The Best Apps to Download Before You Travel

These apps make travel easier, safe, and even more fun, reveals travel writer Joanna Tovia.

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A woman stands in a subway station, checking an app on her smartphone. Photo © Getty Images / damircudic

I used to delight in turning off my devices when my plane took off, and, apart from checking in at day’s end with loved ones on the hotel Wi-Fi, I wouldn’t resume my always-on digital habits until I touched down on the tarmac back home.

It wasn’t until I had to navigate the subway system in Tokyo that I changed my ways and embraced travel apps – now, there’s no turning back. Designed for smartphones and other mobile devices, apps can help travelers with everything from translations to currency exchange to keeping all your documents accessible and organized. Here are some of the best.

Language apps

Google Translate provides the key to words and phrases in 109 languages. Offline or in a dead zone? Don’t despair; you’ll still have access to 59 languages. Point your camera at a menu for an instant translation, or simply speak into the app to turn your words into the local language – it’s suddenly much easier to have conversations with locals beyond “hello” and “thank you”.

iTranslate is another free app that allows text translation and has a bank of useful phrases in more than 100 languages, while the pro version provides you with camera translation (as with Google Translate, point it at a menu, sign, or recipe for instant translation) and voice-to-voice conversations (offline in four languages). There’s also an Apple Watch app, and you can stay in touch with people you befriended on your trip with instant text message translations.

Even with translation apps, it’s still nice to learn some words of the local language on your own. To get the basics, download World Nomads’ language guides, available in multiple languages for your smartphone.

Booking apps

Skyscanner is lightning fast at finding flights, hotels, and car hire options, then listing booking providers. When you select a flight, the app now details what the airline does to protect passengers from COVID-19, including whether face masks are mandatory and flight attendants wear PPE.

Most of us are used to booking somewhere to stay via Airbnb or booking.com (both have apps), but if your accommodation isn’t what you’d hoped for or you prefer to fly by the seat of your pants, Hotel Tonight will find genuinely discounted rooms for you, and the booking process is easy.

Apps for money and expenses

I had to force myself to use an expense tracker – it’s tempting to spend as if the foreign currency isn’t real money – but now that I’m used to it, it’s a relief not to have a pile of receipts and an eye-watering credit card debt to deal with post-trip. The secret is Trail Wallet (iOS). It allows you to set budgets and quickly track what you spend, and a pie chart lets you know where your money is going at a glance. Just as good, TravelSpend (iOS and Android) works offline and allows you to add expenses in any currency before converting them into your own.

Changing money overseas is fraught with rip-off potential. Check on exchange rates before handing over your cash using XE Currency. It works offline too.

Revolut is a game-changing app for digital nomads and other frequent travelers. It allows you to spend and transfer money in 27 currencies with no hidden fees, at the real exchange rate rather than the marked-up bank rate that leaves you short changed.

Trip planners

With more of us exploring our own countries instead of heading overseas, the Roadtrippers app is ideal. Select your destination, then find great places to eat, stay and explore. The app is designed for road tripping in the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

TripIt is another of my favorites, being the not-naturally-organized traveler that I am. Instead of searching frantically through your emails at the check-in counter, you can forward flight, hotel, car-hire and other booking confirmations directly to the app and it will collate them into an offline itinerary. You can also add your own entries. Hallelujah.

A woman in a face mask stands in the Bangkok airport, checking flight information on her smartphone.
Travel apps can provide instant updates on your flights and keep all your travel documents handy. Image credit: Getty Images / d3sign

Apps for working on the road

It’s easier than ever to be a digital nomad, thanks to apps such as Workfrom, which helps you find Wi-Fi-enabled cafes, restaurants, and sharespaces to work in. You can also set up or join a virtual cafe for community and connection, complete with customizable scenery, music, and real-world sounds.

For nomads wanting to stay organized and work efficiently, Evernote remains a powerful tool on and offline. It’s essentially a notetaking app, but aside from keeping your notes in one place, Evernote also allows you to save clips, PDFs, images and more into “notebooks”, as well as scan documents, record audio, and share content and ideas.

Apps for getting around

Exploring new places is one of the joys of travel, but getting lost isn’t. I once parked my car, meandered happily through the narrow laneways of a Turkish village for hours… then could not find the car. I ended up on the back of a motorcycle of a kindly local to locate it. The rug I bought off his uncle to say thanks is still on my living room floor. But my point is, if I’d had access to Google Maps, the location of my car would be pinpointed the minute I parked, and I could have enjoyed adventures of the less stressful kind. Google Maps (available for iOS and Android) is also a whiz at working out the Tokyo subway system (letting you know when the next train leaves and from where, how to find your way between stations, and more).

Uber operates in more than 10,000 cities and airports around the world with the same process you’re probably used to back home. There’s something comforting in having the app on your phone, even if you don’t use it.

If you’re flying between destinations, heading home, or you’re meeting someone at the airport, FlightAware Flight Tracker lets you know exactly where the airplane is in real time and when it’s going to land. I’ll never be without it.

Time and weather apps

Timeshifters is a clever app that helps you start transitioning to a new time zone before you leave home. Enter your flight details and the app does the rest, giving you a personalized action plan. The more suggested actions you do (think caffeine, sleep, light exposure), the less jetlag you’ll experience.

Your phone’s built-in clock app might be enough for you, but for added features such as easy time-zone conversion in thousands more cities, try World Clock (Android) or World Clock App (iOS). For accurate, long-range weather forecasts, try 1Weather instead of the app on your device – it even lets you know if it’s going to rain in the next hour.

Apps for COVID-19 and overall health and wellness

This is a changing landscape as COVID-19 vaccines continue to roll out and international travel gets back on track. Major airlines are about to introduce the CommonPass app, which details each country’s entry requirements and provides a verified platform to store and display COVID-19 test results and vaccination records. CommonPass will be available for download in early 2021.

IATA, meanwhile, is working on introducing The Travel Pass app by the end of March to help travelers store verified certifications of COVID-19 test results and vaccinations. Another option in the pilot stage is AOKpass, which provides you with a secure and portable copy of your medical records – useful beyond the immediate challenges posed by the global pandemic.

And let's face it, traveling can be stressful, with or without a pandemic. It’s easy for fitness routines to fall by the wayside when you’re on the road. Luckily, there are travel-friendly apps to care for our mental and physical health. Try Seven for an intense seven-minute workout (the theory is that everyone can find seven minutes a day for exercise), and set aside a few minutes for mindfulness and meditation with Headspace.

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