Featured Image: Screenshot from Google Maps.
With one of us being in the tech industry, we relied heavily on technology during our most recent Asia trip. We spent the extra money to get data or wifi almost as soon as we landed in order to make our lives easier. Some may say this is not a true adventure and/or it doesn’t allow us to truly experience exploring a new place, but to each their own. For those who appreciate the use of technology, I thought I would share the apps I found most useful during our recent Asia trip. Please note they are in no particular order. Also, I did not receive sponsorship from any of these companies, so I have no conflict of interest to report here.
Those who travel with their laptops can easily access TripAdvisor on their browser but for those who travel with only a mobile device, this app provides a better interface than using a mobile browser.
I found I used this most often to check out the top “things to do” in each city we went to. It also allowed me to select the most highly rated tours to sign up for. With its review function, I was able to see what I was getting myself into, compared to signing up for random tours at a local tour agency. For example, we had an excellent experiences during our cooking classes in Chiang Mai and Hanoi, which I attributed to the fact that we selected the classes with the highest ratings on TripAdvisor. This was also great for selecting hotels and spas as well.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t rely on this app for food recommendations. The reviews were not as useful and their list of restaurants was not as comprehensive as some other apps, which I will discuss below. I also tried booking hotels through this app, and it saved my booking on the app; however, it only showed mostly a static page with minimal booking details. I wish it linked back to the original hotel listing for me to get more information (e.g. amenities, reviews) about the hotel after I’ve already booked it and prior to checking in. I found myself having to go back to search for the hotel in a cumbersome way when they could’ve just easily linked it back with one quick click. Of note, Airbnb has a much nicer user interface with sleek design and allows you to link back to the original listing. The “directions” function is also limited as it only links to Apple Maps and doesn’t have an option to link to Google Maps, which I prefer.
2. Lonely Planet Guides
Although I downloaded this app prior to our trip, it wasn’t until the latter half of the trip that I started using this.
I appreciated how I was able to download the “City Guides” beforehand, which allowed me to browse even when I had no access to wifi or data. Compare this to TripAdvisor, which did have a “download” button, but I realized it gave me error messages when I try to scroll through their content. Not only is their photo quality and design more aesthetically pleasing than TripAdvisor, they also had better content relating to the information presented about the points of interest. TripAdvisor just took information straight from Wikipedia, which I found more dry and less relevant. I liked their “neighbourhoods” reviews to give me a quick overview of each area, so I can decide where I wanted to visit. This was particularly helpful in big cities like Korea and Japan. My favourite function of all was the “Near this Place” list at the end of each article. I am able to group top attractions and coffee shops/restaurants I want to visit to efficiently plan my days. I can bookmark places to the “My Favourites” tab to view everything on a map. That was how I realized that Tsukiji market is close to the Hama-Rikyu Onshi-Teien which also housed the Nakajimi no Ochaya teahouse. It is also how I found out about Chihira Junco and that she is located on the 3rd floor of Aqua City.
Compared to TripAdvisor, they only had a limited number of “City Guides”. It also does not have reviews, so the rankings of the listings are based on Lonely Planet itself. I preferred to get the perspectives from different travellers, especially those who recently visited for more up-to-date information. In addition, unlike TripAdvisor, it did not allow me to easily make reservations directly in the app for accommodations or activities. It did provide a link to the company’s website though to do the booking there. Again, I wouldn’t rely on the Lonely Planet Guides for their food recommendations. For that, I would rather use Foursquare, which I will talk about next.
As foodies, this was probably the most important app for us. Aside from reading/watching travel and food blogs/vlogs from our favourite bloggers and vloggers, this was our most used app to find good food.
