heredago's blog

July 21, 2011

Best Smartphone Apps for Worldwide Travel

Filed under: Uncategorized — heredago @ 18:00

As a part of an ongoing series on technology and travel (first up was my favourite USB gadgets while on the road), I’d like to post about the best smartphone apps for travel. These aren’t apps for booking your flights – I’m assuming you’ve already got that covered with hipmunk and the free hipmunk iOS app. Rather, it’s a list of useful downloads to help navigate, communicate or stay sane and safe while travelling around the world.


When I started my trip in 2008, I had no laptop and no smartphone. As the years have gone by and I’ve continued my travels, I’ve picked up a phone and kept an eye out for apps that help me as I navigate strange places, be it via language, food or helping make my life a little easier as I go.

1. Onavo (iphone only): Onavo’s aim is to shrink your data usage, and it does so by installing a configuration profile on your phone, so that the data you receive from the interwebs is streamed through their cloud-based compression service. This means that the compression takes place before it gets to your phone, and this also means Onavo saves you some money if you’re not on an unlimited data plan.

2. Skype: Being on the road for over three years means that I’ve had no SIM card and no home base. As a result, Skype has been a saviour – it allows me to use WiFi to reach my friends, I can forward its services to a local number, and I’ve added SkypeOut credit for those family members (*cough* dad *cough*) who refuse to get an account themselves.  For those of you who want to stick to apps from Google, Google Voice’s app is an alternative, allowing you to text freely within North America from anywhere in the world.

3. TripIt: TripIt has been getting rave reviews from friends and travelers alike. It’s essentially a trip organizer – forward your trip details or confirmation to them, and TripIt will build you the full itinerary, accessible from mobile or the web. If you’re a frequent traveler with plenty of reservations to keep track of, this app might make your life quite a bit easier.

4. Urbanspoon (for travel to UK, US, Canada or Australia): I’ll admit, I don’t travel often through North America or Europe; most of my trips take me further afield, tostreet food fun in Asia. But for the trips I do take in these parts, Urbanspoon is a great way to find out where I should eat. I prefer its interface and enjoy using it more than the also-popular Yelp app.

5. ICOON Global Picture Dictionary: this is near and dear to my heart and I’ve used the old-fashioned Point It Dictionary (i.e. paper) version a lot on my travels to far flung places. When words just won’t work, be it because you can’t speak the language or you need a doctor ASAP, this is your friend. Photos by category, foods, body parts, lodging basics and more. For Android, the Picture Dictionary is an option, though less pretty in design and function.

6. Google Maps: it works in a startlingly comprehensive list of countries; it helps when you’re really exhausted and just cannot figure out where your hostel is and all the street signs are in an unfamiliar language. If you’re directionally disabled like me, Google Maps is a must, especially when you can use it to show your taxi driver where you need to go in their native language

7. Speaking of language, I’m enamoured with Word Lens (iPhone only). The app instantly translates printed words from one language to another using your phone’s video camera. It’s a pretty nifty idea, and even if you don’t absolutely need to get a message across right now, you’ll have a great time playing around with translation on-the-go.

8. Oanda’s Currency Conversion App: Currency conversion is a helpful thing to have available on the road, especially farther afield where you are sometimes negotiating for rates when changing money. Those countries with a closed monetary system (Myanmar, for example) won’t really care what your app says, but for the most part it’s very helpful to have an interbank rate at your immediate disposal. I’ve used this app throughout my worldwide travels and it comes in handy not just for ensuring I get a decent rate, but also to keep track of what I’m spending by converting to USD as I go.

9. Sit or Squat (available for Blackberry or iPhone) might not be the most useful, but bonus  points for creativity and for listing 109,280 toilets around the world (and counting). Just plug in your address and find a place to relieve yourself.

Bonus: Tipping Bird. A Hipmunk user (@jyzhou) created this app and I have to say I wish I had it prior. Divided by country, the app lets you know what you ought to be tipping as you go, in a cross-section of industries. Country tips are divided by restaurants, bars, taxis and others, with info from Thailand to Argentina to the States. Looking forward to using it the next time I travel!


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