are available for every aircraft in use by commercial airliners. The map even flags problem seats as well as those with special benefits, like extra legroom. It is invaluable in preparing for long flights, indicating power supply in seats and even Wi-Fi on board along with advice on where to sign up in advance for special deals. Want to strategise getting an aisle seat on the exit row? This is the blueprint.

Assuming you’re a member of a frequent flyer programme if you’re not, do sign up call the programme’s support line and request pre-allocation of the specific seat you have identified. This may not always be possible, but it is the single travel act with the highest return on effort.

Choosing a hotel

There isn’t yet a seatguru equivalent for hotels, but Tripadvisor comes close. Travellers themselves supply reviews and ratings by category of travel, which means you can see a hotel through the eyes of a business traveller, a family or an elderly couple, for example. This means that ratings go beyond one person’s viewpoint, bringing relevance to your needs to the fore.

Tripadvisor has become such a standard tool, many hotels have its plaque at their entrance, with the average stars awarded on the site replacing traditional tourism association star ratings.

Phone maps

Using digital maps in foreign countries can consume huge amounts of data if you’re using wireless roaming. Prepare for bill shock on your return, unless you’ve learnt this little trick and have a phone with built-in GPS navigation: While in a WiFi zone, i.e. with data access that doesn’t incur extra cost for how much you use it, call up the map of the area you are most likely to explore, ensuring that you explore the map to download all likely areas in which you will move around. On an iPhone, don’t close the map, so that the data remains active. In Android, the map data should remain active as long as you don’t switch off the phone or manually stop the app from running. Now, with mobile data disabled, the phone’s GPS will continually show you where you are on the map.

General tools

There is an app for almost every travel need, from airport gate maps to flight trackers to weather. Simply search the app store linked to your device, and the choices pour out.

There is one final rule: most of these work only if you plan in advance. This, by definition, does not include starting once you’re at the airport. More on the topic next week.

· Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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