The internet is rife with lists of aspirational travel apps. Apps that are neither useful or realistic for an actual person. Most of these apps seem related to a fantasy of what we wish travel was as opposed to what it actually is for the majority of us.
The list below won't help you choose amongst first class lounges or provide quick reference for high priced wine tastings. It will help you survive long bus rides to beautiful new places or pick up some Thai before you arrive to Bangkok so you can say please and thank you.
If you feel more like a traveler than a jet-setter, then this list has something for you.
Music, Reading and Movies
Before leaving for our trip I finally gave up on the CD collection. The fantasy I’d harbored since 2008 of uploading hundreds of CD’s into iTunes had gradually been replaced by the less ambitious goal of adding the best of the bunch into my free Spotify account. Thankfully purging all of our personal possessions wiped out even this tame ambition. It was a tremendous relief watching the Goodwill guy wheel away five extra large Case-Logics of 90’s music. I was free.
Here’s what I’ve learned: if you realize you miss a song, you can find it. In fact, you can find it a lot faster than you could if you had to remember which case it was in, pull it out and load it into a CD changer. Paying $8 a month for access to millions of songs from the past and for a constantly updated future catalog would be a steal even if you couldn’t download playlists for offline play.
It seems weird to me that I had to throw away my entire music collection and live a life where I’m constantly trying to find decent data access to embrace streaming music, but that’s what has happened.
Spotify works in all but the slowest wi-fi, their “Discover” Playlist delivers new music I like more reliably than any other friend or software I’ve ever encountered and it makes accessing your music across multiple devices easy. It’s great at home and it’s great on the road.
(I should note that Spotify’s free version only works in certain countries and that off-line playlists only work with the paid version. For a full list of countries where free works, check here)
Netflix catalog internationally is different in each country. Most places we've been, I find the movie selection to be better than in the states. To see the size of the catalog where you are traveling, check out the search engine here. Your other question should be: “Am I traveling somewhere developed enough to have internet speeds that allow me to actually play anything?”
Pocket is my favorite way to cache blog posts, news articles, youtube videos and links of all kinds. As a browser extension and a mobile app, it lets me grab stuff to read later. After creating an account and loading a few articles, you’ll find that Pocket also has a good recommendation engine that will feed you articles as well.
It’s always irritated me that digital copies of books cost anything close to the cost of a physical book when they are no longer paying to actually print, ship or stock a physical object. But consider this: a digital copy of a book will never age. You’ll never have to move it to another house or worry about losing it. Any notes or highlighting you make will last forever. And most importantly – for those of us carrying our whole lives on our backs – a digital copy will never weigh an ounce. I can read on my phone, my tablet, even on a browser and I never need to remember to bring my book or what page I was on.
You’re no longer buying an object, you’re buying a lifetime of use.
And of course, when your bus to La Paz breaks down on the side of a mountain, it’s nice to be able to call up a couple hours of reading at the drop of a hat.
Money and Budgeting
Trail Wallet was developed by a married couple who blog about their travel experiences. You enter your budget and the length of your trip and Trail Wallet will give you a per-day breakdown of your budget. Enter expenses as they occur and the app calculates your average daily expenses. Perhaps most importantly, a small animated woman on the budget screen comments each time you enter a new expense – encouraging you when you do well and shaming you when you go over budget. Even though you know she’s just an inanimate piece of software, you will think continuously about deceiving her just so she stops saying those mean things.
Jess is the real expert on this app. Her diligence with our finances is a big reason we were able to save so much and why we have stayed on budget so well so far. Check out Jess' post on Trail Wallet here.
(Trail Wallet not available for Android)
Transport and Navigation
If you have a decently new smart phone and take the time to pre-download maps for destinations you can have most of the features of Google maps even without data connection on your phone. If you take the time to get a local sim card – even without data – you’ll increase your locational accuracy. See my recent post about off-line maps for more specifics.
Uber doesn’t work everywhere, but it works in more international cities than you would expect. Check the full list here. Uber is particularly useful in countries where you don’t speak the language or might have trouble negotiating fares since payment and destination are all taken care of in-app.
Evernote has so much functionality and so many zealotous adherents that adopting it can be intimidating. It’s at it’s best when you use it reliably and consistently for a simple task. For us, it’s any piece of visual information that we want to retain for later. A train schedule, a wi-fi password, a baggage ticket or tourist map.
Evernote time,date and locationally stamps each photo so it’s easy to track everything chronologically. It will also automatically transcribe and make searchable any text, super helpful for pages from printed materials like magazines or guide books.
It’s pretty incredible that we suddenly have free language learning available at the touch of a button. Duolingo has a ton of language options and teaches vocabulary, pronunciation and comprehension. There’s no longer any excuse for not knowing how to provide a basic greeting, say thank you or ask directions.
Flash cards are still one of the best ways to learn a language, unfortunately index cards are hard to come by many places in the world and a pain in the ass to make and carry. Thankfully, technology has a solution. Ankidroid is a dynamic flash card program that allows you to not only vary the order of the cards but also to change the interval before the card reappears in the rotation. More than that you can download pre-made card sets optimizing your learning. I like to start with the 300 most common words in each language and all genards ala this Tim Ferriss piece.
If you aren’t at least considering Airbnb for accomodations, you are missing out. Staying directly with or in housing managed by local hosts means better locations and a more authentic taste of local living all for less than your average hotel or hostel. For us as mid-range budget travelers, we love the privacy of renting our own apartment and the convenience and cost saving of having our own kitchen.
Most people’s concerns about using Airbnb stem from safety concerns about staying with a stranger, but Airbnb has a strong safety record and numerous methods for verifying your host’s record, identity and the past reviews from other guests.
The app itself is great for communication with hosts and very easy to use.
In less developed places it's often hard for us to find apartments ahead of arrival. If we can't find a place on Airbnb and don't have a previous recommendation, Hostelworld is the quickest and easiest way to find a place to stay. It's also far better populated geographically than any other site. In urban areas its easy to find a hotel or guest house, but if you're way off the beaten path Hostelworld is more likely to be useful.
For Android users this Apple photos clone will automatically backup photos each time you connect to wi-fi. Extra storage is fairly cheap; we have a 100 GB that costs us $2.00 a month. It helps automatically clear space on my phone and gives me the security of knowing that even if I lose my phone, I won't lose my memories.
Health and Fitness
My habits on the road have changed more than I expected. At home (on a good week) I go to the gym 3-5 times. On the road, I get so much more exercise naturally and have such a less reliable schedule that trying to maintain my previous workout schedule just doesn’t make sense. You Are Your Own Gym does just what it sounds like: it can help you create a routine that requires just your own body and a little improvisation. I also recommend checking out the Body Weight sub-reddit here.