The last time I left Australia for any considerable length of time was 2009. I spent nearly a month in China on an Intrepid tour. Later that year I spent three months in India.
The Intrepid tour in China was a group of 16. Two weeks of our time in India was on a road trip in tandem with six other travellers.
We all had one thing in common. A very heavy guide book.
The Lonely Planet Guide to India was my bible for three months. It gave me an idea of what things should cost, how to reach places, the kinds of facilities that should be included in accommodation, cultural differences to adhere to, the history of different regions, and of course, the important things to see at each stop.
This book (when it was whole) weighed nearly 1kg and shaped like two bricks. That’s bloody heavy when you’re carrying it around during the day with your water, sunscreen and camera. Especially when you’re travelling with a male who refuses to carry a bag.
The book suffered a slow and painful death on our tour around the country, each chapter ripped out as soon as we left town in order to lighten the load.
The weight around my neck has been considerably lighter this time around. All the information I need is in my phone. There are a group of apps I use, some daily and all free. While I think I could get by without them, I’ve seen and done so much more with confidence because of them.
The apps I use daily
City Maps 2 Go
Someone downloaded this on to my phone for me one night after work without really explaining it, other than to say ‘they’re city maps, and they’re great.’
They really are. Of all the apps on this list, this one has made my trip.
City Maps 2 Go works like this:
When connected to wifi, you search and download a map of the city you want. Once it’s on your phone, it works without wifi or 3G. It’s not a static map, it uses GPS and follows you, so you can always see your location via the little blue moving dot, just like Google Maps. Which basically means if you can follow a dot, and you have battery, you can’t get lost. Hold the phone! (And get lost.)
Along with a live map, you can search for tourist spots, street addresses, landmarks, shopping centres, bus stops, metro stations, banks, hospitals etc. They are all listed and navigable offline. This has helped me remain calm with 20kgs on my back
searching for my hostel and train station in most cities I have arrived in.
Added bonus: When you search tourist spots, you have access to Wikipedia and other online articles, user reviews and photos (so you know you’re in the right place). You can also search ‘tourist attractions’ and be navigated to landmarks close by. Again, this is all available offline. Why pay for a travel guide?
Pros: Find your way everywhere, locate services you need, read about what you’re looking at and learn about places you may otherwise not visit.
Cons: It takes up space on your phone (I delete maps as I leave each city), and if you use it all day, it can chew through battery power.
I really think the cons are a small price to pay. The only reason I take my phone out with me during the day is to use this app.
While the full service is available via the desktop website, the Hostelworld app means I can research cities and accommodation wherever there is free wifi, which unlike Australia, is everywhere.
The best thing about Hostelworld is everything is peer reviewed. All reviews are broken down by gender and age. I’m not necessarily looking for a hostel that appeals to a 21-year old guy, so I can filter accordingly.
Once you have an account set up, it takes two clicks and you have yourself a place to rest your head for the night. And you get to read about the state of the bathrooms beforehand too.
Pros: If you have wifi or 3G, you can book a room or bed ON THE WAY to the room or bed.
Cons: The photos are never really as good on a phone. You are required to pay a deposit by credit card.
Though my Airbnb bookings won’t really kick off until later in the year when I start travelling with others, it’s still a fantastic way to research accommodation options in the next city.
Sometimes you just don’t want to share a hostel room with drunk, smelly, snoring people of questionable hygiene. No matter how cheap. Airbnb is one of the most affordable ways to stay in a city – either in a private room in a shared home, a B&B or an apartment.
Usually cheaper than a hotel room, and usually with more character, the options are endless. Feel like staying in a treehouse in Costa Rica?
Do you have a spare room? You could look at this site another way, and put a room in your house up for rent and start saving for your next holiday. I have a friend who paid for her trip to India, while she was in India, and a nice English couple were staying in her apartment.
Hosts and guests are all peer reviewed – so behave yourself!
Pros: Along with the limitless options, AirBnB has an affiliate program. If you sign up and book a room using a code from someone else’s profile, you get a $33 discount. And so does the person you signed up through. Ahem … my code is here: www.airbnb.com.au/c/swells111?s=8 **
Cons: As some listings on AirBnB are also listed elsewhere, sometimes you have to ‘request to book’. This can mean the perfect accommodation you found is actually not available if someone has already booked your dates through another platform.
Find the cheapest most direct flights with a simple search. Receive alerts when your chosen routes go on sale. (Your phone will start screaming at you when the discount hits the sweet spot.)
