I’ve always faced that travel challenge: how can I balance spontaneity with planning. I don’t want to start on a trip with every minute scheduled, but I also want to see the best things!
The more philosophical answer I’ve come up with is to plan but be willing to ditch those plans if something great comes along. The more practical answer is: apps. These 5 apps have made it so much easier to quickly figure out how to get somewhere, what to do once I’m there, and learn as much as I can about it.
Together, these 5 apps check all of those boxes. I use them all the time when I travel and they’ve made an enormous difference. One of them I even use when I’m at home taking the bus to run errands. Some of them are hugely popular, while others aren’t quite as well known, but I’m not about to recommend you try this great app called “Google Maps.” These are tools that will genuinely change how you travel and chances are you aren’t already using them.
So have a look at these apps, start downloading, and start discovering the world in new ways!
This is my absolute life-saving go to app whether I’m at home or traveling. I already know what you’re thinking “oh but I just use Google Maps.” But the fact is, Google maps does not have public transport information for every city Moovit does. And, I’ve generally found Moovit’s information to be more reliable.
You just plug in where you want to go (the app can tell where you are) and Moovit gives you all of the options to get there, tells you how much they cost, and gives extremely precise directions. If you’re traveling in a far away city and want to save money on taxis (especially if you’re in a city known for taxi drivers cheating foreigners) this app is absolutely essential.
Plus, you learn a lot more about a city when you take the metro, buses, trolleys, etc. You can get a feel for how people travel there and even for the city’s history. It’s easier to get outside of the typical tourist neighborhoods and really see something unique.
Personally, I loved realizing that the metros in Budapest, Bucharest, Sofia, and Kiev were all identical because they were all made in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. It was a glimpse into another historical era and honestly a bit funny (I could have closed my eyes for a minute and forgotten which city I was in if not for the languages of the ads). I probably wouldn’t have gotten this experience without Moovit.
Full disclosure, I love hiking. But when you’re hiking in an unfamiliar country, it can be intimidating to say the least. Language barriers aside, I’m always worried I’ll miss a trail and end up wandering around lost in an unfamiliar area. Besides that, it can be extremely difficult to find reliable information about what hikes are available, how difficult they are, and to find quality maps. After all, a Swiss person’s definition of an “easy hike” might be quite different than your own.
Alltrails really helps solve these problems for me. It has huge lists of well-documented trails with photos and detailed information about every detail of the hike. For example, elevation information is critical because a hike can look quite simple if you don’t notice those steep topographical lines. Trust me, after you’ve hiked up one kilometer vertically, you’ll wish you had prepared for that kind of exercise.
Not to mention the fact that I love being able to monitor my progress. Being able to see my elevation, how much higher I need to climb, how much farther, when I’ll pass streams or lakes, etc. helps me get into the calm that nature is so good at providing. I only wish it had translation built in (I once was very excited to see a lake, only to find a mud pit and later discover the name of the lake of “dry lake” in the local language…)
All in all, I feel like not nearly enough people try hiking as a way to discover totally new parts of the countries they visit (and get a little exercise along the way). So, before you dismiss the idea of hiking on your next adventure, remember to give Alltrails a download. I promise it will make the whole experience much easier and more fun.
3. Culture Trip
This is a fantastic all-in-one kind of travel app. It packs together info on hotels and restaurants along with insights into the culture of a place. In other words, it connects you straight into the local zeitgeist, letting you know what all kinds of local cultural creators are doing these days. I tend to bounce around between spottedbylocals, travel guides on websites like The Guardian, and the occasional guidebook, but Culture Trip usually has something interesting I didn’t find elsewhere.
What you’ll find on the app itself are articles and videos about each place written by locals, which you can save and read or view offline (your international data plan will thank you). This makes it easy to create simple lists of things you’d like to see or do, or just create a reading list to get a feel for a new destination you’d like to discover.
There won’t be as many articles for less well-known destinations, but for most cities there are literally dozens of articles and videos to check out. If you’re looking for a particular perspective (like, say of a musician) there are author bios and article lists that can point you in the right direction. So, you can get a theater actors thoughts on Vienna or a musician’s tips for Budapest if that’s your cultural wheelhouse.
Honestly, I hope they push more community and forum features into the app because I see the personalities and stories behind the authors as the most interesting way to get insights into the cities I visit.
While this app is obviously only designed for European exploration, it’s a great resource (especially for podcast junkies like myself who are always looking for something to listen to while they wander a new city). Of course there are your typical self-guided audio tours, but what makes this a particularly rich resource is how Rick Steves draws from all of the other audio work he’s done over the decades including radio interviews and recordings from his world-class guidebooks.
Like Culture Trip, this app has that always critical feature allowing you to download content to listen to later. There are also PDF maps showing you the path to walk for all of the audio tours. It’s also updated pretty regularly, with 9 new audio programs added in the past two months alone.
Just be aware, this app might just be a gateway drug into the world of Rick Steves tourism (his company also has its own licensed guides, physical travel books, etc.) Personally, I’ve always found his enthusiasm and generosity to be infectious and his programs always put me in a good travel mood. You’ve been warned.
A few years ago I went on a big trip to Vietnam. I’ve never been much of a formal tour kind of person while traveling, but this time I knew I was going to need to book some. I just wasn’t equipped to get around somewhere as foreign as Vietnam all on my own. The question was, should I book tours ahead of time or wait until I get there?
I ultimately decided to book at least some of the major tours ahead of time. Viator made it easy. I could compare all of the companies offering tours to one place or check out the top offerings for the city where I was staying. For the tours I bought, the information was extremely clear (especially for critical things like where and when to meet) and the reviews helped a lot.
In other words, Viator was a super simple, one-stop shop for buying tours. By now I’ve taken tours on old soviet motorcycles, boat trips around mediterranean islands, and hikes to medieval monasteries with them and it’s been a great experience. So if you find yourself with a free day on your next adventure, just scroll through the Viator app and find something cool to do.
Time to use your phone to explore!
Let’s face it, you’ve probably spent more vacation time than you care to admit buried in your phone. Why not at least get yourself some apps that will make your trip more exciting? Even better, if you decide it’s time for a spontaneous adventure, these apps can let you plan your entire trip on the way there. So throw the essentials in a suitcase, hop on a bus, and start discovering!