A new app that debuted last month allows you make calls anywhere on the planet for free.
And by free I mean “in exchange for your free time” — because that’s what you’ll need to give up in order to earn enough credits to make a worthwhile call to a friend or family member overseas.
WhatsCall — riffing off the name of the unrelated free text messaging app WhatsApp — permits you to call any type of telephone in 230 countries for no cost. Other free calling services like Skype require that both you and the recipient of your call be on the same program, but WhatsCall can connect you to a landline, mobile or online number.
To be able to make a call, you need to earn credits by completing tasks mostly related to advertising. For example, by spending 30 seconds watching a video promoting a free casino gaming app, you’ll earn 402 credits. If you sign up for a big box discount shopping club, you could earn 4,732 credits. You can also earn credits by clicking on a “daily check-in button,” by referring friends to the app and completing other tasks. The app founders say each user can earn more than 2,000 credits a day, providing more than 30 minutes of free calls.
With 1,200 credits in my new account — 1,000 for signing up for a free account and 200 for clicking on ads — I tested out the service by calling my mother-in-law in Sweden.
How much time would that get me? I tried to figure it out in advance of my call, but the provided list of rates for Sweden was confusing. The list showed seven options, ranging from 20 credits a minute to 450 per minute, depending on where in Sweden I was calling and the type of phone I was dialing. That’s a big disparity, and the confusing list didn’t allow me to predict how much time I’d have.
It wasn’t until I dialed my mother-in-law’s phone number and hit “send” that I discovered the rate would be 440 credits a minute — the stated cost for calling a mobile line even though I dialed her landline. Based on that, I could speak to her for around two minutes and 40 seconds, but somehow we spoke for a full minute longer than that. Perhaps there’s a grace period?
After I hung up, the math didn’t work out. I started with 1,200 credits, but the total cost based on the displayed rate should have been 1,320. Yet my call record shows the total cost as 1,760 credits. So I was nowhere closer to knowing how many credits I’d need the next time I call her.
I reached out to WhatsCall to ask about the credit disparity. A spokesperson told me the company had never encountered this issue and offered me free credits as a courtesy. She also noted that the company offers so many different rates because it works with numerous local providers.
On the positive side, the clarity of the call, which I made via my home wireless network, was high quality — as crisp and clear as if I were using a landline phone and dialing my next-door neighbor. The app has a dial pad, and you can select the country you’re calling to automatically add in the country code. That’s a nice convenience, especially if you only have a local number and aren’t sure of the country code. And caller ID on the receiver’s end shows your normal mobile phone number.
WhatsCall is available for free for iPhone and Android devices.
Would you try WhatsCall?
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— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
During his first visit to Rome, Serguei Sofinski and his wife explored the city on foot after conducting extensive guidebook and app research and charting what he thought was the most interesting route. But inevitably, an attractive side street or tucked-away fountain not listed in any guidebook would draw their attention.
“When you travel, you want to use every moment to absorb and enjoy the destination you are exploring,” Sofinski says. “There were plenty of apps showing directions to major sights or suggesting predefined street tours, but none provided a scenic route that could begin from anywhere.”
So Sofinski, a Harvard Business School grad and San Francisco-based software expert, created one.
His travel app and website, Strol, provides travelers with a scenic walking route in just about any city or town on the planet, even the ones guidebooks gloss over. Punch in your desired destination, and the program gives you a clearly marked and interesting route on a simple-to-read map. Points of interest — including lesser-known monuments, buildings and other sites — are marked with a star; touch or click on it to see photos and basic factual information about the attraction.
You can also chart out a route based on the amount of time you want to walk. Let’s say you’re staying at the Four Seasons in Buenos Aires and you have 30 minutes to kill before meeting a friend for dinner. Type in your location and select a half-hour, and Strol will recommend the most scenic route.
The app uses crowdsourced information, so it’s constantly evolving and adding new attractions, large and small. Routes are also scored, based on what ordinary users (not guidebook writers) find interesting, so you get an idea how engaging the route will be. My sample half-hour stroll through Buenos Aires scored 3.20, whereas an hour-long jaunt starting in Times Square, New York, scored a 6.02, with more than 50 points of interest noted. (According to the Strol website, the most interesting destinations are scored at 7 or higher.)
Though the algorithms behind it are very complicated, Strol is a simple-to-use app that makes wandering more interesting. And it will only get better in the future as more attractions are added and more users score routes.
Would you give Strol a try?
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— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Discover the best travel articles you may have missed this week.
Visiting Phnom Penh: How I Finally Relaxed in a City That Scared Me
This compelling essay from Conde Nast Traveler explores a traveler’s experience in Phnom Penh, where she skipped the Killing Fields and instead went searching for Cambodia’s more hopeful present.
How to Get Compensated — Generously — for Delayed Flights and Dirty Hotel Rooms
Travel + Leisure profiles a new app called Service that will advocate on your behalf to get you reimbursed for snafus such as lost luggage, incorrect hotel charges and flight delays. (It’s not limited to travel either, so between trips you can use the app to do battle with your cable provider.)
