As you might know, before we set off for long-term travel, we sold our stuff. I thought about selling our iPhones too but ultimately decided against it because I felt that they would be more valuable as a traveling asset than the money I could gain from selling them. Turns out that I was right and apart from my lovely wife Laura, the iPhone is the greatest travel companion one could have. Here are a few apps that I use often and have made traveling easier.
- Mint – Staying on top of your personal finances is extremely important when traveling. Budgeting and keeping track of all your accounts can be both time-consuming and stressful when you are bouncing from place to place. Mint is a great way to help simplify this by viewing all of your accounts in one place. You can also track your spending by categories, set up budgets and goals and Mint will also alert you for low balances, fee charges and interest rate changes. To get started, just set up an account at Mint.com (it’s Free). Once you are all set, download the app and you’ll be able to check-up on your finances in no-time, anytime.
- Maps – Gone are the days of unfurling your paper travel map on a busy sidewalk to find out where you are and more importantly, where you want to go. If you’ve got a smartphone, chances are you have built-in maps and GPS functionality and with just a few taps of the finger, you’ll not only pinpoint your location, you’ll be able to get step-by-step directions to your destination. I can’t tell you how many times the iPhone Maps app has saved the day in regards to directions or where the closest public transit, restaurant, pharmacy, bank, etc. is. We’ve also been able to help a lot of other travelers with the aforementioned “paper travel maps”. The Maps app comes pre-installed as part of any iPhone’s IOS but the point is that any maps app will become an excellent resource for any traveler.
- TripAdvisor – OK, so you’ve arrived in an exciting new city… Now What? Well, if you’re like me, you want to know what to do, where to go, where to eat and where to stay. There is no better way to find out this information than from other travelers who have been there and done that. TripAdvisor is the world’s largest travel related review site and is my first stop in deciding what to do and getting advice on when and how to do it from real reviews from real people. With the TripAdvisor app, you can hit the ground running and start experiencing the things that interest you right away rather than wasting time reading brochures. Traveling efficiently is all about maximizing the time you have to do the things you want. The TripAdvisor app makes that easier.
- Skype – Skype is one of those things that I knew I would use as a long-term traveler; I just didn’t think I would use it as frequently as we did in our travels. I figured it would be great for staying in touch with friends and family back in the states but what I discovered was that it was much more valuable than that. We didn’t buy any sim cards for our phones before we settled in Sydney, Australia. Instead, we used Skype (via WIFI) to make the majority of our local and international calls. Call a taxi from the airport, Skype it. Call the airline to confirm flight details, Skype it. Call the bank to authorize transactions for another country, Skype it up! We used it nearly every time we needed to make a call and it was very inexpensive. Another useful thing we did was to set up an actual phone number for Skype in our home area code back in NY. This allowed our friends, family and banks to reach us at a local number, from their regular phone without incurring international rates. If you’re going away for a while, I highly recommend Skype for your telephone needs as you travel.
- WebMD – Traveling can challenge the body in terms of health. Time-zone changes, late nights and general fatigue from pushing yourself to see as much as possible can leave you susceptible to germs that in all likelihood, your body hasn’t had much experience in fighting. Other than having a good travel insurance plan (highly recommended), you can use an app like WebMD to help determine what actions to take when you are feeling certain symptoms, need first aid advice or need to find a local physician or hospital. Obviously, WebMD doesn’t replace a consultation by a doctor but it can help in a pinch to shed some light on what might be going on medically and whether to escalate the situation to an emergency. Setting up a WebMD account is free, easy and you can input your current conditions or medications you are taking to help doctors assess the best course of treatment if you fall ill during your travels.
- XE Currency – When you’re traveling to another country, tracking exchange rate changes becomes a way of life. Luckily, we were able to avoid exchanging cash at money exchangers that charge commissions or give poor exchange rates. I’ll be doing a more in depth post on how we managed our money during our travels but using a travel account that doesn’t charge foreign exchange fees or ATM withdrawal fees is one way that saved us big time. The XE Currency app is most useful in quickly determining how much something quoted in their local currency will be in your currency. It helps you make an informed decision on what something is worth to you without your judgment getting clouded by currency valuations. The app will store your base currency as well as a number of foreign currencies. Simply enter the foreign price quoted and it will convert it automatically to the current value in all of the other currencies including your base. Don’t assume you’re getting a bargain, check the price with XE. It couldn’t be easier.
