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Essential Travel Apps That Experienced Travel Editors Actually Use

By AFAR Editors

Nov 27, 2019

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These must-have apps for iOS and Android make it easier to organize your travel plans, whether you need to book flights and hotel rooms or translate words from a different language.

Courtesy of Good Studio / Shutterstock 

These must-have apps for iOS and Android make it easier to organize your travel plans, whether you need to book flights and hotel rooms or translate words from a different language.

AFAR editors hand-picked these apps to make traveling easier at every step of your trip, from outlining a packing list and booking hotels to figuring out exchange rates and translating words.

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Most seasoned travelers develop their own techniques for planning and orchestrating trips that go smoothly. But even for people who travel frequently, parts of the trip-taking process can still be complicated. AFAR editors are certainly no strangers to travel tasks like booking flights and hotels; renting cars for road trips; or navigating public transportation and language barriers in unfamiliar cities. Whether you’re trying to stay calm during a turbulent flight or just need assistance converting currency rates, our editors swear by these essential travel apps.

To prepare before your trip

PackPoint (iOS, Free | Android, Free)

“PackPoint does a great job at simplifying the art of how to pack a suitcase. I love this app because it personalizes your packing list depending on where you’re going and the activities you have planned. All you have to do is download the app, plug in the destination, and input information about your upcoming travels such as duration and time of year. Then, PackPoint provides you with trip-specific packing recommendations based on the weather in your destination and the activities you have planned. The app even takes more nuanced details into account, such as whether you’ll have access to laundry facilities where you’re going and have the ability to wash and rewear your clothes. Even though I’m a pretty organized person, I keep turning back to this super helpful packing app to help me channel my inner Marie Kondo.”—Sarah Buder, digital assistant editor

TripIt (iOS, Free | Android, Free)

“I’ve been using this app for seven years and it’s my absolute favorite. TripIt automatically tracks your confirmation emails for flight itineraries, hotel or Airbnb bookings, car rentals, restaurant reservations, and even any event tickets you might buy, then populates those travel plans into a little itinerary that you can view in one place. The easy-to-use organizational app makes it simple to share the consolidated information with family or friends, so you can send them your itinerary directly and avoid having to answer repeated texts like, “When are you landing again?” to coordinate an airport pickup. TripIt even features a personalized Travel Stats page for really data-hungry folks who want to know how many trips they’ve taken or countries they’ve visited—and that’s just in the free version! The pro version costs $49 per year and includes extras like real-time flight alerts, TSA wait times, and loyalty reward program updates.”—Sara Button, assistant editor

Drops (iOS, Free | Android, Free)

“I love this language learning app; I use it all the time to prepare for international trips. Drops gamifies the educational experience, using flashcard-like mnemonic matching exercises, or memory devices, to teach vocabulary words. It works much better for my learning style than other language programs that focus on grammatical structure. If I’m going to an unfamiliar country for a short trip, I don’t worry about speaking the language perfectly, I just want to remember important words and phrases quickly. Drops offers 36 languages including Ainu, the language spoken by an indigenous Japanese culture that lives in Hokkaido.”—Maggie Fuller, associate editor

For navigating the airport and long flights

Mobile Passport (iOS, Free | Android, Free)


“I learned about Mobile Passport from AFAR’s marketing director Katie Galeotti, who said she sometimes gets through U.S. Customs and Border Protection even faster than her husband who has Global Entry. I decided to try it out the next time I returned from a trip abroad. Before going through customs at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), I downloaded the free app, filled out my declaration forms and passport information, then submitted the mobile documents for inspection and approval. Lo and behold, I was able to move through separate, faster customs lines at SFO in about five minutes just by showing my encrypted receipt. Since I really hate waiting around airports (even for checked luggage), I can’t say how satisfying it was to breeze out of SFO after a long international flight.”—Sara Button, assistant editor

Priority Pass (iOS, Free | Android, Free)

“Several premium credit cards such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card and the American Express Platinum Card offer Priority Pass memberships to card holders, which grant access to more than 1,300 airport lounges around the world. I have a Priority Pass membership through my credit card, which means I can duck into airport lounges even if I’m flying economy. The problem? I often lose track of my membership card, which is where the app comes in. Not only does it allow you to ‘save’ your card and present it on your phone, it also lets you search eligible lounges and discounts by airport, clueing you in to what amenities you can expect when you arrive. An added bonus: The app’s indoor airport maps only cover 10 airports around the world but are incredibly detailed and have a navigational component that tells you how to get from Point A to Point B—and what you’ll see along the way.”—Katherine LaGrave, digital features editor

