In our past two posts, we’ve looked at ways to save money on flights and lodging. Now we’re going to talk about essential apps every traveler should have on his or her smartphone to save time, money, and headaches.
I’m going to assume you have more than enough apps on your smartphone already, so the last thing you need is someone recommending apps from companies he founded or invested in. As a disclaimer, I have not started any of these companies or invested in any of the apps mentioned on this list. For sake of further transparency, this list is limited to apps I currently use.
There is a reason Facebook dropped $19 billion to buy messaging app WhatsApp. It’s a must-have app if you are traveling internationally or use a phone plan without unlimited messaging. I initially downloaded WhatsApp to keep in touch with friends in Beijing and Dubai, and it’s definitely grown on me.
I recently spoke with Verizon prior to leaving the U.S. (for a month) to learn more about their international texting rates:
- 50 cents to send a text message
- 5 cents to receive a text message
So if I send 1,000 text messages while I’m abroad for a month (that’s an average of a little over 30 a day), it’s gonna cost me $500?! You’re kidding me.
Keep in mind how many times a text message response is as simple as “ok” or “haha,” and you will quickly realize how fast text message charges can add up and how valuable a messaging app like WhatsApp can be for users.
While cell phone providers offer international rates and packages while abroad, for me, living in FOCB (fear of cellular bill) causes stress. Even if you buy a data plan, you still have to be aware of racking up charges. You don’t want to be this guy.
I didn’t find any international plans — not a single one — that were in the best interest of the customer, as cell phone providers seem content on overcharging international travelers for calls (over $2.00 a minute) and data usage until the market demands otherwise, and I even considered switching phone providers but to no avail.
It’s as though you need to email blast everyone you might text message with before you leave for an international trip to tell them to hold off on sending you any messages while you’re gone.
I looked into getting a SIM card upon arrival in Israel, but decided I don’t need to pay another $100 (in additional to my existing cell phone bill) to use my phone abroad this month. Furthermore, the SIM card was only good in Israel, and I would need to get another SIM card in Turkey and in the UAE.
Not surprisingly, I did send an email to my closest contacts alerting them to my travel plans and that I would be delayed and potentially unavailable at times while abroad. For those I wanted to be sure to keep in touch with I sent them invitations to be sure they downloaded WhatsApp.
WhatsApp allows me to use Wi-Fi to send text messages and bypass any potential messaging charges from my carrier. Sending hundreds of message a day costs nothing as long as I am on Wi-Fi, and it works across different mobile operating systems (iPhone, Android, and shucks, even BlackBerry). Decide how connected you want to be when you travel.
WhatsApp is a game changer for international travelers, though be sure to download Viber, WeChat, or even Skype as well if you want to make phone calls over Wi-Fi. Remember though, the phone is there for your convenience and safety. It’s okay to be unavailable sometimes.
The trick is to get your core network of users all on the same platform — remember, both parties must have the app installed to communicate. Most lodging options have Wi-Fi and you can always duck into a coffee shop with a free Internet connection every now and then if you need to send or receive messages.
I’ve been sending unlimited messages while abroad using Wi-Fi with peace of mind. Ahhhh… cue the spa music.
All of the places I’ve stayed at on my trip have had Wi-Fi, and turning my phone to airplane mode when I leave the house is a minor inconvenience and a welcome diet from being connected 24/7.
That said, I also regrettably traded in my unlimited data plan with Verizon a couple of years ago when my phone was stolen and I had to decide between paying full retail price for an iPhone or paying for data. My inexperience and lack of understanding of data charges at the time comes back to haunt me when traveling domestically, and I find myself searching for Wi-Fi when ever possible to reduce my data charges.
Luckily, there are some apps to help you find Wi-Fi when traveling either domestically or internationally. My favorite is Wi-Fi Finder, which helps you get connected in three ways:
- Find public Wi-Fi spots near you based on your current location.
- Search for Wi-Fi spots, free and paid, anywhere in the world.
- Offers an offline database for finding public Wi-Fi, which is especially useful when you are not online.
The app is free and on my first search, it pulled up 23 public Wi-Fi spots near me and conveniently separated them into paid and free. It also allows the user to filter by venue type, filter by Wi-Fi provider, add hotspots, and save results.
Overall the app works well; some areas are better populated than others, but unless you’re in a rural area you should be able to find Wi-Fi access within a few minutes of your location.
I also looked at WiFiMap and a few other Wi-Fi finder apps, but found Wi-Fi Finder’s user experience and location results most favorable.
Keep in mind, most hotels and coffee shops will have free Wi-Fi for customers, so you can always pop into the hotel lobby or a coffee shop for a quick cup of coffee or a snack and to use the Wi-Fi.
TripAdvisor offers millions of user reviews on travel destinations around the world. The app helps you find and research hotels, restaurants, attractions, and much more, either by searching for a specific location or using their “near me now” feature.
One my favorite parts about the TripAdvisor app is that it includes rankings based on the category you’re searching and allows you to rank search results by a number of different filters. I logged on to TripAdvisor and soon realized I was within a mile of a couple of the top 10 attractions in all of Israel.
The app also features photos and user reviews to give you a better feel for the restaurant, attraction, shopping, or activity. Worth a mention: The reviews seem more authentic than those on Yelp and other user-generated review sites, and you can even book your lodging right in the app.
Your Favorite Airline’s App
Delta is my airline of choice, primarily because it has the best flight schedule and rates out of my home airport. Like most airline apps, the Delta app lets me book travel, track my frequent flier miles, check in for flights, and digitally display my boarding pass when trekking through the airport — so I don’t have to keep track of that pesky paper boarding pass, which inevitably gets misplaced going through security.
