Category: Lodging

How To Turn An Extra Phone Into A Complete Hotel Room Security System

Your valuables are often vulnerable in hotel rooms and while some Airbnbs may be watching you, keeping an eye on your stuff while you’re out for the day hasn’t been easy. The Haven app however, is designed to be a complete surveillance system you can install on a spare Android phone to be your eyes and ears when you’re not around.

What’s Haven?

Haven was designed by the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Guardian Project (Edward Snowden is president of the former) to combat an “evil maid” attack. Basically, an evil maid attack is sort of what it sounds like, securing your stuff from someone with physical access to it is really hard. A hotel room is a perfect example, you can’t always take everything with you during the day when staff come in to clean the room.

mobile security system

What Haven does is turn an Android phone into a listening and video recording device that’s automatically activated by sound and motion, alerting you by text if something fishy happens.

How To Setup Haven

As you can see in the video above, Haven is a relatively quick and easy setup. (Currently it’s Android only.) There are two ways to setup Haven: using wifi only or by getting a separate SIM card with data. The wifi-only configuration is cumbersome and much less effective if you’re using it for hotel room security so I’m not covering it here.

The first step is to grab Haven, a free download, from the Play Store and install it on an extra Android phone. Stick in an SIM card with data and launch Haven.

nexus 5xLG Nexus 5x

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Once it’s installed, it will take you through some introduction screens.

  • Configure: The first configure button lets you set how sensitive the camera, microphone, and motion detection are. I would recommend going with the defaults, then run a few tests. If you end up with too many false positives, turn down the sensitivities accordingly and test until you get them as needed.

Next, you set a phone number (most likely to your primary phone) where you can receive texts alerts if Haven detects something after it’s activated. Haven also works with Signal the private messaging app.

Other Configuration Options

When you’re about to leave your hotel room (office, home, wherever you want monitored), open Haven, hit Start Now, and a 30 second countdown timer begins. That timer can be configured to be shorter or longer; notification intervals can also be set in Haven’s configuration options.

haven app

Haven Advantages And Drawbacks

Many people have voiced concerns about personal privacy using Haven. It’s true, if Haven’s creators wanted to spy on you using the app, they certainly could. However, the fact that Haven is open source (it’s code open for anyone to review) as well as the reputation of its creators being on the line, it seems unlikely Haven is some mass surveillance scheme. Yes, Haven needs access to your phone’s camera, microphone, and motion sensors to work properly but most people give those permissions to all sorts of apps that hardly require it.

Ideally, you install Haven on a spare, brand new, Android phone with a new SIM to ensure they’ve not been compromised or there’s no malicious code running on the device. Otherwise, if you’re still a bit paranoid, just use Haven when you’re away from your hotel room and turn off the phone otherwise. Even for hotel rooms with a safe (they’re not too hard to open) placing a Haven-enabled phone inside can catch a glimpse of a thief, potentially leading to the recovery of stolen items. Haven can also be used as a security system while you’re sleeping to keep an eye on the door and give you piece of mind.

Although Haven is fairly power efficient, but if you’re going to be gone for extended periods of time, you might want to plug in the phone to an external charger like the Anker Slim 5000, PowerStick+, or just a wall outlet. Despite its potential drawbacks, Haven is the most comprehensive, inexpensive, and simple solution to monitoring your belongings when you’re not near them. Combined with these other tools, Haven can help you protect and possibly recover your stuff if it gets stolen while traveling.

How To Detect And Find Hidden Cameras In Your Airbnb Rental

airbnb room

There are so many stories being about people finding hidden cameras in their Airbnbs that it can make any traveler wonder whether or not you’ve been watched – or will – the next time you rent from Airbnb. The number of cameras that haven’t been found is a disturbing thought and more renters on Airbnb are installing surveillance to their properties.

Given the number of incidents combined with shrinking cameras, you’re not a crazy conspiracy theorist to want to take matters into your own hands. Here’s how to search for and detect hidden cameras in your Airbnb rental.

Visual Inspection

First, start with the obvious and be sure to read the entire Airbnb description of any place you’re considering renting. Airbnb requires that all hosts disclose any surveillance devices in a property, even if they’re not active or plugged in. It’s an honor system and cameras are never allowed in any private area (i.e. bedrooms and bathrooms) but it is worth checking to see if there may be security devices monitoring the Airbnb entrances or common areas like the living room.

After you have booked a place, upon arrival you can begin a survey to look for any cameras or listening devices. Don’t connect to the apartment’s wifi just yet. Also, assume you are under video and audio surveillance until you’ve finished a thorough check.

butterfly hidden eye

The first step to bug sweep a room is to look for obvious and common hiding places:

Look for any signs such as a small recording light (it sounds dumb but more common than most assume), wires that don’t connect anywhere obvious, and especially the small round glass which is a telltale sign of a miniature camera lens. Turning the flashlight on your phone to maximum can help you detect glass glare, in the dark works best.

