Smartphones have made our daily lives immeasurably more convenient. Using GPS to map a route to the closest Starbucks, using Google to research Risso’s dolphins, uploading your pictures to Instagram – sometimes we may take the ease of obtaining information for granted.
Having the right smartphone apps can enhance your travel experiences. As I have discussed in a previous blog (7 Tips to Save Your Cell Phone During International Travel), it is wise to leave your smartphone in ‘airplane’ mode while out of the country.
It is therefore very important that phone apps used while overseas work offline, or with Wi-Fi. Here is a list of communication apps I have found particularly useful.
1. Google Translate: (FREE) Much improved, Google Translate can translate between 90 languages, and read aloud phrases in the chosen language. In addition, Google Translate now uses your smartphone camera to read written signs, and can instantly translate them on your smartphone screen.
This feature works instantly between English and: French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. This app translates 36 total languages when you take a picture of the signs.
I used Google Translate on an Avalon Waterways river cruise brochure. The title in English reads “Blue Danube To The Black Sea.” Pictured are examples translated to German and French.
2. Google Maps: (FREE) Once Google Maps finds your current location via Wi-Fi, it will still track your movements even when you disconnect from the Wi-Fi. The key is to load up your map as you arrive; most airports will have free Wi-Fi.
This came in handy when we tracked our taxi driver in Lisbon taking the long road around to our hotel, claiming ‘traffic’ in the center of town – the roads were green on the traffic map as we were driving along the freeway skirting town. Google Maps helped us communicate with our driver.
The map also tracks your walking movements too. We were able to navigate to a Hard Rock Café using the Google Maps GPS while offline in airplane mode.
3. Google Voice: (FREE) If you sign up for a free U.S. number before leaving the country, you will have access to free texting and digital voicemail via Wi-Fi. Forward your cell phone to your Google Voice number, and you will not need to turn on your phone to check voicemails – they are digitally transcribed for you, complete with audio file to listen to your messages.
I have iMessaging on my iPhone, but I do not have a texting plan. At home, my Google Voice number is my texting number to send and receive free texts. Abroad, you will need Wi-Fi for these features.
Other Communication Apps
4. Skype: (FREE) Skype has revolutionized voice over internet (VoIP) and how people communicate while traveling. As @SamanthaBrown (from Travel Channel) shared memories of using phone cards and satellite phones that cost an arm and a leg, she noted that Skype has made communication affordable around the world.
For just 2 cents a minute, you can call the Uffizi Gallery in Firenze to make a reservation, as @RickSteves recommends in his guidebooks. This saves you hours as you bypass the lines and maximizes your valuable travel time in Florence.
Skype works for voice as well as video calls.
5. Vonage, Vonage Extensions: (FREE) If you have a Vonage VoIP home phone plan, you can use the Vonage Extensions app while you are away from home. On Wi-Fi, you can dial and make calls with Vonage Extensions on your smartphone as if you were calling from home. No international calling fees… you are using your home phone minutes. This can be even cheaper than Skype!
Vonage also comes with digital voicemail that transcribes messages and sends them to your email with an audio file. No need to waste minutes calling your answering machine to check messages. You may also forward your cell phone number to your Vonage number, and receive your cell phone messages by email.
6. FaceTime: (FREE, iOS only) Users of Apple products can also use the FaceTime app with Wi-Fi. This has helped many families stay in touch. Parents can tuck in their children and read them bedtime stories while thousands of miles away.
7. WhatsApp: (FREE for first year, $0.99 USD/year after) This little app was one of the early pioneers of free texting. The catch is that BOTH the sender and the recipient of the texts must have WhatsApp on their smartphones. Google Voice will text anyone whether they have a Google Voice account or not.
Social Media Platforms
8. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and more…
While you are traveling and experiencing amazing new destinations, meeting wonderful local people, and trying the regional cuisine, social media apps have made it possible to share instantly with friends at home.
Connected with Wi-Fi, you can Post, Pin, and Tweet to your heart’s content. Be aware that you may be flagged for ‘suspicious activity’ on your account because you are logging in from a different Wi-Fi location, even if it is on your own smartphone.
This happened to me in Hawaii and Phoenix. You will have to answer security questions, or risk your social media account being locked for the duration of your trip. Account locking appears to happen more with logging in via Safari or on a laptop via Wi-Fi, rather than from the actual App on your smartphone.
What are some strategies you have used to stay in touch while traveling? Do you have any favorite smartphone apps?
We would love to hear your opinion! Please leave a comment below.
Related Savvy International Traveler Posts in this series: