6 helpful travel apps

One of the benefits to off-the-beaten-track travel, in my opinion, is the lack of phone coverage. This forced independence from devices becomes a thing I didn’t know I needed until I have it, and it makes looking out the window to savor the here-and-now a little easier.

But I’m also grateful my device works in most places around the world, albeit a bit slower. (That’s okay, though—I like to travel slow.)

I’ve been traveling internationally for over 20 years, and I was floored with how dependable our devices were on our round-the-world trip for the 2014-15 school year. We visited 30 countries, and our phones worked in all but four of them.

(We only had to replace one device, at the Apple store in Aix en Provence, France, after my phone broke in Kenya several weeks prior.)

Yep, we still lived life that year far more offline than on. But? There were times we were crazy grateful for certain apps that made our travels easier. If you’ve got a trip on the horizon—international or not—this list of my favorites could come in handy. (There are a ton of travel-themed apps out there; enough to make any trip planner overwhelmed.)

Here were a few of our favorites.

1. Trip Advisor

You can download location-specific guides while you have internet, then when you’re out and about, you can look up restaurants (complete with reviews and directions), landmarks to visit, housing recommendations, and more.

trip advisor app

Their guides are especially helpful when wandering a location with low (or no) cell data service.

See Trip Advisor here


 

2. Trail Wallet

We kept track of our trip’s expenses with this app. You can organize expenses by month, like a typical budget app, by trip, or by location—helpful when visiting multiple destinations.

trail wallet app

You can set a daily budget for yourself, which is helpful in the pricier places, 218 currencies that auto-adjust to your native currency, and up-to-date exchange rates.

See Trail Wallet here


 

3. Duolingo

4 out of 5 of us used this app to learn language basics as part of our trip enjoyment (the youngest didn’t, simply because he wasn’t yet reading). This app provides comprehensive learning for tons of languages, teaching the same way we typically learn our native languages (first by listening).

duolingo app

We still use this one at home!

See Duolingo here


 

4. Google Translate

For on-the-go travel, this app came in handy because of its camera feature. You can hold up your phone to a sign, menu, or note, and it will translate it into the language of your choice, directly on your screen.

google translate app

Clearly, it’s not perfect. But it made ordering food much easier, as well as understanding those, “Out to play pétanque with friends—be back later” notes on locked doors.

See Google Translate here


 

5. Converter Plus

We were constantly having to convert money, so this app made it much less of a headache. You can add as many currencies as you need in your ‘Selective’ tab, which means you can convert US dollars to Euro, Turkish lira, and British pounds in a flash.

converter app

You can also convert temperature, length, and other units of measurement—helpful for Americans in a metric world.

See Converter Plus here


 

6. City-specific apps

Most major cities in the world have their own app for public transportation, which proved helpful in places like London, Paris, Beijing, and Nairobi.

london transport app
Here’s London’s Tube Map app

Some mostly provided maps with updated times and locations for busses and metro lines, but others included sights to see, wait times at museums, and links for buying tickets. We made a habit out of researching the app store before heading to a new city.


 

We used our devices in other ways, too, like educating ourselves before and during our time in a place. YouTube became a good friend, as did Susan Wise Bauer’s four-volume history curriculum Story of the World on audiobook. And of course, the camera—we had a smaller DSLR, but most of our impromptu photos still came from our phones.

Also, we changed our service from Verizon to T-Mobile before we left, after a frustrating experience in Italy that summer where our phones didn’t work without internet. We found T-Mobile had the most global coverage for Americans, and we didn’t need to sign a contract. Going by data was slower (2G much of the time), but it was free with our plan, and it blew my mind that I could look up something on Trip Advisor on a rural middle-of-nowhere road in Sri Lanka.

The lesson here? Ask around and do research before you go on an extended trip, but if your trip is shorter, know in advance what your phone service provides. Many of them (including Verizon) have international coverage you can buy as an upgrade on a month-by-month basis.

train travel phone app

Oh, and finally—we needed a VPN app in China, so our phones could ping off of other countries’ satellites, like the U.S. and Canada, since China blocks so many benign apps and websites. This made it even slower, of course, but that meant our phones worked.

Yep, you can still travel and get by without a smartphone. But I’m glad to have mine when I do.

I’d love to know more about useful apps out there, especially if you’ve personally found them handy on the road. I don’t want to bloat my device with needless clutter, but I love apps that go the extra mile. (See what I did there?) Tell me about your favorites.

9 months, 5 backpacks, 4 continents, 3 kids,
1 husband.

(It was worth it.)

9 months, 5 backpacks, 4 continents, 3 kids, 1 husband.

(It was worth it.)

23 Comments

  1. Mandi

    Maps.Me was a lifesaver for us many times on our RTW trip. You download fairly detailed maps for a particular area when you have internet and can then use the maps offline. Then when you move on to a different country/continent you can delete the old maps and update with new ones so as not to overwhelm the storage capacity of your phone. We were also staying in lots of AirBnB places, so that app was useful to us as well. We also used several of the ones you mentioned in your post.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Good tip! Thanks, Mandi.

