In our almost seven years of full-time travel, we have accumulated a bunch of travel apps that we use for trip planning, learning, keeping in touch with people, and generally making our travel easier. It’s like a team that you can call upon when needed. Think of it as a group of minions except that they’re not all yellow, wear jumpers, or have a propensity for evil.
Here’s a rundown of apps that we use. I’ve classified them based on their function (mapping, transportation, lodging apps, etc). Some I use more than others.
All of these are FREE
Maps.me – When it comes to travel apps, this is the big cheese (the hotshot, the governor, the bossman who has stiff cheeks and talks in an unhurried manner making you an offer you can’t refuse).
For walking around, for monitoring progress when we are on a bus, and for route planning, I’ve found nothing that beats this app.
To use it for trip planning, put a pin on places you want to visit within a city. So when you are walking around town you can plan your walking path easily. This strategy is also helpful if you are going to be cold-canvassing hostels when you first arrive in an unfamiliar place.
Use the routing feature to know how to get to a destination. This helps to decide if a hostel is within walking distance from where we are. You can also use it to find restaurants or other lodging or attractions.
Warning: If you put the app in routing mode, it uses up the battery quicker. So don’t forget to take it out of routing mode before you put your phone away. Otherwise, it will drain your battery.
Update: Maps.me now charges a fee if you need more than 10 downloaded maps. Since the writing of this article, we have switched to Organic Maps. All our pins can be ported over. Currently, Organic Maps is free and has all the features of maps.me.
Other Mapping Apps
Runners-up: Google Maps is great and I use it a lot on my laptop. The mobile app allows you to download areas for offline use but it uses a lot more space than Maps.me. Pocket Earth, in addition to the offline maps, has Wikivoyage articles, and topographic maps (this one for a price). The Osmand app works better for Android devices.
Moovit is an excellent public transit guide that can take you from point A to point B within a city using local buses, metro/train, teleferico, or whatever public transit modes are available in the selected town. It provides details such as which bus number to take, walking segments, connecting buses, and estimated travel times per segment. It even has pictures of actual buses so you can easily spot them. The downside: it only covers major cities. As for other cities/towns, we ask the locals, and most of them are happy to help.
Busbud/Rome2Rio – these are good for info on bus route availability, approximate trip duration, and costs. I use it mainly as a planning guide. When it comes to purchasing bus tickets, I buy directly at the terminal where the bus fares are typically lower than what you find online here in South America.
Some cities have their own app for local transportation, like TuRuta for Lima and Callao areas.
Walking and taking local buses are our main modes of getting around in a town. If all else fails, you can always use Uber or Cabify, but be warned: in many countries uber is illegal. In some cities, taxi drivers unleash their inner Khal Drogo upon Uber drivers, so the Uber driver will sometimes ask the passenger to sit up front.
For taxis, you can use apps like Easytaxi or Tapsi (tappsi in Colombia) for added safety compared to hailing one off the street.
Airbnb is the first place we look for accommodation in South America. It’s usually cheaper than a private room in hotels/hostels. You will typically have access to other areas of the house such as the kitchen, living room, patio, etc. And you get to live with locals. TIP: If you are planning to stay for more than a week, you can increase the upper limit of your price range filter. By doing this, you might be able to find a listing whose daily rate may be beyond your budget but then offers a weekly discount (sometimes 20-30%) that puts it right back within your range.
Booking– I use this app (and also the website) to research available hostels and their prices, but rarely book ahead. We just show up and pay when we get there.
Other Alternatives: Agoda and Hostelworld – I use these two apps to a lesser degree. Hostelworld usually quotes higher prices compared to booking.com for the same properties.
Tip on lodging search:
Go to alltherooms.com, an aggregator site for lodging listings. If you are looking for lodging for 2 or more people using alltherooms.com, it may show the prices for single occupancy, so don’t get too excited by the low price and always double-check when you get to the actual website.
iOverlander – as its name suggests, this app is geared towards overlanders, but I’ve used it to find lodging, especially in areas that do not have too much info online. In the Map view, use the Filter option to declutter the map and only show lodging options.
Tripadvisor – I use it to read other people’s experiences about hotels and attractions. The owl logo with unmatched eye colors freaks me out though. With my slow iPhone 5C, it takes a while to load the app so I’m left staring at those eyes staring back at me and I’m freaking out but I can’t look away.
WikiCamps is the must-have apps if doing the Big Lap of Australia. WikiCamps provides both locations and reviews of free camping spots. It also has pins for dump points, water, and attractions.
AIRFARE SEARCH APPS
I prefer using Google Flights (on the laptop) over Skyscanner although I always check other airfare websites if only to double-check that I’m getting the best prices. Depending on where you are and where you want to go, check the websites of local carriers as well. They may have cheaper flights that do not show up in the main airfare search sites. For example, some carriers that ply (and fly) the Galapagos route are not listed in the major sites.
