We are all addicted to those little shots of dopamine every time we look at our phones. If you think you aren't, we'll be here for you once you get through the denial stage. When it comes to traveling with them, however, we think of them as expensive paper weights with a serviceable camera unless connected to wifi. We're here to debunk that myth, and show you how your smart phone can be even more valuable to you while traveling than it is at home.
First, we have to get over the perception that our phones will only serve us when we have wifi or spend a lot of money on an international plan. Thankfully, with nearly all of the major carriers, this is no longer true. You can now add an international plan to your existing one, and if, and only if, you decide to use cellular data while abroad you will be charged a flat rate of around $10 per day. That's it. All of the normal features and apps you use every day can still be yours for a 24 hour period. While this rate certainly multiplies out to a total that isn't economical for a full time plan, if you're in a pinch and need cellular data, it's a small price to pay.
If you still aren't convinced, or don't want to spend the money, it is also easier than ever to find wifi wherever you are. Most airports have free wireless internet, as do hotels, and even restaurants or cafes. Just make sure you use common sense, and don't try to access any sensitive information or websites over public networks.
Now that we've tackled network access, let's review the must have apps to help you get the most out of each vacation day.
There are a number of great mapping apps out there, but Google's is simply the best and easiest to use. You likely already have this app, but more often than not people are surprised when they see me using this abroad. Well, even if you don't want to pay for an international plan you can still download entire areas of the map for offline use. That's right, your phone can still use GPS even when you are in airplane mode or have otherwise turned off cellular data. That means you can still get step-by-step directions so long as you've previously downloaded the necessary map area. For directions, it doesn't get much better than that.
Gate Guru will track your flight itineraries for you, and send you notifications if anything changes, but the feature I like the most is its airport maps. When you have a layover in a foreign airport and need to find a restaurant or other services, open the app, select the terminal you're in, and instantly get information about what businesses are near you with directions by gate number. I use this nearly every time I'm in an unknown airport as it alleviates that travel anxiety by keeping you informed of your flight status and telling you where to go in a crowded airport.
How do some people always get the best seats on the plane, with extra leg room or no one sitting next to them? You can call the airline frequently and ask, or you can use Seat Alerts to setup an alert for you when the seat you want opens up. It is literally that simple. Search for your flight, select the type of seat you want, window, aisle, or other, and Seat Alerts will notify you when one becomes available. At that point, call the airline or your travel agency and get the seat you want. When it's that simple to be more comfortable, there is no reason not to use this.
Most of the world doesn't have the same unlimited text messaging plans like the United States, and therefore people around the world use other apps to help bypass these restrictions and communicate with others. Even if you aren't a social butterfly that instantly makes new friends wherever you go, being able to communicate with the owner of the flat where you're staying, or a local tour operator, is still invaluable. There are still concerns around the app's privacy and how it stores your messages, so don't send anything too sensitive.
Trying to communicate in another language is fun, and I strongly encourage you to try it and not lean on this app or a translation dictionary. However, when attempting more than a simple conversation, these tools quickly become invaluable, and because the app can translate both ways, it can also create a more engaging experience for both parties.
YOUR AIRLINE'S APP
Some people prefer paper tickets, others prefer digital. Unless you're in a country that requires paper, do what makes you comfortable. The reason I'm recommending that you download your carrier's app is that it can serve as the first source of information about the status of your flight, even before the gate agent makes an announcement, and the more information you have the better decisions you are able to make. Plus, if you do need to try to change arrangements, the phone number for customer service is typically available within the app so you don't have to spend time searching for it online, or even worse, wait in line to talk to an agent. That precious time can mean the difference between getting rebooked or having to spend the night in an unfamiliar place.