Essential Travel Apps

From mid-September 2015 to end of March 2016 I traveled in and around Southeast Asia, about six and a half months. My phone was my camera, so I always had it with me, as many people do. These are the apps I found most useful in my travels. I don’t like articles with headlines like “The top 25 travel apps you need before a snake bites your dick off” so here’s my top 6, along with a few other interesting (but not quite essential) apps. If you have an indispensable one I should try, give me a shout.

For what it’s worth I have an iPhone but I’m sure these apps are available for Android as well.

Essential Apps

maps.me
The most useful app of all time - offline maps! One thing I did not want to deal with was constantly getting lost in a foreign country. It's going to happen to some degree anyway, so I wanted to minimize it. The number of hours - even days - this app has saved me. You can bookmark places too so when I got to a new place and found out about fun things to see or do, I could add them to the map and get directions - all without wifi! You just need to download a map of each country, which is easy enough. It has various things labeled (businesses, buildings, etc.) similar to Google Maps and the maps are always improving. Seriously, if you take nothing else from this article, get this one app! Here's an example of the pins I had dropped in Hanoi, Vietnam:

Hostelworld has a great interface that lets you find a nice hostel with a slew of filtering options. You get an average rating to weed out the crap places (which there are a lot of in Asia) along with photos and bed prices. Those are the primary factors I use to make my decision. The only caveat is that it is sometimes cheaper to book through the hostel directly so I use Hostelworld to find the place and then contact them directly to see which is cheaper.

Couchsurfing is a whole other article but the short version is, it’s a great way to lodge with a local and make friends. In fact, I couchsurfed at a house in Asheville, North Carolina in 2009 and through my host not only got a job (with one of her friends) but, seven years later, I moved into that same house!

XE Currency
An app for converting currencies. Very helpful when you first enter a new country as you get used to the price of things in a different currency.

Wiki Triip (Note the double 'i')
Another great tool for offline information, this time about an area. When you move around a lot, you spend a fair amount of time in planes, trains and automobiles. And while sometimes you want to take in the sights, there are others where that time could be better spent researching your next destination, which is great because it gets you excited about where you’re going! Not to mention sometimes it's night or there isn't much to see. There is often an incredible amount of information in the app for each location. Here is the intro to Asheville, giving you an idea of the simple interface:

And to give you an idea of the breadth of detail available, here is the table of contents for Asheville, which is typical of most locations:

  • Understand
    • Climate
  • Get in
    • By plane
    • By train
    • By car
    • By bus
  • Get around
    • By car
    • By taxi
    • By bike
    • By bus
  • See
    • Architecture
    • Art galleries
    • Museums
  • Do
    • Activities
    • Tours
    • Festivals
    • Live music
    • Theatre
    • Outdoors
    • Sports
    • Yoga
  • Buy
  • Eat
    • Downtown
    • North
    • West
    • South
  • Drink
  • Sleep
    • Bed and breakfasts
    • Budget
    • Mid-range
    • Splurge
    • Vacation rentals
  • Connect
  • Go next

In short, a lot of often vital information about most locations on Earth that is well-organized. For example, when flying into Saigon, the section on taxis alerted me to scams as well as the cheapest option to get to the city center (the bus) as well as how much it should cost. For Vietnam in particular, this was golden knowledge because so many people (including official workers like bus drivers!) will try to rip you off.

Translate
Made by Google. I didn’t end up using it much on this trip because the different alphabets in most Asian countries made it challenging to type in words. This app also boasts probably the coolest feature I’ve ever seen, which is that it can use your camera to translate foreign words in real time - and it works offline! Here’s an animated gif of it:

I mean, fucking  wow ! Sadly, as of this writing, the camera feature is not supported for most Asian languages but Google is always adding more!

I mean, fucking wow! Sadly, as of this writing, the camera feature is not supported for most Asian languages but Google is always adding more!

I used this back in 2014 on my European trip and it was so impressive and useful. Of course the translations aren't always perfect, but that's part of the fun. My favorite one from the Word Lens app (before Google bought them):

If you know of a free site that will let me merge two photos like this but change the relative sizes and maybe insert some space between them, I'd like to know!

If you know of a free site that will let me merge two photos like this but change the relative sizes and maybe insert some space between them, I'd like to know!

Not really essential, but neat apps

Sleep Cycle
From their site: “Waking up easy is all about timing. Sleep Cycle alarm clock tracks your sleep patterns and wakes you up during light sleep. Waking up during light sleep feels like waking up naturally rested without an alarm clock.” Really cool, and you get data on your sleep which is pretty neat. You can use it to find out what factors contribute to you getting a great night’s sleep.

90 percent! Thanks for the two-hour massage Cara!

90 percent! Thanks for the two-hour massage Cara!

Pacer
An app that measures the steps you take in a day, assuming you have your phone on you. Of course that's not 100% of the time, but in my experience it’s a good enough gauge. We're supposed to take 10,000 steps each day. When I was traveling, this was quite easy. When I stopped traveling and started working again, my daily steps dropped dramatically - see the image! Once again: stats. It’s a good way to check in with yourself and motivate positive change.

The dramatic drop at the end is when I stopped traveling.

The dramatic drop at the end is when I stopped traveling.

Spotify (paid account required for offline music) / Amazon Music (free with Prime)
Offline music. Nuff said. I should also give a shoutout to the native Podcasts app. Keep that brain engaged and learning new things!

Yelp
This actually wasn’t available in most Asian countries so there must be better apps for finding the best food there - if you know one, let me know!