Focus on Tech| Summer Travel App Guide

Screenshot of my smartphone's Travel folder with favourite apps.
With summer fast approaching and the research/vacation season beginning for many students and academics, my thoughts have been turning to travel and the fantastic trips that I know many of you are going to take. With travel comes planning, and the reality is that the culture of traveling has shifted quite substantially from the old days of travel agents, bible-sized guidebooks, and long periods of isolation from family and friends. In short, many innovative options exist today that have transformed the process of researching, booking, and completing your travel, and it is really worth the extra time and effort to take advantage of the many new web-based and smartphone resources that exist to make your trips run smoothly and remain rich and truly memorable.

For the purposes of this post, I have broken down the resources into two lists: 1) applications to use before you go on your trip; and 2) applications you would utilize most while away. Of course both sets are interchangeable, but it helps to think of them in terms of their maximum value to your planning and travel process.

PLEASE NOTE: Where possible, I have provided the link to the web-based application with the most options available for accessing and downloading mobile apps across a wide range of platforms.

Before you go:

Packing Pro—of all the apps I use while traveling, this is the one that has saved me the most time and mental energy. Dead simple in design, but infinitely useful, the Packing Pro app allows users to create fully customizable packing lists with checklists and built in reminders that categorize and help you plan every aspect of the packing process. What makes the app truly stand out from the standard packing lists many of use is the ability to copy a customized list for a future trip. For example, I have packing lists on file that I have used for short trips, longer summer trips, 3-day conferences, and even quick overnight getaways. Best of all, the app provides you with templates of lists for all of those things you have to do before leaving home that are often forgotten—taking out the trash, charging batteries, etc..—so that you can rest easy.

Artforum artguide mobile screen shot. Detailed listings
 of museum and gallery exhibitions at your fingertips 
Artforum artguide—one of my most used and favourite travel apps, the Artforum artguide allows users to plan and research museum/gallery/art fair events taking place at specific times around the world. I have used this application to find out which shows are opening and about to close in the cities I visit, along with info about opening hours, ticket prices, and direct links to institutions. You will be surprised how comprehensive the lists are—I have discovered some unexpected exhibition gems using this app.

Kayak—my brother introduced me to this travel management app last year, and I have been using it ever since (thanks Chris!). Kayak is a travel website similar to Expedia, except that it provides users with a fantastic travel management feature which takes all of your travel reservations, no matter who you made them with (flight, accommodation, transfers, train, theatre and event tickets, you name it) and organize it into an attractive and functional itinerary. All you have to do is create an account and forward your email receipts to a special address and Kayak will put everything into order. If you get the mobile app, Kayak will update you on the status of your flights and remind you about each leg of your trip. Brilliant!

Trip Advisor—this well established website is still one of the best tools out there to research and plan which hotels and attractions to book for your trip. Users rate and provide detailed reviews of a whole range of accommodations and popular sites of interest, attaching unedited photographs and offering great tips and insider info about the places they have actually stayed at. I always double check Trip Advisor just before I leave on a trip or check the mobile app while on a trip to see what the most recent reviews are saying about the hotels I am staying at—I have also written a few reviews, but under an alias J

Yelp mobile screen shot. Research and locate food and shopping options
in the places that you are visiting.

Yelp—Perhaps the most popular guide for urban foodies, Yelp is both a web-based and mobile app that helps users find the best places to eat, shop, and drink in the places they visit. Some people don’t like the strong influence that the website exerts over people’s cuisine choices, but I have found the application useful to avoid making uninformed decisions about where to spend money on restaurant meals. Yelp also has a great mapping feature that allows people to find particular kinds of food or shopping in a certain geographical area. Most recently I used Yelp on my phone to bookmark highly ranked food trucks and street food vendors in New York. It was great to walk into an area and know there would be options for a tasty lunch.

OpenTable—working hand in hand with Yelp, OpenTable is a web-based application that lets users make dining reservations in cities around the world. Once you have an account set up, you can also collect dining rewards each time you make and honour a reservation. The mobile app is also great to edit and/or cancel reservations on the fly. OpenTable provides a very flexible service, and you never have to feel bad when making the decision to cancel and move a reservation to another time or another establishment.