Skyscanner seems to have the most extensive listing of airlines and routes of any site I’ve come across. Best of all, it is an aggregator, not a booking agent. When you find the flight you want, Skyscanner sends you directly to the airline website to book – and charges you nothing.
I used Skyscanner to find flights from Budapest to Greece and made it all the way from the Hungarian capital to Santorini for $96 AUD. Ridiculous backpack included.
Pros: All the options you’re looking for in one spot.
Cons: As you book with each individual airline, you need to enter all your details each time you book. It can get a little tedious.
Looking for the best way to get from Venice to Bled? Vienna to Budapest? Rome2Rio is another aggregator. Punch in two destinations and the app (and desktop website) will give a range of ways to travel between the two. Trains, flights, buses, ferries, ride shares and car rentals, including links to booking websites, a live map and approximate costs. Rome2Rio is incredibly handy for planning your next move.
Pros: A great place to work out whether a train, a plane or a bus is your best bet.
Cons: The hits are not exhaustive, so further research is usually a good idea. That said, when you have no idea where to start, Rome2Rio always does.
I check this one before I abuse my debit card at the ATM. XE.com gives the daily exchange rate for any currency you can think of. It has a converter, so you can measure two currencies against one another, or a list of currencies against one master.
Pros: I can work out the best time to withdraw money from my Australian bank account.
Cons: It’s a little devastating when I have three euro in my wallet and XE tells me it’s a bad day to withdraw. Especially after Madame Visa takes her cut.
Google translate lets you input English words and phrases and displays them back in another language. There is also an audio feature so you (I) can do my best not to butcher the execution of ‘Una caffe latter per favoure’.
If you see something written in another language and want to know what it says you can input the phrase you see and ask Google to send it back to you in English. Very handy for menus and signs in front of taps – ie ‘This is NOT drinking water’.
Pros: Helps you make an effort with people in their native language. I find the more effort you make, the more effort they make.
Cons: The audio feature doesn’t work for every language yet. I had a hell of a time trying to pronounce things in Slovenian because Google wouldn’t teach me how. They laughed at me. But they still brought me coffee.
Rick Steves’ Audio Europe
I’ve mentioned him a few times now, and it’s getting to be a bit of an in joke, however, Steves’ audio guide takes the place of the history, culture and must see section of a travel guide, (likely because his main bread and butter is published hard copy guides, so he already has the content).
Without Steves’ I would not have known the history of the Habsburg dynasty before I went to the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. I would not have known to seek out Langos, a street food in Budapest (fried bread, and cheese, and garlic and sour cream, oh my!) and I would not have and knowledge of Slovenia AT ALL before I arrived. He’s a (loveable) dork, but he’s very handy.
Pros: Allows you to research sites and history before arriving. Also teaches you the history of monuments in a city in real time via virtual walking tours.
Cons: The dad jokes.
These (along with Viber, Whatsapp, and whatever else is available) don’t really need an introduction. Suffice to say, I don’t feel isolated and cut off like I would have years ago. As long as I have an internet connection, I don’t miss a thing at home.
Pros: Keeps homesickness and fomo at bay.
Cons: You run the risk of focusing on people at home rather than what’s in front of you. And a dodgy network connection with your two-year old nephew on the other end of FaceTime can be disappointing.
Honourable Mention: The man in seat 61
This one is not an app, but a website. It definitely works best on a desktop or laptop, as it is not enhanced for mobile.
A man somewhere in fabulous cyberspace has pulled together everything there is to know about train travel in Europe and put it in one place. He has also indexed like an absolute champion, meaning I can use a dropdown box on the home page, tell the site I want to get from Ljubljana to Innsbruck and it will give me the times of day, costs and links to buy tickets.
It will also tell me the facilities on each kind of train, which trains can be booked with a Eurorail pass, which require reserved seats and helpful hints like; when travelling from Austria to the Czech Republic, book via the Czech rail website rather than the Austrian one, if I want to save 25 euro.
I used this site for a solid month getting around Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Czech and Hungary and the accuracy of information was impressive.
Pros: Saves me having to buy the most expensive ticket at the station because I didn’t know where to look online for tickets
Cons: The site is not mobile enabled so can be difficult to use on a phone.
** If you create an AirBnB account by following the link (www.airbnb.com.au/c/swells111?s=8), then book a room, you and I both receive a $33 discount off our next booking. Help a sister out!