The Delta app also sends me notifications to alert me to gate changes or schedule changes. Bottom line: Don’t leave home with out your airline app on your smartphone.
Kayak is a one-stop shop for comparing flights. Kayak’s search engine curates dozens of online travel sites and brings you all the best offers in one place. You can even search for “hacked” fares, where it will combine one-way flights on different airlines to find you the best price. With a simple, easy-to navigate user interface, Kayak should be a staple on every traveler’s smartphone.
In addition to airfare, Kayak allows you to search hotels and car rental rates. It also allows you to set up flight trackers and price alerts to receive notifications, and has other valuable but less-used features like airport info and packing lists.
One under utilized feature I find valuable is the “buzz” feature, which allows the user to see graphs with the fluctuation in flight prices to help you get a better understanding of the price range for the ticket(s) you want to buy.
Note that some airlines (such as Southwest) host fares exclusively on their own websites and therefore are not included in Kayak’s search results (or other discount airfare sites).
This is another travel app worth checking out for flights. Skyscanner searches millions of flights and brings back quick results.
Skyscanner has two main benefits over Kayak: First, the search times are much faster. That’s not a big deal, but if you wait 10 seconds per search while Kayak is thinking, those seconds add up if you’re performing a lot of searches. That said, Skyscanner does not sell flights directly; rather, the site can be used to find the cheapest deal for a desired trip, after which you are automatically transferred to the airline or travel supplier’s website to book your ticket — so the time savings are negated on the back end.
The second thing I like about Skyscanner is the destination “everywhere” option. If you know when and where you want to depart from, but are struggling to make up your mind between the beach or the mountains, it’s a great way to quickly compare flight prices to a number of different destinations. If you just want to get away for the weekend, and flights to the beach are $200 cheaper, why not take advantage of the better price? As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, your choice of destination can have a huge impact on how much you’ll ultimately spend on your trip.
We’ll keep the lodging apps simple, as you’ll likely have your lodging sorted out before you leave home. But for the spontaneous traveler, there are a couple of smartphone apps to lock down the best price on where to stay even while you’re on the go.
Need a hotel tonight, tomorrow or up to seven days out? Check Hotel Tonight for last-minute hotel specials.
By now AirBnb is becoming a household name. As we discussed in our last post, Airbnb is an affordable way to find a private residence or room to rent while traveling. The app version ties in seamlessly with your free account, whether you’re a host or a traveler, though it lacks a few of the more advanced features of the website.
The blockbuster photography app, now owned by Facebook, is a great way to document and share your photos with friends and family while you travel. Be sure to experiment with Hyperlapse to create memorable videos in hyper speed.
Evernote is my centralized note-taking app. I jot down places to visit, phone numbers, or any other tidbits of information I’ll need ready access to.
You can include text, photos, and reminders, and build lists all in one place with the ability to share the list with yourself or others. You can also open different notebooks for different topics while you travel.
Need a bite? Foodspotting is the perfect app for travelers in search of restaurants.
For each location, Foodspotting users can browse restaurants by name, by type of restaurant, and even neighborhood location, and you can also search for nearby restaurants based on your current GPS location. Looking for a specific type of meal or dish? Foodspotting lets you search for it.
In the wake of the app’s rebranding, Foursquare now alerts you to popular dining and drinking options in your area. Definitely worth checking out.
Waze is a mapping and traffic app that incorporates user generated content to alert you to traffic jams, road construction, accidents, and areas where police are trying to catch speeders. As a bonus, it can even help you find the best prices on gasoline.
If you travel frequently, keeping track of your accounts, logins, passwords, and reward numbers may feel at times like you need a master’s degree in organizational management.
Do you have a good way to track and monitor your loyalty and reward programs? Most of us don’t. But keeping track of and redeeming rewards shouldn’t stress you out.
With Award Wallet you can store everything in one place — your passwords, balances, and account numbers connected to your frequent flyer miles, plus hotel, car rental, and credit card loyalty points, and any others you want to keep track of.
For years, I made the mistake of not keeping track of reward miles and hotel points at places and airlines I didn’t frequent often enough to deem the effort worthwhile. Award Wallet solves that problem and alerts me to rewards that will expire soon.
Traveling abroad? Get the latest updates on exchange rates between over 180 currencies. While it’s not going to change the rates you’ll get at a money exchange station or bank, being aware of currency rates can help you know when is a good time to change some bills, and negotiate from a more educated position if making a purchase across currencies.
The next few apps are for business travelers or small business owners who need to stay connected to their work while on the go. Do you use Google Drive for collaborating with your coworkers? If so, then the Google Drive app is a must. Download it so you can access your files even faster when you’re away from home.
Yes, you can access your files via Google Drive, but you will need this companion app to edit or create new word processing documents.
Just like the Google Docs app will allow you to edit and create documents, Google Sheets is the companion app you need to edit and create spreadsheets. Be sure to download all three apps to best utilize your Google Drive while you’re away from the office.
This app can save you from trying to track down a Kinkos to print, sign, and scan something next time you’re away from the office. Sign documents anywhere or get a much-needed signature for that contract while saving time and headaches.
Fun fact: Sign Now was used by NBA star Deron Williams to sign his $98 million contract.
You’ve already got a smartphone full of apps, but these should be staples on your phone if you plan on traveling and want to save yourself some time, money, or inconvenience when you’re away from home.
I’m sure there are others out there that are also extremely useful, so please go ahead and leave a comment below with your own must-have travel app.