Kindle—I have been a longtime user of e-books and the Kindle app for both mobile phones and tablets allows for another way to download and store your reading material without having to buy a dedicated Kindle reader. There is nothing worse for me than being stuck at an airport waiting for a delayed flight with nothing to read. I always make sure to have something downloaded and ready to access before any planned trip.

While you are away:

Record and organize your receipts into
a paperless system-- works with Evernote!
Google Maps—hands down the best mapping application available out there, Google Maps provides users with useful information about what is around them in any city or place they are traveling. My favourite use of Google Maps is to punch in some site of interest I am planning to visit and seeing what the options are to travel there. The application will give you a time estimate and route options for walking, driving, and taking transit to your chosen destination. Best of all, the transit option will tell you exactly which metro/bus to take, when and where, based on the time you enter into the search. Since this app works on Wi-Fi, you can simply take screen shots of information you want to access without getting hit with data charges.

The Weather Network—this application is very nostalgic for me, as I grew up with this Canadian based weather provider, first on TV and then on the Internet. Still, The Weather Network web-based and mobile app is still one of the most accurate and aesthetically pleasing of all weather information applications out there. I always use it when I travel and I can vouch for its supreme accuracy over many other types I have tried out over the years. You have got to love those Canadian meteorologist professionals! If traveling to more than one location, you can also program several cities into the application and scroll seamlessly from one place to the next.

Expensify—I started using this expense tracking application last year to record my expenditures for work-related trips, and I love the freedom of simply photographing receipts and sorting them into well-organized expense reports, versus collecting the paperwork to deal with in frustration later on (usually on the flight home). Best of all for Evernote users like me, the application syncs with your database and makes the receipts fully searchable. It also helps you avoid the dreaded overspending that often goes along with travel.

XE Currency Converter—I am not a math person at all, so a currency converter is an essential tool on any trip I take outside of Canada. What makes the XE Converter especially user friendly is that you can download the exchange rates when you have a Wi-Fi connection (even before you leave home) and you can use the app on your phone to make conversions on the spot with using any data. This app has been a useful reality check when realizing just how much something costs when converting the currency on the spot in a foreign store or restaurant.

Google Translate—super simple but super cool. Download the app to your phone and speak or type in a phrase or question into your phone and it is instantly translated into dozens of languages, many with an audio option that will actually speak the translated phrase back to you (or to whomever you are wanting to communicate with). I have used this app to decipher menu items, but not yet to speak to someone… still waiting for that opportunity.

I started using Instagram when I discovered you could map your photos for future reference-- a handy feature.

Instagram—I started using this very popular photo filter application this past winter on a family vacation to Europe. What I love about Instagram is that you can take your travel photos made on a smart phone and tag them with a specific location that is also made into a virtual map of your trip. Very cool, and also a great way to introduce others to unexpected finds and points of interest on your trips.

Songza—portable DJ for your hotel room. Seriously—I hate to stay in places without access to music, so the Songza app provides a fantastic service that delivers streamed music based on your mood, time of day, and activities. If you happen to be traveling within your own city or area with a data package, Songza can also be streamed through some rental car stereos without worrying about crappy radio signals.

Endomondo—this is the newest of the travel apps I am using, and I have only experimented with it in the city, but essentially Endomondo tracks your walks, runs, and other distance-based workouts using the GPS in your smart phone. Where it has a very cool potential for travel is that it maintains a history of your mapped walks (both on the mobile app and a visually rich and interactive web-based application) wherever  you visit. Locally, I have used Endomondo when out walking the city and have enjoyed looking back to see where I ended up going, remembering to check out certain places that I recall seeing. I could see it being a very neat way to record and share memorable walks that you did on your travels with family and friends.

Apps untested but highly recommended by colleagues and students:

What's Appa messaging application that allows users to exchange messages without paying for SMS.

Help Call—an app that lets you make emergency calls by the touch of a screen in your current country location

Sit or Squat—a washroom location app. Who hasn't needed this service while on vacation!

I am always on the hunt for ways to make my traveling more productive and memorable—I hope you find some of these apps useful and enjoyable!