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My Favorite Travel Apps

This is a list of travel apps that I find useful starting with the first one. All the following apps are available for both iOS and Android based phones. By no means is this a complete list.  I don’t even have a currency conversion app partly because I’m running out of space on my iPhone and partly because I feel that one should do the mental math to get an approximation rather than relying on a calculator.

I feel that this list will change overtime with newly developed apps, but these are the current apps that I use heavily while I travel starting with the first one.

MAPS.ME

I first learned about maps.me on the Mongol Rally from other teams where it seemed to be the most popular app for navigation on 10,000 mile drive to the finish line in Ulaanbatar, Mongolia.  I ended up downloading the app for both my iPad Mini and iPhone.

Unlike Google Maps or Apple maps, maps.me doesn’t require any data connection to render its maps in real-time. Instead, the maps for each specific country are downloaded when my devices are connected to wifi. For the Mongol Rally, I downloaded the European countries we were driving through as well as Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia.

The size of the maps depends on the size and detail of the country. For instance, a country like Fiji will only be a few MB while a country like New Zealand will be much larger in size. Much larger countries like Russia and the U.S. will be segmented into geographical regions, which makes sense because someone traveling around the West Coast of the U.S. is unlikely to need the detailed maps of the East Coast.

maps.me iOS

Maps.me showing restaurants, cafe, and shops in Hoi An, Vietnam

GPS INTEGRATION

The app also worked well with the iPhone’s built in GPS. For the app to access the GPS, I first had to take it out of airplane mode. Data charges while roaming are outrageously expensive and to prevent any accidental usage, I turned off cellular data immediately after I turned off airplane mode. This ensured that I was not using any data.

Unfortunately, wifi only model iPads does not have a built in GPS unlike the cellular model iPad. In this case, the app just provides a digitized version of paper maps. Needless to say, the GPS is more useful and it was the primary navigation tool we used on the Mongol Rally.

I figured it wasn’t a bad idea to have maps.me and the countries downloaded on to my iPad as a redundant measure so that we can seamlessly carry-on without GPS navigation in the event my iPhone was stolen or damaged.

DRIVING DIRECTIONS

During the Mongol Rally, the version of maps.me did not have support for driving directions and so to navigate from city A to city B, we had to make our own route by determining which roads seemed like the most direct or logical way.

But there’s now a new version of maps.me that includes support for driving directions without real-time data connection. I would of loved to have the driving direction feature because it was sometimes a guess as to which routing was the fastest way between two cities.

WHATSAPP

This is probably one of the most popular apps folks use to send text and photos internationally. It’s available for Android and iOS. I think nearly everyone that I’ve come across while traveling has this app installed on their phone. Unlike traditional SMS text messages where it’s sent via cellular network, the app allows messages to be sent via internet using their propriety internet protocol. With this in mind, the recipient is required to have the app installed on their device too.

A similar app popular amongst the Korean population is Kakao talk. This is the app I use to communicate with my Korean friends along with my Mom and Dad.

UBER – EVERYONE’S PRIVATE DRIVER

Taxi drivers overcharging tourists are the most prevalent scams. Also, in the arrivals hall of an airport, I hate being approached by drivers saying “tack-shi”, “tack-shi.” Uber almost eliminates any hassle associated with taxi drivers and fares. With the Uber service, there’s no haggling over fares or exchange of physical money. The fare is simply set by the distance traveled and the fare is charged to your credit card. You can even get a fare estimate on their app before you request an Uber ride.

I used Uber in Johannesburg and Cape Town a number of times and found the experience quite pleasant.

My location on uber App in Johannesburg Airport

My location on uber App in Johannesburg Airport

I ordered an Uber at Johannesburg airport to take me to the Holiday Inn Sandton. The wait for a normal UberX(a normal car) was about 10 minutes, but an Uber Black(a nicer car from the UberX) for $10 more was immediately available. Given it was just shy of 9pm and I didn’t want to wait around. My driver showed up in a white Mercedes.

My location and my driver's location on uber app in Johannesburg airport

My location and my driver’s location on uber app in Johannesburg airport

My Uber Driver and I arrived safely at the Holiday Inn Sandton where he helped me offload my bags to the bell hop. I understand some travelers hate Uber because the either the car or driver or in some cases are different from what’s stated in the Uber. From that standpoint, I would be annoyed. However, I find the convenience of avoiding any hassle of price and payment worth it.  Speaking of prices, Uber imposes “surge pricing,” which charges higher fares than you would normally expect during high demand periods. I experienced this “surge pricing” during New Year’s Eve, which is justifiable.  If the surge pricing happened without reason any other time, I would be annoyed, but that hasn’t happened to me yet.

Bottom line is I rather roll the dice with Uber than with a local cabby who may or may not rip me out.  At least uber I can reach out to their customer support and have some recourse if something goes wrong.

MY RECENT UBER EXPERIENCE

Uber started operating in Hanoi, Vietnam since late last year.  I tried to use this service to get to the airport, but I did not succeed.  In fairness, my flight was at 8 am so I was a bit skeptical if Uber would have drivers on the road that early.  I ended up getting a taxi on the street for a little more money than what an Uber would have cost.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Apps like Uber and Whatsapp require a data plan, which some folks may or may not have. I plan on writing a post on the way I keep my iPhone connect.  Again, this isn’t a definitely list and will change over time if anything better comes along.

If you have any other useful travel apps, I love to hear about it.

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