20 Essential Mobile Apps for the (not so) Intrepid Traveler
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step; and, that first step is figuring out which mobile apps to install before you board your plane to that exotic faraway destination. I have compiled a list of the apps I’ve used most frequently on my travels.
More than 20 years ago, I backpacked around Asia for the first time. The kind of adventures I had then are still possible today; but, only if one is willing to leave one’s smartphone behind. I am no longer up for such challenges, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who is. While travel is still hugely rewarding, many of the obstacles I faced in the previous millennium have since been mitigated by technology – particularly smartphone apps.
Your phone has a finite amount of memory, and you have to keep most of it free for all your high-resolution travel photos and videos that you’ll reflexively shoot when you visit iconic sites and stumble upon hidden gems. Here is my list of the most indispensable apps to have while gallivanting around the globe:
The most obvious app that must be installed is Google Maps. Surely, you’re already familiar with this one and is probably already an integral part of your daily life. It’s the go-to app for finding local businesses, ratings, and reviews, as well as navigation. It even provides public transportation routes and schedules for most metropolitan areas around the world, as well as estimates for the ride-hailing services (like Uber, Bolt, and Grab) and will launch those apps when selected. Google Maps remains one of the most useful apps back home as well as abroad. If I had only one app on my travels, this would be it.
You may lose your mobile signal (and if you don’t have an international roaming plan or local SIM card, you will rely entirely on WiFi), so Google Maps will not work when you are out of range. Maps.me allows you to download maps, and have them available offline. Their maps are just as detailed as Google’s, if not more so. In fact, Maps.me even has hiking trails available offline. Hiking way off the grid, in Patagonia, I never felt lost as long as I had this app. Maps.me ships with other great features as well, such as a speedometer (to determine how fast your maniacal bus driver is going) and reports your current elevation (to determine how high you climbed on that hike). Maybe this app — and not Google Maps — takes first place. (It’s really a toss-up.)
Rome2Rio is a simple, strait-forward, quick way to plan out which mode of transportation is best for you, comparing routes and estimated times and costs for plane, bus, ferry, train and car trips. I almost always consult Rome2Rio before settling on the mode of transportation to take to my next destination.
VPNs enable you to circumvent limitations on the internet often imposed by the more repressive governments. Oftentimes, the only way to connect to your favorite websites and applications (like Google and Facebook) is to first connect through a VPN (as I discovered upon arrival in China a few years ago). The official purpose of these apps is to protect online privacy and improve data security, but that’s probably not what most travelers have in mind when connecting through a VPN. While the majority of VPN download sites were blocked when I arrived in China, ExpressVPN came through for me, and somehow circumvented the firewall thus making it possible for me to install the much-needed software. I was so relieved to discover ExpressVPN that I won’t even bother recommending other similar apps (though there be many to choose from). ExpressVPN runs on your laptop and smartphone alike, is quick to connect, stable and reasonably priced (considering the quality). There was little or no degradation in internet speed when I connected through ExpressVPN. I don’t think the same could be said for the free services, although I did meet backpackers who seemed quite pleased with SuperVPN. But I don’t have any firsthand experience with that app.
WhatsApp seems to be the most popular messaging application in South America, Africa, and Asia (except China, which uses WeChat) and is growing in popularity in the rest of the world. It’s become so common, that people I meet rarely ask for my phone number anymore, but rather my WhatsApp number (which is actually the same thing). I should note that I still have Facebook Messenger installed to chat with family in the States who haven’t yet made the transition to WhatsApp, and I also use Skype to call toll-free numbers free of charge (which would otherwise cost me money from outside the United States).
Nearly every language I’ve encountered on my travels is available for translation on the Google Translate app. You can input the text to be translated by typing, scribbling it on the screen with your finger, or by speaking, and it’s possible to download most language packs for offline use. Google Translate makes it easy to alternate between speakers and the translation can be read or listened to. It is far from perfect, as is every translation app. But, it’s utility never ceases to amaze me. I recall a lengthy conversation I had on the Trans-Siberian railway with a babushka using this app for hours on end — even to the point that I wished I didn’t have the app so I could get some shut-eye.
This is yet another obvious entry in my list. But, it needs to be noted here. After all, many of the same apps we find useful back home, are equally invaluable abroad. Uber is the most widely popular ride-hailing service around the globe (despite all the protests and demonstrations by drivers of traditional taxis). Uber is cheaper and often safer than just hailing a cab or rickshaw and trying to barter with them for a good price (which you will never get). You won’t find Uber everywhere, but you will find a similar service in most places. Other popular ride-sharing and ride-hailing apps include Bolt, Ride, Grab, Ola and Cabify; but, while not ubiquitous, you will find Uber serving more of your destinations than any other similar service.
