Last updated: 11 Dec, 2016
Even though I never seem to shut up about buying local SIM cards to stay connected, I still often find myself without Internet access when I travel. Most often, it’s when I arrive in a new country for the first time… which, of course, is usually when I need it the most.
What’s the exchange rate supposed to be?
How do I convince the border guard I’ve got an onward ticket?
Which subway station do I need?
Does that sign above the food cart say “fried chicken” or “grilled rat”?
And on it goes. Mind you, it’s not just the first day or two in a place that can leave a traveller connection-less. Long overland journeys will often leave you without cell service for several hours.
Perhaps your device is locked and it costs you a fortune to use anything other than Wi-fi. Perhaps you’d prefer to talk to the people around you rather than having your phone explode with notifications every few seconds.
Regardless, even in this increasingly-connected world, there’ll be plenty of times on the road when you can’t just get online. The good news is that there are literally dozens of travel apps out there that remain useful even when that Internet lifeline gets cut off.
Here are 25 of the best of them.
Let’s start with Tripit, a lifesaver on so many occasions. The app takes your email confirmations for flights, accommodation, car rental and more, and turns them into a detailed trip itinerary. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve needed to pull out the app to find confirmation numbers, hotel addresses and more.
If you’ve got a data connection you’ll get a local map and a few other extras, but the main features work offline as long as you’ve synced your latest itinerary at some point. There’s a Pro version for $49/year that adds award point tracking, realtime notifications of delays and so on, but the basic, free app is fine for most people.
There are many currency conversion apps out there, but XE Currency is one of the oldest and still one of the best. I’ve used it for years to work out how much money I should be getting out of the ATM, how much dinner is about to cost me and pretty much any other transaction a traveller could make.
Just install the app and add the currencies you think you might use any time soon, and it will take care of the rest. Rates are updated whenever you’ve got an Internet connection. You can quickly convert between your chosen currency and all the others on a single screen, even when you’re offline.
Sometimes you don’t need anything fancy, just a simple little app to take notes of what’s going on. Android devices come with Google Keep, which lets you type some text or take a photo you can then annotate. Similar features are available for other platforms with Evernote.
Both apps will sync your notes with a central server when you do get connected. You’re in no danger of losing all those creative musings when you drop your phone in the toilet.
Let’s face it, long flights, layovers and bus rides can get pretty dull no matter how good the view out the window is. I find those drawn-out trips are a great time to catch up on my reading, and do so in a few different ways.
I regularly read around 50 sites via Feedly, which is great – but the app doesn’t work offline. To get around that, I use gReader (Android) to sync unread articles from Feedly to my phone, which I can then read without a connection. Byline is even better, for those with an Apple device.
As well as the sites I read all the time, I bookmark dozens of articles each week from other places around the web using Pocket. It pulls down everything I’ve saved, ready for me to read while perched uncomfortably amongst the chickens on yet another overnight bus.
For reading books, the free Kindle app downloads electronic books and magazines you’ve purchased from Amazon, even if you don’t have a physical e-reader. It’ll also sync your progress whenever you do have a connection, so you can carry on reading on any other Kindle app or device.
If reading on the move makes you sick, or you’re on a night flight and don’t want to disturb those around you, opt for some audio entertainment instead. Podcasts are a great way of whiling away the hours, while drowning out screaming kids around you at the same time.
There are plenty of free apps for listening to podcasts, including one that’s built right into iOS, but I much prefer Pocket Casts. It costs a few bucks, but has many more features and is just general much nicer to use than anything else I’ve found. For those who prefer audiobooks, the Audible app has something like 150,000 titles to choose from.
Subway systems are a great invention for locals and travellers alike – at least when you know how they work. Figuring out how to get from A to B isn’t always easy, especially once you get into a crowded carriage and can’t even see the little map on the wall.
Rather than treading on a dozen pairs of toes every time you try to spot your stop, take a couple of minutes ahead of time to download an offline map. There are apps of some sort for pretty much every major metro system in the world.
Once you’re back above ground, the navigation woes continue. It used to be that if you didn’t have data (or a paper map), you were out of luck. Not any more, thankfully – several navigation apps now work well (or well enough) without a connection.
Start with Google Maps. You’ve probably got it installed already, and an update earlier this year added the ability to save an unlimited number of offline maps. Since GPS doesn’t rely on the Internet, that magic blue dot will still show you where you are.
With full offline navigation and public transport maps, plus the ability to download entire regions or countries with a couple of taps, it’s definitely worth checking out. I’ve been using it in Taiwan for the last week, and it’s remarkably good.
If none of these work for you, we covered several other offline navigation apps recently as well.
Paper guidebooks used to be the ultimate offline travel accessory, but even they have made the transition to the digital age. Start with Triposo, a multi-function app that takes crowd-sourced information from Wikitravel, Wikipedia and several other sites, and wraps it up into a slick, useful offline guide.
Download the data pack for a given country before leaving home, as they’re quite large. You’ll get recommendations for activities, hotels, restaurants and more, including a map and basic directions. There’s plenty of background information on each destination, as well as phrasebooks, currency conversion and more. It’s an impressive app, especially given the price (free).
If you’re heading to a major tourist hotspot, check out TripAdvisor’s city guides. The collection seems to be growing all the time, with around 70 cities listed last time I checked. Each one includes self-guided tours and itineraries, and a map with a “take me there” feature.
The main TripAdvisor app also has a handy little offline option that lets you download all the listings and reviews for an even larger range of cities. I’m not always a fan of Tripadvisor reviews, but have found these apps useful regardless.
When all you’re after is saving a bit of space and weight, the trusty Lonely Planet guides now come in ebook format (including PDF). Being able to download individual chapters is good if you don’t need the whole book.
Note that some aspects, maps in particular, don’t transfer over to digital form all that well. Still, the information remains the same, so if you like the LP style, these are worth a look.
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Heading somewhere where you don’t speak the language? Sure, you can (and should) pick up a phrasebook to get the basics down, but there are many other ways your phone can help you figure out what’s going on.
Both the Android and iOS versions of Google Translate let you download many different language packs for offline use, making quick translations a snap. You can also point the phone camera at a sign or menu for real-time visual translation. You’ll get more features with an Internet connection, but the basics work just fine without one.
It’s understandable that health is a major concern for many travellers, especially in countries where communicating with a doctor may be a challenge. A few different apps can help, depending on exactly what you’re looking for.
To start with, download American Red Cross First Aid, a free app with step by step instructions for dealing with several different health emergencies. The video training is a nice touch, helping you prepare in advance rather than being thrown in the deep end when there’s a problem.
For those travelling with allergies, Allergy FT is a welcome addition to the health toolkit. Visiting a French, German or Spanish speaking country? The app can translate over 60 different food allergies, along with a warning message, into the local language for a waiter or street vendor.
Another useful app is In Case of Emergency. It lets you enter all of your health information (allergies and conditions, travel insurance, medications etc) in one place, that can then be shown on demand to anyone that needs it. There’s even a lockscreen widget for Android that will display this information to first responders and doctors if you aren’t able to.
And finally, a couple of little apps that do one simple thing well. I use World Clock to keep track of the time around the world, so I know when to call family and friends without waking them up. There’s even a home screen widget, if you find yourself checking all the time. iOS has one built right into the operating system, although for even more features, check out World Clock App instead.
I’m sure there are some offline travel apps I’ve forgotten about! Which ones do you recommend?