When you’re running a business from around the world, you can’t afford to arrive somewhere new and waste hours getting lost, failing to communicate with the locals, searching for a work spot and letting patchy wifi wreck your calls.
Having needed to establish ourselves quickly in 17 cities now, we’ve built up a collection of software tools that allows us to get up to speed and down to work freakishly quickly. In this post, I’ll share five of our favourites. They’re not all super-niche, but hopefully there’ll be something new that you can put to good use.
1. A VPN
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) should be the #1 piece of digital nomad kit – yet it’s amazing how many of our friends don’t use one.
A VPN has two major benefits. The boring-but-important one is that it prevents people from snooping on your data when you’re using a public wifi network – which is vital if you spend time working in cafes, hotels or airports. It’s far easier than you probably think for someone on the same network as you to monitor your internet traffic (and thus intercept any passwords or private information you transmit), but just flipping on a VPN is enough to encrypt your traffic so you’re safe against that kind of attack.
The more exciting benefit is that you can choose to use a VPN server in any country – which has the effect of making it look like your’re actually browsing from that country. For us, this means we use a VPN server in the UK so we can watch BBC shows online that are only supposed to be accessed from the UK. Some services have got wise to this trick and block traffic that they know originates from a VPN (we’ve never had any luck with Hulu for example), but it’s still pretty neat.
Our VPN recommendation
We switched VPN services a few months back, and our recommendation is now VyperVPN. It’s extremely easy to use, has apps for iPhone and Android, and allows you to switch between servers an unlimited number of times – so you can appear to be in the US one minute and the UK the next depending on what content you want to access.
It costs from $6.67 per month, and while there are some free VPN services around (with certain restrictions), it seems like a small price to pay for security and convenience when our lifestyle is as mobile as it is.
(Yep, we’ll get a small kickback if you sign up, but it won’t cost you anything extra.)
Didlogic is the the absolute dream solution for receiving calls wherever you are in the world – yet its website is so insanely complicated that hardly anyone knows about it.
Confronted by shoddy wifi last week and with the need to make a bunch of calls, I dug into it with the help of a friend – and my mind was blown.
There are a lot of different use-cases, but for me the key element is this: if you get a local SIM card for whichever country you’re in, you can get a Didlogic number (the cost of which varies, but is in the region of $0.70 per month) that forwards to that local number very inexpensively.
You can choose a Didlogic number that’s based in any country. I have a UK number which anyone in the UK can call for the price of a local call, and I just pay a few cents per minute for it to be forwarded to my Czech number. Then when I move to Spain, I’ll just get a local SIM there and update the forwarding so the same UK number gets forwarded to my new Spanish number.
That’s the basic idea, but you can take things further too:
- If you have clients in the US and Australia (for example), you can buy a local Didlogic number in each country and forward both to your cell phone. Give each client the number that’s in their own country, and they can reach you very inexpensively (or not even know that you’re abroad).
- I set up my UK cell phone number to forward to my Didlogic number, which in turn forwards to my Czech cell. This costs me a little extra per minute (because there are two sets of forwarding), but it means that people who tend to call my UK cell don’t have to do anything at all: they can reach me on my normal number without having to know where I am.
The beauty of this solution is that it doesn’t rely on any kind of data connection at all – so even with no wifi and a $5 pay-as-you-go SIM with no data plan, you can receive your calls. For outgoing calls, there’s also a “web callback” feature that works out cheaper than Skype in most cases (but yes: for outgoing calls you will need an internet connection).
As I said, their website is a complete dog’s breakfast, so I recorded a quick screencast with an overview of how to set everything up:
Foursquare is just the latest example of our uncanny ability to cotton on to things four years after the rest of the world. We’ll add it to our collection along with tablet computers and Parks & Recreation.
We used to see on Twitter that our friend had “checked in at Taylor’s Pharmacy” or had become the “mayor” of King’s Cross Station and thought the whole thing was stupid…which in terms of broadcasting your daily routine it pretty much is, but its real power is in crowdsourcing recommendations and sharing your own.
The brilliant thing about Foursquare is that we can just rock up in a new city and get recommendations for the best cafes and restaurants near us. We can see places that our friends have been, look at photos, and see tips that people have added (like “try the fish” or “the wifi password is swansonftw”).
Foursquare users can also make lists, which means when someone asks for our Valencia cafe recommendations we can just send them a list we already put together – and it serves as a reminder for ourselves when we go back in a year’s time. In Prague at the moment, we’re totally sorted for cafes by just working through a comprehensive list that a group of digital nomads put together and shared.
So if you’re not using Foursquare yet, give it a try: we’re allergic to all social networks yet we love it. And when you do, befriend us!
4. Google Translate
Everyone knows about Google Translate, but there are a few features I only discovered recently that change its status from “useful” to “indispensable” once you have it on your phone or tablet:
Update: A commenter has pointed out that many of these cool features aren’t available on the iPhone version. Sorry about that – but not all that sorry, as just about every other app is better iPhone than Android!
- Offline languages. Go into the settings, then “manage offline languages”, then you can click on the pin icon next to any language to download the entire dictionary for offline use. So as long as you’ve planned ahead, you can start translating as soon as you arrive without having to find wifi or sort out a local data connection.
- Translate from camera. Tap the camera icon to take a photo of any text (a menu, perhaps) and have the entire thing translated for you – so much quicker than doing it word-by-word. You do need data access for this, though.
- Speak and translate. Speak in your own language and Google Translate will display the translation, then the other person just taps on their own language to speak back to you. You can therefore have a complete Google-mediated conversation with someone – all you need is to trust Google’s speech recognition not to mishear you and end up accidentally insulting their mother.
- Make full screen. Once you’ve translated a word or phrase, you can just go into the options and tap “make full screen” to easily show someone what you want to say without sending them scrambling for their reading glasses.
- Save to phrasebook. Tapping the star icon next to a translation will save it to your phrasebook, which synchronises across all your devices – so you can keep common phrases (like “Co ve jménu svaté sakra je s vaší Wi-Fi v pořádku”) at hand for when you need them.
Google Maps is great, but it’s very data-hungry – so even if you have data on your phone while you’re abroad, it could eat through your allowance before you even get out of the airport. (We once got a $30 data charge on our phone bill for Google Maps for all of five minutes to find our hotel in Bangkok. Much swearing occurred.)
The answer is OsmAnd, which isn’t as slick but works brilliantly offline. You just need to download the map for the country or region you’re travelling to, then OsmAnd will find your position on the map using your phone’s cellular data signal.
You can even get offline turn-by-turn navigation, and once you’ve learnt your way around the pretty-damn-confusing interface you can get into extreme cleverness like plotting running or cycling routes in advance. My only real gripe is that you can’t look places up by zipcode or street address: you need to find their GPS co-ordinates instead.
To help you get started, Make Use Of has a good beginners’ guide here.
6. A tool of our own?
Yes, there’s something we consider to be an essential digital nomad tool which doesn’t really exist – so with the help of members of our Anywhereist community, we’re building it!
It’s too early to release any details yet, but make sure you join our mailing list at the bottom of this post if you want to find out when it launches.
Update: It’s Find A Nomad – a tool to see where friends and potential new friends are right now, and will be throughout the year! Go check it out here.
What tools would you recommend?
Have you got any other travel software essentials to add to our list?
We’re always keen to add new tools to our collection, so please let us know in the comments!