My Essential Travel Apps For Planning

I like writing these “travel tools” articles for travel savvy people like you. So here is yet another one. This time, a list of all the apps I use to plan my travel on a day to day basis. I like to be prepared, and have all the information I need at my fingertips. This means that I have everything I need on my smartphone. I do not need to depend on wifi or a 3G connection to be able to get around.

Trip Preparation

For me, it’s on a day to day basis, since I am travelling long term. But for someone who is on a short week long trip, the following works as well.

For trip preparation, I use a combination of tools and apps: Pocket (http://getpocket.com), Evernote (http://evernote.com), Dropbox (http://www.dropbox.com). All of them have desktop and mobile apps.

POCKET: for URLs. All websites that I need to refer to will be “saved” on Pocket. My standard go-to action is to download the Wikipedia page and the Wikivoyage page for the location I am going to. For example, if I am headed for Yerevan tomorrow, I would have downloaded both the Wikipedia (to prepare myself on the history and current information about the city) and the Wikivoyage (which is like an online travel guide) entries for Yerevan. It automatically syncs the websites to my mobile phone for offline reference. Also handy are the Wikivoyage phrasebooks .

EVERNOTE: for image clips, and website tables etc. If I do not want the entire website, I can clip specific images and paragraphs to Evernote. Most tables when I submit a query, (eg. train timetables for 10 Mar 2013) can be saved as an Evernote file. Failing this method, the fall-back would be the smartphone camera.

DROPBOX: for files like PDF and DOC. Used to save maps and pdf copies of my travel guides. Dropbox saves the entire file for later reference. You have to highlight the file as a ‘favourite’ so that it is saved on your phone for offline access and not just in the cloud.

I do all the planning on my laptop, which is a lot more convenient, the three apps above automatically syncs data to my phone for offline use.

Moving Around

MAPSWITHME: I already talked about my go-to application Maps With Me (http://www.mapswithme.com/) which I use extensively to get around. I pre-download the country beforehand, so I can access the location function without an internet connection. Some of the open-source maps there can be a little bare, especially in remote little towns. If so I will refer to Google maps (https://maps.google.com/) which might have more details but the “Make available offline” option is useful only for small areas of the map. Selecting too large an area makes the downloaded file too big.

If I need to get from point A to point B, I look for point B’s address beforehand and pin a marker on my MapsWithMe map. That way, when I’m out on the streets, I just need to turn on my GPS and make for the marker. This is how I find my hostels and hotels.

For getting around by public transport, the public transportation system like buses normally have their own website. Googling that allows me to look for bus timetables and the available network of buses around the city.

AMETRO: This is a simple app which displays the subway networks of all the cities around the world. You download whichever city you need. Ametro (http://www.ametro.org/) is a lot easier than googling online or asking the tourist office for brochures.

GENERAL INFO:

ACCUWEATHER: I pre-download the city I’m in beforehand. And update it whenever I get a connection. AccuWeather (http://www.accuweather.com) basically lets you know whether you should bring your umbrella out or wear more layers.

XE CURRENCY CONVERTER: This is the other indispensable app I use to track my spending. XE Currency Converter (http://www.xe.com/apps/).On the spot, after each purchase, I will key in the price and it converts to SG dollars, which I record in my MoneyWise app.

So here is a typical day of preparation. Tomorrow I head to Yerevan, Armenia. So I save to Pocket the Wikipedia and Wikivoyage entries for both Yerevan and Armenia. I save a PDF file of Lonely Planet: Armenia to my Dropbox. I search “Yerevan Bus Station” on MapsWithMe to see where exactly in the city I will arrive. Then I go to HostelWorld and book my place to stay for the night. I check out the address and pin the location on my map. Then I look at how to get from the bus station to a landmark near my hostel. Too far. And there is no metro line running near the bus station. I need to take a public bus. A quick online search tells me which bus number I should take. Simple. The weather tomorrow will be sunny. AccuWeather tells me tomorrow there will be a chance of flurries, so I better take out my umbrella.

