Everyone has a different idea of what travel means. It could mean isolating yourself in the wilderness, or it could mean touring Europe’s best restaurants. In any case, you’ll probably have a smartphone with you and it would be, well, smart, to have some free travel apps that’ll make your journey a little easier. A map app is a must, and apps that convert money or translate languages are ideal.
Why free? Businesses will try to convince you that paying is the only way to get the best travel apps. This is 100% not true. We have traveled all over using only free travel apps and they have been super helpful, from getting directions to making friends. It’s a simple way to save money on travel.
We aren’t saying it is impossible to travel without your smartphone, but if you do have one, it only makes sense to take advantage of it! Free travel apps can be handy, helpful, and sometimes downright lifesavers. Here are a few free travel apps that we find incredibly useful. All apps have been extensively used and reviewed by us, and we use them on just about every trip abroad.
Google Translate just gets better and better at translating languages. It’s especially good at widespread tongues like Spanish, English and French, but is also effective for languages such as Turkish and Flemish. In addition to typing in sentences to translate, Google Translate will also translate photographs of text, verbal conversations, voice-to-text and has a handwriting feature. The best part? You can download a language for its offline feature and be able to translate whenever. Because really, we are much more likely to need a translator on the street rather than within the WiFi of our hotel room.
Do keep in mind this app is not flawless. Often the conversations between us and people whose language we don’t speak requires the translate app plus a lot of miming and pseudo sign language to get our point across. When translating, try keeping your sentences as simple and literal as possible. With time and patience, we have been able to have short, enlightening political discussions between us as English speakers and Arabic-speaking Egyptians. That wouldn’t have been possible without the offline app!
- Translates over 100 languages.
- Can translate writing via phone, conversations and video chats.
- Has an offline feature.
- You must download specific languages to use them offline.
- Not highly accurate in translating dissimilar languages like Arabic and English.
- No option to report errors or correct translations.
User tip: Once you have the app, open the settings button and scroll down to Offline Translations. Click on this, and you’ll see the list of languages you have downloaded to use offline. To add a language to the list, just press the + sign in the top right of the screen, type in the language name, and it’ll download, allowing you to translate whenever, wherever.
XE Currency converter
Currency converter app
The XE Currency converter provides live exchange rates to get the most accurate foreign exchange rate possible. It holds over 180 different currencies. Exchange rates can change rapidly, so we find it quite useful to keeping up on the rate. When we started our travels in Guatemala, for example, the US dollar was worth twenty cents less than when we left five months later.
We use XE Currency converter to figure how much products and food cost between different countries, as a useful reference. The app doesn’t include exchange fees, so if you’re looking to see how many pesos you should be getting for your dollars, keep in mind that the bank or exchange kiosk you are at will probably charge significant exchange fees.
- Remembers which currency you most recently used.
- Lets you prioritize the currencies you want to see first.
- User friendly and quick.
- Can be used offline.
- This app reportedly doesn’t work well with Kindle.
User tip: To add a new currency, click the Edit button on the top right of the home screen. Then press the + symbol on the bottom left, which will open a search bar that allows you to type in a currency. If you don’t know the currency name, there is also a list you can scroll down to find it, complete with flag icons of the country they represent.
Stay in the know!
Google Maps is the primary map app we have used for years. It has detailed, accurate maps in 220 countries and territories. Although it has gone slightly downhill in the past couple years, particularly since Google bought Waze, it is still quite useful for road navigation and location spotting. We like the street view feature to be sure we are at the right address, and the topography option is excellent for hiking and back country fun.
The maps are sometimes a little too simple in pedestrian areas, though, so we now use Google Maps in conjunction with MAPS.ME. Together they make a pretty complete pair. Our main complaint with this app is about Google’s offline maps feature. It seems to be getting worse and worse, sometimes refusing to load or locate places. As this is the feature we use most, we consider it a major flaw in the app, which used to give us a lot less trouble.
- Has an offline option.
- Shows most places, including street view.
- When used for navigating, it shows where traffic congestion is high, and suggests the fastest route.
- Reroutes quickly.
- Updates constantly.
- The offline map has a hard time figuring out directions from one place to another, and will only direct via car routes, not bus or walking.
- Shows fewer side streets, street names and alleys than it used to.
- Offline map will not show saved locations.
User tip: in order to use the map offline, you’ll have to download the area you want when you are in wifi or data range. For Google Maps, start at the home page. You’ll see three horizontal lines on the left of the search bar, open this. Open the Offline Maps option. It’ll show you a list of the maps you have already downloaded. At the bottom open Custom Map and it will open a map surrounding your location. Use your fingers to zoom in or out, or swipe to a different location on the map. When you have highlighted the area you’ll need offline, click download. Now you’ll be able effectively navigate that area offline.
MAPS.ME is our supplemental free map app. It is community based, so how effective it is in an area depends on how many users have been to that area and labeled businesses and streets. As with other offline maps, be mindful to download the map of the region you will be in on your phone while you still have Wi-Fi, because it won’t work offline without the map already in your phone.
