10 websites & apps to help you plan your next adventure 

Even though there are several of these posts around, I thought I’d chip my opinions in, too! For better or worse, most of our lives are conducted online these days; this became blindingly obvious over my time working as a travel consultant. When my mum did the job way back in the 80s before I came along, it was all done manually; phone calls to airlines and long wait times, handwritten air tickets, consulting enormous books full of travel schedules to find the right planes, trains or automobiles… Now, you can basically do it all yourself online and the touch of a button!

There are an insane amount of websites and apps to assist your DIY travel agent work, and more being developed by the day, but not all of them are necessarily helpful. Having worked in retail travel, and now working in corporate travel, though, I’ve got a few go-to sites now that have been indispensable in booking my own travel over the last few years. Here are my favourites…

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B O O K I N G   A C C O M M O D A T I O N

1. Airbnb
https://www.airbnb.com.au/

WHAT? If you haven’t heard of Airbnb by now, you’re living under a rock. Founded 8 years ago in San Francisco by a few guys who were short on rent money for their apartment and decided to rent out some space in said apartment to raise the funds, it’s blown up to now cover around 34,000 cities in almost 200 countries around the world.  Basically, people who aren’t using their homes put them up for travellers to book as accommodation when they’re visiting.

WHY? It’s a brilliant alternative to hotels; as their latest ad campaign says, “don’t ‘do’ the city you’re visiting, live it.” Because these places are actually peoples’ homes, they are often in areas of cities where people actually live, rather than being tourist centres, which in turn can give you a much more authentic experience. It can also be a very cost effective solution if you’re staying in a city for more than a few nights – not only price wise (as an example, for a trip we’re planning next year, a week in New Orleans at a semi-decent hotel would have cost us around AUD$2000, but we found a beautiful place on Airbnb for just under AUD$1100!), but with a lot of rentals having amenities like kitchens and laundries, it can save you quite a bit of money in the long run.

 

2. Booking.com
http://www.booking.com

WHAT? Another website that enables you to search endless numbers of hotels, hostels, apartments and other accommodation.

WHY? Unlike some other similar websites, the deals on here are actually pretty good most of the time; they also offer options of booking and paying in full straight away (and therefore giving an extra discount), or booking now and paying later, giving the option to cancel free of charge should your plans change. They also list properties around 12 months ahead, which means you can get booking pretty early.

 

3. Trip Advisor
http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/

WHAT? Another site that primarily compares prices of flights and accommodation, but also offers traveller reviews and photographs. They also cover tourist attractions and restaurants, and frequently have new “best of” lists published to help with ideas.

WHY? While I generally prefer to book with Booking.com, I find the reviews and photos on Trip Advisor to be incredibly helpful, and more realistic than just looking at photos and feedback on the hotels’ websites (where they’re obviously not going to display anything uncomplimentary). Restaurant reviews can also be quite helpful; a lot of countries seem to either use Zomato (formerly UrbanSpoon) or Yelp for food reviews, but a lot of places also don’t – places like Isla Mujeres in Mexico, which we visited last year, aren’t super populated/don’t have a lot of locals connected to social media to review eateries, so Trip Advisor was very helpful. They also have pretty good maps to help you navigate, which again can be a little difficult in smaller cities.

 

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B O O K I N G   F L I G H T S

4. SkyScanner
http://skyscanner.com.au/

WHAT? Another comparison website, for flights, accommodation and car hire. They tap into a ton of airlines and travel sites (over 1200) and have a phenomenal amount of options.

WHY? Again, I’ve tried several different flight comparison sites, and have found SkyScanner to consistently give the most and best options. They offer a price alert system, so if you want a heads up when the prices for that Melbourne to New York flight drops without having to check yourself every day, that’s incredibly helpful. Just a tip, though; clear cookies each time your search again, otherwise they’ll be storing your last search and you might find the prices keeps going up!

 

F I N D I N G   S T U F F   T O   D O

5. Instagram
https://www.instagram.com/

WHAT? Pretty sure no one needs me to explain this one…

WHY? Unlike all of these other websites, Instagram isn’t curated by any one person or group; it’s regular, every day people sharing what they’re up to. So when you’re in Hoi An, like my sister and I were in 2014, and you want something to eat, you search the #hoianfood hashtag, and all of a sudden you have a long list of places to try out! Also, try just searching #newyork, #rome, #bangkok etc; that beautiful sunset photo will most likely be tagged with a location, and you might just discover some beautiful places not listed in all of the travel guide books this way!

 

6. TimeOut
http://www.timeout.com/

WHAT? I’m a big fan of TimeOut; operating in over 100 cities around the world, they curate print magazines and a brilliant website full of things to see, do party, learn, shop, experience and eat. They use locals to investigate and write for them, which means that their guides are written by people who actually live what they’re writing about.