- Weather Channel – The one thing that you can be sure of is that weather will somehow affect your travel plans. The last thing you want to do is plan an entire itinerary and have it ruined by unexpected bad weather. Unfortunately, there isn’t an app to control the weather (yet). However, we can use the most comprehensive resources available to plan around it. The Weather Channel app provides some of the most reliable data available for global weather so no matter where you are in the world, you can prepare yourself adequately. In my experience, forecasts have been very accurate; often down to the hour. It is most helpful in making the decision to wear a jacket, take an umbrella or schedule the walking tour for a day with optimal conditions. Being prepared for the weather will make your travel much more enjoyable and yes, easier.
- Facebook – We all know Facebook as the social network standard that has completely revolutionized how we connect with friends and family but it also has relevance when it comes to making travel easier. Sharing travel photos, letting everyone know what you’re up to and expanding your social network as you travel are all great reasons to utilize Facebook. However, there are a few other ways that Facebook can help a traveler. Companies often offer special discounts to those who “check-in” at or “like” their establishment. We’ve received free food and discounts on clothing and airfare simply for using Facebook. Another great thing about Facebook is simply the sharing of knowledge. It came as a surprise to me that once I started traveling, how many people were sending me great tips about the location that I was is in. Most people don’t consider Facebook as a traveling tool but I believe that every traveler should (and probably already does) use Facebook.
- Rhapsody – What good is an iPhone without music? What good is travel without a soundtrack? Ok, it’s still pretty good but music makes it all the better and Rhapsody makes getting the music you want super-easy. Ever since I heard about unlimited music subscription plans I was hooked. I think it is a far better music consumption model than buying whole albums on the premise that you will like every song and paying per song in most cases is just way too cost prohibitive. I prefer to download the exact songs I want and also have my music options presented to me in a way that is organized and makes sense for a flat fee. If you are the type that likes really obscure music from relatively unknown artists than a better option might be to buy and transfer these tracks via iTunes. For me, I’ll gladly pay $10/month for Laura and I to fill our iPhones to the brim with Rhapsody. I just find it easier. There is a slight catch though. I found out that Rhapsody and some other apps don’t exactly play nice when you are out of the United States. This is a serious flaw to the service and the word is that they are working towards a solution. Luckily there is an easy solution right now that brings me to my #10 travel app (see below).
- Hotspot Shield VPN – It was an unexpected and unpleasant surprise to find out that some apps (mostly music/video streaming apps) were completely useless outside of the states. Hotspot VPN works by directing your overseas internet connection through servers that are based in the US. The result is that the app continues to work because it determines your location to still be in the states. Also, in countries that have blocked certain sites like YouTube and Facebook (China for example), this handy app will allow you to circumvent these blocks. The service isn’t free but it is cheap at $.99/month and it is worth every penny to be able to continue to use great apps like Rhapsody, Pandora, Facebook and Twitter in places where it isn’t allowed. This app makes travel easier because it allows the apps I need to continue working when I travel to places where they wouldn’t work otherwise. I recommend it especially if you are going to any countries with restrictions on websites and apps that can be used.
Bonus Jailbreak Apps
- SpringFlash – There have been quite a few times in our travel where a little light is needed to illuminate the situation. This app is only for those with an iPhone 4 and can be activated anytime by double-pressing the power button. I like this one in particular because it is really easy to grab the iPhone and turn on the light without unlocking and finding the app but essentially any flashlight app will suffice and I really recommend getting one because it will come in handy.
- MyWi – Internet tethering is a touchy issue for mobile carriers in the United States because they want to profit on every single connection made to their network. Over here in Australia it is more commonplace to allow sharing of your data connection. Data allowances are also very generous. MyWi is simply the easiest way to enable tethering on the iPhone. You can set it up to broadcast over WiFi, over USB, or via Bluetooth. Having access to internet on the laptop via my iPhone has become really valuable in places where regular broadband access hasn’t been available or has been very expensive. It’s available on Cydia for $19.99 (free trail available) which sounds like a lot but if you are an avid tethering user, it can definitely be worth it.
This list is focused around the iPhone but similar (even some of the same) apps can be found for Android, Blackberry and Palm OS. So what apps do you use to help make travel easier? Leave a comment.