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What's your apps and tech gadget?

I want to make the leap from paper to tech for my upcoming trip to Europe. I’ve googled, researched and read about a variety of travel apps, but now I’m turning to you, the users, for guidance. Much of the information I found is out of date.

In the past, I’ve created lengthy paper docs and depended upon paper maps. Yes, they still will be my backup but it’s time to discover better tools using apps. Here is what I’m looking for: A good walking navigation map w/off-line capabilities --something similar to Google Maps, in that you create a map with pins and enter info.

*HERE map seems to be a favorite. However, is it mostly a great driving navigation system? Can I create maps with features similar to that of Google Maps?

*CityMaps2Go (same app as ULMON?) is another favorite. Any feedback using its real-time routing directions. Can you deactivate the voice command, which I’ve read could eat up your data?

*What mobile device do you bring travelling? The Google Maps I created looks great on my laptop but less so on my phone. What’s your experience carrying around a mini tablet? Do you also drop in a SIM card?

*Do you use a separate app for preloading trip planning information, such as TripIt or Evernotes?

I am overwhelmed but know that after using travel apps and a SIM card for the first time, it will be routine. Oh, and speaking of that, how do I find out if my Samsung S4 galaxy phone is locked/unlock and with GSM, quad band. Will my carrier know? I’ve been unsuccessful finding this out by looking online and on my phone.

Posted by
57 posts

Great discussion smarcbie! I am very new to travel tech but want to avoid all the paper for my trip to five countries this summer.

I am taking my iPhone 6, so the screen is a bit bigger. I've been using TripIt to store flight and hotel information, it extracts information from your email to populate automatically and works pretty well. It is a bit of a hassle to get tours, plans and other transportation in, but once they're there, the overview of your day is nice. Overall I really like TripIt but I still find myself having to use a Word doc for the detailed plans (some people also use Excel) but I get really detailed with each day's plans. You can also upload your important docs like pics of your passport, driver's license, etc. so that is a nice function that works like Dropbox.

I've also downloaded CityMaps2Go. I am not using that for driving so I can't speak to that. What's great is the ability to drop map pins (actually stars) into restaurants and things I'd like to see. They can be categorized into lists. What is a huge pain is that it doesn't work very well if you're doing many countries. The list is not specific to the map you have up, so if you have saved restaurants for five countries, you have to look at the entire list of restaurants. You can make separate lists, but then you end up with lists for restaurants, sights, hotels, etc. for each of your countries so it gets very long. I am still working with it to work out a system; it could be that I am a lame first-time user.

I have T-Mobile which supposedly has free data in Europe, so hoping that works well. I don't think I will have to drop in a SIM.

Looking forward to others remarks on the topic.

Posted by
607 posts

I always carry a 7" tablet, whether travelling or not.

My favourite app has to be Dropbox. I put all my important documents (itinerary, information or photos of attractions, maps, tickets, vouchers, passport, insurance certificates, everything of importance) as "favorites" into Dropbox. When it is set as a "favorite", the document is actually stored in my tablet so I can access it without data or wifi. Access is password protected. If my tablet is lost or stolen, I just need to get to a PC or another device with wifi, and I can still access the all the same documents which are also synced and stored online.

I downloaded three or four offline GPS map apps on my tablet (Ulmon, NavFree, discontinued MapDroyd and Google Maps was always available for downloading), just in case. But I ended up not using any of them. I read up enough that I generally had a pretty good sense of where I was and where I was going. I found that a hotel city map was more than enough for me to get around. I don't mind getting a little lost and having to ask some local where I am.

I downloaded the tripadvisor app if I needed to bone up on some information or to look for a review of a nearby restaurant.

I also downloaded the Rick Steves mobile app with his excellent audio guides for various cities and attractions. I used it a few times, but when you are with a group, it can be anti-social with the ear plugs in for a long stretch.

I forgot Google Translate. I use it at home to learn the word and pronunciation of a few useful phrases before the trip. I would find it a bit awkward to use on the go, preferring to look somebody in the eye when speaking. But it is still nice to have in an emergency.

Posted by
16836 posts

I bought my first smartphone (Samsung, Android OS) and tablet computer (8.4" Samsung, Android OS) right before my trip. I researched the various tablet manufacturers and decided that, on balance, Samsung was best for me. Your needs may vary, but I'd buy a Samsung tablet again. The 8.4" tablet is as large as I wanted carry in my purse; smaller might be fine for others, but I was planning the trip and booking hotels as I went, and I referred constantly to the maps on the tablet.

I have no data plan at home and was limited to wi-fi when I wanted to access the internet abroad. Wi-fi is pretty widely available, so that was OK most of the time. I didn't want to use my devices for navigation. However, I plan to set up a T-Mobile plan before my next trip for those times when I really need the internet and there's no wi-fi. A foreign SIM card is cheaper for local calls, but many tourists go to multiple countries. And I couldn't understand the messages I received in Italian from the SIM card provider. Note: I don't think you can put a SIM card in most tablets (definitely not in mine), so you may need to research tethering if you want to use your cell-phone data allotment on your tablet.

There must be a way to get the technical specs for your phone. I'd call Samsung customer support with the model number and serial number available.

  • Don't be like me. Read the user guides before you leave. Also download all user guides to all devices.

  • I bought the most RAM I could get for each device and added (I think) the largest micro-SD card to provide more storage. You definitely want a sizable SD card to support things like downloaded maps and any photos you take. The micro-SD cards are a separate purchase. Google for best online prices after reading reviews to select a quality brand. The internet says phone cameras are usually better than tablet cameras. Consider whether you need a larger micro-SD card for your phone.

  • I also bought multiple large-capacity USB keys (expensive, Google prices) and the necessary OTG connectors. Choosing those OTG connectors isn't trivial, though they're inexpensive. Some plug straight into the device, but others have a right-angle bend. You'll need to take a look at your devices in their cases to determine which you need. A lot of the Android connectors come in from China, and quality seems to vary. You shouldn't wait till the last minute to order them.

I used the USB keys primarily for movies and travel-related TV shows I wanted to take with me. I still haven't figured out how to transfer pictures from the micro-SD cards inside the devices onto those external keys. If your trip is shortish, you don't take many photos, and you have no desire to take videos with you, you might not need to bother with the external USB keys. I wouldn't buy a tablet that didn't allow me to use them in the future, however.

Most current Android devices can be connected directly to your home PC for easy transfer of files back and forth. You use a cable (may be part of your charging cable) that's USB on one end and micro-USB on the other. For me that capability was critical. I'm not sure how the Apple devices handle that (maybe wirelessly, but be sure it would work if you have a regular PC), and there may be some older or low-end Androids that don't.

I used Maps2Go, downloading maps in advance. Time-consuming, so do it before you leave if you have adequate storage on your devices. I put maps on phone as well as tablet since I didn't carry the tablet around all the time. I used Maps2Go maps only up until I could get hold of a paper map in each city. The tablet screen was an OK size for maps but for me usually not nearly as handy as even the free paper maps given out by tourist offices. There's also theft and glare to consider. For really large cities, however, the tablet maps are useful since you can zoom in on any area.

A bit more to come.

Posted by
5313 posts

One of the best things about CityMaps2Go for me is the offline GPS -- if necessary, I can start walking down a street and determine whether I'm walking towards my goal or away from it. We have smartphones on vacation hold, so there is NO data usage.

Posted by
2518 posts

Regarding your smart phone, your carrier will be able to tell you if it is unlocked and if it is not, how you can get it unlocked. It is quad band. If it is unlocked, you can get local SIM cards in Europe at very reasonable prices. Another option is to get a card from T-Mobile and cancel when you return from your trip.

I traveled with an unlocked iPhone 5 (this year a6+) and used Google Maps and Apple Maps for local navigation roaming the streets in Strasbourg, Lisbon, Evora, Córdoba, Sevilla and many other cities and towns. Tell Google where you want to go and get step by step directions. I haven't used a paper map since I broke my GPS in Spain 7 years ago. Try this on your phone locally to see how it works and if it satisfies your requirements. I also carry an iPad which I use on wifi only in my hotel room for additional research and reading any guidebooks I have downloaded. I agree that you don't need a SIM card for the tablet. I also use Dropbox for copies of hotel reservations, air tickets, itineraries, etc. It's a far cry from taking a laptop and 700+ page guidebook. I haven't tried any of the other map apps because I found that Google and Apple maps fill my needs, interact with voice commands and can even be used in lieu of a dedicated GPS unit on the road. I also use the built in calendar program on my phone for planning purposes instead of a separate app. The apps supplied with devices have become extremely robust.

Posted by
16836 posts

I spent an inordinate amount of time researching smartphones and tablets (results reported in my earlier post) and apps before last year's trip. I went to the Google Play Store and read reviews of likely-sounding apps. In the end, I didn't use most of what I downloaded, but perhaps I will on my next trip. Still, I would have preferred to spend that time on actual trip planning. I hope you can manage your time better!

