They say the best things in life are free. In this modern age of content and consumerism, I’m still amazed at the amount of knowledge and resources available for free with an internet connection.
I’ve benefited in so many ways from the Internet of Free Things. I’m currently taking a course on solar photovoltaics, gaining the institutional insight of Delft University for $0.
There are three free things I’ve enjoyed so thoroughly in the past few years, I decided it was high time to support them. So, as a birthday gift to myself this year, I’m treating myself to support this trio of free things I love.
I grew up in a household where the speakers were constantly translating the notes from vinyl records or the radio waves of the CBC. My father gave me an appreciation of audio. Both Mom and Dad encouraged an understanding of the news, locally and globally, on the CBC (even when thirteen-year-old me whined for the K94.9’s Top 9 at 9 instead).
Radio being a long-time companion, I quickly fell in love with podcasts. The best companion for pre-sunrise bus commutes in the prairies. Of course, it was Serial that first drew me in. Then, as I sought interesting Canadian content, I came across Canadaland and Sickboy.
Why does summer always evaporate? Right now, I’m reflecting on a full month of travel to Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herszignovia, Italy and Slovenia. I’ve been incredibly lucky to take the time to travel, and I will write about it all soon enough here, and the lessons in simplicity I’ve taken from these beautiful, fascinating and delicious places.
Through these trips, I’ve been refining my pre-travel preparation. In particular, I’ve been finding the most efficient uses of the greatest travel tool available: the smart phone. I am still amazed at the vast resources that my phone provides to me at my convenience.
I’m old enough to remember traveling before smart phones. In fact, I owned my first cell phone after I moved to France in 2009. It was smaller than a credit card and allowed me to master T-9 dialing (a lost skill?). Besides being able to text a friend for an address, the phone was useless as a travel resource.
Instead, I relied heavily on the paper map I picked up from the new city’s tourist information center. (This is a habit I still follow today, though I suppose it’s mostly sentimental.) On the map, I would carefully circle key landmarks, my hostel, and memorize intersection street names to be able to recognize them while walking the town.
It’s hard to imagine that just a few years ago, the little red book of Paris’ streets was the essential and the only tool for guidance. I remember standing on a tiny 5-way intersection as we oriented and reoriented the small pages of the Plan de Paris to find the correct street and direction to our night’s adventure.
While some people reading this might find it hard to imagine traveling by paper map, I’m grateful for the perspective it gives me. Every time I can easily follow the blue dot towards my starred accommodation on my phone’s map, I am thankful for the convenience. Every time I bring up a metro map to catch the right train, I appreciate how much time and brow-furrowing it saves me.
While paper maps harken of a simpler time, smart phone travel offers smoother travel with less waste. Catching the right airport bus can mean a last-minute taxi ride averted. Having good, reasonable priced restaurants (or grocers) marked on a map may mean a plastic-packed street food meal can be avoided. Used wisely, a smart phone can be a simple traveler’s best friend.
In appreciation of this handy travel tool, I want how I’ve made it useful for my travels. I’ve been repeating this process for each trip this summer, and I’ve compiled my list of the more valuable smart phone travel preparations. This combination of apps, notes and downloads has saved time and money, and allowed me to better experience the little things.
Disclaimer: I’ve linked to the apps I use on my iPhone SE, but you may find others equal or better (if so, please comment as I’ve love to hear them!).
Seven Ways to Prepare Your Smart Phone for Travel:
1. Download the Lonely Planet City Guide App
When I first explored this app, I couldn’t believe it was free. The Lonely Planet Guides app has dozens of major travel cities available as an offline city map. It includes a brief city description, and long searchable, navigable, savable lists of where to see, eat, sleep, shop, drink and play. It’s been handy to find a nice glass of wine in a quiet Barcelona neighbourhood and to learn more about an intriguing statue inside Dubrovnik’s city walls. Most of the information can be found on their website, but it’s packaged into this wonderful little package. Before traveling, be sure to click on the ‘download the offline map’ option to ensure you have all the interesting facts without data. If your destination isn’t listed, you can also vote to have it be the next one added to the app.
