Hacking Your Travel- My Favorite Phone Apps

My IPhone is the most important thing I travel with besides my passport and credit card. It has helped me find my way around the world, communicate with others, keep in touch with my friends and given me something to do when I’m stuck on a bus for hours. I don’t know what I ever did without it. I vaguely remember cramming 5 lonely planet books in my pack back in the Mesozoic era 10 years or so ago and having to actually talk to people.I still talk to people, but it’s great knowing I don’t have to .There’s an app for everything now and these little phone gems can make you feel like you know what you’re doing even when you don’t.

Word Lens astounded me when I first saw it and it still does. Imagine you’re in Russia. You see a sign that looks very important. There’s only one problem. You don’t speak Russian or even know the letters. You pull up the Word Lens app, point your camera to the sign and voila! The sign is immediately transformed into an English sign. Somehow this ingenious program pulls the letters off sign, translates them into English even when you’re not connected to the internet and then shows you a new sign that you can actually read. It is the closest to magic that I’ve ever seen in an app. At the moment of writing, it’s got six language packs including Spanish, Italian, French, Russian, German, and Portuguese.

Hotels.com  is one of my favorite hotel hunting apps. I’m a big fan of their loyalty program which gives you a free night after you book 10 nights on their app, plus I love their spokesperson, Captain Obvious. The interface is fantastic because one can filter the area, price, reviews, and number of stars giving you a lot of control over your hotel experience. A few weeks ago I was seemingly stranded in Istanbul. It was late and I  had barely missed my flight at the Sabiha Gökçen International airport which seemed to be not really close to anything. As I contemplated sleeping on an airport bench, I pulled up my hotels.com app. I used the “around me” button and to my surprise there was a hotel at the airport I hadn’t noticed when I passed it in the taxi. I walked to it before they even got my confirmation on their fax machine. Score!

How do you find your way around an international destination? One of the biggest problems about traveling overseas is the price of using data with your American phone. GPS works almost anywhere without internet, but you only have a blue dot on your screen in the middle of a blank screen if you haven’t downloaded the map before you left a wifi area. The solution: offline  downloadable map apps that let you know where you are and  point you towards the points of interest. My favorite so far is Maps.me. You can just download the country or countries that you’re visiting. It’s very detailed and easy to read. It even works on a plane.

Don’t like to make decisions or take chances with your food? Imagine that you’re in a strange city and you want to find a good restaurant. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could ask a couple thousand people their favorite places to eat and their favorite dishes on the menu without having to talk to a couple thousand people? Tripadvisor does the work for you. Pull up the app and you can instantly find what is right next to you or go the restaurant that most people agree is the absolute best in the city. I was in the Italian North end of Boston a few weeks ago and wanted to eat a really good pizza. Tripadvisor showed Pizzaria Regina to be the 8th most popular restaurant in Boston out of 2200 as well as the top Italian choice of restaurants in the city. To make things even easier, Tripadvisor guided me straight to the restaurant with it’s built in map. Was it good? OMG! It replaced my favorite pizza memory after the first bite. Tripadvisor also has a very useful attractions option. There have been many times where I have found myself in some little insignificant town that had seemingly nothing to do. I opened up the app and was amazed at the options for things I would have never knew existed. What do you think is the most popular attraction in Las Vegas? You might be surprised.

I’ve saved CamFind for last on this list. I’m convinced this app came from extra-terrestrials or is some elaborate hoax. You take a picture of anything and CamFind tells you what it is, where it comes from and the price (assuming you can buy whatever it is). There are limits to CamFind’s abilities but it has been able to identify places, tell me where I can buy a certain bottle of wine and it knows the difference between a saxophone and a trumpet. The app works only with internet but can be terribly interesting just taking picture of random things to see what happens. It is especially useful when you see an object (for example in a museum) and you have no idea what you’re looking at. It recognizes and reads text as well and immediately pulls up search results on your phone about your subject.

In addition to these, you can easily find offline city and country guides, language apps, airline and rental car apps and even fun apps for geocaching. Look at the reviews of the apps before you download them so you don’t clog up your phone with useless programs that do little to help your travel experience.

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