These are apps I used successfully:

  • CityMaps2Go Pro (critical to my planned-in-transit trip)
  • Rick Steves Audio Europe
  • TripAdvisor (couldn't do without it, though I'm not sure how reliable the restaurant reviews are)
  • Booking.com
  • Trenit! (Tren Italia's mobile app; makes full Italian schedule available off-line, highly useful for me)
  • Eurail Rail Planner (another RR schedule app, recommended by a fellow traveler. Not sure it's complete)
  • QR Code Reader (Allows you to scan the smart codes on some museum exhibits, etc., and know what you're seeing. Critical for certain museums.)
  • Google Translate
  • Adobe Acrobat
  • Word
  • Excel

Other apps that were highly recommended online 12 months ago but which I haven't used:

  • Trivago (hotel meta-search)
  • Hotel Tonight (last-minute hotel reservations)
  • Skype
  • ES File Explorer (file manager)
  • Pocket (saves online material so it can be read offline)

You'll also probably need to download some sort of video player.

Posted by
3809 posts

One thing I love about the city maps 2 go (other than the offline GPS) is that beforehand I can pin places I want to see. Whether it is a museum, park, hidden gem, or a restaurant or someplace selling pastries. It makes it great for looking at the map and seeing where you are and going - oh! I'm close to that donut shop or out of the way site I wanted to see. Also great in planning daily activities - you may look and say - well, let's do this area of London today because there are 5-6 places in the vicinity. I mean, you can do this on a paper map as well (and we will generally have a city map from the guidebooks) but if you are visiting a lot of places and don't want to carry a dozen maps, an app is great.

I found the Paris map to be very detailed - in some places to the numbers and shapes of the buildings - great when I wanted to pin the pastry shop I needed to find. In contrast, the NYC one was good, but harder to pin addresses as it didn't really show street numbers. London was great too. I use an iPad mini.

Posted by
345 posts

"A good walking navigation map w/off-line capabilities --something similar to Google Maps, in that you create a map with pins and enter info."

I created an offline custom map for my last trip, and it was a game changer for me. Tons of paper left at home, and millions of trees saved. OK, I'm exaggerating. My method was posted in this thread:

https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/tech-tips/smartphone-app-for-maps-pre-planning-and-real-time-routing-guidance

Posted by
2290 posts

I love City Maps 2 Go. On domestic trips, I use Google My Maps, but the offline support isn't there yet. In City Maps 2 Go you need to download maps of each destination (a destination can be a city or a whole region of a country). What I do is in the weeks before a trip, I will drop "pins" on the map of sights, restaurants, and the like. Also can make notes of hours, specialties, etc. Color coded, restaurants blue, museums green, etc. Then when I'm in my destination I will fire up my map offline and I get a blue dot showing where I am, in real time. I see dots all around of things of interest. If I'm walking to a specific sight I can follow my dot the map to get there. If I'm hungry I can look to see what previously marked restaurants are nearby, and read in my notes that "El Arroz" has excellent paella. The GPS is offline and you can just follow your dot and not get lost. I can tell you this is a lifesaver in places with streets that aren't signposted and are very small alleys.
I have not used navigation on it - I just follow my dot.
It is not as good with knowing particular places - google maps in the US will know basically 99% of the establishments you look up. City Maps doesn't. It probably won't know the aforementioned paella restaurant, but you can look that up online at home or on wifi and drop a pin on the map and label it. One extra step.

I also use the app tripit. You can email it all your hotel reservations, flights, car rentals, plans, etc. It is supposed to automatically compile them into an itinerary for you, but I've found it has trouble with smaller hotels. So I have to go in and adjust sometimes - but I do all this before leaving and I end up with a list of everything I have reserved, with addresses and times, in order by date. I can also add notes - so if I plan to go to a museum on Tuesday I can make a note of that, even without a reservation, and it shows up under Tuesday's itinerary. Very handy for more complex trips with lots of hotel changes and multiple flights and train reservations.

Posted by
2290 posts

One additional thing - I don't print very much, but I do keep an e-mail folder with all my confirmations. This is stored on the e-mail server, so if my device crashes I don't lose anything - all I need is 2 minutes on any internet-connected device and I can get what I need. "Old-fashioned" but works.

I also save PDFs of all my important documents to my kindle. Passport copies, medical info, flight confirmations, any other paper that is necessary for the trip. This is cloud-stored, too - it is on my kindle, and I can download it to any kindle app (like the one on the ipad or iphone). The kindle app is free, and even someone without a kindle may want the app as a place to store and read PDFs, both on your device and stored externally in case of data loss. Of course, I'm sure there are other apps for this as well.

Posted by
3809 posts

One thing with city maps 2 go is that you do have to connect to wifi initially when you arrive to your city so it can get a bead on you, then you are good to go offline after that (unless something has changed since I used it 6 mos ago). And sometimes it may take awhile to find you - I found in London sometimes it'd take a minute or more to pinpoint me - (but my iPad is older and slower).