What I Use: International Travel Apps and Services (2016)

What I Use: International Travel Apps and Services

While I often focus on the gadgets and other hardware I use when traveling, I’ve also come to rely on a number of mobile apps and services. Here are a few that have proven invaluable on my current trip to Paris.

Note: I previously documented the gadgets and hardware I took to Paris, and that article relies in part on What I Use: Must-Have Gadgets for Any Trip, which is a more general look at what I carry with me on the go.

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It’s interesting how much things have changed from a mobile technology perspective since our first home swap about a decade ago. Back in 2006, we had no expectations of using a smartphone in Europe at all, and we had purchased an inexpensive candybar phone for use while traveling there, and used a digital camera for photos.

In 2007, of course, Apple shipped the first iPhone, and while I did bring it to Europe, it was mostly left in Airplane Mode as AT&T offered no international data plans at the time and the iPhone lacked even basic roaming capabilities. Plus, the camera was terrible.

But as noted, things change. The Apple App Store arrived in 2008. Microsoft entered the game in 2010 with Windows phone, and I brought a pre-release Samsung Windows phone to Germany that summer, month before the official launch, and documented my experiences on the now-gone Windows Phone Book web site.

In the years since, things haven’t just changed, they’ve gotten demonstrably better. Using expensive home-bought international data plans, inexpensive Europe-bought SIMs, or now Project Fi, which is a miracle in its own right, I can be out and about in the world with no worries about coming home to hundreds of dollars of data bills.

Too, during this time, the camera quality in smartphones has improved to the point where I’ve been taking all of my vacation photos since the 2013 trip to Amsterdam, when I brought along Nokia’s amazing Lumia 1020. In subsequent years, I’ve used various Windows phones and iPhones, and now the Android-based Nexus 6P to record my vacation memories and back them up to the cloud.

What this all means is that the apps and services I use on a smartphone—this year, for the first time, with absolutely zero usage limits at all—have become even more central to the experience than ever before.

Here are a few of the apps and services I rely on most.

Photo backup. I automatically backup all of my photos and personal videos to both OneDrive (Android, iPhone, Windows phone) and Google Photos (Android, iPhone) using the respective mobile apps. Both are configured to backup only over Wi-Fi, so we go out into the world each day, take photos, and then they’re backed up automatically when we get back to the home we’re using for the trip.

Photo sharing. I post individual photos toFacebook while out in the world, using the cellular connection. And then sets of photos from the day at night, when we’re back at home and can use Wi-Fi. But I only use Facebook for friends and family. So this year, for the first time, I’ve been sharing select photos publicly via Instagram (which also posts to Twitter) so everyone can get a feel for the trip if they’re interested. (Facebook and Instagram are available on Android, iPhone, and Windows phone.)

Mapping and location. We get lost a lot, especially in new and unfamiliar locations, and no app has proven more valuable than Google Maps (Android, iPhone), which is hands-down the very best mapping and location app available today. It’s great for all kinds of things—accurate and updated-in-realtime traffic conditions while driving (which we’ve not needed on this trip), directions for walking and/or public transportation (which we’ve used every day), restaurant reviews, and more. We use Google Maps all day every day and really rely it. Having infinite date has really helped here, of course, but if that wasn’t the case, I would have utilized the app’s offline functionality.

Translation. My wife and I have been using the Duolingo app (Android, iPhone, Windows phone) to learn other languages for years now, and it’s really paid off: We’ve had a far better understanding of menus, signage, and even conversations on this trip than ever before. (We’ve also recently started using Memrise—Android, iPhone—which is particularly useful for vocabulary.) But you don’t need language skills to make your way in a place like France: My wife, daughter and I are fascinated by Google Translate (Android, iPhone), especially the way it can translate in real-time, from (in our case) French to English, meaning you can use your phone’s camera as a Babelfish-style device to translate menus. It’s transformed this trip for my daughter especially, since she would otherwise need to rely on her parents to read menus to her. (Microsoft makes a somewhat similar Bing Translator app for Android, iPhone, and Windows phone, but it doesn’t work live and isn’t quite as effective in my experience.)

Recommendations. As noted above, we’ve come to rely on Google Maps (Android, iPhone) for finding high-quality cafés and other restaurants in Paris, and I’ve chimed in with my own reviews on the service. But I’ve been interested to see TripAdvisor notifications popping up on my (Android) phone as we move around the city. And in one case, it was prophetic, noting that people had complained about the chicken in one café we visited. My wife got the chicken anyway, and it was terrible. (A rare miss for a city that pretty much can do no wrong when it comes to food.) We’re not quite sure we trust TripAdvisor completely—the reviews don’t seem to be curated, and never disappear, leading to years-old reviews coloring a place wrongly—but it’s a nice backup.

Beer check-ins. Paris and France aren’t exactly known for good beer, but a craft beer scene is erupting here like everywhere on earth, so I’ve been trying some local beers—and, yes, some Belgian beers, of course—and checking them in on Untappd (Android, iPhone, Windows phone), as I do at home. There’s been only one French beer I’d describe as “good to very good” so far—Milliacus Ambrée—but I also had the worst beer I’ve ever had here, 8.6 Gold. Ce n’est pas terrible.

There are some other general-purpose apps and services that might be useful.

In past years, we used a VPN service so that the kids could watch TV shows and movies on U.S.-based services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. But we didn’t bother this year: Those services tend to work pretty well internationally now, and some, like Netflix, are actively blocking VPNs now anyway.

Frequent travelers know to use the app for their airlines or hotels, but on this trip neither made sense for us. (I use the JetBlue and Amtrak apps a lot when I’m in the United States, of course.) I don’t really use an app for flight tracking, relying instead on a simple Google search but there are obviously lots of choices there if you feel like you need to whack a mole.

Also, I’m keeping my eye on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection app, Mobile Passport (Android, iPhone). This promises to speed your re-entry into the United States, something that anyone traveling through Boston can see the need for. Sadly, however, the app doesn’t yet work in Boston, so we’ll be in Hell’s waiting room when we fly home from France on Tuesday. Maybe next year.


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