Free wifi. A backpacker’s two favorite words.
Other backies know what I’m talking about when I say that you always have to be on the lookout for places with free wifi. We’ve become reliant on technology to solve our problems.
My mom travelled Europe for four months in 1981 and I don’t know how she survived without being able to look up a map when she got lost, or book accommodation on short notice before she even got into town.
Having a computer in your pocket just makes everything easier, and having the right apps can really be the difference between a great, easy travel experience and a shitty one. Here are my personal top picks for the most important apps on my phone right now:
There are some other decent map programs out there, but I choose Here Maps because of the option to be able to download the map for an entire country (or even an entire continent!) and be able to search and use all of the functionality even without a wifi or cell signal. GPS will still give you your present location offline as well. This has saved my butt SO MANY TIMES. Sometimes you just can’t find wifi to be able to search a particular destination. And many cities, especially ones that were laid out before the advent of cars, are laid out in a somewhat confusing way. For example, Prague is beautiful but it’s a maze.
One other functionality that puts Here Maps above some of it’s competitors is that it connects to the compass function of the phone and will tell you which direction you’re facing. A little arrow is far superior to a nondescript blue dot when trying to determine your orientation.
Having this app has saved me so much time that I would have spent lost or desperately searching for a cafe or bar with free wifi. In fact, it has made me the navigator for the group in a lot of situations where people with other map software couldn’t connect.
In a lot of places, you can get by with English only. It’s probably the most popular foreign language to learn in most places. And that works for talking to people, but often times signs or information cards are in the native language. Sometimes you get lucky and there’s an English translation as well, but that’s typically only in the touristy parts of town.
Here’s an example. I was going to the restroom in a Hungarian restaurant, and I didn’t know the difference between “Férfiak” and “Nök”. Google Translate saved me from having to just walk in and hope I see urinals. I guess in that particular situation I could have found someone to ask, but it saved me from an embarrassing time and I’ll mark that as a win.
Another time I needed it to help me figure out the instructions on an Austrian SIM card. My German isn’t strong enough to know some of the technical words and I wouldn’t have figured it out without a little translation help.
Really, the technology is impressive on this one. You can just point your camera at a sign and it will translate it on screen! I was super excited when I saw that for the first time. We’re living in the future, guys. Also, I haven’t needed to use it yet, but it has an option to speak into the microphone and it will translate and speak it back in any language you choose. Theoretically you could have an entire conversation with someone by passing the phone back and forth.
You do need wifi for this one, but it’s been really handy. I heartily recommend it.
I realize I may catch some flack for this one, but hear me out. It’s not just for finding sex.
Meeting other travelers is relatively easy. People are generally pretty open. Often times there are other solo travelers just as desperate for company as you are. For example, staying in hostels gives you built-in friends. (Read my thoughts on that HERE)
Meeting local people is great for different reasons but slightly more difficult. It requires you to get out of your comfort zone a little. This can come in a few different forms, but one of them is through dating apps. They’re already set up to match people based on location and similar interests/personality, so in a way it’s perfect.
I’ve messaged with a lot more women than I’ve actually met. A common first message from me is “Hey! I’ll be in (Munich/Vienna/Prague/Berlin/etc.) for a week. What should I see/do while I’m here?” And because the people on there are mostly locals, they have a unique viewpoint on the best uses for my time. I have been out with a few women (to varying results), but more often I’ve just gotten great travel tips.
So you get travel tips from locals, and if you have an open mind about it, there’s the possibility of more depending on what you’re looking for. It might be sex, it might be a wonderful temporary fling, and there’s an outside chance you could meet the right person and turn it into a relationship. You never know what might happen. I’ve said before that friendship is fast and furious on the road. The same can be true of love.
Good thing there’s an app for that.
Evernote – I like to keep running notes on funny or interesting things that happen. I also have notes for travel goals or cool places people tell me about.
WhatsApp – More popular in Europe than the States, this is a way to call and text using wifi/data instead of SMS or phone minutes. It lets you skirt the charges that would be incurred by calling someone on the other side of the world.
Facebook – I hate to admit this because Facebook is such an eater of some people’s time, but it’s the easiest way to connect with new friends and be able to easily contact them.
Kayak – For searching and booking flights. You can look up hotels too, but the selection often doesn’t include the all the budget options like hostels.
Hostel World – My preferred choice for booking hostels.
Hopefully this rundown of my favorite mobile apps will help arm you with the right tools for travel. If you have any other recommendations, I’d love to hear them. Let me know here in the comments, or go find me on my microblog: @nixwesthoff on Twitter.