  2. Lindsay @ Let Me Give You Some Advice

    Great post! I am doing the Spanish duolingo right now as part of my resolution to brush back up since it’s been many years since I studied in college. It’s lots of fun and I do like the learning philosophy behind the lessons. I’m excited to check out Trail Wallet. I usually try to keep track mentally or in a small section of my journal but then things inevitably get forgotten as the trip goes on and I slip into vacation mode. I do better with tracking on my phone than on paper so I think it would really help. Glad to have a recommendation.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Yes, it was super handy on our trip! Glad to help, Lindsay.

  3. Jen M.

    The XE currency app is my favorite thing when traveling. You can drag and drop the currencies so I would enter an amount in USD to see how much that was in local currency when I went to the ATM. Then when I was in a store, I would drag the local currency to the top to enter the amount in local currency and see what that equated to in USD.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      We used that one in the beginning of our trip too, Jen! I found it slowed down my phone, for whatever reason…

  4. Daikuro @ SimplicityBlogger.com

    I just don’t know how accurate Google Translate is. I have tried using that in my language and I ended up laughing at the translations. I know that there are those electronic translators that you can use on the go.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Oh, it’s definitely not super accurate. 😉 But it’s helpful because of the camera feature, to get the gist of a meaning. I wouldn’t use it for one-to-one communication…

  5. Heidi

    When we lived in India last year, we relied on WhatsApp for getting in touch with Indian friends – it’s a texting app that uses Wi-Fi instead of data, which Indians like because data is super expensive but Wi-Fi is free. I think it’s used quite a bit in Asia, but few Americans know about it. It has a video calling feature, but we felt that Skype was more reliable and didn’t have as much delay.

    • Michele Cherie

      What’s App is really popular in France, too!

  6. Laura

    When I was traveling I loved the Pocket app, I think I got the recommendation from you. Not travel specific but great for traveling as I could “pocket” a bunch of blog posts when I had wifi and save them to read when wifi wasn’t an option (trains, planes, some accommodation).

  7. Aubrey

    This is a great list! I traveled Asia for 6 months without a smart-phone, but I was there with a group of other students whose phones were well-equipped for the trip. I was wondering how future travels would go, when I needed to assume more responsibility for getting around/communicating! Thanks, Tsh.

  8. Helen

    Thanks for the app ideas, I’m downloading Duolingo straight away!
    I live in London and now use City Mapper for working out quickest routes and maps – it’s really very good. It also covers lots of other cities, but I haven’t tried it out for them yet. I also use the Trainline app for rail travel within the UK.

  9. Amy G.

    My husband is an international pilot. He enjoys exploring the places in which he has layovers. While on wifi, he will download large caches of maps from Google Maps for hikes and walking in cities. When we travel together, we use the cached maps (with no data connection) for driving directions all over foreign countries. If the area is on a cached map, Google Maps can still give us directions. We also use the Airbnb app a good deal while traveling. Can’t wait to listen to this podcast 🙂 Planning trips is one my absolute favorite things to do!

    • Amy G.

      I’m such a dork: meant to say that I can’t wait to listen to the “Most/Best Cities” podcast 🙂

  10. Amy G.

    Ha! I didn’t realize ’til just now that my comment is almost a duplicate of Mandi’s above!

  11. Alie

    This is awesome, and I really need to try out Converter Plus because I haven’t found one that works fantastically. Also, echo Helen’s comment about CityMapper. In NYC where we live, it syncs with the MTA’s updates, even when Google Maps doesn’t! Thanks for the post!

  12. Melody

    We love TripIt for parsing emails with travel details and automatically creating day by day list of reservations, etc.

  13. Prerna Malik

    SO many new travel apps! We LOVE TripAdvisor, Google Maps and of course, DuoLingo!! Can’t wait to try the others out on our next trip? Tsh, do you know of any app that acts like a foreign language dictionary of sorts so you can ask for directions, etc if your foreign language skills aren’t up to scratch? Thanks!

    • Michele Cherie

      For French/English translations, Collins-Robert’s app (paid) and the Linguée app (free) are fantastic for giving French words and phrases in context along with example usage. Bonne chance! (Good luck!)

  14. Celeste

    My son is so excited that Duolingo recently added Greek to their languages. Thank you for this post – great resources!
    I have a question (that might lead to another post all together!?!) about apps people use for road trips. Our family travels have been mostly been road trips in the US. Does anyone know of an app that combines weather forecasting with mapping possible driving routes? We’ve often found ourselves wondering whether an upcoming part of our drive has snow yet or rain from a hurricane. Thanks!

  15. Ivanna | Provocative Joy

    Maps.me has been very helpful for offline maps. I don’t use any of the apps you listed except DuoLingo, but I haven’t got it on my phone yet! I used to, but I do a lot on my laptop these days. This list is very helpful though. I will definitely get Google Translate.

  16. Ride On Toys For Toddlers

    WOW … 30 country school year tour! What a fantastic experience particularly for your children. Travel & experiencing (not “hotel tours”) world cultures is a great life educator, maybe the best. PS – I’ve traveled approx 30 countries (most pre kids) but over my lifetime so with you doing in a year suddenly if feels like I’ve barely walked to the mailbox LOL

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