The reviews are concise and tips are useful when deciding where and what to eat. This was were we found out about Pizza 4P’s, where I had some of the most amazing pizza I’ve ever had. I would never have considered trying pizza in Vietnam if it wasn’t for the amazing ratings. The photos are a good overview of what to eat even if there is no menu available online. You can also use these pictures to point to when they do not have an English menu. Previous customers usually also note down wifi passwords as a tip in the app, so you do not need to ask for it everywhere you go. This was super helpful when we were working in a coffeeshop. Aaron was also really into their sister app, Swarm, which allowed me to track all the places we’ve been to for blogging purposes.
I found this particularly useful when I am already at a location and looking for food to eat by using the “Nearby” ranking option. It is more difficult to use this to look for places that I plan to go to. This app’s usefulness really relies on it being popular in the location of choice. For example, we found more people used Foursquare in Vietnam and Japan, whereas, it was less popular in South Korea and Thailand. This lead us to many places that have closed down, as well as made us almost miss out on great places which had no reviews in the app.
4. Google Maps
With the advent of GPS equipped phones, one should in theory be able to locate anywhere they choose to go to.
I prefer Google Map’s interface over Apple Maps. It is more robust and provides more information on nearby attractions and restaurants. I sometimes find great places to see using the other apps mentioned above then save all my favourites onto my Google Maps, which gives me an overview of the city I am visiting and allows me to group my visits to several points of interest. I really appreciated it telling me how long it will take and how much it will cost to get somewhere by foot, public transportation and Uber. I can even book an Uber directly on the app! The bus/train route function, which has colour coding for different subway lines (see Featured Image), allows me to navigate the public transportation systems of a foreign city. For the points of interest itself, it provides reliable opening hours, for the most part, and well as some reviews, although not as extensive as TripAdvisor’s reviews. I particularly appreciate the graphs of the busiest times to visit the point of interest, based on historical and live data, so we can plan our visits and change our plans accordingly. This was how we were able to avoid a ridiculous line at T&K Seafood in Bangkok.
Google Maps has an offline function but this was not available for most of the places we visit this trip. From what I read, as long as there are non-alphabet characters used on the maps, the map cannot be downloaded offline. In addition, when searching for points of interest in Thailand and Japan, we found that just using the English name may lead us to the wrong location. It was much more reliable to use the actual Thai or Japanese characters to locate places. Of note, even the online version Google Maps is pretty useless in South Korea. The train routes were not available at all and the locating of points of interest is very unreliable. For hiking and more remote paths, Google Maps is again not too useful. We relied on Maps 3D Pro to keep us on track for our hiking trips. I also noticed that in a recent update, there are now multiple options when trying to save a point of interest (i.e. “favourites”, “want to go”, “starred places” or your own customized list). For my purposes, I preferred the simple star vs. no star before.
5. Google Translate
It was pretty much impossible for us to learn and be fluent in 4 new languages prior to our Asia trip, so we needed a way to communicate other than hand gestures. Here was where Google Translate came in handy.
The camera function available in Korean and Japanese was very helpful in understanding menus, labels and instruction sheets. This is a lot more effective than trying to write out the characters myself. It allowed us to translate specific characters as well as whole labels. When trying to search for one word translations, I feel more comfortable using this, as grammar is less of an issue when it comes to just a noun I want to use. In times of desperation, e.g. when talking to the employees at Def Dance in Seoul, it actually was able to allow me to have a reasonable conversation with others who did not speak English. There is also a mic function which I have not made too much use out of. Has anyone tried this? Let me know if it’s useful.
As someone who reads/writes another language (Chinese), I understand that Google Translate has its flaws and the translations can be comedic most of the time. Don’t rely on it being absolutely accurate. I.e. don’t make any business deals or do important negotiations based on this. The “live” camera function was not good. It often did not pick up on characters and display the translation properly. It was just floating psychedelic characters which made me nauseated. I also did not appreciate how there is a reminder for me to download this function every time I use the camera function. I knew I didn’t want this feature and was not interested in downloading it. I wish there was a way to stop this message from popping up!
So those are the apps I found most useful during my travels. Again, this is just my opinion. Let me know if you have any other apps you prefer or if there are any other functions of these apps that I have yet to discover!