In Saudi Arabia, a Kingdom to Myself
It’s unlikely that many of us will ever travel to Saudi Arabia, so it’s fascinating to see this in-depth look from the New York Times. The writer visits an island with only one hotel, explores pre-Islamic tombs and attends a local festival.
17 Incredibly Amazing Women Who Will Inspire You to Travel Solo at Least Once
BuzzFeed interviews 17 female travel bloggers about their best advice for traveling alone as a woman. “Waking up each day and thinking ‘I can go anywhere I want’ is one of the most incredible, liberating feelings a person can experience,” writes one blogger. We couldn’t agree more.
These Amazing Photos of Thailand Will Satisfy Your Wanderlust
If all you’re looking for today is to scroll through gorgeous pictures of exotic places, Rough Guides has your back with this photo essay. Dreamy!
Monotony and ‘Moments of Terror’ Mark Search for Flight 370
Nearly two years after the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, both the fate of the plane and its location are still shrouded in mystery. This AP story captures the difficult and often tedious job of searching the ocean floor with sonar for the lost aircraft.
What It’s Like to Live on a Cruise Ship for 8 Years
Forget retiring in Florida — the Washington Post profiles an 87-year-old woman who’s spending her golden years on a cruise ship. Lee Wachtstetter began her life aboard Crystal Serenity a few years after her husband’s death.
New Senate Bill Proposes End to “Ridiculous” Airline Fees
Two Democratic senators have put forward a bill that would allow the Department of Transportation to prevent airlines from raising fees or charging prices that are “unreasonable or disproportional to the costs” of a service. Will the proposal ever make it into law? Here’s hoping.
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— written by Sarah Schlichter
Historically, few women fought in wars, owned significant portions of land, made laws or were recognized for their achievements “back in the day” — and none to date has been U.S. president. Traveling through historic sites you might see a sign or plaque that explains the importance of the location, its former occupants or the battle that was fought there. But have you ever come across a roadside attraction or a plaque highlighting the specific accomplishments of a woman? Less likely.
The SPARK (Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge) Movement feels that this is a glaring omission, and has teamed with Google to create a smartphone app to put “Women on the Map.” In an article in the Huffington Post, SPARK urged the partnership after noticing that Google Doodles skewed heavily male (and white) in their selection of highlighted figures — only 17 percent were women between 2010 and 2013.
The Women on the Map app alerts users to places nearby where women made history, aggregated by teams at Google and SPARK. The app currently highlights 119 women from 28 countries, more than 60 percent of which are women of color.
Travel Tips for Women
“Al-Kahina (or sometimes called Queen Dihya) was an African Jewish soothsayer military warrior who led an army in North Africa in the 7th century. She fought off the Arab Muslim invaders and was considered the most powerful monarch in North Africa as you will see from the glorious statue of her in Algeria where her story is ‘mapped,'” reads an example of a notable woman included on the app from the SPARK website.
If you need an excuse to get out and recognize some female accomplishments, March is Women’s History Month.
To use the app, iPhone users need to download the Field Trip app; you’ll find the Spark: Women on the Map installment in the “Historic Places & Events” tab.
— written by Brittany Chrusciel
When the much-anticipated Apple Watch debuts next month, the accompanying Apple Watch store will introduce numerous nifty features for travelers as well. Skift lists six different travel apps you’ll want to watch out for (no pun intended).
We think the coolest one is the SPG app, which will allow travelers to use their watches to open their Starwood hotel room door — without having to fiddle with a room key. You can also use this app to check in or get directions to the hotel.
American Airlines’ app will send you notifications of gate changes and baggage claim information, while Expedia will give you details on hotel check-in/check-out times, flight seat assignments and more. Other travel apps that will be available on the new watch include OpenTable (restaurant reservations), TripAdvisor (hotel/restaurant/attraction reviews) and Citymapper (public transit information). Numerous others are sure to follow.
The Best New Travel Apps
The Apple Watch debuts on April 24, with prices ranging from $349 (for the most basic sports model) up to $10,000 for a luxury version. Note that the watch does not work as a standalone product; according to Apple’s website, it requires an iPhone 5 or later.
Will you buy an Apple Watch?
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.
Whether it’s courtesy of jet lag’s effect on my body or the sniffling/sneezing/coughing child in the seat behind me, it seems I return home with some sort of cold or sinus issue every time I travel, leaving me feeling like I’ve been hit by a bus.
Enter Sickweather, a website and app that use social media posts to generate alerts that tell you whether illness is running rampant in your area. Simply set alerts for wherever you’re traveling — or for your home town — and be informed when the over-sharers on Facebook start chattering about their (or their children’s) latest maladies. Sickweather CEO Graham Dodge compares the technology used to gather data and tie it to a geographic location to the Doppler radar used to predict weather.
Pros: It’s always nice to know what you’re up against, abroad or in your own backyard. Imagine catching the flu while on vacation because you were unaware it was going around the city you were visiting, or contracting Norovirus during a trip to see Great Aunt Edna at the retirement home because you had no idea there was a local outbreak. It can often be easier to prevent illness than to fight it off after you’ve already gotten sick. The alerts offer solid reminders about hand washing and other precautions. Plus, the service and the app (available for iPhone now and Android later this summer) are both free.
