MY TOP 10!
- Pleco: A Chinese-English dictionary, I used this app EVERY SINGLE DAY. Look up words in English or Chinese (simplified or traditional), make your own list of bookmarks, even add your own words. Extremely user friendly and useful. I had an entire folder saved just for food words.
- Skype: In lieu of a pricey international phone plan, I used Skype on my computer or iPhone to contact friends and family back home. You can purchase Skype credit, so you can even call people who don't have a Skype account (or use Facetime if you both have iPhones and an Internet connection). For example, I used Skype credits to call my home university to take care of some paperwork-ey things. You can even buy a Skype number if you MUST have a phone number for people to reach you at.
- WeChat: Essentially the Facebook of China, everyone and their dog has a WeChat account. I used this most often to keep in touch with my Chinese and International friends in-country.
- Hola: I'm not about to give up Facebook and Netflix if I don't have to. This Google Chrome extension can circumnavigate the Great Firewall by saying you're logging in from another country (i.e. the US, UK, Canada, Japan). **UPDATE: There is now some controversy about Hola selling their users’ data, and Google has now blocked Hola. More information here.
- Units Plus Converter: An iPhone app, this unit converter works for area, currency, data, fuel-mileage, length, power, pressure, speed, temperature, time, volume, and weight. I used it most often for currency, but it also came in handy when dealing with temperature and measurements. This American girl doesn't quite comprehend Celsius and kilos right away.
- Ctrip: For booking domestic flights and trains, or even just double checking times this site was most useful for me. It comes in an app too, but I never utilized it. You can also book hotels, vacation packages, and tours.
- Hostelworld: If I can't couchsurf or stay with a friend, I'm all about the hostel life. There are several booking sites, but I used Hostelworld the most. In addition to hostels, it shows hotels and B&Bs. Reviews help me make my decision, and this is how I found the B&B in Zhangjiajie with the proprietor I raved about in my first "Adventure with Adrienne" post.
- Travel China Guide: When planning trips, I kept clicking on this site when I Google searched my planning questions. It gives lots of information in article form where you can glean exactly how A to B to C will work for your trip.
- Air Quality Index: I didn't use this much, because I was of the opinion that knowing how bad the air was would not make it any healthier for me to breathe. However, lots of my friends checked this every morning. Kind of like the weather or pollen count, if you will.
- Crashplan: This is more so of a service, but I am so happy I had it. For about $60 a year this service will back up your entire computer, constantly scanning to make sure it has the most recent content saved. When I thought I had smashed my computer beyond repair due to an unexpected necessary checked bag, I was SO happy to have had this protection.
But of course there are others...
Hostelling International: "The only global network of Youth Hostel Associations." I've stayed in three of these hostels (Chicago, Guilin, Xingping), and completely loved every single experience. When booking, if I see their logo I'm immediately drawn to it.
Hostelbookers: Search by country and city. Property types include hostel, apartment, guesthouse, hotel, and campsites. Booking is free, so that's cool.
Couchsurfing: Couchsurfing is more of a social community than a lodging site. You can search within the community for people willing to share their homes and time with travelers. When I stayed in Beijing I searched for women or families (because I was traveling as a single female) who were location verified members and had lots of reviews from travelers that had previously stayed with them. This keeps the sketch factor to a minimum. The family I stayed with was absolutely wonderful, and I can't wait to use Couchsurfing again.
Airbnb: "Rent unique places to stay from local hosts in 190 countries." And that's pretty much it. Stay in a spare room, your own apartment, whatever is available and convenient for you and your host. I feel this is a hybrid of couchsurfing and traditional booking methods.
Kayak: Claiming to compare hundreds of travel sites at once, checking Kayak is like checking all of those. Without the time commitment. Comes in an app too, if you're into that kind of thing.
Booking Buddy: Compares prices on flights, hotels, vacation packages, cars, cruises, vacation rentals, etc. I only used the flights checker though, so take the rest as you will. Opens up the actual sites it's checking so that you can toggle through your options more thoroughly. I used this site to stalk prices when looking at flights home.
*Tip: Always check multiple sites. I would also recommend operating searches under a window opened in "incognito" mode in the Google Chrome browser. (Right click the icon, choose 'new incognito window'.) This can get you cheaper flights because a sneaky algorithm monster thing can't tell you've been looking. Basically. I think. I don't technology well sometimes, but others have given me that advice.
Numbeo: "Numbeo is the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide. Numbeo provides current and timely information on world living conditions including cost of living, housing indicators, health care, traffic, crime and pollution." When budgeting for trips I used this site to look at things like taxi fares.
Exploremetro: "Asia's best metro maps." I only had to use the site when traveling to Shanghai, because Qingdao does not have a metro. However, this is ONE OF THE BEST DESIGNED AND MOST USEFULLY ACCESSIBLE interactive sites I've ever had the joy to use. Had I lived in a city with a more comprehensive metro system this would have been a godsend.
