Technology has undeniably changed the world of travel. Long gone are the days of buying a Europass and rolling into a city, walking until you find a hostel, and writing postcards to let your friends and family know that you haven’t been kidnapped. Instead, modern day travel is a much more complicated world steeped in fully booked hostels and sold-out bus tickets. Technology had ironically made travel simultaneously more limited and more accessible… if you know how to use it.
Over the many months I’ve spent traveling through over 30 countries around the world, I’ve had plenty of time to test just about every travel app in existence. In doing so, I’ve narrowed it down to a handful of keepers that I find invaluable to my travels, whatever type they may be.
General Travel Tools
- Maps.me: If I had to choose just one app that I consider absolutely invaluably necessary for any trip, it would be Maps.me. Like Apple Maps, it uses GPS signal to track your location, even without cell service or wifi. Unlike Apple Maps, however, the maps do not require Internet signal to load. Instead, you just need to pre-download the maps of any place you are traveling to, and you’ll have unlimited offline access to the map, as well as hostels, restaurants, stores, and even hiking trails. You may not always find the specific hostel you’re searching for, but the maps are constantly being updated. It provides driving and walking direction and the location tracker is reliable. Say goodbye to the days of wandering blindly while searching for a hostel. Maps.me revolutionizes travel navigation.
- Topo Maps+: Over the years, I’ve tried a lot of movement tracking and recording apps, and none have been nearly so accurate as Topo Maps+. By providing things like distance, duration, average and top speeds, current elevation, elevation gained and lost, and even an elevation profile, this app is the ultimate tool for any hiker or runner. Not only does it provide these tools, but it allows you to record your track, including personalized waypoints, and places it on a downloadable topo map of the area to save for your future reference.
- Currency XE: Any seasoned traveler is probably very familiar with this app. It’s the immediate go-to currency converter and for good reason. With access to the current conversation rates of any currency in the world, this app is a lifesaver for those countries when you just can’t quite do the mental math. It’s also quite helpful to use as a backup when exchanging currency at the border. Such places are traps for unfair rip-off rates, but more than once, we bargained ourselves into a much better deal by showing them the actual exchange rate on this app rather than trust their rigged calculators. Be forewarned: you need to pre-download the currencies you will be using while on an Internet connection, or the app will not be able to convert the currencies you need.
- Hopper: With so many airline booking and price comparison apps out there, it can be all but impossible to find the best deal when it comes to flights. That’s where Hopper comes in. My immediate go-to for flight pricing, Hopper provides all the necessary tools in a simple, easy-to-use layout to help you get the best deal. Like Skyscanner and Kayak, it shows you price comparisons between different airlines, but unlike those apps, it also shows you the cheapest dates to fly and the cheapest nearby airports to use. Not only that, but it actually provides you with recommendations about when to buy. Just set the app to watch a certain flight and you’ll get daily notifications about price changes, as well as suggestions about when to book (i.e. “You should keep watching this trip, but book before June 12”). Once you find a deal, you can book right through the app or, if you’d prefer, just use the information to then go book on the airline website directly.
- Student Universe: When it comes to actually booking your flight, some of the best deals can be found through Student Universe. While technically designed to give students a discount on their flight, the app and website do not actually check student status, so it’s available to pretty much anyone. You can find flights for often over $100 cheaper here than on direct airline websites. The one downside of booking on this website: their cancellation and change policy. Cancelling via Student Universe is difficult unless you’ve purchased flight insurance. Even if cancelled with plenty or time in advance, you’ll only receive about 50% of the original costs back. If changing flights, you’ll need to pay a $200 fee plus any difference in fares. If you’re absolutely sure about the flight, however, Student Universe can save you a lot of money.
- Booking.com: The unknown underdog of the booking world, Booking.com is truly a diamond in the rough. While popular apps like Hostel World are a go-to among backpackers, I personally find Hostel World to be a waste of money. Not only does Booking.com provide a much larger selection of accommodation (including hostels, budget hotels, and nice hotels), but it allows you to book at better prices. Because Hostel World typically only includes party and tourist hostels (offered at gringo tax prices), Booking.com allows you find less touristic accommodation at lower prices. By experimenting with cost comparisons of five hostels, I found the Booking.com was an average of $7 cheaper per night for a private room. Plus, if you book five times, you become a Genius member, making you eligible for added perks, like 10% off certain accommodations and late check-out.
- Couch Surfing: For more daring travelers both on an extreme budget and eager to get a more local take on a location, Couch Surfing is a great resource. Basically, it lets you search a city you plan on visiting, reach out to locals who live there, and lets you arrange free temporary homestays. I used this several times while backpacking through the more expensive countries of Europe, where I didn’t feel like paying $20 a night for a bunk bed in a dorm. Despite all the “weren’t you afraid to stay with a total stranger?!” I’ve gotten, my experiences with Couch Surfing were awesome, and my hosts were all super kind. The downside of this is that is takes some time to set up. Your profile is long and extensive, but it’s ultimately what makes people see you aren’t some creep trying to murder them. The more detailed you are when creating your profile, the more likely you are to get accepted. It’s easier to fill in your application online then use the app to send requests and converse with possible hosts.
