Best travel apps for backpackers

apps As a techy chick, many people asked me what sort of gadgets I was bringing along for a four-month trip. I could have brought lots of things but I only planned to bring my smart phone (no phone service, just as a wifi access device). This response surprised quite a few people and was followed up by tons of questions: Don’t you need a Kindle to read books? Don’t you need a laptop to Skype home? Don’t you need a USB drive with your important documents? Nope, don’t need any of it.

Here’s how to get by with just a deactivated smart phone and a few sweet apps:

1. Find a place to stay – HostelWorld and Agoda
Both HostelWorld and Agoda allow you to search, price check, and book accommodation through the app. No local phone calls, no mobile-unfriendly websites – all you need is the app and a wifi signal. Typically, I would book 1 day in advance or day-of so I had plenty of flexibility. It helped when you arrived in a new city to have an address for a tuk-tuk driver. HostelWorld works great for hostels and Agoda works great for hotels (when you need to splurge for a nice shower).

Get HostelWorld for Android or iPhone

Get Agoda for Android or iPhone

2. Store your important documents offline – Google Drive
When traveling alone, access to a few documents provided some peace of mind. I wanted to store scans of my passport and the phone numbers for my debit and credit cards in case any of them were lost or stolen. I also wanted to store my visa for Vietnam, my flight details, addresses for postcards home, notes from other travelers, etc. Most importantly, I wanted access to everything offline so I wasn’t dependent on a wifi signal. Google Drive does all this and more.

Get Google Drive for Android or iPhone

3. Call home – Viber
Viber makes international calls and text messages for free, all over a wifi signal – genius. Call quality wasn’t the best, but it was a great way to make short phone calls to stay in touch. The user you’re calling must also have the app installed, so this doesn’t work for local phone calls. A paid Skype account is still the best option for that.

Get Viber for Android or iPhone

4. Read up on your destination offline – WikiTravel.org + Pocket
WikiTravel.org is the best travel guide you could ask for. The information is up-to-date and updated by fellow travelers. I used the “Get In” sections to get my bearings in a new place and avoid common scams. Pocket is an app that converts webpages into documents that can be read offline. I used Pocket to store WikiTravel.org pages on my future destintations so I could read them offline while I was on a bus or at the airport. The combination was a life saver!

Get Pocket for Android or iPhone

5. Read ebooks – Aldiko Book Reader
Aldiko Book Reader reads .epub files all from your smart phone. I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of charging another device like a Kindle or any other e-reader, so I opted for Aldiko. At first, I wasn’t sure if I would like the small page size, but I ended up really liking it – the text was large enough and a small device was easy to hold in one hand.

Get Aldiko for Android

6. Negotiate like a boss – Easy Currency Converter
When you show up in town with a backpack on your back, all the street vendors see dollar signs written all over you. A quick currency calculation can save you some moola when you start negotiating for goods/services. I used Easy Currency Converter, but any currency app will do. I liked this one in particular because it updated the exchange rates in real time (with a wifi signal) and it saved your favorite countries for quick reference.

Get Easy Currency Converter for Android

Fellow travelers: Have I missed any?

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Follow up: I must pack light… very light.

packlightI began this adventure with a mission – pack light. It made everything easier: less weight to carry, less to worry about if my backpack gets stolen, less attractive to thieves, easier to keep track of everything, easier to lift onto the top bunk. However, packing light is easier said than done.

Check out my original packing list to see what I brought on a four-month trip. Now that I’m back, this is what I would have changed:

I should have brought…

  • a long sleeved shirt
    In conservative areas I felt more comfortable when I was covered up. I brought a jacket, but it didn’t breathe in the humidity. A light long-sleeved shirt was perfect.
  • a lighter
    Lighters are great for seeing down dark alleys, getting leeches off you, cutting extra strings off clothing, etc.
  • Tiger Balm
    This was the only product that soothed my bug bites enough for me to forget about them for an hour or two. An ice cube followed by some Tiger Balm = bliss.
  • more Q-Tips
    I tried my hardest to find Q-Tip brand cotton swabs abroad and failed miserably. I’m particular about my cotton swabs, so if you are too, stock up before you leave!

I shouldn’t have brought…

  • reusable water bottle
    It was very difficult to find safe drinking water for refilling in Asia. Unfortunately, bottled water is the safest option and it is readily available everywhere. I ended up shipping my bottle back because it was under-utilized and took up valuable space.
  • water purification tablets
    I brought these in case I got in a water pinch but never needed to use them.
  • cell phone
    I had intended to use this to make local phone calls. I was able to meet all my needs with my smart phone instead.

I’m SO glad I brought…

  • sarong
    I absolutely LOVED my sarong. Read my dedication post >
  • sleep sheet
    Whenever I wasn’t 100% certain about the cleanliness of my bed, I busted out my silk sleep sheet. It covered my pillow and was the perfect cocoon to slip into. I knew it was clean and it kept me cool during hot nights.
  • argon oil
    I felt like a bit of a princess when I packed a fancy hair product, but I’m glad I did. Ocean water, sun exposure and wind really damaged my hair. When I started using my argon oil again it looked and felt much healthier again.
  • face moisturizer
    I also felt silly bringing face moisturizer. But, when I got out of the shower and still didn’t feel totally clean, the scent of my face moisturizer brought me to a clean state of mind. Little “luxuries” from home can really make a difference.
  • hand sanitizer
    In some areas, you’re lucky to get a sink in the bathroom. When you do get a sink, you’re even luckier if there is soap available. Stay healthy, bring hand sanitizer.
  • watch
    Whether you’re catching a train or meeting a travel buddy for dinner, you always need to know what time it is. In many situations, busting out a smart phone to check the time is not the best move (clear display of wealth in a poor country). Much easier to glace at your wrist.

In the end, you don’t need nearly as much as you think. Packing light is the way to go!

Travel buddies are joy

When I bought my plane ticket for this trip, I only bought one. Just one ticket, just for me, goin’ solo. As an extroverted person, I was worried about how I’d fare when spending a significant amount of time alone. As it turns out, I can count the number of days I was completely alone on one hand (and I was gone for 116 days!).

This post is dedicated to all my travel buddies, who I had the pleasure of spending time with both long and short term. We explored the world together – saw the sights, rented motorbikes, swam in the ocean, ate delicious food, soaked it all in. We swapped life stories. We shared experiences I’ll never forget. Even though we shared only a few weeks or days together, I’ll cherish those moments forever.

Here’s to you:

Travel buddies from home

  • Mandy (4 weeks in Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, N. Vietnam)
  • Mom & Dad (5 weeks in Australia, New Zealand)

Travel buddies on the road

Long-term:

  • Celine from France (2 weeks in Vietnam)
  • Mack from the U.S. (10 days in Cambodia)
  • Liberty & Lisa from the U.S. and Canada (2 weeks in Bali)
  • Sam from Australia (2 weeks in Gilis/Bali)

Short-term:

Amy (Scouse), Anne, Argo, Bianca, Brian, Chris, Danielle, David, Dominika, Duhwee, Jane, Jen, Jennifer, Ketut, Leona, Marlotte, Melinda, Melissa, Michele, Mike (The Gov), Mulray, Muria, Nerine, Ong, Rory, Sara, Tola, Tuomas, Walker, Wilkie, and all the ones I’ve forgotten!

The Gilis in photos

Ubud in photos