Above: Photos taken with and without the Snapseed app.
Here’s the downside to filling your smartphone with an arsenal of perfect travel apps: If your phone happens to slip out of your pocket and disappear into the night as mysteriously as Amelia Earhart, you might find yourself up an odiferous creek without a paddle.
Travel apps — at least the well-designed and purposeful variety — are the best accessory for your journey. How many times has a currency conversion app saved your bacon and prevented you from spending $200 on a perfectly designed tape dispenser in Denmark because you neglected to research how many krone are in a dollar? How about a language translation app that stopped you from erroneously ordering sautéed pigeon eyes with a side of spicy iceberg lettuce?
Sure, you no longer get an opportunity to stop and ask that cute gentleman in Norway for directions because know-it-all Google Maps has already told you where to go, but I prefer to see the SIM card as half full. My phone and the apps I use have saved me from potential travel disasters more often than Neil Diamond has slipped into a pair of high-waisted poly-blend slacks and crooned “Sweet Caroline.” Now I’d like to help save you by sharing my favorites.
I like to think of this airfare-saving app as my surrogate Jewish grandmother. If you don’t need to buy a plane ticket immediately, you tell Hopper where you’d like to go and when, and it sends you notifications for the best time to buy a ticket. I searched for a ticket to San Francisco, and it told me that I shouldn’t wait any longer, and when I did wait, it essentially told me I was being a putz and that I was about to waste money. That’s a very liberal paraphrasing of the notification, but it was effective. (Android, iOS, free)
I’ve been preaching the virtues of Mobile Passport since it landed at Logan Airport last year. For those of you who have yet to apply for Global Entry (seriously?), Mobile Passport allows you to skip the lines at customs upon your return to the US by filling out your trip information on the app before you arrive home. There is a dedicated Mobile Passport line at the airport, which sometimes moves faster than the Global Entry line. It won’t help you with TSA PreCheck, but it will make your arrival go much smoother. (Android, iOS, free)
This photo editing app is ideal for budding Ansel Adams types. A bland landscape can suddenly become an Instagram-worthy work of art by using the app’s drama filter. There are also filters that allow you to give people a soft glamour glow (I call this the White Diamonds filter) or sharply highlight a single focal point of a photo, while blurring out the surrounding scene. Beyond filters, this app offers a cadre of editing tools that allow users to edit photos to their own taste. (Android, iOS, free)
TripIt is a godsend for frequent travelers. It goes through your e-mail and grabs notifications for flights, hotels, and cars rentals, then creates a tidy travel summary for you, complete with flight and reservation numbers. As a result, you’re no longer frantically scrolling through e-mail at the airport. Google Trips, which debuted last year, will also grab your itinerary from your e-mail. But this app also allows you to download city guides that you can use offline. Tell it how many days you have and your interests, and it will offer suggestions and directions to the places on your must-see list. (Android, iOS, Google Trips, free. TripIt, free. TripIt Pro is $49 a year.)
Posting your vacation pictures on Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat is an effective way to mass market your trip all your friends, frenemies, and family, but there’s something far more touching about receiving a postcard in the mail. I have first-hand knowledge of this phenomenon because I once tested some of these apps by sending a slew of postcards to family members. When I was done testing, I had requests for more. The app allows you to create a personal postcard in your phone, using your own photos. The best part is that the $2.50 price also covers postage and you can send your cards from anywhere you can use your phone. (iOS only, free with in-app purchases)
Here’s the rub: I’m never quite sure what to bring on vacation, so I bring everything. “You travel all the time so you must be really good at packing,” friends foolishly assume. The answer to that is a giant “No.” This app is the sage assistant you wish you could hire to help you pack. Tell it your gender, where you plan to go and when, and then tap a few activities. When you’re finished, PackPoint checks the weather, assembles a list of clothing, toiletries, gadgets, accessories, and other things you’ll want to take with you. It also works for business travel. (Android, iOS, free)
Yes, you can wing your way through a trip with a translation app, but why not attempt to speak the language yourself with the help of a tutor in your phone? Duolingo offers 68 lessons in your choice of 23 languages. For some reason Esperanto is an option, but that’s a discussion for another day. Duolingo quizzes you to find out how advanced you are, or not, and then the lessons begin. Set how many minutes a day you’d like to study, and the app will remind you that it’s time for school. (Android, iOS, free, optional in-app purchases)
Call me old-fashioned, but I miss the days when people would wield a giant camcorder, or even a 16mm camera and film everything in site. Now it seems our vacation videos are dribs and drabs of clips. I’m a fan of FilmoraGo because it’s insanely easy to use and lets you put all of your clips together easily in one professional looking film with lots of editing features, filters, and special effects, most of them free. It takes about five minutes to learn to use and gives you a lovely memory that pictures alone can’t capture. (Android, iOS, free)
It’s a question that’s plagued mankind for decades: How long can I get away with lying on the beach before my skin starts to resemble a fully-cooked lobster or a well-worn leather handbag. This sun exposure app can tell you. Tell the app where you are, your skin type, and the SPF level of the sunblock you’re slathered in, and it reports a proper amount of time to spend in the sun. If you prefer, it will tell you the level of SPF protection you need, and the safest hours to spend time outside. (iOS only, $1)
You can ignore every other suggested app on the list, but don’t ignore this one. Simply put, XE Currency is a straightforward, indepensible app that will easy tell you if the Cornish game hen on your plate in Bath, or the wool pashmina hanging in the store window in Istanbul, is a bargain or a splurge. (iOS, Android, free)Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther