Back in the day, before the age of internet or even mobile phones, travelling to foreing countries was a very different experience than it is now. Information was harder to come by. What is the best way to get from the airport to the centre of the city; where to sleep; where to eat; how to navigate to that faraway but astonishingly beautiful beach; what to do and where to go on a night out; and so on.
Obtaining information usually involved consulting travel guides (and by that I mean actual books), spending time at the tourist office (if there was one) or at the reception of your hotel and a whole lot of talking to the locals, asking them a million stupid questions then being boggled when you received six completely opposite answers. That is, if you were lucky enough to find a language you could both communicate in. If not, then what inevitably ensued was a session of enthusiastic waving and gesticulation, while you silently prayed you are going to end up where you wanted to. In a way, it was a lot of fun and rewarding once you managed to actually get the information you needed.
Fast forward one or two decades and it is a whole new ballgame. In the age of smartphones, the internet is at our fingertips. Practically any information we need is just a couple clicks away. The online jungle is brimming with information: travel guides, e-books, forums, travel blogs (kind of like this one, yay!), tourist info sites, and more. Mobile internet and wi-fi are becoming a common feature even in remote areas of the world, which makes the whole process even easier.
Needless to say, there is a myriad of travel apps and websites available to ease the process of obtaining info. From finding flights or best routes to your destination, to finding a place to stay, restaurants, remote beaches and trekking paths, unique experiences and meeting locals, getting involved in the community or helping with local projects,...you name it, the internet knows it, and there is (probably) an app for it. Travel apps make planning and logistics less stressful and save you time and money. If you want to travel smart, there is simply no way around them.
The following 10 apps/websites are the ones I found most useful, handy and easy-to-use while travelling. No. 3 and 9 are applicable only to Asia (since this is where I travelled most recently), whereas others have worldwide application.
My go-to website/app for finding and booking flights. It is secure, intuitive and very easy to use. It searches millions of flights from over 1200 sources and provides you with the most suitable options, ranging them in "fastest" and "cheapest" categories. It also provides a month-by-month chart view so you can easily see the prices of tickets for individual days. It also has a "anywhere" search feature for those who are not firmly set on a destination but just want to see where they could go for how much money.
You want to get from A to B but you're not sure exactly how? Rome2rio has got you covered. This handy app enables you to put in the origin and destination (city, station, airport, address) and <voila!> provides you with different possibilities of transport together with the time and cost estimation for each modality. It points out the fastest and the cheapest option, and also provides a step-by-step itinerary for any chosen option (i.e. where to switch modes of transport, distance which you have to cross on foot, etc.) Altogether a super useful and easy-to-use app, which saves a lot of time which you could otherwise spend combing through different options individually and comparing them. In addition, it also has a built-in hotel search engine.
3. 12Go Asia
A travel arrangements & booking website specifically for Asia. It provides information on buses, trains, ferries, flights and transfers between desired destinations, and also includes customer reviews so you can see which transport company to pick and which to avoid. It also enables you to book and purchase tickets for the chosen mode of transport directly on this website. Simple, easy-to-use and reputable, I've used 12Go Asia quite often during my travels through Southeast Asia and was always satisfied with the service provided.
4. Google maps
Ok yeah, I know this is a pretty obvious one. Nonetheless, if you are doing a lot of self-driving and exploring with e.g. a motorbike, car, bycicle or on foot, it is very handy to know how much time you will need to get from A to B, along with a satellite image of the terrain which might give you some ideas on which areas would be interesting to visit, such as a nearby secret beach or a small village, monument, place of interest, etc. Having a bird's eye view of where you are and where you are going is always useful, especially for getting off the well-trodden path and exploring on your own.
My favourite offline map app, for when you are in blissfully remote areas without connection, or when you do not want to consume too much of your mobile data plan. Maps.me lets you download maps of anywhere in the world and use them offline. It also has a very accurate and useful navigation function. I found out that maps.me often showed small trekking paths and local sights that were not visible in google maps or any other map. Very useful for venturing off the beaten path and getting lost in the jungle. I often used maps.me in combination with google maps (for example when exploring northern Vietnam on a motorbike) so as to make sure I did not miss anything and also because connectivity up there was quite poor or even nonexistant at times.
6. Booking.com / Agoda / Priceline
I've put these three together because they serve the same purpose: to find a place to stay. Booking.com has a more worldwide presence, whereas Agoda and Priceline (both owned by Booking Holdings) are more Asia - oriented. All of them offer a wide choice of hotels, hostels, guesthouses, apartments, houses, villas, B&Bs, etc. Most of the time I use Booking, but frankly it might be just because I am used to it. I find it slightly more transparent and user-friendly than the other two, and I like the option to pay for your stay at the door, rather than in advance via credit card (which Agoda demanded in most cases). Nonetheless, if you are looking for a place to stay, it makes sense to check all three of them, since Agoda and Priceline sometimes find places which are not on Booking and/or have lower prices.
I won't talk too much about this one since you probably already know it. If you like a more personal touch and prefer private stays (rooms, apartments or entire houses) instead of hotels, guesthouses, etc., then Airbnb is the app to use. Simple, clean and user friendly, it is a great alternative to the three above-mentioned apps. In addition to lodging, you can also book experiences and tours at your destination. A review system gives you a very precise picture of what the place is like. All that's left is for you to get there and - enjoy!
If you are looking for a place to stay on a budget, with a great social setting and where you can meet lots of other easy-going and relaxed travellers, look no further than Hostelworld. It sports the largest hostel database in the world, it is easy-to use, transparent, secure and comes with a review scoring system so you know exactly what other travellers thought of a place before you get there. If you are looking specifically at hostels, than this is definitely the app/website to use.
You all know Uber, right? Well, Grab is the Uber of Southeast Asia. Currently it operates in eight SE Asian countries: Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia. It offers a great alternative to hailing taxis and tuk tuks on the street and endless bargaining (unless you enjoy this). You will need to use mobile data, since you will have to use it on-the-go, but prepaid cards with mobile data plans are cheap throughout SE Asia, so it is a worthwhile purchase even if you are only visiting for a week. Apart from booking a ride (with a motorbike, tuk tuk or car), you can also order food delivery (GrabFood) or groceries, and they offer some other services as well.
Note: Grab does not operate in Laos, but they have their own ride-hailing service and app called LOCA. It functions in much the same way as Grab, although it is limited to transport services.
If you are travelling with one or more people, it is sometimes difficult and annoying to constantly keep track of who paid for what and how much. Enter Splitwise: am awesome app for keeping track of travel costs and splitting them among the group members. It allows for different methods of splitting costs: either equally or non-equally, by percentage or exact amount, and keeps track of who owns how much to whom. Never argue over who paid how much again - with a few clicks, each member of the group simply records any amount he pays in the app. At the end of the trip, the "settle-up" button makes the final calculation and offset, thus showing any amounts still outstanding. Amazingly simple and effortless.
11. SkyView Lite
Alright yeah, this one is not really "essential", but if you enjoy staring at the night sky - especially in places far away from cities where you are suddenly astounded by the number of stars you can actually see with the naked eye - and wonder what exactly are you looking at, then SkyView Lite is for you. Simply point your camera at the sky and the app tells you what you see: every star, planet, constellation and even the ISS and Hubble telescope. Accompanied with nice ambiental music, SkyView Lite takes romantic nights on another level.