After a couple of days staying in an Airbnb rental, I actually feel like a local — like I’m living abroad and not just visiting (despite, in actuality, just passing through). Airbnb rentals come in all shapes and sizes — you might sleep on the couch, in a private room, have an entire apartment or house to yourself, or even stay on a boat docked at a marina. It entirely depends on your preference and budget. You can share the space with the owner or other guests, or have the whole place to yourself. The options are almost limitless. Some people feel a bit of trepidation staying in someone else’s property, especially if the owner is present, but it is one of the best ways to learn more about the city and feel a part of the local community. The majority of my experiences have been great. Just remember to read the reviews, and choose a “super host” when available.
When I search for hotels, I usually start with a Google search that displays accommodations in the search area. Then I click around on different hotels, make sure they have decent ratings and compare prices. For most properties, Booking.com offers the best rates compared to other hotel booking sites. Furthermore, after a few reservations placed through their app (or website), you become a “Genius” which gives you access to the cheapest prices available online. In fact, I normally get the same price as I would if I booked directly through the hotel (or walked in off the street). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shown up at a hotel, and the registration staff would do a double-take when they realized how little I was paying. (Note, however, that the rare occasions that Hotels.com offers the same room at the same rate, I do book through them because they give one night free after ten nights booked through their service. But, more often than not I reserve through booking.com as they are consistently cheaper than their competitors.)
XE is a straightforward currency converter that can be used offline (once you’ve added the desired currency to your list). When it’s offline, it will use the most recent conversion rate it downloaded. Since rates generally don’t fluctuate drastically from day to day, the conversions remain pretty accurate. When you find yourself in a market somewhere away from your hotel WiFi, it’s always good to have an offline currency converter at your disposal (unless you have Rainman-like computing skills).
Forget Kayak, Expedia, Priceline, Hotwire, Orbitz, and all the rest. Just Google it! I can’t stress this enough. Google Flights seems to consolidate all the results from every other site, so why bother visiting those sites individually? I had a horrible experience where someone who claimed to be tech-savvy and a seasoned traveler booked a flight for me that ended up costing me an extra couple hundred dollars on Expedia. Had he simply done a google search, I’d be that much richer today. As a side note, the next best thing to Google Flights is Momondo. I realize Google Flights is not an app. The app you use is simply your browser to visit the URL, google.com/flights; but it does replace the other apps you might be tempted to install.
This is not one that I have personally tried, but I’ve met enough people who have used it with great success. This is the poor-mans AirBnB. Instead of paying a few dollars to crash on someone’s couch with AirBnB, you pay nada, zilch, nothing to your Couchsurfing host. I think it’s a pay-it-forward type of thing. Hosts and guests are people who enjoy people and just want to share experiences. At least that’s my sense of it.
With all the walking you’ll do, why not keep track of the distance you travel on foot? I check my Pacer at the end of each day to see how much exercise I got. According to Pacer, I average over 5 miles per day, with my longest walk being nearly 15 miles. It’s no Fitbit, but it is free (at least to use the core features).
For this, there is no need to install anything. Your mobile device probably already comes equipped with a world clock. If you’ve never used it before, just familiarize yourself with this pre-installed feature. It’s useful to know when your friends, coworkers, and family are awake back home, or how many hours you’ll lose or gain when you take your next flight or overland journey.
Duolingo is a popular free language learning app with courses in a variety of languages. The lessons are quick and easy. If I had any aptitude whatsoever for learning languages, I would be fluent in Spanish by now given the hours I spent on this fun little app while traveling in South America. Sadly, you can’t teach old dogs (I’m in my forties) new tricks. But, I have no doubt you’ll have better luck.
TripAdvisor is most travelers’ go-to site for reviews on a wide range of travel-related enterprises, from restaurants to tour companies to hotels, and more. You will frequently be asked by restaurant and hotel staff to leave a review on TripAdvisor (presumably only if you have nice things to say). And businesses the world over proudly display TripAdvisor certificates supposedly proving their excellence.
I agree wholeheartedly with their claim that Moovit is the world’s number one public transit application. I have in fact found Moovit to provide public transit information that Google has yet to add to their database. It offers highly detailed step-by-step itineraries and routes, more in-depth than Google Maps, and even alerts you when it’s time for you to get off the bus.
It might seem strange to add this here, but for music-lovers interested in global music, who want to identify the music heard on their busses or in the local bars, SoundHound is a must. I’ve been shocked at the kinds of music this app was able to identify, from Thai folk to German and Chinese rock. The app keeps a history of all the songs you’ve identified, plays back clips of the song, and provides lyrics and additional details about the artist as well as purchase links.
If you forgot to load all your music onto your phone before leaving home, you’ll be happy to know that Spotify is available in some countries outside the U.S., which is great when you need to drown out the sound of crying babies or non-English language movies on your bus.
When you are traveling with others, you might split expenses as you go. Splitwise keeps track of the balance that each party owes (or is owed). If you take turns paying for meals, for instance, when you and your traveling partners are ready to part ways, just refer to Splitwise to determine who owes whom how much.