Manage a trip with an iPhone, Simplenote and NValt

Years ago, travel meant carrying around tickets, boarding passes, maps, email printouts and so on. They were easy to lose, easy to damage and cumbersome.

Today, connected travel apps and smartphones like the iPhone have eliminated that hassle. Flight Update Pro is one of my favorites and I recently enjoyed Flight Card. They’re both great, but you can manage much more than flight information with two simple, free apps: NValt and Simplenote. Whenever I travel, I manage the entire trip – from planning to execution and conclusion – with these two apps.

Here’s how you can do the same. It’s simple, fast and reliable. What more do you need? Let’s get started.

Why Simplenote and NValt?

There are many tremendous travel apps and services available. So why use two text editors? Neither is meant to be a travel app or even a database. Let me explain why.

  1. They’re lightweight. With minimal graphics, Simplenote launches in a snap on the iPhone and NValt is just as snappy on the Mac.
  2. Effortless over-the-air (OTA) sync. I’ll show you how to set this up.
  3. Offline accessibility. You needn’t have an Internet connection to refer to your information. Want to review hotel information while on the subway? No problem.
  4. Share notes with tags. You can share notes with a fellow traveler or a whole group of people simply by adding a tag. I’ll show you how.
  5. Plaintext files ensure accessibility. If there’s ever a problem that requires you to use an unknown computer, your files will be accessible.
  6. Versions history. If you accidentally erase something crucial, that note’s version history will restore it.

Sound good? Here’s what you’ll need.

What you’ll need

Here’s what you’ll need to get started. It’s a short list and most of it is free.

  1. At least one iPhone
  2. A Mac
  3. NValt
  4. A Simplenote account
  5. A Dropbox account (optional)

NValt is a fork of Notational Velocity that offers many additional features. It supports Markdown, Simplenote tags and a lot more. I especially like the horizontal layout.

Simplenote is a web service that allows you to create notes and wirelessly sync them across iOS devices via a free app. As I’ll explain later in this post, it’s very easy to enable OTA synchronization between these two apps.

I should note that, while Simplenote is free to use, there is a paid premium version that offers additional features. The free version offers synchronization between the web app and iOS app, 10 previous versions of each note, throttled third-party app use and standard support.

A premium account ($19.99) adds Dropbox sync, note creation via email, an RSS feed and the ability to edit notes while in list view on the iOS app. Everything I’ll explain in this article can be accomplished with the free version. However, if you want to upgrade for the additional features, I encourage you to do so. Simplenote is a fantastic service.

Finally, I noted that Dropbox is optional. While you can sync notes without it, a Dropbox account adds an additional layer of backup, accessibility and versioning.

Have you got everything? Great. Let’s set it up.

Simplenote

Create an account

Visit Simplenoteapp.com and click Create an account. Simply provide an email address and a password and you’re all set.

Next, download the iPhone app (free, universal). Once installed, login with your credentials.

Configure the iPhone app

Some of the steps I describe later require certain settings. Here’s how to prepare Simplenote for iPhone.

  1. Enable web sync. Tap Settings, then move the Web Syncing slider to On.
  2. Enable Detect Links. This allows you tap browser and Maps URLs.
  3. Set Sort Order to Alpha. This will be important when titling notes.
  4. Passcode Lock. This is up to you, but since you’ll be saving sensitive information like hotel reservation information, air travel details and more, it’s probably a good idea.

Now let’s move on to NValt.

NValt

Configure the Mac app

Again, certain tasks require that certain settings be in place. Here’s how to set up NValt for our purposes.

  1. Choose a storage location. This is the folder that NValt will use to store notes. I’ve created a folder on my Dropbox called Plaintext. That’s where all my NValt notes live.
  2. Enable Simplenote sync. Select Synchronize with Simplenote and enter your username and password.
  3. In the Notes preference pane, click the Storage tab and then select Plain Text Files from the drop-down menu.
  4. Security. There’s an encryption option that’s up to you to enable.
  5. Horizontal vs. vertical layout. I prefer the horizontal layout, as it makes notes easier to identify and increases the usefulness of the subtitle trick I’ll describe later.

Start creating notes

I always start with NValt because I typically plan involved events like trips and vacations on my Mac. If you prefer to start in Simplenote, that’s fine, as the bi-directional OTA sync keeps all devices up to date.

