Smartphones and tablets are commonplace on the road now, and the ubiquitous app is making every travellers and backpackers lives easier. Here’s a quick round up of some of the best!
Despite being a bit of a geek at heart I was a late convert to the smartphone and the ‘app explosion’. In fact for a long time I never even travelled with a mobile phone at all. Hey, I had an excuse back then, mobiles were the old Nokia bricks when I started travelling and were pretty much useless. Things are hugely different now.
Many people who know me may be a little surprised to hear I actually have favourite apps. I have very happily stashed my phone in a waterproof bag down at the bottom of my pack and have purposely gone off grid and stayed out of touch with civilisation for days or even weeks in various islands, jungles and deserts around the world. I often espouse on here the many virtues of turning off your devices and even leaving them at home and have ranted more than once at the sea of tablets that greet you at many hostels now instead of actual human faces. But all of that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the use or convenience of technology.
From helping you to plan and arrange your gap year or backpacking trip, to providing entertainment on the long overnight sleeper bus journeys or useful tools when you are actually on the road, apps are here to stay, and some of them are actually pretty damn useful! In no particular order, these are some of the ones I have found useful enough to keep on my phone. And they are all free!
XE currency converter.
I’m usually pretty good at roughly rounding up the conversion rates when I’m on the road, but for those first couple of days in a new country, when you are tired and can’t quite think straight or you just want to double check that dodgy looking money changer isn’t trying to pull a fast one on you, this app is really useful. It requires an internet connection to update, but even if you don’t have one you can remind yourself of the most recent rates offline, and can even compare up to 5 currencies at once.
The Star Trek Universal translator is one step closer to reality with the introduction of language apps, and Hello Pal is one of the newest on the market.
Imagine travelling to say China, Japan or France and being able to converse with a local in their native language in minutes? Hello Pal is a free app that allows you to do just that.
It works by letting you learn and speak the language by simply doing it. No formal studying involved. And it is this that works really well. Imagine a cross between Whatsapp, a social media platform and a Star Trek universal translator, seriously. You just speak or type what you want to say into the app, the app provides you with the correct phrase in the language you have chosen and pairs you with a native speaker, and you record yourself saying it. That is it. It even gives you the chance to meet with locals before you arrive in a new country if you want to.
This is one of my go to sites when checking prices and booking flights. It isn’t the only one by any means and I still suggest shopping round with other agents and airlines websites direct when comparing prices, but to have a handy flight and date comparison via an app is seriously handy and I have found this one of the most consistently useful, accurate and easy to use apps out there.
Hostelworld and Tripadvisor.
I have lumped these two together because despite the fact they are separate sites they pretty much perform the same role for me.
I use these sites a lot as a research tool before I even arrive in any given place. You can pre book accommodation through the apps and the site, but to be honest I have never found it necessary to use this function. You may or may not even stay in the accommodation listed and reviewed on these sites, but it really doesn’t matter and there is certainly no prerequisite for it. I have personally found that they are much more useful to get a rough idea about various types of accommodation in any given country or city, including comparing costs. that way you can arrive in your destination armed with the knowledge of how much the average price for the level of accommodation you want, and can look around a few places and negotiate a fair price for yourself. It also helps to stop you from getting overcharged, your bargaining skills are instantly enhanced when looking for a room when you know the guesthouse a few houses down is half the price and includes free wifi or a breakfast when you first arrive and the owner quotes you a price.
Coupled with the GPS capability that now comes as standard in most smartphones this app is perhaps one of the strongest stalwarts of the ‘how did we ever live without it’ category of software and technology.
The days of searching through your battered Lonely Planet or Rough Guide and looking perplexed as the straight road they show leading to the hostel has suddenly morphed into a winding road with a dozen streets has long gone. This app has been invaluable on many occasions when I’ve needed to find a bus or train station, or a particular hostel. It is also pretty good at giving you a rough idea of where your destination is in relation to where you are now, to stop the conmen taxi drivers from driving you half way around the city for a place that is only a few minutes away.
Google maps is an excellent and seriously useful app, but it does have it’s limitations if you can’t get a free wifi signal and don’t want to spend exorbitant amounts in roaming fees. Forevermap lets you download fair maps of your destinations before you leave (or whenever you have a wifi connection) and you can use them as backup when you are offline. Between this and google maps, you have all your bases covered.
Apps like this are rendering the now almost ubiquitous text messages obsolete. If mobile phone companies want to continue to charge extortionate rates for sending a text home when abroad, then frankly people will just find a way to bypass them and stick up a finger or two, and they have with this app. It is absolutely perfect for keeping in touch with your love ones back home and just sending that periodic message to let them know you are still alive.
Talking of keeping in touch with your family and friends back home, this is another absolutely invaluable app that allows you to keep in touch literally face to face free of charge, providing you have a wifi connection of course. Just don’t be that annoying person in the dorm who wakes everyone up by deciding to chat to everyone back home at 2AM! Any subsequent violence is wholly your own fault if you do.
I admit I still much, much prefer the tactile feel, weight and even smell of a good old paperback, and I still carry one with me wherever I go, but as an avid reader, eReaders in general have been an absolute godsend to me despite my initial reluctance to use them. The kindle app is available for most new apple and android devices now, if not all in fact, and the fact that it saves me from carrying around an eReader as well as my smartphone is a bonus. So if like me you devour books on the road, then this app is invaluable. Load your kindle up with plenty of eBooks like this before you go, and you can sync your app up to it anytime you have a wifi signal. Instant library without all the weight!
I used to recommend leaving your phone at home when you travel, and I generally did this myself on my own trips. There just never used to be the need to carry it with me, especially as I had no need to be in constant contact with anyone or online 24/7. However, whilst my smartphone is still far from being a lifeline for me – and I can still happily keep it packed away for days on end – the evolution of the technology has ensured that it has at least had a promotion to important kit that stays in my carry on!
Who knows, if apps like this continue to overtake and replace a variety of other essential items, I may just consider the smartphone that accesses them may just get another promotion to essential kit!
Did you enjoy this article? What are your favourite apps when travelling? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.