These two apps can help you detect camera glass glint.

Assuming you haven’t found anything, the next step is to connect to the wifi in the Airbnb.

Check The Network

Many hidden cameras connect to the home network so they can stream or send what they record somewhere over wireless. Now, connect one of your devices, laptop or mobile phone to the Airbnb’s wireless network. Using the app Net Analyzer (free for Android / iOS or AngryIP for desktop) you can see all of the other devices connected to the wifi network. (In Net Analyzer at the bottom left LAN > then upper-right Scan.)

net analyzer app

Ideally, you’ll see only two devices, the wifi router and the phone you just connected. Any other devices that show up mean something in the Airbnb is wifi enabled and connected to the network. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything suspicious, it could be the smart TV. Now, unplug everything in the apartment you can: alarm clocks, fans, smart TVs, chargers or converters.

Run Net Analyzer again. In case you still see something you don’t recognize connected to the network, that’s odd, but it could be you missed something to unplug or your boyfriend couldn’t wait and entered the wifi password on his phone while you were bug sweeping. Once you’ve accounted for any obvious devices on the network, if you still see something, I would take a close look at the smoke and motion detectors as well as any other electronic you couldn’t unplug.

Use Technology Against Technology

There are two types of devices you can use to properly bug sweep a room, apartment, or home. On the lower cost of the spectrum, the MaQue Anti-Spy Bug Detector shows you where radio signals are emanating from as well as has a small viewfinder that can reveal hidden camera lenses.

MaQue Anti-Spy Hidden Camera  MaQue Anti-Spy Hidden Camera

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More expensive detectors like the Spy Hawk Pro Sweep have a wider range of detection capabilities, which is clearly reflected in the price. Both products can give you some piece of mind when you’re staying in an Airbnb (or hotel room) but aren’t foolproof and professional bug sweeping costs tens of thousands of dollars.

In Case Of Camera

Finding a hidden camera in your Airbnb is a disturbing discovery you hopefully won’t have to deal with but if you do, immediately document as much as you can. Photograph and video any evidence of hidden surveillance as best you can, then find alternative accommodation. (I’m guessing you’ll opt for a hotel rather than another Airbnb.)

Although they don’t have the best record responding to such incidents, report it to Airbnb first. Depending on the local laws, you will want to report it to the police as well. A well-placed tweet to a local journalist might also help your case with Airbnb to get scummy people appropriate punishments.

Despite the negative press, hotels aren’t immune to hidden cameras and using this trick or a reverse image search can get you discounts on an Airbnb, which is often a nice way to enhance a local experience. You’ll just have to keep in mind you might be being watched or listened to anytime you’re staying away from home – making a bug sweep part of your accommodation.

Where To Find Bottled Water In Havana, Cuba

havana cuba

You might be thinking a post on where to find bottled water in Cuba’s capital city, Havana, is a weird or stupid thing to be writing (and reading) about – unless you’ve already taken a trip there. Finding bottled water in shops, or shops in Cuba is difficult, because there aren’t many.

Particularly if you’re staying in a casa particular (local home with rooms for rent) or Airbnb (somehow that is an option too) stocking up on bottled water is something every traveler without a plan should be prepared for. Tap water isn’t a safe option but fortunately, bottled water is easy to get, if you know just where to look.

Some Big Hotels

The reason there aren’t many shops in Havana, is because there aren’t many shoppers. Cuba uses a food rationing system (the allowance for eggs is 5 per month, for example) so the larger international hotels are often where you can find Western snacks and water. Some hotels, like the Hotel Presidente, gouge customers with high prices on small bottles of water you’ll sweat out fast – Havana has an average annual temperature of 23C/75F at 76% humidity.

To stock up on larger, 2 liter bottles of water, you can go to the Havana Libre hotel, recognizable from its massive blue lettering.

havana libre hotel cuba

Havana Libre is located off the busy Calle 23 at 23 Calle L E 23 and 25.

Outside of the Havana Libre hotel, immediately to its right if you’re facing it straight on, is a small shop where you can find 2 liter bottles of water on most days. The shop isn’t open late, so if you get thirsty, you can stop by the diner in the Havana Libre hotel, which is open 24 hours. Water purchased at the diner is only a slightly more expensive than from the shop.

