The ultimate travel accessory

An international passenger plane approaches Sydney airport

By Bennett Ring
(The Sun Herald)

That pint-sized computer in your pocket makes travelling a breeze, writes Bennett Ring.

Most travellers have a mental checklist of items to be ticked off just before leaving on an overseas trip. Top of the list is usually the passport, followed closely by a credit or debit card. Now there’s a third must-have item on the list that guarantees the smooth success of an international jaunt – a smartphone.

These pint-sized supercomputers can do so much more than mere phone calls, with a library of applications designed to make travelling easier than ever.

The myriad applications available for smartphones prove their benefit even before the traveller sets foot outside the front door. Most airlines offer apps that handle everything from booking tickets to seat selection and checking in. The Qantas app can be downloaded free via Google Play or the Apple App store and offers all of these services, as well as a digital boarding pass, which replaces the need for a physical ticket and can save hours of queuing.

Finding the perfect hotel can be a time-consuming affair but there are plenty of apps to make the process a breeze. Whether booking in advance or making a last-minute reservation to find the cheapest deal, apps such as TripAdvisor, Wotif and Expedia allow the traveller to research and book the best hotels. TripAdvisor is especially helpful thanks to its user-ratings, which are supposed to provide unbiased accommodation reviews. Beware hotels that only have a handful of ratings though, as it’s easy to get a few five-star ratings from friends and family.

Whether calculating the cost of a hotel room, or bargaining with a stall-owner at the night markets, making sense of overseas currencies can be a brain-melting affair, especially with jet-lag thrown into the mix. While all smartphones include a calculator, it’s simpler to use a currency converting app to take the maths out of the equation. The most popular is the free XE Currency app, a portable version of the website.

Even the language barrier is less of a hurdle with the right app, as there are now several that function as personal voice translators. Google Translate is one of the most powerful, with a voice recognition feature that wouldn’t seem out of place in an episode of Star Trek. The local simply speaks into the phone in their native language; if they’re speaking one of the 80 supported languages such as Spanish, French or Japanese, the app will automatically translate it to spoken English. It works the other way too, converting spoken English into any of the 80 languages, but sadly can’t help with the look of disdain French waiters show when a customer can’t speak their language.

Those who would rather learn some of the local lingo can choose from many phrase books instead, with the Lonely Planet series the most popular.

Most globetrotters agree that the most intimate way to explore a city is by foot, and there are now dozens of apps that act as personal tour guides. Using the phone’s GPS tracking, the tour app guides the listener through a selection of the area’s historical sites, automatically playing detailed audio descriptions at each noteworthy point. At the end of each presentation, the tourist is prompted to choose one of several nearby landmarks, with an on-screen map illustrating exactly how to get there, allowing for a personalised tour experience. There are literally hundreds of audio tour apps for every major international city, but a couple stand out for their professional presentation, such as Rick Steves’ European Audio Tours and the TourPal series of audio guides.

For more practical matters, Augmented Reality (AR) apps make it easy to find ATMs, train stations, restaurants and other points of interest. Instead of looking at a top-down map, the traveller simply holds the phone at eye level.

The phone’s internal camera will display the view ahead, and the app then overlays the video with icons showing where each point of interest is. One of the most popular AR apps is GeoTravel, but the Lonely Planet city guides also include an AR feature.

Keeping in touch with loved ones at home via international mobile phone calls is a very expensive exercise, but once again today’s smartphones have an easy solution. Apps such as Viber and Skype provide totally free voice calls and video conferencing via data.

These are just a handful of the apps designed for savvy travellers, with thousands more offering every experience imaginable. Today’s smartphones don’t just take the hassle out of international travel; they also enrich the travel experience thanks to the wealth of knowledge they can expose to travellers.

Don’t leave home without one.

Bill shock

Today’s telcos charge like a wounded bull for overseas data, with costs as high as $20 a megabyte. Simply updating a Facebook status from Times Square can cost more than $10. It’s not uncommon for unwary travellers to return home with mobile bills in the thousands because of these data charges. Thankfully, there are several ways to avoid bill shock. Owners should check to see if the phone provider offers discounted data packs for international travellers, a service that is becoming popular. The cheapest solution is to buy a SIM card in the destination country that includes a healthy amount of data, at least a gigabyte or two. Whatever the solution, always use the phone’s data-monitoring feature to keep an eye on how much data has been used to avoid nasty surprises.


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