iPhone Apps for International Traveling

I spent quite a bit of time before a recent trip to Europe investigating what iPhone Apps I might want, to take some of the hassle out of traveling. Most of the lists out there are for traveling around the US, not the “I’ve-switched-off-fetch-new-data-so -I-don’t-have-a-thousand-dollar-phone-bill-from-my-trip-to-London” kind of traveling I do. That means they have to work over Wi-Fi or utilize data that’s downloaded to your phone in order to be of any use. Unfortunately, in the app store these attributes are rarely mentioned, except in reviews by frustrated purchasers who realize they can’t use an app like they expected to.

Here’s what I found

Textie – Incredible. You can text over Wi-Fi without using any of your message allotment OR using minutes, and can even send texts to email addresses. The ad-supported version: FREE

Flight Track – Before your trip, just key in the details about your flights, and this app will track any delays or change in gates that may happen, giving you the updated information right at your fingertips. Plus the UI of this app is lovely, it’s very intuitive. Naturally, it does require a Wi-Fi or data connection to receive the uploads. The ad-supported version: FREE

All Subway – Download the maps of basically every subway system on Earth and have them all saved to your phone for later use. This app can be very slow, which may well have more to do with the age of my phone than the app. Cost: 99 cents.

Tube Deluxe – I think my favorite thing about this app is how when I fire it up, it tries to use my location to show me the nearest stations, and gets very confused at the fact that I’m 5329 miles from any of them. The maps all work without a connection, though the status of service/location features do require Wi-Fi or data. Cost: 99 cents.

Lonely Planet City Guides – Super-handy maps and details on restaurants, shops and attractions, all downloaded to your phone so that you can use them anywhere. Cost: Somewhat pricey at $5.99 each, but cheaper than the paperback book version.

eCurrency – Simply the best user interface for currency conversion that I’ve found. Use a calculator-like screen to type in the price of whatever you’re looking at, and it pops up the dollar amount so you know what you’re about to spend. It automatically updates the rates (when you have a Wi-Fi connection), and you can save favorite currencies for ease of use. Cost: 99 cents

Wi-Fi Finder – Not the fastest app I’ve ever used, but that’s probably because it’s downloaded known Wi-Fi hotspots in over 140 countries to your phone. So no need to have a connection to use it (cause, duh). It also has a nice map interface for helping you locate them (addresses don’t do much if you don’t know the streets around you). Cost: FREE

Dropbox – This app (and its online and desktop components) let you carry important documents wherever you go. I used to have to email copies of reservation and flight confirmations, important addresses and credit card numbers to myself so I knew I could at least get backup copies online. Now, I just drop the docs into a file on dropbox and I can read them anywhere. Works over Wi-Fi. Cost: FREE

Skype – This is the one true must-have app on this list. I recently conducted a 20-minute long call with an airline from my hotel room in Sweden, without paying a penny for it. Normal Skype-to-phone are usually a fraction of a penny a minute, and calls to 1-800 numbers are apparently free. If you have Wi-Fi, you have a phone. Cost: FREE


A Short Guide to Guidebooks

The thing about guidebooks is that you never know which ones are the best ones for you… each line has its own strengths and weaknesses, and of course people want different things from a guidebook so one that appeals to backpackers will likely not appeal to someone interested in a more luxurious experience.

So here is a little run-down on the big names, and my opinion on what they generally offer:

Lonely Planet: The granddaddy of the guidebook.  Some are really written for hardcore, pennies-a-day backpackers, while others are much more mainstream. Occasionally you’ll get one that is spectacularly out of date, which is why I always check on Amazon to see when it was published and what others think about it: the reviews there are generally in agreement, so I think its a good gauge. Also for some remote locations, this is pretty much the only book you’re gonna get.

Rough Guides: UK sensibilities with a budget eye. I love these books. Generally they have a good balance of cheap hostels and nicer hotels, and the accomodations they specifically recommend are in my experience pretty nice. Info on attractions and transportation are generally correct and the on-point. Overall, the Rough Guide point of view is closer to my own than Lonely Planet is, so more of these are on my bookshelf.

Time Out: These books are in a way geared towards locals as much as visitors, pointing you towards some lesser known but interesting restaurants, bars, etc. They do some very timely editions called “shortlist” which are very good — for instance the London 2010 Shortlist will tell you all sorts of things going on this year… which is great if you really want to find out what will be on at the museums or the theatre. They’re usually pretty small and excellent for carrying around. Too bad they don’t come for more cities.

Rick Steves: Have to admit, I love to hate Rick Steves. The reasons are numerous and I won’t bore you with them here, but the sad awful truth? These books are good. Real good. Thoughtful hotel listings, solid info on restaurants, useful tips about how to schedule your day and excellent local insider knowledge so you can get off the tourist path (only to run into others carrying his books).

Eyewitness Guides: These books are great for one thing: knowing what heck the place looks like. They are packed full of pictures, and maps that help get a sense of the neighborhoods and areas where you will be exploring, but that’s about it. The listings in the back are horribly terse and the pricing info is so vague as to be utterly useless. Oh, they also show you what the buses, police cars and money looks like, which if you’re a travel geek like me you’ll find quite fascinating.

Frommers & Fodors: I recently got a Frommer’s book for an upcoming trip to Sydney and now I remember why I rarely buy them. Its like the fast food of guidebooks. Bullet points, star ratings, tiny blurbs about different attractions and restaurants, and that’s about it. There is not much of an editorial voice, and nothing in the way of background or history… there is just not much there there.