Making some smart choices about the apps you load before you travel internationally can improve your experience and save you time and money. Even though mobile websites can generally accomplish all the same tasks, an app can offer two main benefits: lower data use and offline access*. These are some of my must-haves when traveling.
Get the apps for your airlines and any booking services you’ve used like Booking.com or Airbnb. Using the apps to access your bookings is generally faster than loading entire websites.
Even if you’re an avid user of Waze or Apple Maps, I generally recommend using Google Maps when traveling. While some of this is down to completeness, a big part of the draw is the ability to save regions for offline use. By downloading the cities or areas you’ll be visiting in advance, you’ll be sure that you can find your way home even if your connectivity goes away or is running slow.
I could do a whole separate writeup on organizing all your travel documentation (and maybe I will!), but this is another area where picking an app that has offline support is really helpful. For the last couple years, I’ve just been using Apple Notes for this, because it’s built in to iOS and MacOS. I make a folder for each trip, and add any important snippets of ticket, confirmation numbers, or even whole PDFs of tickets or travel documents. The notes automatically sync between your devices and can be accessed without connectivity. In the past, I’ve used Evernote for this, and tools like OneNote are great as well. I recommend making a folder with scans of all your other important travel-related materials, like passports, visas, and COVID cards. Having a digital copy comes in handy.
If you’ve talked to me about travel for more than a few minutes, I’ve probably told you to purchase a subscription to AllTrails. Allow me to do so again. Beyond providing you with an awesome catalog of hikes anywhere in the world, AllTrails has stellar offline functionality. Once you’ve loaded a hike, you can navigate without any data use. The safety features mean you can always retrace your steps if needed.
The Rick Steves Audio Europe app is another favorite. Rick offers free walking tours of many European cities and museums, which can be downloaded in advance. This is my favorite way to get to know a new city.
Lately, I’ve been playing with two other tour apps: VoiceMap and Questo. VoiceMap provides guided audio tours of many locations around the world, hosted by local tour guides. Tours include maps and sometimes additional photos. Each tour costs a few dollars, and they can be a great alternative to an in person tour if your schedule doesn’t allow for that. Questo is another tour application, with an eye towards “gamification.” The tours are of widely varying quality, but they can be a nice break from pure didactic instruction.
Finally, even if you’re an avid Lyft user in the US, you’ll want the Uber app installed when you travel internationally. Not only does Uber itself have a larger international footprint, they’ve also partnered with many regional rideshare providers. The Uber app will negotiate booking a ride with a local provider, and simplify the payment process.
Google Translate is still the best application for translating text, images, and even conversation. For many languages, you can download the translation dictionary in advance, which can be a lifesaver. Although iOS has a translation app built in, it’s not as full-featured as the Google product.
I’m also terrible at remembering exchange rates, so for years I’ve kept the Xe.com appinstalled to quickly convert currencies.
These apps are general purpose, and will apply to most places you travel (especially in western Europe). That said, doing a bit of research in advance is always warranted. As discussed in past newsletters, rideshare services are often highly region-specific, so in addition to Uber, you might need to have Grab, Gojek, or Bolt installed. Google Maps is pretty universal, unless you’re in South Korea – in that case, you’ll want Naver or Kakao. And if you’re traveling to somewhere with less-than-ideal attitudes about surveillance, remember to delete the apps after you travel.
But What About …
This might seem like kind of a small list, but the reality is that most travel-specific apps are crap. The vast majority of the city- or country-specific apps you’ll find on the various app stores are just automatically generated apps stealing content from sites like WikiTravel. Other apps like TripAdvisor just act as portals to website, and don’t offer meaningful offline advantages. Guidebook apps are almost always worse than carrying a paper copy of the guidebook. Stick to some core apps and you’ll be a lot less frustrated.
* yes web nerds, technically websites can use offline storage. But when you’re scrambling to find your confirmation number while standing in the immigration line, do you really want to count on the airline’s web team fully understanding how Safari’s implementation of IndexedDB interacts with ITP expulsion policies?