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Five travel apps you should be using: feat. VPN China review and money transfer app

Author: secure travel backpack designer Sarah Giblin 

Keeping your life and business on track when you're half way across the world can be tricky sometimes. I know - I spend a lot of my year travelling. I work in China making my secure travel backpacks - RiutBag - and when I'm not at the factory, I'm testing new designs and prototypes on my travels globally. I carry my business in my RiutBag with me: a pencil, sketchbook, laptop, external hard drive and my phone. 

Here are the apps I use to make sure everything stays on track:

Transferwise: send money cheap to a foreign bank account

If you're moving to a new country, travelling a lot or working internationally, there are often still bills to pay at home or vice versa. Transferwise is a modern, cheap alternative to paying bank fees for being somewhere else in the world. 

Let's say you're working in Paris, being paid in Euros and still paying for costs in Dollars at home. If you send it direct from your account, your bank will charge you plenty. Often as much as £20 to send £200 with a bank. Yet with Transferwise it's less than £2. The actual exchange rate you get is remarkably close to the market rates, and the fees are only £350 to send £100,000. It's pretty awesome. 

I use Transferwise whenever I transfer money to a foreign account. 

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It has dramatically lower charges per transaction than going through your bank.

How does it work in practice? You download the app, sign up, tell Transferwise I sent you :) to get a discount on your first transfer. Then, you decide how much to send and make the payment using your debit card, Apple Pay or you can make a transfer to a bank in the same country. 

It's only for paying someone in another currency. This app won't work if you're trying to pay someone in pounds from a pounds bank account. It tells you when the payment will arrive and will alert you and the payee by email if you want to. And I like because I don't have log into online banking only to have to pay vast fees at poor exchange rates. 

ExpressVPN: VPN that works in China

Living, travelling or working abroad means understanding the limitations of the internet there. Wherever I am, I need to be able to run my company. Whilst the RiutBags are very real, everything else around them is digital. So when I'm in China at the factory, getting online and using all the services I need - Facebook (www.facebook.com/riut), Google search, Google Sheets, Dropbox and more - I need a VPN to help me keep using them.

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It secures your online activity making it private and, in practice, it can provide you with internet access as though you were siting in another country, e.g. United Kingdom or Sweden, if you want.

best VPN for China travel apps ExpressVPN from RiutBag anti theft travel backpack

What's the best VPN for working in China or abroad? 

I've spent the last 3 years making my way through all the free and low cost VPNs. They are hit and miss, they work in Germany but not China or they simply don't work at all. I've finally gone for one that actually works in China: ExpressVPN. I can do all my work from my hotel room as though I were sitting in my office at home. It works exactly as I hoped. On occasion, when I don't know why something isn't working - it is my internet connection or the VNP that's down? - their chat service provides immediate updates on service. 

Skyscanner: find cheap flights all year round

This app shows you all the prices for all the airlines for your flight in the coming year. Just enter your start point and destination. You'll know this app if book flights regularly. I book all my flights through it for business and holiday travel. 

It's not just good for booking cheap flights. Recently, my flight was delayed flying from Xiamen, China to Amsterdam, Netherlands. I had a connecting flight to Berlin which was cancelled too, all due to sudden thick fog that had descended over Amsterdam Schipol, the airport. Amsterdam Schipol was in chaos. Queues were over 4 hours long to try to get a rebooking. Information was very limited.

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Rather than waiting for 4 hours to speak to someone, only to hear than my new flight would be another 8 hours from that point, I just checked Skyscanner. If it was still selling flights from Amsterdam to Berlin, then I knew which flights had seats free. I was already in the airport because I was transferring. I went to the gate where the next flight to Berlin was leaving. I asked if they could rebook me there and then. They asked me to wait until all the passengers were on the plane. I did.

They not only got me on the plane, they also transferred my luggage from the first plane to this new one and I was back in Berlin within the time it would have taken me to queue up. Thanks to Skyscanner, KLM and the staff at Amsterdam Schipol.

I look at Skyscanner or a daily basis for flights and flights costs anyway. But it's a great alternate source of info when chaos descends on an airport and you're stuck in it.

XE.com currency converter: know your currencies

Getting ripped off because you don't have enough local know how or language is one of the downsides of travelling to exciting places. So use your wait at the airport to learn how much your money is worth.

Whether you're travelling for work or holidays, I can recommend this. Add the currency of the country you're going to before you arrive. Then, even when you're not online, it will store the latest exchange rate and give you a good guide to how much you're paying. When you go to lunch, buy a train ticket or jump in a taxi, check the amount. It may just give you a picture of how much you're paying. It could even do more for you.

If you're feeling under pressure to buy something in a medina in Marrakesh (I may have experienced this myself), slow the situation down, ask the shop keeper how much it costs, put the amount into your app and make sure you're happy paying that amount. This should save you being ripped off through the speed of a sale of things that suddenly got a lot more expensive than agreed.

Rome2Rio: for journeys with different modes of transport

Google can tell you how to get somewhere by foot, bike, car or train, but what when it's mixture? 

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I'm not a fan of the name, but this app delights me whenever I use it. It's great to help plan journeys to places you've never been to when multiple modes of transport might be required. It's easy to think that flying is the easiest option. But Rome2Rio shows you all the options, journey times and approximate cost: train, car, flight, combinations or ferry if it's available. It's great when you're going to be exploring a new country that you don't know. 

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I forget about these apps when I only visit the browser version. I've found having them in app form on my phone has helped me 100 times more whilst travelling. I hope they help you too.


I’m Sarah. I spend my time equally between Berlin, London and travel around the rest of the world. I design and build backpacks called RiutBag, designed with security at their core. I run my company on the go. It's called Riut - that stands for Revolution in user thinking. I don't want to only share my design with you, but the thinking and behaviours which help us truly adapt to our urban environment: making good choices, feeling calm, confident and comfortable wherever we go today and in the future.


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