Internet Or Water No One Stop Shop

In the evenings, the outside of the diner is illuminated with the glow very old mobile phones, as the Havana Libre hotel is one of the few Internet access points in Havana. Keep in mind if you do want to get online, to purchase your Internet access cards elsewhere – the Havana Libre Internet cards are more than double the price and limited to only the hotel’s connection.

havana cuba sunset

Perhaps not so ironically for Cuba, the Hotel Presidente, which rips people off for water, has Internet access cards for the standard foreigner rate. (There are two currencies, one for locals and Cuban nationals.)

Plan For The Unexpected

I’ve written before that Cuba is not what you think it is. Prior to a trip to Cuba, you’ll need to plan differently, as the country follows its own logic. Simple advice like this can save you an hour upon arrival at Havana’s international airport. Knowing where to find the Internet can get you online, occasionally, slowly, and oddly without much media censorship. There are other – mostly nameless – places to get large bottled water too, the kind you can take back to your room when you get thirsty. And if you find them, grab a few, because it might be a while before you see another.

How Long Does It Really Take For A Quick-Dry Towel To Dry?

What might seem like a silly question at first can be an important one for your time management when traveling. Microfiber, or quick-dry, towels are designed for campers and frequent travelers when they’re not likely to find a drying machine. Although they’re called “quick-dry” – and do dry faster than cotton, for example – the amount of time it takes varies widely depending if they’re hanging in a hotel room or by the beach.

Knowing the amount of time it takes to the average microfiber towel to dry in a variety of conditions can help you plan prior to packing. (A towel that’s even slightly damp can make your entire backpack smell of feet by the time you reach your destination.) As you can watch in the video above, I ran several experiments in order to determine average dry times indoors and out so you have a good idea of how many hours before prior to packing to hang your towel.

The Test Conditions

I ran four basic drying experiments with the REI Co-op Multi Towel Lite Large I’ve been traveling with for years in several common travel conditions.

  • Test 1: Indoors on a clothesline.
  • Test 2: Indoors hanging from a hook.
  • Test 3: Outdoors in the shade.
  • Test 4: Outdoors in direct sunlight.

rei quick dry towel

The ambient temperature in all the tests was between 20-22C (68F-72F). The Multi Towel Lite was completely dry at the beginning of each test; I took a shower, then used the quick-dry towel. I then hung the towel, set a stopwatch, and checked in occasionally to see the progress of water evaporation. These were the results:

  • Test 1: Indoors on a clothesline: 8 hours 5 minutes.
  • Test 2: Indoors hanging from a hook: 7 hours 58 minutes.
  • Test 3: Outdoors in the shade: 2 hours 43 minutes.
  • Test 4: Outdoors in direct sunlight: 36 minutes.

Indoor Versus Out

It’s probably not surprising that drying the towel outdoors was less time consuming. Though the difference in drying time – nearly 6 hours – might be a bit unexpected. How the towel was hung didn’t make much difference but it’s clear outdoors is preferable; even if the outdoor temperature is the same or less than indoors.

The Over-Under

Add more time obviously if you’re got longer hair needing more water absorption from the towel. Of course, you can shave even more time off by wringing the towel, or placing it near or (carefully) on a heater. Indoor drying times though are going to be 8 hours, in ideal conditions like I had during these small experiments. I suspect I greatly underestimated dry times in general, which has probably cost me a few extra laundry washes on several trips.

So, if you’re going to be using a quick-dry towel, keep in mind to schedule your shower a bit earlier on travel days when you might not have access to a balcony or backyard. Don’t pack more than two weeks of stuff, even for longer trips, and following the 80% rule might give your clothes just enough air not to stink for times you’re feeling a little less patient.

A Review Of HotelsCombined: A Hotel Search Engine For Hotel Booking Sites

hotelscombined review

Hotel booking sites are generally a cluster of links, rates, and options that are often more overwhelming than useful. Eventually you stumble on to a hotel with a decent rating and low rate, simply to end the laborious search process. Although sites like Airbnb have really optimized the user search experience, there are many trips where renting an apartment or getting a hostel dorm over a hotel doesn’t make sense.

HotelsCombined recently partnered with me to get my thoughts on using their site and what benefits it might have for travelers.

What Is It?

HotelsCombined is a hotel booking site. Basically, as you’re probably familiar with already, they comb other hotel booking sites to offer you a wide variety of deals. Something of a hotel search engine of search engines, with the goal being to provide you with the lowest hotel rates by casting the net wider than its competitors.

hotelscombined search results

Clearly they’ve focused on finding you the best variety of rates over having the best user interface – but as painful as it can be to search for hotels online, HotelsCombined does a good job of reducing the amount of time you need to find a good place to stay at a low rate.

Strong Search

I spent a few hours going through comparisons with HotelsCombined and other major booking sites, many of which are part of HotelsCombined search results. (HotelsCombined also doesn’t have any annoying popups so common with similar aggregators.) In nearly all cases, they had comparable rates. So, for example, the same hotel room for the same dates turned up practically the same price on as it did on HotelsCombined’s search result.