A consistent title syntax

A consistent title syntax is important for two reasons. First, it will keep like notes together, as we’re sorting titles alphabetically. Also, it improves search results. Here’s how to form a title:

Common Identifier – specific detail

For example, “New York – Hotel,” “New York – Trains” and “New York – Parking.” Alphabetical sorting keeps all of these notes in a row, and a search for “New York” will pull up every one. Conversely, “Parking Info” is a poor title because you don’t know what it refers to at first glance and will only cause time-consuming fumbling while you’re at the parking garage. That’s precisely the kind of thing we’re trying to avoid.

A consistent subtitle syntax

Here’s a trick I learned from Merlin Mann. When you create a note in NValt, write the very first line like this:

Subtitle – Specifics

For example, “Subtitle: Train info and confirmation,” “Subtitle: Parking details” or “Subtitle: Hotel address, res. number and phone.” Place two carriage returns after the subtitle so that there’s a space between it and the first line of the note. The result is a tidy display like this:

 

How nice that looks! Instantly, I know what each note is about thanks to the clear, concise title and I get even more detail from the subtitle (without having to open the note). Plus, a quick search of just two terms brought up every single note relating to that trip.

You can also add tags to notes in NValt. These tags will sync to Simplenote, but differ in behavior in a significant way I’ll explain later. For now, double-click on the bottom of a note’s preview on the left-hand side. A new field appears. Enter your tag and hit Return.

Now let’s look at the Simplenote side.

If you’ve got sync set up correctly, the notes you created with NValt will show up on your iPhone without you having to do a thing. Tap any note to read or edit it. Since we’ve enabled links, any addresses, URLs, etc. you’ve included will be live. The cool thing about tags in Simplenote is sharing.

Share notes with Simplenote tags

If you’re traveling with a companion(s) who’s got Simplenote running on his/her phone, you can share your notes with them simply by creating a tag. Here’s how.

Let’s say I’m traveling with Jane to visit Heather and Bill. Jane and I need to share all of the trip’s information, while Heather and Bill only need to know where and when to meet us at the airport. To share a note with Jane, I simply add her name to a note as a tag. As long as she’s in my contacts list, she’ll receive a special link via email which, when clicked, opens the note in her copy of Simplenote. From that point on, changes made by either of us are synchronized across devices.

Meanwhile, I’ve shared air travel information with Bill and Heather. Bill doesn’t have an iPhone, so the link opens the Simplenote web app. If my flight is delayed or, heaven forbid, early, I can make a change on the note and Bill and Heather will see it.

Additionally, I can add a whole group of people as a single tag. If I were traveling for business, I could make a group in Address Book called coworkers and add it to a note as a tag. When I do, everyone in that group gets a link to the note automatically.

Adding information to notes

Of course you can type directly into a note, but that’s note the only way to transfer information. For instance, you can highlight text in am email message and drag-and-drop it into a NValt note. It’s also possible to email a note directly to Simplenote (you’ll have to re-work the title to meet our criteria, though).

Fun bonus stuff

But wait, there’s more! Here are some fun things you can do to make this even better.

  1. Make an overview page with NValt links. You can create a link to a note in NValt by right-clicking (or Command-clicking) on it and selecting Copy URL. Then create a new note with a title like “New York – Overview” and paste links to all the related notes inside. A click will bring you right to that note (Unfortunately, those URLs are meaningless to Simplenote).
  2. Browse version history. If you need to restore a previous version of a note (perhaps Jr. erased your confirmation number), open the note in Simplenote and then tap the clock icon. Next, move the slider to the left until you find the version you’re after.
  3. Easy step-by-step instructions. Let’s say you’ve received walking directions from the train station to the office. Create one step per line when you create the note and then opt to display it as a list in Simplenote (tap the “i” icon and then Display As List. Premium members can re-order the list on-the-fly).

I hope you found this helpful. I’ve been traveling like this for over a year, and have completely eliminated paper, fumbling at the front desk, loss of access while offline and waiting for “big” travel apps to load and get online.

I even create additional notes while on my trip, like journal entries, where my car is parked in the garage, how much I spent on lunch and so on. When the trip is over, I have a thorough, reviewable history that was synchronized to all of my devices, backed up to Dropbox and  shared with pertinent family and friends with a bare minimum of effort on my part. You can’t beat that.