10 Essential Travel Apps

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A few months, ago, we took off for long-term life on the road with our shiny new Android smartphone. Smartphones and mobile technology have really changed the travel scene. If anything, free Wi-Fi is more prevalent abroad than in the U.S., and the ability to unlock phones (aka “jailbreaking”) and install local SIM cards makes mobile computing a breeze. It’s hard to imagine: when we first backpacked through Southeast Asia years ago, we had to bring traveler’s checks, use a paper map, and actually call the airlines to haggle out plans. Fast forward to 2016, and our smartphone has become an indispensable tool that never leaves our side. Here are some essential apps that we’ve discovered in our travels through trial and error.

 

10. LiveTrekker

© LiveTrekker

© LiveTrekker

All the rage with the Geocaching crowd, LiveTrekker marks your route on a virtual map. You can share your updated travels with the app, as well as broadcast events live and create a spatial photographic diary of your travels. LiveTrekker aims to provide complete documentation of your journey, and allows others to follow your travels in real time.
Cost/Operating Systems: Free, Android and iOS

 

9. ShowMeHills

© ShowMeHills

© ShowMeHills

This is such a cool app to use while trekking and hiking. ShowMeHills uses your phone’s GPS to tell you what hills and mountain peaks are in your phone camera’s current field of view. ShowMeHills superimposes the names of the peaks on your screen, and displays the elevation of those peaks in meters or feet. Not an essential app, by any means, but very fun when you’re hiking or driving through exotic and unfamiliar terrain.
Cost/Operating Systems: Free, Android only

 

8. Speedtest Master

© Speedtest Master

© Speedtest Master

Does that promised WiFi network really work? Speedtest Master allows you to quickly ping upload and download speeds from your phone. It then rates the network and displays a snapshot of its speed. We live and work online these days, and we’d often rather go without, say, hot running water than a good Internet connection. Plus, hotels can advertise “free WiFi” when in actuality, it only works well at the bar, perhaps in a ruse to draw in more drinking customers. Speedtest Master is one of the more fuss-free network testers out there in terms of usability, reliability, and unobtrusive ads.
Cost/Operating Systems: Free, iOS and Android

 

7. Smart Compass

© Smart Compass

© Smart Compass

A simple, neat free app, Smart Compass tells your latitude and longitude as well as direction. Smart Compass is great for hiking, and works off of your network’s GPS. Smart Compass shows the relative field strength, and will also work with a map overlay. You can also use the camera while operating Smart Compass for a true bearing, and the app incorporates the offset for magnetic versus true north as well.
Cost/Operating Systems: Free, Android only

 

6. QR Code Reader

© QR Code Reader

© QR Code Reader

We like to use these in museums, although we’re kind of a late adopter, as QR readers have been around for a while. QR Code Reader quickly aligns and opens a QR code in the camera’s field of view, giving you information on the location of interest. Often, we’ve found that a QR code might be the only explanation for an out-of-the-way but perhaps historic site or castle.
Cost/Operating Systems: Free, Android only

 

5. XE Currency Converter

© XE Currency Converter

© XE Currency Converter

Are you getting the best exchange rate on your hard-earned dollar? We’ve tried many currency exchange apps, and this is one of the best. The XE Currency Converter is the most downloaded currency app in the world. It is interchangeable between types of currencies, and is quick and easy to use on the fly. It also shows how one given currency has been performing against another over a span of days, weeks or even years. We like to use it to identify whether a given ATM is indeed adding on hefty fees for a withdrawal.
Cost/Operating Systems: Free, iOS and Android

 

4. Expedia

© Expedia

© Expedia

It’s hard to believe: we’ve been buying airline tickets from Expedia for close to two decades now. And one of the great unspoken utilities for sites like Kayak and Expedia are their use for pre-travel research. Airline ticket prices vary greatly by season, day of the week, and the whims of the market. Plus, researching ticket prices on Expedia’s streamlined and simple app is much quicker than doing it online. Expedia also shows you the standard layovers on a given route, and often, you can add in a stop for a few days with no added cost.
Cost/Operating Systems: Free, iOS and Android

 

3. Google Translate

© Google

© Google

This one is like something out of Star Trek. Hold your phone’s camera up to foreign text (say a bus schedule or menu) and Google Translate will produce a live-view translation in its field of view. You can also type text in, or simply speak to it for translation. In 2015, Google Translate added Arabic translation, an especially difficult language for engineers to crack. Perhaps, we’ll really have Douglas Adams’ Babel fish translator from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to plug into our ear in the next few years. We can’t wait for Google to push out an update for the live view to work from Arabic back into English.
Cost/Operating Systems: Free, iOS and Android

 

2. Airbnb

© Airbnb

© Airbnb

We’ve stayed in so many Airbnbs now, it’s hard to remember staying in hotels … and we frequently use this app for access. A great plus with Airbnb is the ability to “live like a local,” versus a hotel or hostel. Airbnb lets you filter a stay by price as well as amenities such as WiFi, free parking, host language and more. When Cuba began opening up recently to the Internet, residents cited how eager they were to begin listing rentals on Airbnb. The app is vital in communicating arrival and locating a new place, the most critical phase of any new Airbnb stay.
Cost/Operating Systems: Free, iOS and Android

 

1. Google Maps

© Google

© Google

Jump into a rental car, and this is now automatically our GPS. Google Maps also works great on foot, or even out for a jog in a strange new place. I’ve even used the street-view feature to see just what our intended destination looks like. Another nice feature is real-time traffic updates, a real plus in big cities where an accident can snarl traffic. One drawback: Google Maps actively uses the phone’s GPS and is a real power hog, slowly draining it even while plugged in to the car’s dashboard USB port. Plus, we often need to turn the screen brightness up to 100 percent to read Google Maps in broad daylight, another big power drain.
Cost/Operating Systems: Free, iOS and Android

 

One More: Heavens-Above

What satellite is that, crossing over the desert night sky? Heavens-Above is a great, free planetarium app that fits right in the palm of your hand. Our favorite feature is the Live Sky Chart, which displays visible satellites for your location in real time. This is a handy way to easily identify just what you’re seeing, gliding silently overhead.
Cost/Operating Systems: Free, Android only

Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.