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Cons: Just because an acquaintance of yours tweets that her daughter has strep throat, it doesn’t mean she’s actually had the illness medically diagnosed. But Dodge tells us that with enough people reporting, the occasional misdiagnosis doesn’t matter: “The research of our advisors from Johns Hopkins University has concluded that this anecdotal data has a high correlation to clinical data provided by the CDC.” Right now, the service only gathers social media results that are in English, but Dodge says that the company will branch out as it grows. It’s worth noting that the app’s alerts will be useless if you’re planning to travel abroad with your phone in airplane mode, and although international alerts are available via the app, international maps are still in the works.
Would you try this app? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
— written by Ashley Kosciolek
My husband and I took a two-week cruise for our honeymoon, paid for primarily by guests at our reception who kindly used our honeymoon registry. For each person who “donated” money, either to the overall experience or a specific onboard or shore adventure, we took a Polaroid photo of ourselves doing that activity and then mailed it off. It was our version of a honeymoon postcard. Recipients loved it — but how much cooler would it have been if we’d been able to easily send people a short video of ourselves hiking on a glacier or kissing the Blarney Stone?
Sadly, such a tool did not exist six years ago. It does now.
Vine is a new social media platform that lets you take a six-second video with your smartphone and then post it online. It’s perfect for travel, allowing you to capture more of your experience than you could with a still snapshot.
For instance, what photograph can truly capture the grace of these dancing fountains at Bellagio (care of Twitter user @StyleCounselor), the way this video does?
The way Vine works is this: You download the app on your iPhone (unfortunately no Android version is yet available). Then when you’re ready to make a video, you pull up the app and touch the screen to start the camera rolling. Lifting your finger will pause the camera. Do this until you’ve captured six seconds of footage (it stops automatically).
Because there’s currently no way to edit your footage, some Vine videos look a little choppy, like this 360-degree video of Union Square in San Francisco (care of Twitter user @origiful)…
…or this video of the Montmartre funicular in Paris (care of Twitter user @sourenian).
But a well-thought-out idea and a sense of humor can produce six seconds of fun (care of Twitter user @clove).
7 Amazing Photography Apps for Your Phone
— written by Dori Saltzman
Plane tickets, hotel reservations, copies of your passport and credit cards: Would you trust your most sensitive travel documents to a cell phone app? We were skeptical, so we tested it for ourselves.
We first checked out Web site www.personal.com, where we created an account and added “gems” — categories under which you can upload and save everything from contacts to bank statements. (For our purposes, we tested out the travel gem, where we stored passport copies, trip itineraries and flight information.)
Essential Travel Apps
Overall, we found the site a little tricky to use — there are still some pages we can’t figure out how to get back to — but the cell phone app, available for iPhone and Android, proved a bit easier to navigate. The app allows you to easily access your important information on the go, even while abroad, without incurring crazy international fees. The best part? It’s free to download.
So, how secure is it? Personal.com’s Web site promises all information is encrypted, and your account is also protected by a username-and-password login combination. There are ways to share gems, but much like Facebook, users have to request to share information with other users before it can be seen by others, and each user has the right to deny said requests.
As part of its newest software updates, Apple has released a program called Passbook, which, through various applications, offers functions similar to those afforded by Personal.com. We haven’t had much time to test it out, but it seems these sorts of paper-saving features are becoming more common.
Overall, we’re still unsure how safe these services are — especially if a phone containing sensitive documents were lost or stolen — but they sure do make traveling a lot more convenient.
Have you used applications like this? If not, would you consider it? If so, how was your experience? We welcome your comments below.
— written by Ashley Kosciolek
Every Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.
There’s no question that mobile apps can make travel easier, by quickly converting one currency to another or helping you find the nearest restaurant or bathroom. But with so many thousands of travel apps on the market, trying to decide which ones to use can make your life more complicated as well. Do you really need 28 different apps to help you get through a week-long trip to Paris?
In Essential Travel Apps, Part Two: Accessory Apps, Ed Hewitt recommends one convenient app that can do the work of many:
“The free Where app distinguishes itself from the competition by trying (often successfully) to collect the location-specific information you can find in a number of other, more specialized apps into one uber-app. So instead of having one app for news, and one for local movies, and another for local gas prices, and another for weather, and another for restaurants — you get the idea — Where has a small app-inside-an-app for each. In many cases, the app within the app has still another app inside — in the Coffee applet, for example, you can choose only nearby Starbucks franchises, or nearby Dunkin’ Donuts, or nearby Au Bon Pain, etc.
“Where gets all its info from reliable sources — the weather comes from AccuWeather, the gas prices from Gas Buddy — and I found that it could almost take the place of an entire handful of apps already on my phone.”
Other multi-function apps include Expedia’s TripAssist — which allows you to book a flight, track itineraries (including those not purchased through Expedia), get real-time flight alerts and view alternate flight info — and the Yelp app, which allows you to search for a wide range of local businesses from restaurants and banks to drug stores and gas stations.
See more recommendations in Essential Travel Apps, Part One: The Basics.
Which travel apps can’t you live without?
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.