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International Texting Free for All

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Great news for travelers: international texting is soon to be a bygone worry. Yesterday, Facebook has announced a $19 billion purchase of free text service What’s App, not long after Viber, its main competitor, was bought out by Japan’s Amazon-esque Rakuten. Why do we care? The proliferation of free global texting apps is making huge waves—as evidenced by What’s App’s soaring price tag—and phone carriers are responding. First out of the gate was T-Mobile, with their free global data plan. Now AT&T and Verizon are stepping up to the plate: the former announced price cuts to its wireless plans earlier this month, while Verizon just launched their More Everything plans late last week, with unlimited messaging to any mobile number in the world.

Also in the world of global communications news? A promising announcement coming out of the EU, where roaming charges will be made illegal come July. For those heading across the pond, it’s a pretty exciting change—all you’ll need is one SIM card for continent-wide service. Here’s to telecom companies finally getting things right.

Nikki Ekstein is an Editorial Assistant at Travel + Leisure and part of the Trip Doctor news team. Find her on Twitter at @nikkiekstein.

Photo credit: Folio Images / Alamy

Two New Ways to Learn Chinese

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Looking to brush up on your Mandarin while Chinese New Year is still hot? We’ve recently discovered two apps and websites that might help you along. To get you reading in no time, there’s Chineasy, a clever site designed by a Taiwanese venture capitalist turned entrepreneur. The method is simple: traditional characters are converted into stylish illustrations that serve as visual pneumonics. Once you’ve learned a few basics, you’ll be shown compound characters that read like math problems (to come + to return = round trip). It’s all very playful, fun, and easy to use. For now, it's all online, but an app is slated to hit the iTunes store next month.

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Orbitz Steps Up Their Game with Orbitz Labs

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The OTA wars are heating up: just weeks after Expedia released three smart new features, Orbitz has one upped with their cutting-edge Orbitz Labs, meant to give travelers a whole new level of transparency when booking their flights and hotels. Think of Orbitz Labs not as one tool, but as a whole new toolbox: inside, you’ll find personalized hotel picks based on properties you’ve said you love (like Pandora for hotels), a hot rates heat map that lets you compare hotels’ average daily rates to historical trends, and “best bets,” a feature that lets you see which days or weeks offer the best hotel prices in any city. Also available: charts that show you when it’s most affordable to head to specific destinations, and trend maps that offer insight on where other Orbitz customers are traveling.

The takeaway? From loyalty programs to user-friendly functions like these, OTA’s are racing to meet their users ever-growing needs—and consumers have everything to gain.

Nikki Ekstein is an Editorial Assistant at Travel + Leisure and part of the Trip Doctor news team. Find her on Twitter at @nikkiekstein.

Photo Courtesy of Orbitz

 

Manage Your Airline Miles With Easy TripIt and Superfly Apps

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Good news for travelers who made “Manage my miles” one of their 2014 New Year’s Resolutions: top itinerary-management app TripIt can once again track frequent-flier miles from American, Delta, Southwest, and United airlines. It doesn’t happen automatically, though. TripIt Pro members will need to forward their monthly or quarterly statements to points@tripit.com and the service will extract the relevant balances and information.

Also worth considering: the new, still-in-beta “Superbox” service from Superfly, which automatically searches your emails for mileage statements and updates your account. (It works for all carriers but Southwest.) Currently, only Gmail users can take advantage of this function, but Superfly plans to work with other email providers soon.

Amy FarleyHave a travel dilemma? Need some tips and remedies? Send your questions to news editor Amy Farley at tripdoctor@aexp.com. Follow @tltripdoctor on Twitter.

Photo credit: iStockphoto

Expedia Introduces Three Killer New Features

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Our kudos goes to Expedia; the online booking giant has kicked off 2014 with a slew of intuitive, new features. Filling a void we’d always lamented, there’s itinerary sharing, by which customers can share live itineraries with whomever they choose (updates on delays get sent as real-time notifications). Also new: Scratchpad, a dashboard where you can save your searches and then access them from any device, or sign up for email notifications on price drops on your select routes. And finally, there’s Flight Recommendations, which analyzes your search parameters and suggests alternate airports or itinerary tweaks that might get you a better deal. And none of this could have come at a better time for Expedia, given the groundswell of rumors surrounding Google’s reinvented travel search tools—likely to hit the web come March.

