Apps - which ones are actually useful?


I'm going to go ahead and assume most people who read this blog have one of those too-smart-for-us-steve-jobs invented devices called a smartphone (samsung users, that includes you. That Galaxy S3 you are holding wouldn't have existed if it wasn't for Jobs). 

With that in mind here is my list of apps that I actually found useful, the links are all to the Apple store, but they do exist in the Android store. Why the descriptive of "actually found useful"? Because there are a lot of apps in the universe that claim to be useful but really, when the going gets tough, are just pointless. They either eat way too much of that expensive data you are paying for at usury rates, or they take too long on the wifi, or they just have no real point when the rubber hits the road. With these caveats in mind, my list is very short:

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Best App for Currencies Rates: Remembering the US to 'fill-in-the-blank' exchange rate is all easy and dandy when you just have to remember just one or two rates (eg: GBP and EUR) but it gets tricky when you have to remember the rate between the USD and the Kit, the Riel, the Kyat, the Kroner, the Swiss France etc. I think you get my point. Introducing  Currency . Trust me its great.

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 Best App for when You are Lost: Sorry apple, Google wins this one. Google Maps is hands down the best mapping software out there. Use it and don't bother downloading any other map app.  (Its most probably already on your phone).

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Best App(s) for Memories: The obvious first one here is the photo function on your phone. Use it. Don't be embarrassed to take pictures in silly places, especially in Asia 'cause trust me you wont be the only one taking silly pictures. You think you'll remember everything - you wont. 

The second, but possibly more useful, app is Day One . You use this app to record your daily events - it is completely private, in fact there is no actual sharing function. Entries can be GPS marked and dated with a picture you took during the day and you can write as much or as little as you want. It is basically the best digital, private, journaling app available. Useful for the trip of a lifetime.


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Best App(s) for Trip Planning: I've already gone on a long discourse of the value of TripAdvisor, but here I'll recommend the app. It doesn't have as much functionality as the website. You can make a search for just "B&B" or "Boutique Hotels" but it does help give you a good overview of what is available in your next destination.  

The second favorite is Kayak. This is the app I've used to plan, price, and sometimes book basically all of my flights during this trip. The app has proven, wherever I've been, to be the most comprehensive list of available flights and with one or two exceptions, has always given me the cheapest options. Great functionality, great interface. Highly recommended. 

Other sites/apps I've used for booking/planning:  Booking, Agoda.


Guidebooks in General

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One of the big debates before I go on a trip is always which guidebook to buy. It has however become a discussion on whether I even need a guidebook. I think thats a pretty normal progression when you travel a lot because carrying around those bricks of guidebooks is heavy and therefore expensive.  

 That said, I do have a few points of advice. Now its up to you to choose your own preferences, but remember, I'm usually always right*.

  • Never, ever, ever, buy the digital version of a guidebook. All of my friends, including me, have wasted a lot of money on downloadable guidebooks. I don't know what we were thinking, that would be walking around Bangkok with our iPad's, flipping through pages to find information on the Royal Palace? Guess what that doesn't happen. Whipping out your expensive tech in a crowded city is a bad idea wherever you are. More relevant though is that those digital guides are unmanageable. You can't mark the pages, you can't leave it on the side of your table while you have a beer in the stifling heat/freezing cold, you can't stuff a better map inside the pages. Unusable. Don't do it!

  • I have a love hate relationship with Lonely Planet guidebooks. I think they are poorly organized - I felt like I had to rewire my brain to understand them, their maps are terrible - oversimplified, or insufficient (really, both are terrible things for a map to be), and though they try, their recommendations are really for a 24 year old backpacker who sometimes wants to splurge with the parent's money and eat at a nice restaurant. Don't even get me started on their Burma/Myanmar Book. However, you do need to use them because they are the best generalist ones on the market. Many places have great additions. My overwhelming favourite was Nancy Chandler's maps of Bangkok and Chang Mai.  If you are in Thaliand, visiting either city, go buy them. So how to read a Lonely Planet Guidebook? Read the very front and the very back. Find a couple of fall back places for dinner and places to stay, and then go online and maximize  
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  • Ahhh, I have so drunk your tasty, sometimes confusing, but nonetheless accurately flavored kool-aid. Frankly, no website got as much use during this trip than Trip Advisor. It is not a panacea - no travel website is because people have different tastes, cultural preferences etc. With that in mind though, you can learn to navigate the difference in tastes of "Joe from Florida who has 1 review" and "Carla from Italy with a million reviews". I'll let you guess who you should listen to. No it has nothing to do with where they are from, it really only has to do with how many reviews they have. No place will have perfect reviews unless they are brand new. The magic is finding places that meet your budget, tastes, preferences which have a more than 100 reviews, over 50% of which are 5 stars, and the rest are in a nice little even cascade down to 1 star. Stay away from extremes (even extremes of good - something dodgy is going on there). Most importantly, don't exhaust and depress yourself reading 50 reviews. Scan the best ones, read at least 2 or 3 of the other "star" levels, and make a choice. Pay. Then go!

That is it for general wisdom from yours truly on which guidebooks to use. At some point no matter how expensive and lovely your book is it will look like someone stuck it into a poorly functioning washing machine and has dried the remains on a laundry line in the sun. Its okay though, because you'll only be using for language tips and food names, and after a few days you'll realize you can just rip those pages out and go.  

* Just ask my brother. :)