8 Essential Smartphone Apps for Traveling

I am a reluctant smartphone user. I ran with Blackberry and Windows Phone before finally biting the bullet and moving to iOS last year. I enjoy the freedom and mobility my iPhone gives me, but I also have to fight hard to ensure it doesn't end up making my life more complicated.

Less can be more when it comes to apps, especially while traveling. I've tried to whittle this list down to essentials available on most platforms that will actually help you stay more organized and entertained. I've downloaded dozens of travel-specific apps over the years, and the eight below are the only ones I use and use frequently. For oft-visited websites like Google Translate and booking services like AirBnB, Hipmunk and Booking.com, I find the modern mobile browser experience to be sufficient and opt to forego the dedicated apps in favor of simple bookmarks.

Organization Apps

1. Camera [All platforms] - Yes, the native camera application installed on your phone can be a powerful app when traveling. Beyond capturing memories and powering your Instagram feed, use it to take pictures of important documents like your passport and insurance cards, screenshot maps, remember parking spaces or places of note that you'd like to return to.

iPhone camera

2. Google Maps [All platforms] - It goes without saying that having a solid mapping solution is important while traveling in unfamiliar cities. Paper maps are great, but if you are hopping around to multiple destinations, they also take up precious pack space. Utilizing Google Maps' offline caching feature, you can download the maps you need before your trip, and access them without needing to find a wireless signal. Map Happy has a guide for enabling the offline maps feature.

Google Maps Offline

3. Trello [iOS, Android, Win8, Web, Kindle Fire] - Trello is a simple yet powerful project management app that allows multiple users to collaborate and organize tasks for something as complicated as building a piece of software, or in this case, something straightforward like planning and preparing for a trip. The app allows users to set up virtual bulletin boards and add cards (think of sticky notes) to them. To prepare for a trip I generally start one board divided into three lists, To-Do, Doing, and Done. I'll add all the outstanding tasks (e.g. renew passport, download maps, pause mail service) to the to-do list and as I begin and finish them, move them into the done pile. The beauty of the app lies in its simplicity, clean design, and the ability it gives users to easily share and delegate tasks without messy spreadsheets or to-do lists scratched on napkins.

Trello Screenshot iOS

4. WhatsApp [All Platforms] When Facebook purchased WhatsApp in 2014 for $22 billion I, like many Americans, was unfamiliar with the app. After giving it a try, it was hard to see what the fuss was all about. It seemed like every other messaging service since AIM. It wasn't until using it with friends and colleagues in Spain however, that I realized where the value came from. First of all, about 500,000 users have signed up for the service worldwide and it seems like everyone I've met in Europe and Latin America uses it. On continents with many countries confined to a small geographic region, dozens of wireless carriers, and differing costs of data and SMS, a cross platform messaging service with unlimited "texting" capabilities becomes very valuable. Forget about trying to figure out an international mobile plan or prepaid sim cards. All you need is the app and an internet connection and you'll be ready to go. Whether you use it to direct message with a single contact, or set up a group thread to organize communication or meetups between groups, WhatsApp is an essential tool for communicating with international contacts.

WhatsApp screenshot

5. Viber / Skype / Google Hangouts / WeChat [All Platforms] What WhatsApp does for cross-platform messaging, the aforementioned apps do for calling. Users can use a Wi-Fi signal, buy credits and make calls to traditional phone lines around the world for roughly $0.10 per minute depending on the service. User to user calls are free if both parties are on the service, and most of the apps also have group call, video call, and built in messaging clients as well. This can make things a little messy if different contacts are on different apps, but most people I've met abroad have at least a Skype and WhatsApp account, so if you want to save on storage and screen real estate, stick with those two services.

Entertainment Apps

1. Spotify Premium [All platforms] - If you haven't upgraded to a premium account yet, you definitely should before your next trip. $9.99 / month gets rid of those ads for good, and allows you to load up on albums and playlists for offline use, which is a necessity for long train and plane rides with spotty Wi-Fi.

Spotify premium screenshot

2. Podcast App [All platforms] - I've fallen in love with podcasts while traveling. They're relaxing, educational, and entertaining. Some of my favorites are 99% Invisible, NPR's Planet Money, Dan Carlin's Hardcore History, The Meditation Podcast, Radiolab, and This American Life. If you want to brush up on your Spanish language skills, check out our guide to learning Spanish by podcast.

Podcast app iOS

3. Utrip [Web app] - Started by fellow UW graduate Gilad Berenstein, Utrip could really fit into both the organization and entertainment categories. At its core, the service is a way to plan and organize your trip, but it's pretty fun way to spend an hour as well, and a great way to choose fun activities in a new city. Pick a destination(s), set a budget, filter based on interests and then start building your dream itinerary.

Utrip screenshot

Everything Else

If those apps aren't enough and you insist on filling your home screen with icons, here are some exhaustive lists of travel apps by other publications: