Travel Smarter with a Smartphone
Electronic communication, such as disposable mobile phones, cheap and easy Wi-Fi, and
social networking, is revolutionizing the way we travel. But the digital development I am
most enthused about is the smartphone. My iPhone has quickly become my favorite
travel companion, whether it’s keeping me on top of my work, keeping me in touch with
my kids, or simply keeping me entertained.
I’m not alone. By the end of 2011, about half of all American mobile phone users
had a smartphone--iPhone, Android, Windows, or BlackBerry phone--compared to just
10 percent in 2008. And as smartphones get more capable, they are becoming an essential
tool for travelers.
For instance, if I’m in a café in Paris that has free Wi-Fi, I can pop onto the
Internet and check sports scores back home. If an impromptu soccer game breaks out on a
piazza in Naples, I can record a video of it, then use the Dropbox application to send it to
my assistant, who can post it to my Facebook page. Using Skype on my phone, I can
connect to Wi-Fi and call my daughter in the US for free.
About the only thing I don’t use my smartphone for is as an actual cell phone.
When roaming in Europe with a US phone, calls are expensive (usually $1.29 a minute,
sometimes higher). To save money, I prefer to use a phone I bought years ago in Europe
and purchase a new SIM card in each country I visit (a SIM card is a removable chip that
stores your information). A phone must be “unlocked” in order to swap out SIM cards
(but be aware smartphones can be complicated to unlock). I make a lot of calls when I’m
in Europe, but if you don’t, you might find it easier to roam with your own phone.
With smartphones, it’s important to watch data-roaming charges. A three-minute
video from YouTube can cost about $40. While doing some casual browsing and
emailing costs way less (figure around 20 cents to send or receive a basic message), these
charges can pile up quickly.
To avoid these costs, it’s easiest to cut off this feature entirely by calling your
carrier to disable it and/or turning off data roaming using your phone’s menu (before you
get on your transatlantic flight). You can still use the Internet, but you’ll have to wait
until you reach a Wi-Fi hotspot. Otherwise, for the best rates, talk to your carrier about
international data-roaming plans.
Even if you don’t use your smartphone for calls or data roaming, it can still come
in handy thanks to the many travel-oriented applications that are available. Although I
still prefer flipping through a paper guidebook, many publishers also offer travel guides
in ebook format. Apps for TripAdvisor and Yelp give you access to millions of user
reviews of restaurants, hotels, and sights. And my Rick Steves Audio Europe app has
radio interviews and audio walking tours of Europe's top sights, such as the Acropolis
If you need to search for flights, hotels, or rental cars, try Orbitz, Priceline,
Booking.com, Expedia's TripAssist, and Travelocity. Skyscanner searches a variety of
European budget airlines to find the cheapest connection. TripIt is a clever app that stores
all of your trip details in one place. Note that many apps (such as ebooks) work on their
own once you download them, but others (such as flight-search apps) need to access
content online. You'll either have to find a Wi-Fi hotspot or spring for data roaming to
make them work.
To figure out train schedules, DB Navigator, German Rail's comprehensive train
timetables, includes connections for all of continental Europe. For the UK, try
thetrainline. Big cities, such as London and Paris, offer subway apps that save you from
having to unfold an unwieldy map on a crowded platform.
If you don’t parlez-vous the local language, download Google Translate, which
lets you type or speak foreign words for a translation. You can also say or type a sentence
in English to hear a translation or see it written out. With Lonely Planet’s audio
phrasebooks, simply press a button to hear the phrase you're struggling to pronounce.
Other useful travel apps include Measures, which converts various European units
(such as metric measurements, clothing sizes, and currency) to American ones; the
Weather Channel and AccuWeather, which help you figure out how to dress for the day;
and mPassport, city-specific apps that direct you to English-speaking doctors and
hospitals, as well as local names for prescription medications.
As more people travel with smartphones, I expect that more creative apps will
become available. I admit that I can be something of a tech holdout. But if technology
can help people travel smoother and smarter, I’m all for it.
(Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel
shows on public television and public radio. Email him at email@example.com and
follow his blog on Facebook.)
[08-25-11_Apps_DB.jpg] Smartphone applications can be useful both before you leave
on your trip and while you're traveling. (photo credit: Dominic Bonuccelli)
[08-25-11_iPhone_DB.jpg] With a smartphone in hand, you can do everything from look
up foreign words to find out information on a sight. (photo credit: Dominic Bonuccelli)