My Favorite On-the-Road Apps

On recent trips, I’ve zipped around BelgiumIsrael, and Ireland on foot and behind the wheel of a rented car without getting lost (okay, it happened once in awhile), all because of my phone, or what I like to call my third hand.

When I think back to traveling ten years ago, I can’t even imagine (or remember) how I got around foreign cities. It must have been a combination of maps and the kindness of strangers.

Now, my smartphone is my key to the world — the way I report on my trips and share in the experiences of others. I download guidebooks, novels relating to my destination (Shantaram was a recent download), and podcasts.

I’ve even got a motto when it comes to apps: keep it simple, stupid. It needs to be clean, straightforward, and quick if it’s going to make it into heavy rotation.

Here’s a list of the apps I use the most when I’m on the road and why:

  • Let’s just get the big three out of the way now: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram allow me to tap my network for travel recommendations and continue the conversation while I’m away. In addition to being a beautiful way to share photos and reflect the mood of a given place by using filters, Instagram just this week launched a video component with a 15-second time limit (though I still love Vine for its revolutionary 6-second videos).

    Uber can be a life saver when you're in unfamiliar territory. (Photograph courtesy Uber)

    Uber can be a life saver when you’re in unfamiliar territory. (Photograph courtesy Uber)

  • I hardly ever buy music anymore because of my Spotify app. For just $10 a month, I have access to a virtually limitless database of songs that I can stream — ad-free — from anywhere in the world. I can download my playlists and listen to them even when I don’t have access to WiFi. There’s also a social component, where you can browse your friend’s music collections to get ideas.
  • WeatherBug claims to be 25 percent more accurate than other forecasting apps, and in my experience, it usually is. Television host and travel blogger Rachelle Lucas relies on it while she’s packing. “This is my go-to for deciding what to wear,” she said.
  • Viator lets me indulge my love for experiences on the road. This app puts more than 15,000 different tours and activities (many with discounts, user reviews, and photos) at your fingertips — and its great design makes booking a snap.
  • I’ve subscribed to Netflix at home for a long time, but only recently discovered that I can watch movies and TV shows on my smartphone and tablet while I’m traveling (if I have WiFi). I still buy entertainment on iTunes because the selection on Netflix tends to be older, but I love having access to a little bit of home on the road.
  • While no translation service is perfect, Google Translate makes it easy to break through a language barrier. Just looking at language options like Kannada, Esperanto, and Azerbaijani makes me want to travel.
  • In my opinion, Kayak is by far the best app for booking flights, hotels, and cars straight from your phone. Like the web-based Kayak, it compares hundreds of travel sites to help you find the best deal in real time.
  • As Michael Holtz of the SmartFlyer travel agency says: Uber is “the best way to get home in the rain.” Request a ride in major cities around the world (see where Uber operates here), track where your driver is, and watch the car pull up in minutes. Because your credit card is on file and the tip is automatically included, no money is actually exchanged. Small caveat: During peak hours or on holidays (think New Year’s Eve), you may experience “surge” rates.
  • I am constantly on OpenTable booking restaurant reservations, and easily canceling them. You can search by neighborhood, price, type of food, and see what’s available. It’s best to book a month in advance for the best tables in the big cities. Points accrue for each booking and they’ll send you a check to use at any OpenTable restaurant when you reach certain levels.

    Figure out which outfits to pack with the WeatherBug app. (Photograph courtesy Earth Networks - WeatherBug)

    Figure out which outfits to pack with the WeatherBug app. (Photograph courtesy Earth Networks – WeatherBug)

  • When you “check in” at locations around the world using your Foursquare app, tips and photos from those who came before you pop up. If 30 people are telling me I have to try the negitoro roll at a sushi joint around the corner, I’ll probably order it. The app also tells you how long it’s been since you last checked in at that location and which of your friends have been there.
  • You know how Skype lets you make calls using WiFi or your data plan? WhatsApp gives you the ability to send text messages and photos by using only your data plan, so you’re not paying extra for them.
  • Lucas likens TripIt to a personal assistant when it comes to organizing her travel plans. “It’s a big time saver since I’m able to email them my confirmations and they automatically appear organized in my app within just a few minutes.” Tip: Don’t get “conned into the pro version,” Lucas says. “The free one is more than sufficient.”
  • A must-have for any foreign travel, the hugely popular XE Currency Converter tracks the most current exchange rates. The best part? It stores the latest rates and will make conversions for you even if you don’t have Internet access.
  • Bonus! I can’t resist making a special plug for NYC-specific apps. As a New Yorker, I’m always recommending great apps to visitors. Immaculate Infatuation has spot-on, no-fluff restaurant reviews. The ScoopThe New York Times insider guide to the city, is a go-to for the latest on bars, restaurants, theater, art, kids, you name it. And Goings On is a great guide to NYC culture brought to you by the staff of The New Yorker.