- Instagram: This probably seems like an obvious, cop-out answer. Trust me, as I’m anti-social media as anyone (except for the necessary promotions of my writing). But here’s my defense of Instagram: It gives you access to a community of followers based on interest, not real life acquaintance. Because of that, it’s a great resource that connects you to fellow travelers and helps you find unique places around the world. Being a visually focused app, Instagram is also a wonderful way to find inspiration to look at the world in new and unique ways, which is really what travel is all about.
Road Trip Travel Tools
- REI’s National Parks: The USA’s National Parks provide one of the most popular itineraries and inspirations behind most modern day road trips. I myself have been sucked into such a venture. Just over a year ago, REI launched their National Park app, a great resource specifically designed for people who set out to explore their National Parks. The app provides a wealth of information, from driving maps and roadside sights to hiking trails and hidden gems. It is especially useful for hiking, providing trail descriptions, hiker reviews, mileage reports, maps, and difficulty assessments. Even better, you can use the app as a personal log for your experiences, checking-in at different landmarks and adding your own photos to each trail. The National Parks are getting so popular that it can be difficult to sort through the best things to do in each one, but this app gives you the necessary tools to personally tailor your experience and get the most out of it.
- Gas Buddy: Road trips are all fun and games except when it comes to one thing: getting gas. No one liked dropping $40 every couple of days to fill the tank, but gas is unfortunately the most basic necessity behind any road trip. There are ways to make each stop at the pump just a little less painful, and Gas Buddy is one of them. Get instant access to a list of gas stations ordered by proximity, along with their prices. Using this tool to plan your fill-ups can ending up saving you a lot of money!
Tollsmart: A gem if you’re traveling either along the far west coast or throughout the northeast where toll roads can make budget travel a little tough. Tollsmart not only provides you with an interactive map of where toll booths are, but also allows you to route your path to get an idea of exactly what the tolls will cost. If you’re debating between different routes, tolls might be the deciding factor. This app can save you a lot of money. After all, $30 less in tolls is practically a whole tank of gas!
Adventure Travel Tools
- Cairn: Cairns are an important tool to hikers. These crude and precarious stacks of rocks may seem like innocent creations but to hikers, they mark the way so you can get home safely. Cairn does much the same thing. Good for international travel or just a weekend hike in your home state, Cairn lets you plan for the worst. The most basic rule of thumb for outdoor adventuring is to let someone know where you are, in case you don’t make it back. Cairn makes that process simple. Begin by setting up your “safety circle”. Any time you go on an outdoor adventure, search the trail on the map and click “I’m going here” to let your safety circle know about your plans in case anything happens.
- The Outbound: Designed for adventurers and outdoor lovers, the Outbound is a simple app that helps you find things to do near you, filtering them by type of activity. Interested in rock climbing? Just click that activity button and see all related activities near you, ordered from nearest to farthest proximity. It then provides full access to activity descriptions, reviews, directions, maps, and overview information.
- Bivy: Bivy is another app that allows you to search for things to do via activity filters. However, rather than listing activates, Bivy allows you to search for things to do on a map, providing waypoints for the types of activities you have turned on. It’s handy especially for finding nearby hiking, because it provides an actual outline of the entire hiking trail on the map. Unfortunately, the directions function transports you to Google Maps, which is sometimes ineffective for travelers without Internet connection. Nevertheless, it’s a good tool for scoping out outdoor activities near you.
- Climbing Away: While this app is specific for climbers, which tend to make up a pretty small percentage of travelers, it’s relatively unknown despite being one of the only useful climbing apps in existence. Climbing Away is an all-around resource for finding climbing area information, and while it doesn’t provide actual route and area betas, it does give you pretty much anything else you need to know. Begin by browsing climbing destinations by country list or map. It then provides information about each area, including number of routes, grade range, type of climbing, rock type, main holds, approach information, altitude, coordinates, links to online guides, and directions. Additionally, it had a grade converter and climbing terminology translators among different languages. You’d be surprised how helpful that actually is when climbing abroad. Be aware that Climbing Away is a climber-contributed app, and as such it is always in production. If you know of an area not shown on the app, you can simply add your own climbing area and contribute to the database.
- Mtn. Project: Unlike Climbing Away and other activity finding apps, this Black Diamond sponsored app is the ultimate resource once you’ve found an area for climbing, but aren’t quite sure how to do it. You can pre-download areas for offline use and access to different walls, route betas, and maps of the area. Again, be aware that Mtn. Project is not an all-around resource and is lacking in a lot of information. It is always being updated and still provides the best free beta around, short of buying the guidebook.
- Hiking Project: Another REI sponsored app, Hiking Project is the hiking (obviously) equivalent to Mtn. Project. Once you download an area, it gives you offline map overviews of nearby hiking trails. A simple click on the trail gives you important technical information, such as difficulty, mileage, elevation profiles, descriptions and highlights, and potential flora and fauna.