Following these instructions I've built a rat's next of a programmer:
My USB serial interface has a jumper for 5 or 3V so I set it to 3V and there was no need to add the voltage regulator. So far I've got it to join my wifi network and pull a web page.
I'm able to program it with the Arduino IDE which is convenient.
Using code derived from Sparkfun I'm able to create a hotspot with a web server on it.
The device has two GPIO pins and a serial port so it can be used to monitor and control devices. John, VK2ASU, drew my attention to the incredible range some experimenters have been getting from these modules.
At the Wyong field day I had a great chat with someone from the Sparkcc group who is using even lower priced esp8266s than me.