Lonely Planet: Most well-known for their guidebooks, the people at Lonely Planet have a plethora of travel information. A sampling includes (but is not limited to): travel news, weather, adventure tours, travel blogs, food and drink, budget travel, travel insurance...you get the idea. Delivered in an engaging and straightforward way that never feels like you're being sold something, I've enjoyed the opportunities I've had to use their products or benefit from their provided information.
Trip Advisor: This site is a really good trip planning tool. With loads of member reviews on everything from restaurants to hotels to a hiking route, I've gotten a lot of advice from other traveler's experiences.
Rome2Rio: "Discover how to get anywhere by plane, train, bus, ferry, and automobile." Put in points A and B, and this site will give you the in-between logistics via all those avenues, with time and price information. Another fabulously designed and user-friendly site, I wish I had had more need to use it.
Time and Date: This site has a world clock and time zones like you'd expect, but it also has weather forecasts for all over the world. It was useful when planning trips so I could prepare for rain, extreme heat, etc.
Big Bus Tours: Operating in many major world cities, this company offers a convenient way to get all the major sights in. See my "Solo Venture to Shanghai/Hangzhou/Suzhou" to see how that played out for me in Shanghai and why I'd recommend downloading the free app for your city of choice and skipping the actual bus tour.
Ulmon: "Apps for smart travelers." I hope I have need to explore more of their services, because their offline map in Shanghai was a LIFESAVER. I used it constantly. I had searched and downloaded several apps claiming to have free offline maps before I discovered the Ulmon one. Others often had the map in another section of the app you had to pay for, or not at all user-friendly. At least for me. Wherever you go, YOU NEED A MAP.
*There was an app for the buses in Qingdao that would have been EXTREMELY useful had I found it earlier or had more capable Chinese language abilities. There is also a taxi hailing app called kuaidi (I believe) that is very popular in Asia. So much so that it was harder to hail a cab without it. Your language definitely needs to be up to snuff with that one though, as you have to talk with the drivers to explain where you are.
Duolingo: Okay, so this has nothing to do with Chinese. But it's a REALLY cool app/site that helps you learn languages in a step-by-step progression method that feels like games. And you have to do it consistently if you don't want to repeat lessons. You also start out with a combination of basics and useful phrases. Ever since I went to Cote d'Ivoire I use it for French.
Cam Dictionary: You can point this app to Chinese characters (like a menu) and it will translate it for you. I gather this is particularly tricky, so it's not always accurate. Still better than nothing though, right?
YellowBridge: I haven't personally utilized the site, but it has lots of resources. A Chinese-English dictionary that will say the word for you, an etymology explorer that will break down a character's components, flashcards, memory games, text annotator...you get the idea.
Google Translate: Wherever you travel, if you don't speak the language and you have data/access to internet: get Google Translator. It will not only translate written language, but speak the translation so that you can communicate with someone who might not be able to read (which is unfortunate, but a very real issue in many areas).
Livemocha: "Free online language learning." You can take classes and have native speakers from around the world correct your technique, grammar, punctuation, etc. You have to test out of the basic classes first, but if that's where you're starting it's great! Plus the website is all cute and well designed.
MDBG Chinese-English Dictionary: Look up words in Chinese, Pinyin, or English. Good standard dictionary!
Yabla Chinese: Another Chinese, Pinyin, or English dictionary this site also has a pinyin chart and videos to help you out.
Dr. Dict: God forbid you ever get sick, but this site has medical terminology. Which is hard enough in ones native language.
Lang-8: I'm utilizing this site the most since I've returned home to try and keep up with what I've learned. You can write "journal" entries in the language you're trying to learn and a native speaker will grade them. Grade some entries in your native language to keep the learning flowing!
*Tip: Google Chrome has an extension that will allow you type in characters. Just search for "Google Input Tools" and follow the easy instructions. Super handy!
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. You can search for yourself the techy specifics of what this means, but basically you use your own network not wherever you're logged into. AKA my VPN said I was in the U.S. or Canada instead of China so I didn't have to deal with China's more controlled blocking. Don't worry, it's not illegal. The Chinese government is very aware of them. All our VPN's stopped working around the anniversary of Tiananmen Square because security was tightened. Stateside, you can use it to watch other countries' Netflix that have different shows than the U.S. one.
VPN Express: My Beijing couchsurfing host recommended this one for my iPhone, and it worked perfectly. You get a considerable amount of megabytes free, then can buy packages of varying lengths for much cheaper than many other services. This combined with the Hola extension allowed me to use the Internet completely as I wished for a very low price.
Astrill: I have zero experience or knowledge of this particular product, but most of my friends used Astrill and had no complaints.