On or Off the Grid?
While it might seem an interesting, though extraordinary option to travel without your smartphone and get off the matrix it has become one of the most useful travel tools. There is hundreds and thousands of apps that can make travelling more comfortable and sometimes without seems almost impossible (even though it is). From finding your route, get guidance using it as a GPS navigation system, staying in touch with friends, family and other travellers, finding the right place to sleep to getting some entertainment it can serve it all in a very small package.
If you want to reduce your phone usage, just don’t buy a local sim card, or don’t get a data package. Sure it’s nice to be able to look up things on the road, but there’s Wifi everywhere, mostly free (talking about the americas here) and while away from your hotel or on the road you can focus on your surroundings instead of focusing on your phone constantly.
What Phone should I get?
I personally use an iPhone, just because I have used them for a long time and I appreciate the ease of use. Basically, start with what you already have! Doesn’t make sense to sell your expensive iPhone and get a cheaper phone just because you go to poorer countries. The resale value is usually not the best and you can still get a cheaper phone if yours get stolen. But you don’t have to walk through shady neighbourhoods waving your iPhone around of course.
The Best Apps for Travellers
This is the list of my favourite apps that I use regularly on my travels. While most articles start typically with gps and accomodation apps I’ll start with less popular categories. My personal highlights are marked with a .
If you know an app that you find useful for travelling I’d be happy to learn about it, simply let me know in the comments at the end of the page.
Getting there dry
I’ll start with the weather apps I use most, because as an overlander I have not much use for the regular weather apps. If I want to see what’s the wheater like on my route I had to look up several places on my route to get an idea. But there are better for our purpose.
Travelling in the mountains? Or close to the coastlines? Then this app is a must have. It will give you all the info from thunderstorms to hurricanes and tells you what way they are moving, even graphically on the map. You can also set up warnings around your current gps location then you will be notified when a hurricane is coming your way. Even though the user interface needs a bit of getting used to, this is now my favorite overlander weather app.
- Great info on weather and storms
- Graphical displa of storms and their moving direction
- Nice graphical design
- Data seems accurate even outside the USA
- Pay to get rid of ads
- User interface is a bit tricky to understand at first
NOAA Radar Pro
iPhone, Android. Apalon.com
It’s just map based, you will immediately get the rain radar for the next few hours for the section chosen on the map. You can also drop a pin anywhere on the map and then get the weather information for that place.
- Map based
- Radar forecast
- Drop pins anywhere to get a wheter report
- Weather report seems accurate even in latin america
- Ridiculous amount of popups to buy other apps (have to pay to get rid of it)
iPhone, Adroid, Windows. Acme AtronOmatic
Another one with a map based graphical interface. Similar to “Radar Pro” and seem to use the same weather data, though the results can be different. Easy to use, lots of layers available (some you need to pay for). Just move the map and you will see the weather for the place beneath the crosshair.
- Easy to use
- Good selection of data layers
- Accurate in the USA
- Pay to get rid of ads
- Weather data doesn’t always seem accurate outside of the USA
Getting your steps followed
iPhone, Android. polarsteps.com
A natural. This app tracks your movement in the background every once in a while. Then you can convert any of the tracked locations to a “step” and add pictures and text. Your trip is showed as a timeline with your steps (like a blog) or on a map with your route and some small thumbnails. You can also add steps with text and pictures while offline, once connected to a wifi it syncs your additions automatically. If you wanna see my example click on the compass icon on the very bottom of my page.
- Tracks automatically
- Easy to use
- Offline use
- additional battery consumptions seems a lot more than the promised 4% on the iPhone (workaround: set gps use for this app to “only when using the app” and then just open it when you want to set a location/step)
Not an app but a very handy service if you have a SPOT gps messenger or a DeLorme InReach. You can also use it with gps apps like bubbler gps but if you are phone/app based then I suggest looking into Polarsteps (see above). With spotwalla, a third party service, you can store your gps track and location data for good and place last location widgets or trip maps on your website. Of course you can also just share your trip maps with your family to access them through a link. You can find out more in the article The Magic of How to Integrate your SPOT GPS Messenger Maps in Your Website.
- Stores your location data forever
- Easy to export as gpx files
- Last location map or trip maps that can be embedded in your website
- Can store your location data for more than just one device
- Can be a little confusing when embedding the maps in your website, but my article (see above) shows you how to do it step by step
iPhone, Android? dict.leo.org
- Big database of terms
- Focus on german native speakers (alwyays German <-> [other language])
- The app could need a facelift
- Downloading the database for offline use would be handy
iPhone, Android. icoon.eu
If you travel in countries where you don’t speak the language you need a “point to picture” dictionary. This is one in form of an app.
Getting the numbers
iPhone, Android. xe.com
Among the bazillion of conversion apps this is my favorite for currencies. Just add the currencies you are interested in and then it’s very easy to convert a value from any of those currencies and see the corresponding value of ALL other currencies.
iPhone. RV App Studios
Not really my favorite but I haven’t found a better one.
Getting signed in
In our time we are registered to many apps, forums, services etc… How can you remember all those logins and passwords? Just use the same login and password everywhere? And choose a password that’s easy to remember? Ha, it won’t be long before you will be hacked in one account and then all your others are in danger too.
The solution is a password manager. I opted for the open source variant named KeePass. It offers very high encryption of your data. You can use it on any platform. You can store all your logins, passwords and other info in categories…. and much more.
This app for iPhone can sync via dropbox and supports touch ID.
The bad: the layout of applications is old fashioned and more geared towards technically sound people, as it is mostly the case with open source software.
Android. Google Play Store
If you’re an android user I recommend this app. It uses the same KeePass open source database and encryption technology. I recently helped a friend set it up on his Samsung Galaxy. As a IT noob he was reluctant first to replace his paper notebook with this app but now he’s very happy about it. It has a very nice user interface and offers a lot of functionality including cloud sync.
Getting help and getting in touch
iPhone, Android. facebook.com
Facebook is not just a great tool to keep in touch with friends and family, share your stories and see what others are up to. With all it’s groups it’s a perfect forum as well to get help. Find a place to store your motorcycle, where can you get tyres for your vehicle, what do I need to cross the borders currently… Other travellers and locals are very helpful and I find to get an answer much quicker in a facebook group than in a forum.
There is one reason to use this app: Search within groups. This is not possible in the normal facebook app and so far has only been possible by opening the desktop version of facebook, on your phone not exactly user friendly. But with this app it is now easy to find someone’s posts or comments or simply search for a topic of interest.
iPhone, Android. Skype.com
A classic. Makes it easy to stay in touch with friends and family around the globe with free skype audio or video calls. But not just that, using skype-out you can easily call any phone number in the whole world at very low cost. Just add some money on your skype account and you are ready to call from anywhere to everywhere!
Not an app but might become a helpful tool. Besides the Horizons Unlimited Forums (geared towards motorcycle travellers) there are the lesser known Horizon Unlimited communities. This are local subscriber lists from all over the world. People can sign up to their local community mailing list and if someone sends a question to a community, the local people will be notified. Need a place to crash, a place to fix your motorcycle, … again people there are very helpful.
Not an App but still handy. Besides the Forum (Geared towards adventure motorcyclists) they run a thread called the “Tent Space Map”. People can sign up and offer travellers a place to pitch their tent for free. Often, they also have guest rooms to offer and own workshops where you can work on your bike. And of course, it is a great way to meet a lot of other cool riders.
There is a link to a google map with all the members and you can download a gpx too. Although there are people from all over the world it’s mostly focused on the USA.
iPhone, Android. Tapatalk.com
With this app you can communicate in different forums like AdvRider or Horizons Unlimited (and many many more) in a single app. While at first I really struggled to understand how to configure the app and how to use it I am now understanding how it works. Once you are there it is an easy way to use the forums you follow.
iPhone, Android. Sign up with this link to get a free ride
Visiting a city you probably want to leave your vehicle parked safely at your hotel. So how will you get around if not on foot? Besides public transport you could take a taxi. But how do you know it is safe and the driver won’t rip you off? That’s why I recommend using UBER. It is a limousine service, almost like a taxi service but just better. It’s very easy, you open the app, say where you wanna go and you’ll get an estimate of price and when the car is gonna be here to pick you up. The drivers use their private cars and the cars are always very nice because they have to fulfil certain requirements.
Also, every ride is registered and you know the drivers licence plate which makes it very secure. Especially in countries/cities where you cannot always trust taxi drivers this is a big plus. And the you won’t be ripped off because the price is calculated through the system. Payment is done through the credit card in your UBER account so you don’t even need cash. You arrive, say thank you and get out. Since drivers are rated by their clients they are always very friendly, a bad rating wouldn’t help them much. If you’re sharing the ride with friends you can also share the cost with everyone that has an UBER account. Simply chose to share the ride in the app.
The service is not available in every city but you just have to open the app to find out.
iPhone, Android, maps.google.com
Whether you like it or not, Google is the oracle of information! I use Google Maps to check my upcoming route options, find specific locations, use it as GPS with offline maps, find hotels/campgrounds/stores, … basically everything :)
One of the feature I use a lot is saving locations as favorites. Whenever someone tells me about a place I can look it up and save it as a favorite (needs an active internet connection though). Like that I can see all the places that could be of iterest to me on the map with a star icon. I can then easily plan my high level route around those places.
I miss being able to see coordinates of pins or favorites though, because I want to enter places as targets manually in my Garmin Zumo 390 motorcycle GPS. There is a cumbersome workaround while you have internet: Set a pin close to the place you want to go (if the location pin is named with the place name it does not work) then share this by mail or message. Copy the short-url and open it in your browser. Then you will see the coordinates of the location you pinned.
Pocket Earth is a great mapping app, it’s maybe more tailored towards hikers but it’ very useful in general or for vehicle travellers too. For a one time fee of 10€ you can download OSM offline maps from all over the world. Additionally you can download topographical layers which shows you the contour lines on the map in 100m differences. Very handy for seeing if your route will take you over cold mountain passes etc.
The bookmarks feature is also great. You can easily save any location as a favorite (even offline), give it a useful name, add some notes and change the icon and color that shows on the map. You can also import gpx files with locations into your favorites. This could be some POI files you found on the internet, in the USA for instance I imported the gpx file containing the ADVrider Tent Space map.
What I like and use a lot is that you can easily see coordinates of any favorite or pin set on the map. Like that it’s easy for me to transfer my target (manually) to my garmin motorcycle gps.
Creating a route is pretty cool because it’s one of the very few apps that support multiple waypoints, which is what you often want as a motorcyclist. You can easily add waypoints by choosing on the map, selecting a favorite, entering coordinates etc…
However, there is one huge disavantage with this app. Route calculation is not working offline and you need an internet connection to calculate a route. Apparently they are working on an offline route calculation engine, but there is no date given when this will be released.
iPhone, Android. maps.me
Great navigation app with free OSM offline maps. Easy to use, you can save favorites but it doesn’t allow you to plan your route with mutliple waypoints. You can easily add favorites from iOverlander too.
iOverlander is a user driven database of all sorts of locations. Hotels, Hostels, Campgrounds, wild camping, places to eat, mechanics, roadblocks, info on border crossings and whatever the community feels worth adding.
Since it’s completely user generated content there can also be useless things. Lots of car/camper travellers add gas stations as unofficial campgrounds. I don’t see the use of this, there are a bazillion gas stations out there and if I needed an emergency place to sleep (tent or my vehicle) I can always ask ANY gas station.
This is, as the name suggests, geared towards overlanders, people travelling with their own vehicle (or maybe some crazy people that hike around the whole countries).
The app itself is not very stable and lacks functionality like filtering or offline maps. You can always use the website if you have internet.
I have not used the app myself but I was told it is more powerful in terms of routing than maps.me (like routing criteria) and it can import gpx tracks.
iPhone, Android, Web. Sign up and get a 35$ discount on your first stay
Have used it scarcely, but when I used it it was nice places.
- good app with filtering and map view
- easy to contact the owner of a place before booking
- Many times more expensive places than hotels
- AirBnB charges ridicilously high service- and cleaning fees
iPhone, Android, Web. hostelworld.com
I like to stay in hostels as well, always good to meet other travellers.
- good app with map view and filtering
- mostly good information and lots of pictures
- Many hostels in latin america have not arrived in digital age and are not to be found in the app
- Many times only the more expensive hostels can be found (sometimes a bunk bed is more expensive than a cheap hotel)
iPhone, Web. ioverlander.com
User driven database as said above. But easy to find official campgrounds, unofficial campsites, hotels, … Since users are mostly overlanders, the places often match your expectations as a overlander yourself (e.g. safe parking).
- User driven db: From overlanders for overlanders
- Additional information like road blocks or border crossings
- The chance to meet other overlanders (if you like that) is bigger than when just going to a random place
- The iPhone app sucks. Unstable, no filtering of results, no offline maps, designed in the 18th century
- User driven database: you can find a lot of crap like pemex gas stations
iPhone, Android, Web. Sign up and get a 15$ discount
I rarely use it to book a place but more to get a general idea of hotel prices in a place.
- One of the biggest hotel portals, so usually many hotels
- Nice map view of search results, even extends over the searched area when zoomed out
- In latin america there are many hotels and hostels that have not made it to the digital times yet, so many times the cheaper places are not in there (but I might head to the cheapest from booking and then ask them for a cheaper place to stay)
iBooks / Kindle
What i use mostly to read eBooks on my iPhone. Of course a solid kindle is a lot better for reading, but I don’t spend that much time with reading so my iPhone has to do the job.
iPhone, Android. solebon.com
Just a Solitaire App that supports many of the game’s variants and is well designed. Have used this for a long time to get some time pass by once in a while.
Amazon Prime Video
iPhone, Android. amazon.com
I forgot to cancel my Prime membership before I left, so I make use of it and download a movie once in a while. Note with a german amazon prime account you need to be in Germany to stream/download movies. But nothing a solid VPN can’t handle.
iPhone, Android. spotify.com
When streaming services became popular a few years ago I compared several of them and Spotify had the biggest match of not-so-popular music I like. The app is ok but sometimes I struggle to get to something quickly. Easy to make music available for offline use. The app lacks some functionality of the desktop application, like creating folders for playlists.
Getting good looking pictures
iPhone, Android. snapseed on facebook
For all my camera photos I use Capture One on my laptop. But once in a while to quickly improve a phone snapshot I use snapseed. It is a great and easy way to improve your photos on your smartphone. I first used Adobe Lightroom app but the user interface is not so intuitive. Much better in snapseed and a lot of possibilities to change the look of your pictures. They constantly add new features too.