If you ever get the chance, explore the world without an agenda. You won't be the same person when you return. Jack Kerouac's book "On the Road" captured the spirit of spontaneous travel -- going where you like, when you like and experiencing the world first-hand. Exploring the globe can be liberating, character-building, and a world of fun. Even more awesome: Today's globetrotter doesn't need to be fabulously well-off to explore almost any country on Earth.
Still, traveling the world isn't free, so unless you're independently wealthy, you're going to need to pinch a penny or two on those trips overseas.
But you have a tool Kerouac never dreamed of: your mobile device. Whether it's a smartphone or a tablet, it's your connection to friends, family and apps that can save you serious cash. Let's look at five budget-stretching apps you should always take along for the ride.
A Good Translator
Few things can make you feel more helpless in a foreign country than not being able to communicate. Improvised sign language only gets you so far. Most language translation apps are far cheaper than printed phrase books, and they usually carry much more information.
Lonely Planet's phrase book apps each cover a single language and cost a mere $6. These handy tools take advantage of Lonely Planet's wide experience in the world travel market. Taking the time to memorize a few phrases will probably earn you points with the locals.
For a cheaper app that translates using voice to voice (you speak in one language and it repeats it in another), iTranslate is your best bet. If you don't mind seeing ads, iTranslate language titles are free, or you can upgrade to an ad-free version for $1 to $2. Jibbigo is another translator that's very highly rated, but will cost you around $30.00 per language -- not exactly budget-conscious, especially if you need multiple languages.
Even if you use the on-the-fly translators, you'd still do well to memorize some important phrases. Considering how shaky some of the translator apps are, knowing how to say "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to say that!" might come in handy.
A Communications Connection
Sharing your adventures with the ones you love is priceless, but that doesn't mean you should fork over bars of gold every time you call home. Internet to the rescue (again). With 663 million registered users as of 2010, Skype is a rapidly growing Internet company that's become synonymous with free phone calls.
While Skype's mobile app for Android and iPhone lets you call, text, IM or file share with almost anyone in the world, it's only free if you're contacting another Skype member. Calling your parents at home or on their cell will cost money, but only a few cents per minute. And since Skype has become so popular, odds are other travelers you meet will have their own accounts so exchanging information and calls with them is pretty easy.
No monopoly is safe for long, though. Danish startup Vopium aims to challenge Skype in this market with its own apps and comparable fees. It's too early to tell how successfully they'll be, but anything that keeps the competition honest is a good thing.
The Shelter Selector
Except for tenting, hostels are far and away among the cheapest places to crash. A clean bed and much-needed shower typically go for a fraction of the price of a hotel room. You may give up some of the luxuries a hotel offers, but hostels are also unbeatable for meeting fellow travelers and exchanging notes on the local scene.
The Hostelworld app offers a very comprehensive list of hostels and reviews, and is available for both Apple and Android devices. It also lets you look for hostels before entering any booking information.
A newer entry in the mobile market is Hostel Hero. With its latest version, it removed booking fees and added reviews. Hostel Hero licensed Hostelworld's database, offering location-based searching for nearby services, downloading for offline browsing and hostel reviews. Unfortunately, this app requires that you enter booking information before you get to see any hostels. While not an obstacle for many users, it'll be an inconvenience to others.
A WiFi Wizard
What good is an app without a signal? WiFi Finder is hands down the best way to track down free wireless hot spots. Free for Android and iPhone, this handy utility lets you view a Google map showing all the WiFi spots in your area. WiFi Finder also lets you limit results to specific types of places, tells you how to get to the locations it finds, and lets you phone ahead to cafés or restaurants.
Find a network that's not on the list? You can share it with other WiFi Finder app users too. All in all, a great deal for the price of zero dollars. If you're planning on going out of range, you can download the database of WiFi hotspots for offline use.
Use this app and you might never again have to aimlessly walk up and down streets reading the goofy names of private networks. (Unless you really want to.)
A Trip Planning Multi-tool
A huge part of the delight in traveling abroad is in the small things, like finding out-of-the way sites that only the locals know. A good trip planner keeps track of everything on your must-see list. If you have to pick a single app, TripIt provides integrated trip management, and it's free (an add-free upgrade is available for $4). It reads all the confirmation e-mails you send it, pulls them apart and puts all the pieces together in a really useful way. It also lets you share itinerary details with friends and family. You save time and energy you would have spent trying to keep up with your itinerary and confirmation data. It's like having a personal assistant you never have to pay.
No mobile app can be completely good at everything, and there are a couple of other general travel apps you might consider based on your priorities. For example, Trip Advisor's mobile app is famous for its highly regarded reviews of restaurants, hotels and airlines. Another contender worth your attention is price-aggregator Kayak, which searches across a multitude of sources to track down rock-bottom rates for flights, cars and hotels.
Let these economy-focused apps work for you, and you'll always have reasonably-priced adventure at your fingertips.
Who's gonna get you the best hotel deal or tell you not to take that cruise during an outbreak of the latest super bug? A travel adviser, that's who.
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More Great Links
- Apple. "Apps for Traveling." (July 13, 2011) http://www.apple.com/iphone/apps-for-everything/traveling.html
- Budget Travel. "The Ultimate Guide to Travel Apps." April 18, 2011. (July 13, 2011) http://www.budgettravel.com/feature/the-ultimate-guide-to-travel-apps,7217/
- Clark, Josh. "iPhone: Travel Apps Picked by an iPhone Expert." Budget Travel. Oct 19, 2009. (July 13, 2011) http://current.newsweek.com/budgettravel/2009/10/iphone_travel_advice_from_an_i.html#ixzz1SBo4Fut2