The benefit to HotelsCombined is it’s able to save you time in finding the lowest rate for a particular room by looking at hundreds of providers, including these 20 popular sites. Ideally, HotelsCombined wants to be the only place you need to go to find the right hotel room for your next trip. Throughout the time I was using HotelsCombined, I couldn’t find a good reason why it shouldn’t be.

Features For The Frugal

HotelsCombined also offers a “Price Alert” feature where you’ll be sent an email notification when the price of a specific hotel booking you’re interested in falls below 10%. You need to register for the feature; probably something travelers who plan more in advance will want to consider. On the other hand, if you’re like me and a little more last minute, downloading their free app might be an even bigger time saver.

A smoother interface with a more simple design (dare I say less options) that just shows your the lowest price, amenities, and ratings, would be my personal preference but until that’s the norm, HotelsCombined at least reduces the amount of time you need to spend searching for the right hotel room for your personal needs and budget.

How To Visit The Star Wars Set Locations In Tunisia

star wars sets tunisia

Parts of original Star Wars trilogy and prequels were filmed across parts of Tunisia. Once production of the movies was done, George Lucas and his production staff decided to leave the sets as they were, in the southern deserts of the country. They’ve sat there ever since, threatened occasionally by the surrounding sands but still accessible to tourists.

Here’s how you can visit the sets yourself, where they are, and the ad-hoc methods needed to plan a trip to the Star Wars sets in Tunisia.

The Set Locations Are Spread Out

There are two major Star Wars set areas, all in the southern half of Tunisia. They are separated by large deserts so you’ll have to plan ahead if you want to see any or all of them. Starting in the west near the city of Tozeur is Mos Espa (shown above) and the Lars Homestead, where Luke Skywalker was raised. Roughly 800 kilometers to the east is Matmata, where the interior of the Lars Homestead was shot. It’s actually a hotel now (called Sidi Driss) where you can spend the night in Luke Skywalkers’ bedroom.

ghorfa complex medenine

Around 40 km from there is Medenine, the Tunisian city whose Ghorfa Complex (shown above courtesy Wikipedia) will be immediately familiar if you recall Liam Neeson testing Anakin Skywalker for midi-chlorians.

There are several other background shot locations like Toshi Station and Sith infiltration landing site, only the most hardcore Star Wars fans might be interested in.

What Was Shot Where

Whether you’re interested in a particular Star Wars prop or simply want to scroll the movies to points where you can yell, “I’ve been there!” here’s a breakdown of where these Tunisian sites appear:

star wars sagaStar Wars: The Complete Saga (Episodes I-VI) [Blu-ray]

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How To Plan Your Trip (Depending On What You Want To See)

Starting in Tunisia’s capital Tunis, you need to decide whether you’re more interested in Tozeur’s sites or those of Matmata or Medenine, since they’re in different parts of the country and not directly connected by rail or road.

tozeur oasis

Getting to Tozeur is fairly straightforward and you’ve got two basic options of either a low-cost direct flight or a 6 hour train ride that’s even less expensive. Once there, I recommend booking your accommodation at Residence Tozeur Almadina. Talk to the owner Tayeb (let him know I sent you) to arrange a ride to Mos Espa and the Lars Homestead. You’ll have to negotiate the price of the 40 minute car ride but it shouldn’t cost more than $40.

tunisia car hire

Getting to Medenine from Tozeur is tricky because there aren’t roads between the two. You can either take a bus to Gafsa, then arrange another bus to Medenine from there. (Car hires can also be arranged but are much more expensive.) Going by road is will take a day, so plan accordingly. Getting to Medenine from Tunis is a little easier: from Tunis Central Station, you’ll book to the last stop on the line, Gabes. Once there, you can take a bus to Medenine or through a hotel in Medenine, hire a car to Matmata (if you’ll be spending the night there). Organized tours from all of these cities are another option.

Safety On The Streets

All of the Star Wars sets, for the most part, are only accessible with a car driven by someone who knows exactly where they are. (In case you were thinking of renting a vehicle yourself.) You may be wondering if it’s safe to travel to Tunisia – despite some click-bait headlines, no, ISIS didn’t invade the Star Wars sets. For those of you traveling with people who aren’t Star Wars fans, you might convince them to come along as there’s a lot else to see in this region of Tunisia, like the oasis surrounding Tozeur.


About Anil Polat

foxnomad aboutI'm the blogger and computer security engineer who writes foXnoMad while on a journey to visit every country in the world. I'll show you the tips, tricks, and tech you can use to travel smarter. Read More

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