Simple effective data gathering that takes less than an hour. =)

A Traveller’s Tool: Using Maps With Me

There are a few GPS maps navigation apps out there. There’s of course Google Maps, Be On Road and MapDroyd, to name a few. But I’m here about to talk about Maps With Me. I’m not in any way affiliated with Maps With Me, but I love the App so much so here’s a post on how I use the tool. Maps With Me is an app that’s available for download on iOS and Android. It basically works like Google Maps, but using OpenStreetMap, an open-source map resource.  It doesn’t require an Internet connection to use, unlike other map Apps. Meaning, you can be out in the middle of the countryside in some Turkish village (like me right now) and still find your bearings. All you need is use your wifi connection  to pre-download a map of your destination beforehand, switch on your GPS, and your location is pinpointed on the map. You don’t have to buy expensive data plans, which for someone going through so many countries in one trip, is completely not feasible.

Here are some uses I’ve had for Maps With Me as an independent traveller.

  • Orientate myself to the surroundings – When I arrive at a new place, I whip out my smartphone and check my location, then head off in the correct direction. When you step off the Train Station or arrive at a Bus Station, there are normally touts who come up to you and just overwhelm you. By having a map, and directions, you can make an informed decision and decide whether you even need to take that taxi when your hostel is merely 100m away.
  • Research my next destination – I look at the map for landmarks, including the location of the next place I’m staying. I familiarise myself with the general layout. And when I am there, since it is the same map I am referencing, getting around becomes easy.
  • Planning my transport – Wondering whether to take the train or go by bus to your next destination? I look at their respective locations on the map and decide, based on whether the location is convenient. Sometimes the train stops right in the city, and the bus station is way out of town. At other times it is the other way round. And while on the journey, I can refer back to it to know my current location and how far I am from my destination.
  • Hostel hunting – I use the app to look for my hotel or hostel. It comes especially useful if you arrive at night. One time, I took the same bus as one other traveller. He arrived 2 hours later at the same hostel because he got lost looking for it, all the while carrying his huge backpack. He eventually paid a cab driver to take him there. I used my app and walked there easily.
  • Shortcuts – Getting from Point A to Point B when you have a map is easy. I’ve save plenty of time by not following the main roads, and taking pedestrian pathways listed on the map.
  • Hiking off the beaten path – Some of the user-contributed maps are really detailed and I often go off the listed paths, which involve getting into alleyways, across farmland, or non-touristy places within a tourist town, and this gets you a better idea of the local life.
  • Search for stuff – The paid version of the app allows you to access the Search function, while opens up a whole new set of uses. Search for:
    1. Nearest restaurant
    2. Nearest bus stop/bus station/train station
    3. Tourist sites
    4. Nearest supermarket
    5. Nearest bank

All come in useful when you don’t want to waste time randomly looking for places. Want fast food? Search for nearest McDonald’s. Need to go? The nearest toilet is just 5 minutes away in that direction. Easy.

  • A virtual tour guide – By using the search function filter to show only tourist locations, I am able to have a list of places to visit. So I just use the app to trace a route that checks out all the tourist spots. It’s like following a trail of goodies. I’ve found quaint little village churches and memorial statues that are not listed in guidebooks. As an added bonus, landmarks like monument are named in the App, so you have some idea of what you are looking at, even though the panel on the monument could be in some other language.
  • As a car GPS – The Apps default setting is to orientate the map with North being the top, but by using the rotate function available in the paid version, you can use it like a car GPS, when the map rotates around your present location. I don’t prefer this view, but I can see how it might come useful for someone familiar with GPS navigators used when driving.
  • Make new friends – I share the app with travellers I meet. This girl tells me “Oh, when I arrive at a new destination, I turn on my 3G just for a few seconds so I know my bearings.” Another tells me he buys a SIM card with data usage to access online maps. When I tell them about the app, it’s great because they save money!

Of course, the tool isn’t perfect. Sometimes the GPS takes forever to detect the location (this is true for all GPS apps though) and sometimes I have trouble reading the map names (since the OpenStreetMap data is often gathered by local contributors); I was trying to figure out names of places written in Greek on the app while in Athens. But on the whole, it is an awesome app, and the developers improve it with new updates frequently.

If you have other uses for the tool, do share and leave a comment below.