Great travel apps to make your trip easy and fun [Tech Travel Tips]

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Rome vacation travel apps
Travel isn't all about visiting amazing places. Sometimes it's about using apps on your phone, too.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

tech travel tips You already have all the travel gadgets you need for a successful and relaxed trip. Today we’re going to look at travel apps. Specifically, apps that make your trip better and easier, like great city guides.

We’ll also showcase apps that work around limitations you face while traveling, like a lack of bandwidth. Let’s get started!

Must-have travel apps

Not all travel apps are created equal. The good news is, many are free, so you can try as many as you like and see which ones work best for you. And almost all offer free trials, with in-app purchases to unlock advanced features. We’ve tried a bunch of them, and we find these essential.

Video app: It’s Playing

It's Playing can play anything.
It’s Playing can play anything.
Photo: Cult of Mac

The built-in iOS Videos app is great, but severely limited. You can only watch your own movies if you preload them onto your iPad using a computer with iTunes, which seems absurd in 2017. You can find a zillion apps for getting and playing movies on your iPad or iPhone, but my favorite is It’s Playing.

The app boasts way too many features to go through here (you can read a list on the It’s Playing website), so I’ll go over a few that I like (and that are great for travelers).

First, It’s Playing integrates with cloud services, so you can download movies and videos from places like Dropbox, Facebook and the amazing Put.io (an online locker and BitTorrent client). Apple’s Videos app works great for the journey out, but what about the journey back, where you have no way to load new movies onto your iPad for the flight home? That’s where It’s Playing comes in. And it isn’t just limited to iOS-friendly M4V files either — the app can play back pretty much anything, like a VLC for iOS.

It’s Playing will also download subtitles for your videos, finding them automatically online and then grabbing them for you. Its great interface works with lots of neat gestures so you can control the app without searching around for tiny on-screen buttons. And finally, It’s Playing can grab movies stored on various external drives.

Price: Free, with a $10 in-app purchase to add most of the features

Download: It’s Playing

Travel guide: Lonely Planet Guides

Lonely Planet Guides are a condensed, hyper-handy version of the books.
Lonely Planet Guides are a condensed, hyper-handy version of the books.
Photo: Lonely Planet

Of all the travel guides you can put on your iPhone or iPad, I keep coming back to Lonely Planet. That’s because the apps use the same information and “content” as the publishing house’s meticulously researched guide books. And while flicking through a book is a nicer way to browse info about a destination, the apps work far better when you’re on the ground.

For a start, everything is searchable. And everything appears on a map, so you can find, say, nearby restaurants or museums. You can also bookmark places for later, see excellent public transit maps, and use a phrasebook. The guides include about a third of the info available in the books, so the best option is to use both.

Price: Free, with in-app purchases to unlock the full phrasebooks

Download: Lonely Planet Guides

Hiking maps: Gaia GPS

Gaia GPS
Gaia GPS combines the best of paper maps, and iOS maps.
Photo: Gaia GPS

If you’re doing anything other than walking around a city, you should grab a proper maps app. These feature offline topographical maps that show detailed terrain and the tiniest trails. Some, like my favorite, Gaia GPS, can import GPX files, which means you can save routes from the millions of places on the internet that provide downloads in this standard format.

Gaia GPS will then show the route on the map of your choice (and there are a lot of maps), as well as giving you all kinds of information about the surrounding terrain. You can also record waypoints to log a new route.

Price: Free, with in-app purchases to unlock features

Download: Gaia GPS

Bicycling maps: Komoot

Plan bikes trips, and then don't get lost.
Plan bikes trips, and then don’t get lost.
Photo: Komoot

Komoot is a bike navigation app with all kinds of neat tools for cyclists, although it also works for hikers. You can use it to find nearby scenic routes, or as a bike-centric navigation app to get around your city.

This last feature is excellent, because the app knows some neat extras about European cities. For instance, the app will direct you away from Berlin’s cobbled streets if possible, so you can avoid rattling your teeth from your jaw as you ride.

Price: Free, with one free map pack for your current location and IAPs to unlock more

Download: Komoot

Citymapper

Citymapper is the best transit app around.
Citymapper is the best transit app around.
Photo: City Mapper

Yes, another maps app, but this is the best of all maps apps. Citymapper helps you get around using your legs, your bike, your car, public transport or car-hailing services like Uber. Tell it where you’re going, and Citymapper will give you all the practical options.

So far, it doesn’t sound much different from Apple’s built-in Maps app, right? But Citymapper knows way more. You can check live times for city transit and get tips on which metro car to ride in to make the quickest change between lines. You also get multi-mode options. And if you’re cycling, Citymapper offers you a choice of fast/quiet/normal routes.

In short, Citymapper takes all the information available in all other transport apps, then combines it and makes it easy to use (and consistent from city to city). And it’s totally free, although that probably means Google will buy it one day and destroy it.

Price: Free

Download: Citymapper

Something to read

instapaper iPad
Vacations are a great time to catch up on all the Instapaper articles you never read.
Photo: Cult of Mac

You should also take something to read (and not just Twitter). You’re going to spend hours offline when you travel, so you’d better have something to do while you’re disconnected. You can finally catch up on all those Instapaper articles you saved, for instance, or you can read something in the Kindle or iBooks apps.

If you’re worried about burning through your battery by leaving the iPhone or iPad screen on the whole time you’re reading, you might consider audiobooks instead. Audible is the king here, but however you get them, audiobooks are fantastic for travel, especially on planes, trains, and buses. Better still, they don’t really run the battery down, because your device is left with its screen sleeping.

Price: Free

Download: Instapaper, Audible

That’s it for today. We’ll be back tomorrow with the final installment of Tech Travel Tips. In the meantime, you may enjoy our previous articles: