Have smartphone, will travel. Nowadays, your phone may operate in many different countries, or you can easily stick a SIM card into the slot and pick up a local data plan. Another option is to keep your phone off and only use Wi-Fi whenever you find it. In short, your phone is still useful when you travel, and you can access your apps in seaports and souks around the globe.
Many apps are designed to enhance the travel experience – to help you navigate, dine, pack, plan, and photograph your far-flung adventure. Other apps are wildly imaginative, adding layers to your journey that you never even imagined. Here are 12 of my personal favorites this year.
1. Get help with flight delays
Visiting a major airport can be a miserable experience. You wade through security checkpoints, you wait for hours, and then, just when you think you’re headed home, a maintenance issue is announced or a storm blows through and your flight is cancelled. Then you call the airline’s customer service line, and you’re on hold for a half-hour, just waiting for someone to help.
AirHelp is designed to navigate your flight delay. This app is especially valuable for people who travel regularly or are trying to move around during busy travel times; AirHelp will quickly inform you of your rights as a passenger, file a claim for delayed or canceled flights, and then compensate you for up to $700. Before you leave for your trip, put this app on your phone just in case you need it.
2. Skip the customs line
There you are, sitting on a plane, groggy from your journey, and then the flight attendant hands you a little card and tells you to fill out your personal information. The little fields are too small, and your handwriting isn’t very good, and you’re worried this will hold you up at customs.
Mobile Passport is an app that easily transmits all that information to U.S. Customs and Immigration. You can even skip the lines entirely, as long as you enter the country through a major international hub. Simply set up your profile, answer a few questions, and submit your data to CPB. Once you arrive at your destination, follow the (physical) signs to Mobile Passport Control. You’ll be through in mere minutes.
3. Easily convert currencies
How much is a dollar worth in Euros these days? What about rupees? Rubles? Bhat? Kip? Keeping the value of your money straight can require long-dormant arithmetic, and you can easily get scammed or ripped-off during those critical first hours in a foreign capital.
The XE Corporation has been helping people figure out currency exchanges rates since 1993, quickly converting values between any two monetary systems on the planet. The XE Currency App is available for almost any mobile device, and it provides up-to-the-minute updates on the current exchange rate, no matter what kind of cash you’re using.
4. Know what’s below
Every once in awhile, a pilot will turn on the intercom and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, for those of you seated on the right side of the plane, you’ll see the Grand Canyon…” The landmark is different every time, but you usually have a minute or two to ogle some recognizable feature – before it’s whisked away forever.
Inflighto not only pinpoints where you are located on a digital map; it will also identify geographic highlights, forecast inclement weather, and indicate how soon you’ll arrive at the airport. Inflighto is a lot like a regular flight tracker (the ones you can watch on your embedded TV screens), but with much more engrossing data. All you need is a Wi-Fi signal, and you might just forget to watch that in-flight movie.
5. Get accurate, specific weather predictions
It’s marginally helpful to know that it’ll be “overcast” in the greater Denver area, but that doesn’t tell you much about Boulder, or whether there’s a flood warning on Route 36.
Dark Sky specializes in “hyper-local weather.” This is especially helpful in mountainous regions, obscure small towns, or places famous for their microclimates. But it does even more than that.
You can use this app to find out what the weather is going to be at your destination. Of course, you can see when it might rain, but you’ll also know when that rain will likely stop. That’s the secret sauce right there.
6. Find free Wi-Fi
Travel is a great opportunity to unplug, and most of us can live without phone calls for a little while. But almost everybody needs their Wi-Fi at some point, especially to save on data charges. Where do you find a signal? What institutions will let you log on?
Wi-Fi Map is designed to help you find a connection, and the information is crowd-sourced from fellow travelers, so it stays precise and up-to-date. Use the handy digital map to find the closest signal – and search up to 500 million hotspots around the globe.
7. Take a guided walking tour
UPDATE May 2019: Detour was acquired by Bose in 2018. It's website is not active, and the app appears to have been removed from Apple's iTunes store. It is, however, still available from Google Play. Download with caution, and always read user reviews.
Audio tours have been popular in museums for decades. Just put on a pair of headphones and let a soothing voice guide you through the hallowed halls of MOMA or the Louvre. But now that audio files can be downloaded onto almost any device, you can theoretically tailor a tour to any location on Earth.
Hence Detour, which provides detailed, guided walking tours from knowledgeable locals. These audio tours have a lot of personality, and you can listen to them whenever you want. (Each tour lists the appropriate times of day or night to listen, as well as the appropriateness for children). This may particularly appeal to podcast listeners, who love getting their information aurally (while also moving around).
8. Organize your trip’s nitty gritty details
A lot of travelers keep a precise schedule. There are red-eye flights to board, drivers to track down, specific hotels to check into – and that’s when the business meeting starts. You may struggle to keep all that information organized, especially if you’re jet-lagged and trying to function in a place where nobody speaks English.
There’s where TripCase comes in handy: the app will help you to assemble your itinerary ahead of time, so you know exactly where you’re going and what you need to accomplish when you get there. The app will itemize your flight, lodging, car rental, and activities, among other life-saving categories.
9. Pack only what you really need
If you’re a really organized traveler, you might put together a handwritten packing checklist or even a spreadsheet. But these can get lost or garbled over time, and they usually feel like a chore.
PackPoint adds a little fun to stuffing your luggage: you can keep comprehensive lists of all your gear, share them with others, and tailor your gear to the kind of trip you’re taking (hiking, motorcycling, or even a fancy dinner). PackPoint also checks the weather to make sure you’ve stowing the appropriate outfits.
10. Eat at the same places spotlighted on TV Shows
The most imaginative app on my list is TVFoodMaps, which directs you to nearby restaurants that have been featured on TV shows. Yes, you’ve probably caught a least a little Bourdain or Ramsay over the years, but you may still be amazed by how many restaurants across the country have been intimately filmed.
Will a now-famous greasy spoon live up to its segment on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”? Now you can experience it for yourself. Enjoy!
11. Visit like a local
Some people hate to be called “tourists.” There’s nothing duller than getting photographed in front of the Eiffel Tower, just like every other tour bus visitor to Paris. If you want to get the real scoop, try LikeALocal, which crowd-sources an astonishing amount of insider advice.
LikeALocal is divided into several categories: Tips, Tours, Sights, Restaurants, Tours and Activities, among others. Think of the app as a mashup of Lonely Planet and CouchSurfing, where you not only absorb lots of indigenous info, but you can also arrange to meet up with friendly locals. Each profile shows availability, interests, and starred reviews.
12. Stretch your imagination
The app’s name is weird, and the app itself is even weirder – but if you’re really into photography, Ephemeris is a very powerful tool. Framing a portrait is an art, whether you’re taking a picture of a person or a mountain range. But the real challenge is the light. How do you take a beautiful landscape when the sun (or moon) isn’t cooperating?
The Photographer’s Ephemeris helps you figure out the perfect lighting. The app actually traces the direction and intensity of natural light and advises you on the angle of your camera. This is some pretty sophisticated technology, but it’s fun to tinker with, and it might just transform the way you see the world.
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