2. Download a Currency App
While mental math is a key skill, there’s nothing more frustrating that miscalculating a currency by a factor of ten. When traveling, I check my math within just a couple clicks to make sure I know what I’m really paying. My go-to is XE Currency Exchange. Before traveling, I add the new currencies I may need, so when I arrive without data, the most recent exchange rate is already loaded.
3. Download the language pack on Google Translate
Google Translate still boggles my mind. When I first used the photo function to automatically translate text in place, I felt the future had truly arrived. (Was anyone else this impressed, or am I a bumpkin?)
This app has been useful for me to ask for directions to a monument or to offer a poorly pronounced but happy ‘Delicious!’ in tasty foreign restaurants. Yes, English is global. However, using the local language allows you to communicate with people outside the tourism industry and to communicate respect for their place and culture. It works offline with a basic vocabulary in many languages. Before traveling, search for the language(s) on the app and click the download arrow. When you arrive, you’ll
It works offline with a basic vocabulary in many languages. Before traveling, search for the language(s) on the app and click the download arrow. When you arrive, you’ll have a better voice.
4. Starting Language Learning with Duolingo
If you don’t have Duolingo on your phone, stop reading and download it right now. It’s the most useful (and cutest!) way to pass the time. Learning a new language is always a good idea, for the world and for your brain.
Plus, it’s a great, free way to learn the basics of a new language before arriving at your destination. The languages offered are limited, compared to Google Translate, especially depending on your native tongue. For English speakers, there are 29 options to choose from. You can learn Spanish, Turkish, Hungarian, German, Vietnamese, Ukranian, Swahili and more. (While preparing this post, I discovered you can learn Esperanto and Klingon on the app!)
5. Download Relevant Podcasts
Whether before your trip or on the train, listening to a travel podcast or a local podcast on the destination city or country fuels the excitement. A good podcast can offer essential background and thoughtful insight through storytelling.
I also am a huge fan of Rick Steve’s Travel Podcasts. I once thought he was a travel guide for my parent’s generation. However, his travel advice is valuable for all ages and budgets. His interviews pull interesting stories and tips from local guides. And as a lover of a walking tour, his audio tours are fantastic. I recently followed his tour and map through Pompeii. Not only did I save 8 Euro on the (admittedly more extensive) official audio-guide, it provided a curated tour that I could feel satisfied with or supplement as desired.
6. Make Your Mark on Google Maps
Although I’m wary of Google’s all-encompassing and all-knowing abilities, I can’t help but acknowledge how darn useful it is. Without data, the little blue dot on Google Maps can still guide you to your destination.
Before departing, I save all key locations under the ‘Favourites’ or ‘Starred Places’ function either on my laptop or on my phone, ensuring they have all loaded on my phone. The locations include accommodation, museums, well-reviewed restaurants and bakeries, bus and train stops, and anywhere else that would be useful to have on a map.
7. Create a Local Note
Some information isn’t captured in emails or in apps. Each trip, I compile museum opening hours, screenshots of bus schedules, interesting local website links, a metro map, directions to (free walking) tour meeting spots, and other information that might be useful. It’s nothing fancy, it’s just a quick cut and paste of information to the basic notepad program that is both on my computer browser and phone (for me, Notes). A draft email can also serve this purpose. The idea is to simply save you from having to re-research the local information you found before leaving home.
Bonus: Password App
In the age of digital privacy, good and changing passwords are crucial. Most people set strong passwords, but don’t need to remember them as their personal devices have them saved. Then, there’s that moment when you need to print a ticket from your email from a hostel computer. Which brilliant combination did I use last time…? Then, to reset your password from an international, unrecognized computer can start a rabbit-hole of email access issues. It’s far better to avoid these scenarios by either properly memorizing those key passwords, or using a password app. I quite like LastPass as it has a great auto-add/update on browsers and its mobile app is very searchable and easy to use. This is a bonus one as I’m wary of advising on online security. But, no matter the solution, passwords are an important thing to remember while traveling.
I hope you find this list useful when you’re preparing for your next trip. Is there anything I missed? I’d love to hear your favourite travel apps and tips in the comments below.