Why your phone is the most important thing you need to pack

I recently traveled to South America with 2 20-something male friends of mine and realized the first day that this trip would be a lot different than any previous adventures. Traveling with men there’s a lot less picture taking, a lot more dangerous “hey! look at me hanging off this cliff” stuff, and much less emphasis on comfort. There is also a much larger dependency on technology. I guess the point is, most men are electronic nerds. Why ask for directions or what the currency exchange rate is, when you can find a perfectly good answer in the palm of your hand with your Iphone, Android, or whatever you’re packing. There’s an app for almost anything, albeit lots of unnecessary things, your phone can be your best friend when you need some travel help. This article will discuss a few obvious uses, but you will soon realize that there is a power to be unleashed in your phone that you may have never considered. We devised a list of about 20 ways to use your phone to make your next vacation better.

Before we get into all that, be aware that your all-inclusive, unlimited minutes, unlimited texting, unlimited everything just went bye bye the moment you landed on non-US soil. Data roaming charges in other countries can demolish your travel budget faster than an Albanian pickpocket. Even countries like Canada can charge you astronomical fees if you don’t have a North American data plan. The best thing to do is switch off your data roaming as soon as you leave the US and start relying on Wifi. There might be times where you can’t find Wifi and you just have to just ante up your cash to get online in a foreign country, but a small bit of planning can save you hundreds of dollars in roaming fees.

Camera /video camera– This is an obvious use for your phone but you might still be toting around a humongous SLR camera with a bag of lenses as well. You won’t get the pictures on a phone that you get with an expensive camera, but if you take the time to look at some camera apps, you’d be surprised what your options are. Apps like Splice allow you to edit video right on your phone. There’s zoom apps if your phone’s video camera doesn’t have that feature. There’s also shortcuts to using your camera quickly  as well as some great editing features that can be learned by just taking a few moments to look at a tutorial. Learn how to use the panorama feature included on most smart phones. You can create amazing pictures that are impossible to do on a traditional camera. One of the biggest advantages to taking pictures or video on your phone is that you can upload them to your social networking sites or send them to friends immediately.

Map and GPS– There’s lots of choices with map apps. Google maps is probably the one I use the most. There’s an interesting trick that allows you to get much more use from the map than you ever thought possible. Here’s how it works. Let’s say you are in a city in Europe and you want to drive to another place a few hours away. You don’t have data turned on, so you can’t use your phone, right? Or can you? GPS is independent of data and you can use your GPS all day long without any charges. However, without data, you’re just a red moving dot on a blank graph. The data is necessary to see the roads and locations. So, how do you get the data part? I usually start off my morning by figuring out where I’m going and using the wifi in my hotel. I get directions to my next hotel, town or landmark using google maps and THEN….this is the important trick…. I enlarge everything so that I have detailed pictures of the roads. This remains saved in my phone as I leave the wifi area and I can use my map to take me to my next location. In addition to google maps, there are several apps available for different cities and countries that incorporate GPS, a map, and landmarks. This is very useful if you want to walk around and see the sights. You can see exactly where you are in comparison to the points of interest.

Calculator– It’s always been easy for me to convert money in my head, but sometimes when $1 equals 7,315 escudos or some other crazy number that isn’t easily divisible by 2 or 3, you can always count on the calculator of your phone to help you out or be your ally when dealing with shady money changers. Keeping track of your expenses or adding up items on a hotel bill are much easier with the use of a calculator

Travel Books– You can buy entire travel books for your phone or apps that work without internet to help you navigate your way around exotic locales. Have you ever been to a museum or palace and you have to pay an extra $10 for an audio guide that looks like some sort of phone mixed with a bath toy? There are increasing number of audio guides that you can download to your phone and use your with your own earbuds.

Alarm clock-The days of Sharper Image travel alarm clocks are numbered. Not only will you not miss your flight because you didn’t set an unfamiliar clock right, but you can use the international time clock feature to know what time it is in your hometown before you wake grandma up at 3 am.

Dating or meeting friends – If you’re traveling alone or with a family member and you’d like to meet someone from the opposite sex, you’re in luck. Plenty of Fish, Zoosk and many other dating apps are there to set you up on your dream date. You don’t have to even create a romantic relationship. There are people all over the world that are looking to make some new friends and what better way to ramp up the possibility of a foreign friend than meeting them online? Modern technology creates opportunities to meet like-minded people or notify you of events in a place where you might not know a soul.

Currency app– You can do almost the same thing with a calculator, but a currency app can be helpful if you’re traveling in several countries using different currencies. Maybe you just realized you’ve got a pocketful of something that looks like monopoly money. Some currency converters are web-based to help you keep track of currency fluctuations, but unless you find yourself in a place with hyperinflation, yesterday’s rates are probably just fine for changing money.

Foreign language– Do you understand Russian letters? Can you decipher Greek? In the old days (10 years ago) you had to carry a book around with useless phrases like “Porter, please fetch my suitcases” or “Waiter, the bill is too high”. Thankfully, there are now a zillion free and paid apps that allow you to not only learn other alphabets, but translate on the fly and often hear a native speaker saying the phrase that you can’t say because your Mandarin is a little rusty. You can download flash card apps that teach you letters or dictionaries that translate the word that you type in into the other language like magic. In the not so distant future, these apps will use voice recognition with translation to allow you to communicate with anyone without learning their language.

