Traveling app reviews

Been narrowing down my favorite iPhone apps for travel, figured I’d round them up in a post. Some of these are new for this trip, some I’ve used for years.

When traveling abroad, data is at a premium, so minimizing your network use is critical. That means offline caching whenever possible, and minimal transfer when not – avoid the web whenever possible.

A good example is iTreni, an app for looking up trenitalia schedules. Trenitalia has a perfectly usable website, but every time you load it, you’re pulling in lots of stuff you don’t need. ITreni is able to query the schedule directly, and only pull down what’s needed.

Similarly, MouviMI provides offline maps and schedules for the Milan metro, tram and bus system. I haven’t been using this one as much, since the metro comes frequently, and I’ve got a copy of the map saved in Evernote, but it’s worked when I needed it.

There are transit apps for most cities and countries, so it’s a no-brainer.

Speaking of Evernote – my whole life is in Evernote. In the case of travel, that means reservations, tickets, notes on destinations, etc. Learn about the various ways of getting content into Evernote, and use them. Also, be sure to set the mobile app to cache everything offline, and to only sync via wifi.

Language apps are a whole category unto themselves.  I don’t believe I’ve found the “best” apps, but I’ve found the ones that work for me.  I use two – one for offline “dictionary” lookups, and one for online fulltext translation.  For offline Italian, I’m using “Eng<->Ita,” and for online translation I’m using Google Translate.  My needs are usually on the order of translating a single unknown word, so the offline dictionary is great.

The travel guide space has really blown up over the last year or two.  I brought three with me on this trip – Lonely Planet, GuidePal and TripAdvisor.  I gave up on GuidePal pretty quickly – their app didn’t work properly without a data connection, in spite of having claimed to have cached all the data.  They’re just collating web-material as well, as far as I can tell.

TripAdvisor is an interesting app.  Essentially, you get a somewhat curated offline cache of TripAdvisor content.  This includes user reviews, which can be great (or not so great) for narrowing down a place to eat or visit.  I believe this one is entirely free, so if you’re looking to get away without spending any money, this is the one to have.

If you’re willing to pay a few bucks, the Lonely Planet app gives you the ability to buy what is essentially a lot of the core content from their printed guide books.  Nice maps, sector-by-sector collections of sights / food / etc, and overall city info.  It doesn’t seem as complete as the printed guides, but it’s a great reference.  They were initially following an “app-per-book,” but have thankfully transitioned to a “one app, in-app purchase” model, so you can have all your guides in one place.  It’s been very stable and usable so far, though the maps can bog down a bit if you don’t filter things.

Finally, the tricky issue of offline mapping.  I’ve tried a handful of apps in the past, and on this trip started with the newer MapsWithMe Pro.  I love the fact that you can tell it to download a whole country from the start, and the fact that they have search is a nice differentiator.  This app let me down a bit though – the geolocation is very slow to figure out what’s going on if you put the phone to sleep and bring it back in another location.  More than a few times, I got completely turned around because the map location wasn’t correct.   I also really wanted the ability to bookmark locations, which they say is coming soon.  Additionally, and there’s not much they can do about this, the OpenStreetMap maps just aren’t as good as Google’s.

After deciding I couldn’t quite trust MapsWithMe, I went looking for alternatives, and came upon Galileo.  If you’re not a nerd, stop reading now – this app isn’t for you.  But if you are, this has become my goto app, and it might be yours as well.

Galileo can technically be used in a non-geek manner – you can scroll around and let it cache map tiles.  In fact, that’s how I used it initially – I was primarily looking for an app with the ability to add bookmarks, which Galileo does nicely.  As I dug a bit deeper though, I found that Galileo allows you to add your own map tile sets, generated on your Mac.  You use MOBAC, a java-based map atlas creator, to build packages of your destinations, with whichever zoom levels you’ll need.  I’m doing zoom 13-17 in most cases.

By default, MOBAC uses all the sources you’d expect – various OpenStreetMap tile generators, etc.  But, where it gets awesome, is what you can do with a bit of XML hackery – you can make it pull Google map tiles!  Now, surely this violates many laws, but it’s also oh so wonderful.  Essentially, I’ve now got offline Google Maps for all of the destinations I’ll be traveling to, with a very nice bookmarking system.  You can also load KML bundles for routes, and (for an extra $1.99) do GPX logging.

The app also has some nice touches – one I’m particularly fond of is the way the GPS cursor changes as you move.  Initially, you get a dot, telling you where you are.  As you start to walk, the dot becomes an arrow, telling you which direction you’re moving.  This is a great workaround for the notoriously flakey iPhone compass (which Galileo also supports, if you choose).

So, those are the apps I’m using at the moment.  There are a few more social travel apps I’d like to play with, but I haven’t yet had a chance.

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