16 travel apps that we use on every holiday
When we got married over 40 years ago, the internet didn’t exist and smartphones were limited to science fiction. So when we traveled, we had to rely on paper maps and guidebooks specific to our destinations.
In the intervening years, smartphones have become part of our reality, evolving into indispensable travel tools that we rely on for trip planning, destination details, accommodation bookings and instant itinerary changes based on changing circumstances.
Today, there are so many smart and useful smartphone apps that it’s impossible to cover all the ones we use – so we’re sharing some of our favorite and most used apps. We work exclusively with Apple devices due to their immediate accessibility to people who are blind and visually impaired. Many of the apps we mention here are available for Android devices, but we are not aware of apps for this platform.
1. Travel Smart
When we travel abroad, we need to know that if we need medical attention, we have adequate health insurance. We buy an annual plan from Allianz that covers us both. Claims that we have had to submit have been handled efficiently.
Fortunately, we have never needed medical evacuation, but we have a friend who used AirMed’s service when his wife broke a hip in Costa Rica. AirMed handled everything involved in a transfer to a hospital in the United States
SmartTraveler from the US Department of State is an important app we consult before traveling abroad, and sometimes while on the road, as it provides important information about visas, safety and security, local laws, and how to contact the nearest embassy or consulate in an emergency.
Pro tip: You can use this app to verify that you can legally carry your medicine (even prescription drugs) into the countries you are visiting.
Many rental cars today have navigation systems on board. The problem is that each make of vehicle is different and can be difficult to program, especially if you have to use your non-dominant hand to type on the screen. When renting cars in Europe, the navigation system is set up in the native language, so we rely exclusively on a smartphone for navigation.
Our app of choice is Waze, which actually uses Google maps as a base, but is crowdsourced for real-time changes in road conditions. One disadvantage is that if you lose the cell signal, you also lose the map function.
Pro tip: When traveling outside the US, it’s best to replace your SIM card with a local one. Using your US SIM card in another country can be expensive.
With Rome2Rio, you enter a starting point and a destination, and the app provides recommendations on various forms of transport that connect the two places. For example, we were in Sicily the night we learned that Italy closed its borders due to COVID. We used Rome2Rio to look at outbound destinations around Europe and to identify the airlines serving each city and the range of fares to expect.
Pro tip: Download apps for the airlines you can use on your trip. They definitely helped during our evacuation from Italy by enabling us to consult several low cost airlines flying from Sicily.
Moving between countries In Europe, we often travel overland because it is often cheaper than flying, and you get to see the changing landscape along the way. One way car hire is not practical so we have used FlixBus due to their extensive network and reliability.
7. Train line
We use trains much less than buses, but when we have chosen this mode of transport we have used Trainline to find timetables and approximate prices. A reservation can also be completed using this app, but we prefer to go to the station to confirm schedules, prices and the need to reserve seats.
Pro tip: We add subway and/or local bus apps when we travel to new cities.
We make many of our accommodation arrangements through Booking.com before departure, but sometimes plans are more fluid or we have to make last minute changes. An example is that you are unable to climb several flights of stairs with a broken ankle.
Pro tip: We sometimes look for alternative arrangements using hotels.com, Airbnb and Hotel Tonight.
9. NPS App
If you’re a fan of the US national park system, they have a great app (NPS) where you can get information about many, if not all, of the national parks. We use this app to search for information by several different criteria, including state and available facilities. As well as providing basic information, there are self-guided tours for many locations.
10. Rick Steves Europe
This app has an extensive list of self-guided walking tours in cities and towns across Europe. We have used them in Florence and Venice and have really appreciated the detail provided.
11. Get your guide
The Get Your Guide app is a great source for finding guides that fit the type of walking or driving tour you’re looking for. Each sets its own itinerary and the associated costs.
Pro tip: Many cities are now developing their own walking or driving apps that show off the highlights of downtown or suburban areas. The VisitJax app for Jacksonville, Florida is just one example. Check with the local tourist office website to see if your chosen city has an app.
When traveling outside the US, it’s important to understand how much things cost, so it’s important to have an app that will do the currency conversion. We use XE to help with this, but due to exchange rates and fees, the final amount you pay may vary slightly from other currency conversion apps.
Pro tip: Download apps for each of your credit cards and your bank to track charges and, if necessary, pay bills online.
13. Global tips
Tipping customs vary in different countries so. We use this app to ensure we fit in with local customs as much as possible.
We strongly advise against using public Wi-Fi, especially for financial transactions. It is far safer to use your phone’s data plan. For an added level of security, we strongly recommend using a virtual private network (VPN) app that anonymizes your connection and significantly reduces the risk of being hacked. There are free VPN apps, but we use NordVPN, a subscription that allows multiple devices for one price.
15. Speak and translate
When you travel, the ability to communicate is essential, but there are times when you won’t find anyone who speaks any of the languages you know. When we were in China, the concept of using a translation app was introduced to us by a hotel clerk. You choose your mother tongue and the language of the other party, then you put your question verbally into the app, and it provides immediate translation both verbally and in the local script.
Pro tip: We also used Google Translate in China to cross-check translations.
In order to communicate with friends and family while traveling internationally, we use WhatsApp as an efficient tool for video calls, voice calls and text messages using Wi-Fi and/or our data plan. The other party must also have the app on their smartphone.
Pro tip: The time to test how it works is before you leave home.