WHY? As I mentioned above, it’s locals who write for TimeOut, so it’s not just going to be the standard, run-of-the-mill travel guide. I’ve found when I’ve travelled, the ability to visit the website while you’re chilling in your hotel room and click on the “what’s on in Paris this weekend?” section is one of the best ways to find something to do, based on information that’s actually current (for anyone who’s turned up at a parking lot only to find that the market they read about in a travel book is actually not on that one weekend knows what I’m taking about).

 

M O N E Y

7. XE Currency
http://www.xe.com/

WHAT? Currency conversion, plain and simple!

WHY? I love this app so much! Currency conversion can be really complicated (especially when you’re visiting a few places that all use different currencies!), and it’s not always easy to do the maths mentally in a hurry. The app is awesome because it allows you to add a number of different currencies so you can have Thai baht, US dollars and the Euro all compared against the Aussie dollar on one little screen! The website also has a nifty little section where they show historical currency data, so if you’re that way inclined, you can check the general patterns and hopefully make some smart decisions when you’re swapping money over.

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P L A N N I N G

8. Duolingo
https://www.duolingo.com/

WHAT? Learning new languages made easy(-ish)

WHY? Probably my favourite new app this year! Pick which language you’d like to learn, determine where you’re at with a little test to start with, and off you go! The lessons only take a few minutes each, and include speaking, listening, multiple choice, translation and matching exercises. You can also set a reminder if you’re prone to forget – if I don’t have a chance to do my lesson in the morning while I’m waiting for the train, I’m reminded at 4.30pm to do it waiting for the train on the way home!

 

9. Evernote
https://evernote.com/

WHAT? The ultimate online notebook – save any and every bit of information you’ll ever need.

WHY? If Duolingo is my favourite new app, this is my favourite old trust app. I’ve been using this for years now, and would be lost without it! Basically, you can create virtual notebooks, and add as many notes as you want to them. I have a notebook for “RECIPES” where I save in a new note any recipes I come across online that I want to try. I have another “TRAVEL” notebook for our upcoming trip to Vietnam, where I have a note containing our flight information, a note with our travel insurance information, a note with our accommodation details (booking numbers, payment details, etc) and so on. And because husband is travelling with me, I’ve been able to share the notebook with him, so that he can see what’s going on with the trip. He can also add his own notes, which will pop up on my app when I refresh it. It’s the ultimate organiser, and for someone as OCD as me, that’s really saying something!

 

10. Sygic Travel
https://travel.sygic.com/

WHAT? Formerly Tripomatic, this is the most brilliant companion to take on the road with you. Basically, it’s an app that will allow you to plan and visualize your trip on a map. So, if you’re off to Rome for 3 days and want to see the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Vatican and the Spanish Steps, you can search and bookmark those attractions, assign them to a specific day of your trip, then click on that day and see the attractions you’ve bookmarked located on the city map.

WHY? Because it’ll save your bacon. There’s nothing wrong with being a tourist, but walking around a city like New York with a giant paper map is basically like painting a target sign on your back. With this app, you can pay a small fee to download an offline map of the city you’re visiting, so that when you’re out and about and not connected to the hotel’s free wifi, you can still get that map up and follow the flashing blue dot from the hotel room to the Empire State Building! Bringing up lists of attractions in the city you’re visiting is also incredibly helpful, as the app lists their websites and opening hours, as well as any other interesting information. You can also manually add in your own places to visit if they’re not already listed in the app, which can be really helpful – you’ll even be asked to find your attraction on the map so you can add it to your personalised travel map! You can search specific areas, too, filtering your search for only bars and restaurants, for example. It’s hard to explain just how brilliant this one is in writing, so do yourself a favour and visit the website or download the app and have a play with it – you might even discover some amazing new places in your own home town!

 

Eat here: Pizzaly, Melbourne (pizza)

Pizzaly
132 Wood St, Preston
https://sites.google.com/site/pizzalypreston/

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When your head pizza maker has recently been crowned Australia’s best pizza maker at the annual World Pizza Championships, you know you’re doing something right.

Mr Silvio Serpa holds that title now, for his margherita pizzas, which he’s producing by what I imagine must be the truckload at unassuming little hole-in-the-wall Pizzaly, tucked away in Preston. Being an Italian girl who grew up around the family business which was based in Preston, I was feeling proud as punch that this couple from my family’s homeland were doing so incredibly well, even though I don’t actually know them :)

Pizzaly, to me, is a real pizza place. No Hawaiian, Aussie, Americana crap here. It’s real, proper, Italian pizza, sticking with that golden rule of less is more, providing it’s all quality. And they have San Pelegrino Aranciata Rossa soft drinks, which is basically the taste of childhood to me. Good start!

They have around 20-odd pizzas on offer, half on traditional tomato bases and half on white bases (AKA no tomato sauce base), and picking one or two out is not easy. Made even harder was our seat right by Silvio’s counter, where we watched him fire out pizza after pizza, completely unassisted. Watching him was like watching poetry in motion – he was in a pizza-making trance, and it was incredible!

Eventually we decided on the margherita ($15.00), obviously, and a prosciutto crudo e rucola ($20.00) which was a white base with prosciutto, rocket, and mozzarella.

