Traveling got a whole lot easier with the smartphone — it holds the keys to smoother communication, easier transportation, better adventures. And because this is 2019, a lot of those apps are free or cheap. Here are a few of our favorites to download before your next trip abroad.
You’re eating the best cacio e pepe of your life in a little hole-in-the-wall in Italy, and it occurs to you to take a photo before it’s too late. When you review the pasta snap the next day, you find that your shot is dark and sad, not capturing the magic of your cheesy meal. That’s when VSCO comes into play. The free photo-editing app is pretty intuitive to use and helps up your photo game even if you have no photography skills.
If you’re traveling to a place where you don’t speak the local language, learn helpful or friendly phrases before you go. Speaking a little can go a long way, if only for the gesture of showing you cared enough to try. Cue Mango Languages. The app mixes listening and reading activities to help you pick up basics of a foreign language using conversational methodology. Want to learn Cantonese? Croatian? Chaldean Aramaic? Mango has more than 70 languages and dialects, and it features specialty courses for specific situations, as well, like Oktoberfest German, French for wine-and-cheese ordering, and Russian superstition. If you sign up for the app with a library card, you can use Mango free (otherwise, it’s $8 a month for the first three months).
Google Maps isn’t just a helpful app because it gives directions. It’s also a great way to help keep a record of where you want to go and what places you’ve visited. Once you’ve downloaded the Google Maps app, log in with your Google Account (or create one here). You’ll then be able to tap “save” on points of interest you would like to check out on your trip. Saved locations will appear on your map (which you should download offline in case of connectivity issues or if you don’t have an international data plan while traveling), making it easy to plan your excursions efficiently. After a trip, you can look at your Google Map of your destination and reminisce over all of the good eating, drinking and sightseeing you tackled. You can also be a great help to friends and family going to the same place by sending them your saved map.
Traveling solo? Single and ready to mingle? Fire up Tinder if you need a nudge meeting new people in the destination you’re visiting. Swipe right on locals in your immediate area and chat with your matches about their takes on their town. Maybe you get a couple good bar recommendations, or maybe you connect with someone and have a vacation romance that trumps all of your other travel memories. But, just as at home, be mindful and cautious when meeting up with matches.
A VPN, such as Private Internet Access
If you don’t get an international mobile plan, you’re likely to be using a lot of public WiFi networks while traveling abroad. When you connect to a restaurant or museum or airport WiFi network, it’s less secure than your home network — in fact, hackers see the airport as a “target-rich environment.” To protect your data throughout your trip, download a VPN, or virtual private network. A VPN — we suggest Private Internet Access — will hide your data from Internet service providers for a low monthly fee (although some free, limited-time options are out there, too). Pro tip: Using a VPN will let you access some streaming services that normally don’t operate abroad, like Netflix. VPNs aren’t a 100 percent guarantee that you’ll be safe on the Internet, but it’s a good start.
It can be difficult to suss out which taxi services are legit in a foreign country. In countries where Uber is available and legal, it can eliminate a lot of hassle. (Uber is the ride-hailing app you’re most likely to find outside of the United States.) You don’t have to worry about communicating with the driver about where you’re going, exchanging money or knowing tipping customs. If you go this route, be vigilant about following safe ride-hailing practices, like making sure the driver knows your name.
When you’re failing to communicate, turn, once again, to Google. There are a lot of translation apps out there, but Google Translate is solid. It’s free, easy to use and has multiple functions to break language barriers. For example, users can take a photo of foreign text and let Google do the heavy lifting. This tool is particularly helpful when you’re trying to decode restaurant menus and signs around town.
Some currency conversions are easy enough to handle in your head; others, not so much. When you’re on a beach in Bali trying to figure out how much 76,000 Indonesian rupiah equal in U.S. dollars, an app becomes helpful. GlobeConvert is an easy, free option, and it also calculates distance (for when you’re confused about the kilometers it’ll take to bike to that beach) and more.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Mobile Passport is one of the best-kept open secrets in travel. While not available at all airports, the app is a timesaver when you’re coming back to the States from abroad and want to clear customs as quickly as possible. Available in a premium and a free version (the latter doesn’t let users store their passport information for next time), it gives users access to an often-empty fast lane at customs.