Travel Planning 103: My Favourite Travel Apps

I like technology. I've always had cool devices and gadgets. I have all sorts of smart lights and appliances in my home. Over the years, I've invested much time and money in technology. Over twenty years ago, I acquired a rudimentary knowledge of HTML coding to create simple websites and message boards. I have owned some amazing devices that became obsolete, including video laser discs and mini-CD players. I was involved with chatrooms, message boards, and virtual role-playing games. I used to be really on top of new platforms, hardware, and software. I used to know every piece of software created for my purposes. Nowadays however, the exponential growth of technology has overwhelmed me. It simply isn't possible to keep up. New apps are being developed daily by some incredibly clever people. I have downloaded, tried and subsequently deleted hundreds of travel apps. I try to give each app a fair trial. I'm cheap (see: You're So Lucky) so I refuse to pay for an app unless it gives me value. I pay for very few because I have found that the free versions give me the features I want. Several of the apps offer a paid upgrade that may give value to people with other travel styles.


Many of my favourite apps also have a web version that I can use when on my computer at home. I like this feature since I generally prefer to work on a full keyboard and screen. I have previously talked generally about some of the sites I use for searching for airfares, transportation, lodgings, and excursions during the planning stage (see Pssst... Wanna A Good Deal). This post will focus on the apps I use once the initial booking stage is complete. There are many other options and apps that I haven't yet explored and I hope you will share your favourites in the comments.


Most of the apps I use, except for my maps, are stored on my Ipad. I use an Ipad mini, I find it small enough to tuck into my purse but large enough for comfortable usability. I don't like using my phone for typing. I have all the usual old people complaints: I don't have the required thumb-typing skills. I don't like the small screen. I hate navigating between screens on the phone. *grumble, grumble* Mapping apps work best on my phone because it connects to my dashboard system or can be held in my hand when walking. (Note: carrying a phone while looking at a map program is a clear signal to a bad guy that you aren't paying attention to the people around you -- try not to do it)


Travel App Organization: The Home Screen

Regular readers will have already discovered that I am a *wee* bit structured in information organization. Okay, let's be honest. I'm ridiculously structured. Similar to the organization of my computer My Documents, I have created folders for similar apps, and within each folder, the apps are organized onto separate pages. The apps I use the most are on the first page of the folder located on the home screen of my Ipad mini.



Navigation and Tracking Travel Apps


Navigation

Every mapping program has quirks. Users want to follow directions to a chosen location. Additional information regarding traffic, construction, fuel stations, rest stops, detours, accidents, tolls, or bridge height is often available. Easy download of maps and directions is desirable for offline navigation. GoogleMaps is probably the most well-known and is updated most frequently. I find it works especially well in North America but is less accurate in Europe and South America. Waze is part of the Google family and is getting some very good reviews as it encourages and integrates real-time user-generated information regarding traffic, local businesses, and other services using engaging and colourful graphics. My current favourite is maps.me. Like Waze, it incorporates user-generated information and I have been very impressed with its accuracy, no matter how far off the grid I have been. It's not as colourful and engaging as Waze but it's been very reliable. I suspect Waze will continue to improve as more users adopt it.


Tracking

I have two purposes for using tracking programs. I like to have an accurate record of where I've travelled. It's fun for me to see the number of kilometers and the routes I have travelled. I like seeing my locations on maps so I know my geographic positioning and improve my sense of direction in an unfamiliar place. Having a program track me plots my position and routing on a map, passively. Tracking programs also allow trusted contacts to follow my locations as I travel solo, sometimes off-grid. It gives them peace of mind.


The absolute easiest tracking program is to simply enable location on your device, which needs to be done for any tracking app, anyways. You can share your location with trusted people. If you have google locations enabled, regular reports will be emailed to you. This has been enough for me but as I expand this blog, I'm looking to see what other options might be useful.


I am currently experimenting with Polar Steps and Portico. Both of these not only offer the tracking services but also integrate travel planning and trip journal options in formats designed to be shared on social media platforms. I installed Polar Steps just before the pandemic and beyond creating an account and connecting my photos and location services, it has not received any input from me. The app has organized my admittedly little movements into several trip albums, including maps and links to photos in my gallery. If I had been actively involved with the app during those events, I could have created a beautiful album fairly easily, with simple options for sharing. I look forward to mastering it on my next trip. I've just downloaded a similar program, Portico, to compare.