We believe MAPS.ME has great potential, but we are still waiting for it to spread its wings. If you use it, try adding a few places to the map as you go: it’s for the good of all travelers. This app is best for finding specific city buildings or places. It does show trails, too, so if you’re hiking a mountain you can check and see if they have the trail you want, but there is no topography or satellite imagery.
- Works with an offline feature.
- Renders and loads quickly.
- When established well in a city, it can be quite accurate, showing more building shapes and side streets than other map apps.
- Easy to add to and edit.
- Slow at finding routes.
- User based, so can be ineffective in places where users rarely go.
- Possibility of being inaccurate if a user mislabels a feature.
User tip: To download an offline map for future use, open the three horizontal lines at the bottom right corner of the home screen. Choose the Download Maps option. You can type the area you’re looking for in the search bar, or you can click on Download Maps for a list of countries you can download. We suggest typing in the more specific area rather than the whole country (Bejing vs China). When you click on the location you want, it will confirm you want to download the map, and tell you how much space it will take up. Hit Download and in a minute or so you’ll have access to a map when you’re lost and out of range.
Booking and search app
Booking.com allows you to search for lodging, flights, restaurants, car rentals and more and book them online, and now they have an app. We use it primarily for lodging and find it works best as a reference point: it shows us where to find dirt cheap lodging in town, and we go check it out ourselves.
We have used it to book online, too, and we have never had a problem. This free travel app is quick and offers a variety of filters for personalization. We generally filter by price, but you can also go by location and rating.
- Gives an overview of what is available in your location and the general price range.
- Simple and easy to use.
- Can filter by several variables, including price.
- Gives user ratings and reviews of the services offered.
- Is not thorough; only shows participating businesses.
- Doesn’t have a rewards program for frequent users.
User tip: Before you take a reconnaissance trip to the hotel, check out what other guests have to say about the place. Reading well-written reviews is one of the most effective ways to learn what to expect. To see the reviews of a specific hotel, click on the hotel name to see it’s info page. An icon with the hotel’s rating and an option to see all the reviews will appear under the basic info. Click on that. Here, you can sort the order of reviews from the newest to oldest, or the highest to lowest scores, among other orders. We find looking at the poorer reviews first (cautiously), the ones that go into depth on why the hotel got a bad score, is the most accurate way to get a feel for the place. Don’t disregard the good reviews though, and always check the date of the review: the hotel may have changed since the person posted!
Information database app
Want to go to Tikal, but don’t want to pay for a guided tour? Wikipedia now has a free app where you can download a useful article on Tikal and use it offline in the jungle. Being the “free encyclopedia”, you can use Wikipedia to get info on just about anything.
This is a great resource for budget travelers like us. We love as much knowledge as we can get about places we’re going, but we aren’t interested in buying a guide. As long as we remember to download articles in advance, we are able to enhance our experience at an attraction with added knowledge.
- Huge database that provides info on just about everything.
- Ability to download articles for future offline reference.
- Take all info with a grain of salt, as it is usually not professionally reviewed content.
User tip: To refer to an article when offline, you’ll have to save it. When you’re online, save the article by opening the article. At the bottom you’ll see an options bar that includes a little banner symbol. Click on that and you’ll be asked whether you want to add the article to a reading list. You can click on this and add it to a list, or you can just wait a second and it’ll automatically save the article to a general pool. When you’re offline, you can retrieve this article by opening the Wikipedia app, clicking on the banner symbol (it’ll say “saved” under it) and this will go to the articles you have saved for later. Simple!
Restaurant and tour websites can make their sites as professional as possible, but reviews are what really tell you what’s what. We use the free travel app TripAdvisor to check out reviews on eateries and lodging, plus we ask questions or answer questions on the TripAdvisor forum. We find that TripAdvisor gives a decent look into the area we are traveling to.
One word to the wise: cross check reviews with other sites. Although TripAdvisor claims to have advanced fraud detectors, some things can slide through the cracks. Travelers have been conned into booking and paying for services that have glowing reviews on the site… but that don’t actually exist. Read reviews of places thoroughly to get a real sense of what you’re looking into, and Google the hotel/restaurant/activity to make sure it is legit.
- Let’s you see reviews and photos from travelers like you for attractions, airlines, activities, restaurants, lodging and more.
- Is worldwide and pretty thorough.
- Allows a wide range of reviews.
- Businesses can respond to poor reviews.
- Contains organized forums to ask and answer travel questions.
- Some of the reviews are bogus, created with false accounts.
- Some attractions or services are non-existent and prey on unsuspecting travelers.
- Offers booking options for vacations and activities, but this is usually more expensive than booking through the company’s own site.
User tip: when you have some spare time, enter your own reviews. The more ratings a place has, the more likely it is to have accurate information. Fellow travelers will take your words into consideration so be fair and honest. Writing more than a few words is helpful, too!
And there you have it, the free travel apps we use most during our travels in a variety of settings, from country to city to outback and everything in between.
What are your favorite free travel apps? Are there travel apps you consider so useful you would pay for them? What apps do you use the most when traveling? Let us know in the comments below! We are constantly updating to give our readers the most accurate information possible.
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