Which apps do you use on the road? Share your favorites with the Intelligent Travel community in the comments section:

Comments

  1. Nick
    United States
    June 25, 2013, 1:23 pm

    You really should have mentioned WAZE. With its international leagues of map editors its a great way to find directions domestically and internationally. Check it out: http://www.waze.com

  2. robert
    Netherlands
    June 25, 2013, 4:47 pm

    My favorite app by far is CityMaps2Go – offline maps of virtually any city in the world and many regions. Links with wikipedia articles and you can add your own destinations and comments. I would have been lost many times without it.
    I also depend heavily on Tripit, Tripadvisor, Windguru and Packlist to help manage my travel.

  3. Victor Tribunsky
    June 26, 2013, 9:56 am

    Hello Annie,

    Can you check my travelog http://www.victortravelblog.com and say, have I the chance to write for NatGeo?

    Thank you very much.

  4. Annie Fitzsimmons
    June 26, 2013, 10:43 am

    Nick – I’m a big fan of Waze and in fact, my longtime beau works for them! I was torn but decided to leave out this time. I mentioned in my Best of Tel Aviv post – http://intelligenttravel.nationalgeographic.com/2013/05/02/the-best-of-tel-aviv-afitz/
    Robert – I am going to download CityMaps2Go – thanks for the tip!

  5. Lori Barber
    On an 8 month trip around the world
    June 28, 2013, 6:33 am

    My husband and I are currently on an eight month trip around the world and use some of the apps you included: Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and Google Translate. We use Google maps all the time, although it has been inacurate a few times. I also like Kindle and Sirius. We have tried to access Netflix, but the service has been unavailable in the countries we have visited so far. Here is our travel blog: http://www.latitudeB.com.

  6. Rob Ivanoff
    United States
    June 30, 2013, 10:19 pm

    OK, you are fired. I expected you to be a real travelling pro sharing amazing new tips, throughts and ideas. Instead, you are sharing apps that every 3-year old already uses. Cmon. Give us a specialist.

  7. Annie Fitzsimmons
    July 1, 2013, 11:40 am

    Hi Rob, thanks for your comment. This wasn’t meant to be a “specialist” post, just my favorite apps I actually use. As a long-time, frequent road warrior and writer, these are the apps I use every single day. I’ve tried hundreds of other apps, but need them to be simple and easy on the road. I didn’t mention the apps I use for editing my photos, but other than that, these are my most-used apps.

  8. Kip
    Costa Rica
    July 10, 2013, 11:07 pm

    Nice article. My wife and I are using most of these almost constantly on our trip. Will have to try Viator and WhatsApp…thanks for the tip.

    Kip
    http://www.1of7.org

  9. Canyouship.it
    Shanghai
    July 20, 2013, 10:13 am

    * Skyscanner offers a no-nonsense, super fast flight booking app.
    * Dropbox is just so useful in many ways: you can scan all your papers, ID etc… and get them offline on your phone, with a cloud backups, and of course, synced with your phone, all your travel pics are automatically uploaded in the cloud ^^
    * Getting maps offline can be also quite convenient, I recommend Google Maps, focus on your destination and “enable offline”, you can also download OpenStreetMaps, a good alternative.

    Cheers,
    Ronan from Canyouship.it (btw, we are mobile adaptive ;)

  10. John
    Triposo
    August 27, 2013, 4:22 pm

    I would also add Triposo to the list. One of the better free city guides I’ve come across.

    Feeds from external sources and available offline. I would often read up on sights while on a train before visiting.

  11. Sue
    Washington state
    October 29, 2013, 5:26 pm

    I would like to know what credit card world travelers such as yourself prefer? What one gives the most travel points without restrictions, no blackout dates, no high fees? I read about them all and now am just more confused. If you are not allowed to advocate for your favorite on here maybe you could just email me :)

  12. Jim
    United States
    November 7, 2013, 5:47 pm

    Great post Annie! I use a lot of these already but will be checking out the few that I haven’t.
    I will add 1 that is especially useful for photographers (and those romantic types who want to plan a sunset-based engagement. It’s called “The Photographer’s Ephemeris” or TPE for short. This has many amazing features but the best one IMO is the ability to plot the sunrise/sunset (both by degrees and time) any where in the world for any date! This enables you to know exactly when/where to set up for a great shot! I think it cost around $5 but WELL worth it IMO!