Travel sites– Tripadvisor and lonely planet are excellent apps to have at your fingertips. Tripadvisor takes everyone’s opinions about hotels, restaurants, places to see and puts them in some giant magic travel computer and gives you the general consensus for free. Sure, they’d love you to book something while you’re there, but if you want opinions from real people and not just some marketing hype, a little research on Tripadvisor will give you the pros and cons of just about anywhere you want to go. These are ranked from most popular to least popular in each city so that if you find yourself with only a day in some amazing city, you can concentrate your energies on seeing the best sites. You can also use this website as another qualified opinion about a hotel you’re considering staying. If it’s ranked 224 out of 225, your money might be better spent elsewhere. Lonely Planet has a wealth of information and travel guides (which I consider to be the most informative), but you don’t have to buy the guides to get a light version of their information. Lonely Planet is happy to give you a taste of their offerings and you can buy their guides if you like what you see.

International texting– I couldn’t believe that free international texting existed until I discovered it a year or so ago. There are a few apps out there, but Whatsapp seems to do it like no one else. As long as you have wifi or even your regular phone service, you can text anyone else with Whatsapp for free. You can send pictures, short videos, emoticons or whatever! I use Whatsapp even when I’m not traveling to keep track with my friends abroad in real time.

Skype– I’m surprised how many Americans don’t use Skype. It’s another one of these “I can’t believe it’s free” kind of things. Imagine talking to anyone in the world for free in real time while watching them on your phone or computer. It’s almost like being there. You can take them from room to room, have a glass of wine with them and the only leash is the range of your internet. Skype is simple to use. Download the app or program on your computer, get your family and friends to download it and you’re set. It’s free to use unless you’re doing multiple calls or calling land lines. Your phone will ring whenever someone is trying to reach you and you have internet. It’s a fantastic way to communicate in real time.

Bank account – Money isn’t the most important thing in the world UNTIL you run out of it. Making sure your debit cards work and your mortgage gets paid are obviously important. Bank apps have come a long way in the last few years and it’s pretty easy to make payments to anywhere and get emergency money fast if you need it.

Check pay– There’s a nifty app called Check (formerly Pageonce) that pays all your bills for you effortlessly. You put in your information for each online account and this app communicates with these companies and let’s you know when the bill is due. Check will let you know before you get the paper statement in the mail. Best of all, it has all your account numbers memorized and you can pay any of your bills automatically or with a few button presses. It also tells you how much money you have in your account so you don’t overextend yourself. This is very handy if you don’t want to come home to a house with no electricity.

Movies– Sometimes you just want to watch a movie. If you’re in the Amazon rainforest and Portuguese soap operas aren’t doing it for you, it might be time to put on some Netflix….but wait! Netflix doesn’t work in other countries… or does it? There’s a handy little app called a proxy server. Once you have your proxy server, Netflix, Youtube and Hulu are happy to obey your command.

Proxy Server-A proxy server is a handy little service/app that fools the Internet gods into thinking you’re someplace that you’re not. Why do you need that you ask? Facebook and Google Maps won’t work in China (The government doesn’t want anyone to know geography apparently), Plenty of Fish is banned in Dubai (and some other Middle Eastern Countries) and Netflix and Pandora won’t work very many places outside the US due to licensing issues in other countries. A proxy server somehow ping pongs your IP address to San Francisco or some other American City to make it look like that’s where you are. Once everyone thinks you’re there and not on a remote island in the Pacific where you’re actually staying, your stuff magically works again! I will point out that it’s a lot easier to set up a proxy server BEFORE you leave the US.

Music-Pandora and spotify can be a nice break from salsa or aboriginal didgeridoos if you have wifi. If you’re renting a car in another country and the radio leaves something to be desired or just has Filipino songs, you can use your car’s bluetooth or earbuds to get you in a happy place while you’re driving the 500 miles to your next destination.

Social Networking-Facebook is “illegal” in China, but then again what isn’t? Social Networking sites give you an opportunity to let your family know you’re not dead, keeps you in touch with your friends,and of course gives you bragging rights about your fabulous vacation.

Word lens– I only mention this app because it’s cool and will someday be even more amazing than it already is. You take a picture of a sign that you don’t understand and this app translates it and turns it into English. The limitation is that you need internet to make it work. However, it’s fun to play around with and you’ll feel like a high tech nerd once you show your friends. Check it out at:

Boarding passes and passbook- As travel becomes more and more paperless, your phone gives you the ability to check in your flight, keep track of frequent flyer miles and much more. There are apps that allow you to store all your information in one place as well as apps from individual airlines.On that subject, every time you fly, make sure you get your flyer miles recorded. You can get free trips this way. Even if it takes a while, it’s still free!

Compass– Who uses compasses? Lost people. Your phone has one. If you’re not sure what direction you’re driving, this can be a lifesaver.

My advice is, before you travel, put your destination in the app store search and see what happens.You might be surprised what will turn up.Test out a few of the apps I’ve listed here if you think they’re useful. Happy trails.

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