APPS FOR KEEPING IN TOUCH
Whatsapp – Though not too popular in the United States where Messenger dominates, Whatsapp is used in more than half the world, and this is evident in Latin America. Businesses have them as part of their contact details. We communicate with our Airbnb hosts through WhatsApp until we arrive at their property. The locals use it more than SMS, and mobile service carriers offer free Whatsapp data usage to sweeten their mobile plans.
There are Whatsapp groups that bring together people with similar interests: among others, there are hiking groups, language learning groups, and a group for esoteric physics jokes (Question: Why did Werner Heisenberg detest driving cars? Answer: Because every time he looked at the speedometer he got lost! Yeah, no, I don’t get it).
Facebook – A lot of small businesses like hostels and restaurants in Latin America. It’s an easy and free way to get their contact details out there. You can also use it to search for events in your area.
Facebook groups specific to the country you are traveling to can be quite valuable. The Backpacking in South America group is a wealth of information. Choose a group based on your type of travel and destination (or continent). Use the search bar in the forum and you’ll likely find that your question has already been asked and fellow travelers have already provided answers based on actual experience.
There’s a group for expats for practically any country and most major cities.
Create a private Facebook group or shared access document that can be accessed only by select family and friends, these should be the ones whom you can trust, who will do something if things go awry. Post all your movements in this private group: where you are staying, which bus you are taking, what time it leaves, how long the trip will take, which trail you are hiking, how many days will you be off the grid, etc. If you go missing, they’ll at least have a lead.
And other social network apps, whichever ones you are on.
Polarsteps has a beautiful interface and can be used to let your friends and family know your whereabouts. It automatically keeps track of your destinations and suggests pictures to add from each of your stops. At the end of your trip, you can even order a printed travel book that includes your map, notes, and pictures.
Spanishdict is an English/Spanish translator that you can use to look up not just words but also common phrases. It works even while offline. It’s more than just a lookup tool, I use it for language practice. When you look up a word, it provides several example sentences where the word is used, and next to each example is its translated version. So I go through each example and try to translate it before looking at the translated version.
Other notable apps that I’ve used in the past are Duolingo (good for beginners), google translate, and Memrise.
GlobeConvert – A currency converter. Enter an amount in one currency and then it gives the equivalent amount in another currency. That’s all we really use it for, no need to understand Heisenberg jokes to be able to use it. It also does unit conversions.
Trailwallet – Bonnie uses this to track our daily expenses. We’re still on the free version that allows up to 25 transactions at a time. When it’s full, Bonnie loads it up to Excel where she geeks out with all those numbers.
Note: Trailwallet is no longer available for new downloads. I’m still using my old copy. Since it is not maintained I update currency conversions manually. If/when I find a replacement I’ll update this page.
Atmhero – choose the right ATM for you in the country where you are. To us, that means whichever has the least withdrawal fee, and sometimes the one with the highest maximum withdrawal amount. With a Charles Schwab account, you don’t need to sweat the withdrawal fees because they refund all that at the end of the month.
APPS FOR READING
iBook – Use this app to read digital books. Download free books from gutenberg.org. For Spanish ebooks, try lectulandia.com (watch out for adverts that look like download buttons, those rascals!). Also great for saving web pages that you want to access offline later.
Libby – The Overdrive app for reading or listening to library books. Get it free with your free library membership (at least for US residents).
ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?
Podcasts – download podcasts for those long bus rides, or for times when you are doing menial tasks.
Libby: Books from the library both to read and listen to!
Google KEEP – I love this app. Google’s answer to Evernote, this app lets you make notes and sync it all up between your laptop and your phone. I use it for trip planning, taking notes about places to visit, and all that good stuff. The sync feature is my favorite. Use your laptop to research and make all the important notes. Then sync it all up to your phone and you’re good to go.
Instabridge/Wiffinity – find free wifi wherever you are.
Google Photos – after a day of taking photos, upload them all in one tap (or enable background upload for zero taps) and all your photos and videos are backed up in the cloud. Then free up your phone storage by deleting the images and you’re good to go for another photo-op.
Snapseed – a powerful image editor.
That rounds it up. There are thousands of apps out there. This is not a definitive list, but these are the apps that work for us. A lot of these apps make traveling easier, reduce unpleasant surprises, keep us from getting stuck in uncomfortable places, and generally make traveling safer.
We are lucky to be traveling at a time when these tools are literally at our fingertips, though I’m sure that in twenty years we’ll look back and laugh at how primitive our traveling is now, as we use that next revolutionary traveling thingamadingle.
But remember that the best app is still you, and that thing in between your ears. Apply yourself to whatever situation arises. Every once in a while, toss the phone in the backpack and let travel magic happen – you might get stuck, you might get unpleasant surprises, but those are wonderful travel stories waiting to be unwrapped.
Above all, enjoy those traveling moments, when you are meeting new people, exploring new places, admiring a colorful sunset, gawking at a glacial lake, flying off a cliff, or living a new experience.
There‘s no app for that.