I’m a pretty frequent international traveler. Most years, I take at least one jaunt across the Atlantic, sometimes two, and a few years ago I made it all the way across the Pacific to China.
Most of the time I buy guidebooks, but my favorite travel partner has taken to using iPhone apps as we’re out and about. It’s much simpler and calls less attention to me as a foreign tourist, so I’ve followed suit. Below, I’ll review some well-used favorite mobile apps (most also useful for domestic travel) and then a few apps that I’ve personally found helpful.
Among the thousands of travel apps out there, it can be a bit daunting trying to choose one. My favorite way to browse is to search in the App Store for travel apps I’ve used before and see what else is recommended. i.e. “customers also bought…”
iPhone Apps Not Specifically for International Travel, But Helpful Nonetheless:
Google Maps: This app so far exceeds the usefulness of a guide book map, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I was recently in Vienna, and while on the WiFi network of our hotel, I mapped walking directions to major sites and more obscure restaurants that had been recommended. I then took screen shots of the suggested routes and pulled them up later.
Hint: The screenshots are useful so you aren’t stuck downloading data via an international carrier- read: expensive!
Skype: Skype has been around for a long time, and never ceases to be useful. As long as you stay in a hotel with WiFi, or at least buy a coffee in a WiFi zone, you can generally get a decent enough connection to not only chat with loved ones back home, but see their envious faces too! All for free, as long as they download Skype as well.
Hint: Help parents and other less technology-friendly family and friends set up accounts before you leave.
Hop Stop (or similar subway app): There are very few cities in which I’ve traveled that required a specific iPhone app to navigate the metro. For example, Shanghai, Athens, Budapest, and Santiago all have relatively clean and user-friendly metro lines. Nothing however, compares to the squid-like network tangled in train lines, bus lines and metro stops that is the New York City transit system. Even my friends who are long-time denizens of New York use apps to get beyond their neighborhood via the subway.
To me, London is the same. The London Tube app looks to be similar to HopStop, which I use when I travel to New York quarterly for work.
Hint: Pack loafers to trade in for high heels. Both cities are known for stations located deep underground, which means serious stair-climbing.
Travel-Specific Apps I’ve Found Helpful:
As a caveat, this is by no means an exhaustive list. These are merely apps I’ve found helpful while traveling, or in hindsight, feel I could have used them to improve the experience.
One thing to note, I haven’t included restaurant-finding apps in this list. For me, the best way to find good eats is to ask locals. On occasion, I confess, Rick Steves has also proffered some excellent recommendations.
Rick Steves’ Walking Tours and Podcasts: So, I’m playing favorites here and by now it’s surely become evident that Rick Steves is my preferred guidebook writer (and now tour operator). This is because I’ve tried all the books and his consistently come out on top in terms of logical organization, site recommendation, accurate information, and restaurant ideas.
Also, I just like the guy. He has my dream job and he is a real pro at travelling. Podcasts of his public radio show, Travel with Rick Steves, are available on iTunes and are great ways to get extra information on your destination.
For Prague, he chatted with two professional tour guides and discussed some of the local favorites and must-visit sites. He also went over a few basic need-to-know phrases in Czech. You can also find walking tours of major cities in his podcasts.
Hint: Synch these with your iPhone and listen on the flight over, when you can’t sleep and the thought of one more movie sounds brain numbing.
Shanghai Taxi Guide and Offline Map: This is much more narrow than the app I discuss above, but incredibly helpful in a country where the alphanumeric system looks nothing like my native alphabet. This app includes over 3,000 bold faced addresses in Chinese that help taxi drivers get you to your destination.
Also, passers by can point you in the right direction if you’re standing on a street corner looking confused. Unless you have some obscure restaurant destination in mind (which happened to us) this can get you to all the major sites. There are apps like this available for other major cities, like Beijing and Cairo.
Hint: Keep your hotel’s business card with you at all times.
Triposo: The most helpful thing about Triposo, in Prague, was that you can touch a site on the map and get a picture of it. When you’re in a city whose language you don’t know, this is a big deal. Often, we used this app to figure out what we were looking at, and then dig into some history on the site. On occasion, we found a few sites that the app excluded, but its ease of use made up for that.
Hint: Use iPhone apps like this to refresh your memory on historical sites. You probably won’t retain everything you read pre-trip, particularly after a six to eight hour time-zone adjustment.
Talking Phrasebooks: This could be construed as a generic recommendation. And at some level, it is. My best advice is to find a talking language app (and there are many good ones) so you can learn the basics: “hello,” “please,” and “thank you.” I’ve found locals are more forthcoming and helpful if you, at the very least, greet them in their native language.
Hint: You can also use these for rudimentary communication when in dire need.
Now that you've seen my list of must have iPhone apps for international travel, are there any I've missed? Leave a comment below and let us know what mobile apps you depend on for big adventure. Happy traveling!
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