The margherita deserved the title. I’m sure this won’t make a lot of Melbournian’s happy, but I liked Silvio’s margherita a lot better than the other award-winning margherita from 400 Gradi. That dough is unbelievably thin and light, and the simplicity of good quality tomato, cheese and oregano is pure magic.

The prosciutto was equally impressive, again because of the freshness and quality of the few ingredients on there. The prosciutto was sliced thin enough that you could have held it up and seen through it, there was just enough of everything to balance; it was just the way pizza should be.

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They were actually not super filling (despite the large plates they came out on) because of the thin bases, so I took that as a green light to get dessert. The window counter out front was filled with deliciousness, but under a mesh cloche, I spied an old favourite – crostata. Basically, it’s just a tart shell filled with jam and topped with lattice pastry, but it’s a traditional Italian dessert and one that I absolutely LOVE to eat. I had a piece of the raspberry one, and it was the perfect end to the meal.

I had to stop on our way out to thank Mr Serpa for the magnificent pizza, because it really was. And not only the pizza, but everything about Pizzaly – it felt like dinner at Nonno’s house out in the suburbs; comfortable, warm, unpretentious, inviting. That’s how Italian food should be. And seeing as it’s not far from home for us, I think we’ll be eating there a lot more often now!

 

 

Pizzaly Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Eat here: The Vertue of the Coffee Drink, Melbourne (brunch) V.2

The Vertue of the Coffee Drink
8 Raffa Place Carlton, Melbourne
http://vertuecoffee.com.au/

While we’ve been back numerous times for tea, coffee and cake, it’s been a while since our last sit down and relax meal at Vertue. And, with a brand spanking new winter menu, I thought it was time for a fancy Sunday breakfast to try it out!

Nothing’s changed on the surface, with the same beautiful high ceilings and flooding light, and the same delicious, hot tea and coffee to start off on…

But after that, things have changed dramatically. I took a while to pour over the menu, but husband made up his mind straight away, choosing the crispy pork belly with soft duck egg, spiced sweet potato puree, black pudding and quince gel ($22.00). Black pudding is his new favourite breakfast item, and this one definitely didn’t disappoint! It was a very pretty breakfast, but it had guts, too – the pork was incredible, both soft & fatty and crispy at the same time. Big winner.

After much deliberation, I ended up going for the matcha panna cotta with finger lime, coconut chia pudding, house made granola, adzuki bean paste and kiwi fruit ($17.00). Because I love every single one of those things. And I, too, made the right choice – this is a little cup of heaven (and actually not that little). There’s nothing more disappointing than receiving a matcha dish that doesn’t actually taste like matcha, but the flavour was absolutely there in this. Creamy coconut chia pudding, amazing lime zing, and whatever is in that granola is magic. Would definitely order again.

By-passing the sugary window to heaven that is the cabinet full of sweets on the way out was not easy, but it gave us a good excuse to head back (again). As last time, beautiful setting, amazing food, great atmosphere, make time in your weekend schedule to visit!

The Vertue of the Coffee Drink Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Cook this: Matcha & white chocolate muffins

I saw this recipe a few weeks ago on Matchaeologist’s Instagram page, and like so many others, saved it for later. I decided to make them (with a few small changes) for my turn of Wednesday Morning Breakfast Club last week, and they were delicious! I love the combination of matcha and white chocolate, and these make a nice change from the standard choc chip muffin, especially for a special breakfast with some fresh strawberries :)

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Ingredients (makes 12 small muffins):
– 1¼ cups plain flour
– 1 tsp baking powder
– 2 tsp matcha powder
– ½ cup white chocolate chips
– pinch of salt
– ⅓ cup caster sugar
– ⅓ cup vegetable oil, coconut oil, or melted butter
– ¾ cup warm milk (I used almond milk, which work really well)
– 1 tbsp white vinegar

Method:
1. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C and line a 12-hole muffin tray with cupcake cases.

2. Combine the flour, baking powder, matcha powder, choc chips and salt in a bowl, and set aside.

3. In a larger bowl, whisk together the sugar, oil, milk and vinegar, until completely combined.

4. Add the dry ingredients into the wet, bit by bit, gently mixing with a wooden spoon as you go until it all comes together to a smooth batter.

5. Spoon the batter into the cases and bake 20 – 25 minutes, until just browned on top/they pass the skewer test.

6. Cool in tins, and enjoy!

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As you can see, mine came out quite dark, because the matcha powder I used was a darker colour. The type of matcha you use will affect the muffin colour – it won’t taste any different, just something to be aware of!

 

From my travel journal: Chicago 2014

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“Went for a little walk around the city in the afternoon, got something to eat and walked a little more. The city is surprisingly beautiful, unexpectedly so. I’d heard that it was an impressive city architecturally, but it is just really aesthetically pleasing to me. I can’t quite put my finger on it; the mix of beautifully old brick buildings and the super modern, the lake that the city centres around, the trees scattered about… I don’t know, it’s not traditionally beautiful like a Paris, but it has my attention and I’m a little bit in love with this city.”