Nikki Ekstein is an Editorial Assistant at Travel + Leisure and part of the Trip Doctor news team. Find her on Twitter at @nikkiekstein.

Photo Courtesy of Expedia

Tech Travel Trends You'll See in 2014: Remote Viewing

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Tech experts are swarming Las Vegas this week for Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2014, and T+L is on the ground to bring you the latest travel trends of the year. Here, a peek at some of the hottest tools so far.

Remote viewing: A slew of new tools will help you stay on top of your shows while you’re on the road. (If I’d been aware, I’d be watching the Downton Abbey premiere here in Vegas.) The frontrunners you need to know:

Dish Network
Just yesterday, the satellite provider one-upped their streaming capabilities so that now you can transfer any recorded shows to your mobile devices before you leave for a trip and watch them offline—no Wi-Fi needed.

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JetBlue’s Super Fast Wi-Fi Arrives at Last… For Free!

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Finally, the day that travel-obsessives have been waiting for is here: JetBlue’s new in-flight Wi-Fi, the product of endless chatter for months on end, is finally making its debut. This morning, a beta version of Fly-Fi (Simply Surf, as they’re calling it) was made available on three inaugural flights, indicating a slow launch for the carrier.

Morgan Johnston, JetBlue’s manager of corporate communication, says the airline will be bringing connectivity to five planes by end of year, and 140 more throughout 2014. But compensating for the slow roll out is super-fast service, thanks to a unique high-speed satellite that’s unrivalled among other airlines. An extra perk? Simply Surf will be free for the first six months, with an intention to make complimentary service available on an ongoing basis.

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Instagram Direct Launches For Private Sharing

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Today, at a rare NYC-based launch event, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom announced a new feature called Instagram Direct. Like your private inbox on Twitter or Facebook, it’s a new way to share privately—either with one individual or a group of up to 15 friends. Simply select who you want to share your photo with, and each person’s avatar shows up in a bubble underneath your caption—first grayed out, then in color with a green check mark once they’ve seen your message.

The new feature (available today on mobile) comes in response to the tendency of self-curating—not wanting to overwhelm your feed with every single shot of your Roman holiday, for instance—and the need to share those extra images with the people who really do want to see them. (Named groups, such as “Family” or “Foodie Friends” will follow in the 2.0 version of Direct, making it easier to share that ump-teenth baguette and cheese shot in Paris without annoying your best carb-avoiding gal pal.) So why have the launch in New York? Said Systrom: “Instagram isn’t just about Silicon Valley. Instagram is all about sharing moments all around the world.” We couldn't have put it better ourselves.

Nikki Ekstein is an Editorial Assistant at Travel + Leisure and part of the Trip Doctor news team. Find her on Twitter at @nikkiekstein.

Photo courtesy of Maria Pedone

Roomer: A New (Discounted) Market for Hotel Rooms

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Think of it as the StubHub for hotel rooms: with new site Roomer.com, travelers are able to offload non-refundable reservations onto anyone looking for a good deal. Unlike the ticket scalping site, bookings are re-sold at a discount—and often a steep one. On a recent search, we found half-priced rooms at the Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental Miami, as well as rooms under $100 in New York City (yes, seriously). Here’s how it works: those looking to book simply browse through Roomer’s search engine and pick where they’d like to spend a night (or more). Each reservation must stick to the same dates as the original booking—one key downside—but Roomer takes care of transferring the reservation details to your name and credit card. We love the way the site puts the “current market value” next to your discounted price on numerous listings—it’s that kind of data that really gets a bargain hunter going!

Nikki Ekstein is an Editorial Assistant at Travel + Leisure and part of the Trip Doctor news team. Find her on Twitter at @nikkiekstein.

Photo courtesy of Roomer

HotelTonight Now Allows Booking Before Noon

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The ultimate tool for travel procrastinators has just become a little more democratic. HotelTonight, the pioneer of same-day mobile bookings, has long made their last minute deals available starting at noon on the day of check-in, but now, users will be able to book a full three hours earlier, at 9AM. Given the ever-growing number of competitors that offer same-day deals before noon, we’re not surprised at the news—though it’s a welcome change nonetheless. Especially if it means getting your room settled before boarding that 10AM flight.

Nikki Ekstein is an Editorial Assistant at Travel + Leisure and part of the Trip Doctor news team. Find her on Twitter at @nikkiekstein.

Photo courtesy of HotelTonight

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