Itinerary Organization

The best app I've found for keeping track and organizing all my bookings is TripIt . Once connected to my travel email, the app collects all travel confirmations and organizes the information into an itinerary that includes ALL the information. It's like magic. Anything that doesn't get picked up can be easily added. The program sorts the information into trips and keeps a running total of how many places you've visited and how many kilometres (or miles) you've travelled. It can also track your expenses and budget. Additional information and notes are simple to add. There is an area to record passport, license, and other personal information. You can choose to share it or keep it private. When travelling with others, joint itineraries can be created. Additional features can be added by upgrading to a paid version. The app is incredibly easy to use and I have been delighted with it.


Communication and Translation for the Traveller


Social Media

I use WhatsApp, email, and Messenger for most travel communication. All can be used with an internet connection. Facebook's Messenger video call experiences fewer connection issues than Skype and iMessage. WhatsApp is used extensively outside of North America, and is the preferred communication tool for many individuals and businesses. When travelling, I carry a personal hotspot so I can avoid having to connect to unsecured public WIFI.


Translation Most tourist activities in tourist locations use English as their primary language of operations. It is rare that you will be unable to find someone who speaks English at some level. In most countries, young people are especially motivated to learn English and are delighted to have an opportunity to practice. If you move outside of tourist areas or are in a more insular country, it may become more challenging to understand and be understood. Thank goodness for apps. Apps have saved (some) my dignity as I no longer need to perform elaborate charades and compelling street performances in an attempt to make myself better understood. I still do compelling street performances but now that's purely for entertainment purposes. It is impossible to learn a new language before each trip so some strategies and supports are needed.

I like to learn a few phrases and get an idea of the cadence of the language spoken at the destination. It's been my experience that I will always receive a positive response if I can offer a greeting or gratitude in the host language, no matter how badly I mangle it. I have come to appreciate Duolingo for language learning. As a teacher, I recognize the pedagogy behind their methodology and appreciate the way the app develops language learning. Early lessons develop some very basic travel phrases.


Those of us without the required language skills or a multilingual travel buddy need support. We need to know what that bus stop name sounds like, not just how it is written. We need to be able to ask for assistance and understand what we are being told. Once again, Google has the tool. The Google translate app works with text and voice, with simple commands or in a conversation. The translations are not always perfect but they are usually very good. French, Spanish, and German translations have the most positive reviews. The navigation is effortless anywhere that people are comfortable with smartphone app technology.


Tourist Guides and Traveller's Information

Contrary to what might be assumed from my level of research, I don't reserve and book everything from home. I do a ton of research so I can be spontaneous. I appreciate the flexibility to respond and adjust according to my whims. On road trips, I may not have a single booking made prior to departure. On other trips, I may have airfare and lodgings booked, but transportation and excursions are determined upon arrival. There are some activities that need to be arranged well in advance, such as entry to Machu Picchu or Sagrada Familia, but most can be organized at site. This has worked well for me as I can organize my days according to the weather, my energy level, the invitation of a new friend, natural disaster, or labour strike.


TripAdvisor is invaluable. It is the number one app of the most popular planner apps. Reviews on TripAdvisor are highly valued and prized by both traveller and the travel industry. The app collates a feed of other users' trips, photos, videos, articles, and lists of great places to eat, to visit, etc. It can also be used to book hotels, flight tickets, and find places for shopping, however I don't use it for that function. The absolute most valuable thing in TripAdvisor is the reviews about everything travel-related: airlines, lodging, food, and other items. If the information doesn't seem to be there, TripAdvisor's forums are another great resource to ask specific questions.


The Visit A City app is really cool. After inputting time, starting location, and other variables the app will generate a schedule of things to do and see. Starting points, forms of preferred transportation, level of activity are used to create more personalized plans. Plans can be for one day or multiple days, attractions can be added or adjusted. The app can be accessed online or the guide can be printed or downloaded for offline usage

Lonely Planet has a free app called Guides that includes in-depth tips on what to see and eat, and where to stay, shop and let loose in over 8,000 cities. The app makes city guides available for download, allowing you to bring offline maps, city overviews, phrasebooks and budget tips wherever you go. Each guide includes a search bar and filters to view nearby points of interest. Extra in-app purchases can be made but this app has been improving and adding more free content. It's important to note that this is for LPs city guides and does not include the country guides.


Another favourite, because I'm a nerd, is the World Heritage Site app. This lists all the many, many current (1,154 and constantly growing!) UNESCO World Heritage sites. The user is able to see which sites are nearby and read a description of the site and historical importance. I like that I can "check off" sites I've visited. These are just a few of my tried and true favourites. All that I have mentioned are free apps and can be used offline. The ones I've highlighted are not the apps I use for booking airfares or lodgings but they are very important apps that I use after the destination is chosen and the flight booked. I always have a few apps that I'm trying out at any given time, so the current choices may be different after my next trip. What are your favourite travel apps?

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