Staying Connected While Traveling
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In my last column, I looked at my favorite essential travel apps, including itinerary trackers, restaurant and ATM locators, even an app that can find where you parked your car or a place to go to the bathroom. While those apps covered the most indispensable travel functions, this week we'll take a look at less essential but potentially very useful "accessory apps," which can help you do anything from calculating currency conversions to figuring out whether to kiss or bow when you meet someone in a foreign country.
Traveling with a Smartphone: Cut Costs Overseas
1. Do the Math: Unit Conversion Free, Currency
Platforms: iPhone, but others are available for most platforms
Unit Conversion Free is a no-cost app that does exactly what it says, converting temperature, distance, weight, volume, speed and more, including currency in real time. Even if you are used to doing currency conversions in your head in line at the cashier, the latter can come in very handy, especially in places where exchange rates are counted in hundreds (Icelandic krona), thousands (Colombian pesos) or even tens of thousands (Vietnamese dong).
The free Currency app is limited to currency, and does a great job with it.
2. "TAXI!": Call a Taxi, Taxi Magic, cab4me
Platforms: iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Web
These apps find the nearest cab companies to your location and offer contact numbers, location, and even the ability to book and pay for your ride. None of the cab apps worked very well in the suburban and rural areas I visited this summer, but a number of friends swear by the apps, and have mentioned the three above at some point. Cab4me has a prettier user interface but costs a couple bucks; Taxi Magic is free. Call a Taxi has an iPad version, but since the iPad has no phone, that means that none of the phone numbers are clickable, a fairly serious failing. For any cab app, you may want to avoid using the auto-pay options, as some services hold up to $45 each time you call a cab, much like a security deposit.
3. "What You Say?": iTranslate, Babelingo
Platforms: iPhone, Android
iTranslate is a great dual-window instant translator app -- you set your "from" and "to" languages, then type a word or phrase in the top window, and the translation appears in the bottom window. From there, you can e-mail, text, tweet or copy the passage to send, post or insert into a document or e-mail. The app is free, although for an extra one-time fee of $1.99 you can set the app to read the translation to you. The user interface is as simple as simple gets, so this is really easy to use, and the results were extremely accurate with all of the most common travel phrases I tried.
Now available in 11 languages, Babelingo (iPhone only, $1.99) is a slightly simpler phrasebook app, with a somewhat more sophisticated interface, opening to a screen that lets you choose from common phrases for conversation, time, getting around, money, eating out, medical, and lodging. For each of these there are a few dozen common options -- "How far is it from here?" "Can I have a map, please?" "Where is the toilet?" -- each with a succinct translation. The output page features the translated phrase white letters on a black background; if you are really at a loss to be understood, Babelingo suggests that instead of trying to say what's on the screen, you just show it to whomever you are trying to speak with.
4. Should I Bow or Tip?: World Customs and Cultures
The free World Customs and Cultures app is a guide to the sometimes odd and potentially confounding cultural differences you will experience when traveling internationally. I learned that Bulgarians shake their heads from side to side for "yes," and up and down for "no," and that pointing with your index finger in China isn't usually done; instead, use your whole hand. There are countless such pointers for dozens of countries in the app, making it not only useful but arguably interesting enough to read while...
5. Stuck at the Airport: GateGuru
Platforms: iPhone, "soon expanding to other platforms"
Essentially a SeatGuru for airports, the free GateGuru app has information and maps for gate locations, food vendors, stores, ATM's, places to plug in, airline clubs, Wi-Fi availability and more for heaps upon heaps of airports.
6. Filling up: GasBag, Cheap Gas!, Local Gas Prices
When it comes to gas price apps, you can pretty much take your pick. GasBag is very popular, which is an upside since much of the information comes from users of the app. It launches in a tidy map view that is easy to grok if you are in your car. Cheap Gas! is a bit more interactive, with Twitter linkup and another "augmented reality" view. Gas Buddy is the most well-known service, but is available only on Android at present (although the Where app below uses Gas Buddy data); Gas Buddy also has an SMS service.
Of these, Apple likes "Local Gas Prices" and has featured it in the Apple Store; I bit on their recommendation and regularly use that one, if that helps. There are truly heaps of these apps out there, including one from AAA, another from Murphy USA and more.
7. All-in-One Travel App: Where
Platforms: iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Palm, Windows 7
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, 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.
8. Reservations: OpenTable
Platforms: iPhone, Blackberry, mobile Web
OpenTable is the leading restaurant reservation service, now available in a free app. I've always believed that avoiding long lines is a crucial travel skill; OpenTable takes care of it. I was presently surprised at how many restaurants offer the service, and the app also includes rankings and user reviews. So unlike Yelp or Urbanspoon (reviewed here), you can see what restaurants are nearby, read the reviews and then book a table right from inside the app -- very slick.
9. Guidebooks: Lonely Planet, Tripwolf
Lonely Planet -- wow, an entire city guide, searchable and right on your phone, and for only $5.99. Perhaps the one and only possible complaint about Lonely Planet's smartphone apps is that there is too much information buried in the application -- scrolling on an iPhone rolls you past screen after screen of content. Also, many of the listings are not available in the "Book" section per se, where only more general information is found. You will need to use the search or "Nearby" features to find out more, which can be somewhat frustrating (and very much unlike the experience you have holding a book in your hand). Still, it's Lonely Planet on your phone; it will have to come in handy at some point.
Despite Lonely Planet's overwhelming presence in the travel guide space, Tripwolf is a worthy competitor, mainly due to its exclusively digital focus. In my experience, Tripwolf offers somewhat more "traditional" city guides; for example, the attractions I found in the New York City guide were not the hippest, although I did find a couple of rough diamonds after using the app for a while. Smart design is evident from the fact that, once you download a guide, the app works in offline mode, so you won't incur expensive roaming charges while traveling. But when you are connected, the app does all kinds of nice tricks, including the latest trend of "augmented reality" where you can point your phone in a direction and see labels for everything you may want to visit. The Tripwolf trial guide is free, but still comes with heaps of information and suggestions; for $4.99 more, the app downloads info from Marco Polo, Footprint and other guide publishers.
10. Getting Around: iTrans, HopStop
Platforms: Mobile Web, Web, SMS, iPhone
On a recent day trip to New York City, I used the $3.99 iTrans NYC app to map out subway routes, and it worked perfectly; the app figured out where we were, we entered where we wanted to go, and the app sketched out the fastest and most direct route. Unfortunately, iTrans is available in only a half dozen locations, only on the iPhone, and costs more than most competing apps.
The free app from Hopstop is branching out a bit more quickly, with 20 cities, including London and Paris, now mapped out. The directions are usually very complete -- walk V feet to W subway stop, change trains at X, get off at Y, walk Z feet to A.
The Independent Traveler
Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns SeatGuru.com.