Rain Rain (iOS, Free | Android, Free)

“If you’ve ever been 30,000 feet in the air, stuck ahead of a seat-kicker, and need to find your chill, then Rain Rain is for you. The free app on both iOS and Android has dozens of sounds, including nine variations of rain and real-life noise-tracks that cover everything from ‘Mississippi at Night’ to ‘Fish Tank.’ You can zen out to gentle wind chimes or an alarm clock ticking, and even create your own sound combinations, like ‘Car in the Rain’ layered on top of ‘Cicadas.’ There are no ads, and you can even set a time limit for the sounds to fade out. I’m already calmer just thinking about it.”—Katherine LaGrave, digital features editor

Mobile apps can help travelers understand public transportation options and also map out other routes, such as by bike.

Getting around in a destination

Google Maps (iOS, Free | Android, Free)

“I use Google Maps all the time in my everyday life, and that certainly doesn’t change when I travel. The navigational app helps me find handy spots like banks or gas stations; understand public transportation options, including buses, trains, and ride-sharing services; map out walking and cycling routes; and keep track of restaurant reservations. It also allows me to easily share my location with travel buddies and create customized maps with flagged locations that I want to visit, which I can download for later use when I’m offline.”—Sara Button, assistant editor

Citymapper (iOS, Free | Android, Free)

“My fascination for public transportation borders on obsessive. I feel compelled to check out the buses and trains—and streetcars, ferries, trams, share bikes—in every city I visit. Citymapper, available for 40 international cities, feeds my compulsion. The app suggests routes and alternative routes in destinations from Copenhagen to Tokyo; it shows maps, fares, and trip length with a breakdown of how much time will be spent on each mode of transportation per option. Notably, the travel app also maps out city routes for wheelchair accessibility. When my husband and I traveled to London with our teens, we discovered Citymapper’s ‘Share Your ETA’ feature. If the kids grew weary of a museum, they would type in the address of our flat, get their directions from the app, and then share their route with us. The feature let us watch their progress until they arrived safe and sound. They felt capable and independent; we felt secure and able to drink at the pub in peace.”—Ann Shields, travel guides editor

REI Co-op National Parks Guide (iOS, Free | Android, Free)


“This outdoor adventure app offers guides to 63 national parks, monuments, and recreation areas with need-to-know information on food, accommodation, and activities, as well as detailed trail and annual climate data. The mobile app is actually very useful when you’re in the park, but I personally like to use it in the early stages of planning for inspiration. Before a road trip or camping adventure, I’ll browse through a national park’s most beautiful features or best hikes to get excited about my trip.”—Maggie Fuller, associate editor

Translation apps and currency converters can come in handy for travelers who don’t speak the local language in a given destination.

During your trip

Google Translate (iOS, Free | Android, Free)

“I use Google Translate pretty much whenever I travel to countries where I don’t speak the local language. It’s so simple: All you have to do is enter a word, phrase, or sentence that you want to translate and then indicate the specific languages, such as Japanese to English, or Creole to Spanish. The app can translate meanings in 103 languages, and it lets you save them to your own personal phrasebook so you can remember them when you’re offline. It also offers camera translation in 37 languages, which only requires that you take a picture of a word in order to translate its meaning. Sure, Google’s language tool isn’t the only translation app out there, but it’s definitely the one I use most.”—Sarah Buder, digital assistant editor

HotelTonight (iOS, Free | Android, Free)

“HotelTonight lets you book last-minute hotel rooms at incredibly affordable rates in cities like New York City, Paris, and Barcelona. The app’s inventory is well vetted, with legitimately cool boutique hotels categorized by easy-to-use filters like basic, solid, hip, luxe. I became a HotelTonight devotee recently, during my second pregnancy. I was absolutely exhausted but I couldn’t nap at home because my toddler would come find me and, with her adorable gap-toothed grin, yell, ‘TIME TO GET UP, MOMMY!’ So I made a deal with my husband: If I could find a good hotel deal in Manhattan for under $150, I could book it day-of and sneak away for a few hours (or a night’s) sleep. I started pulling up HotelTonight daily—I was desperate—and filtered by neighborhoods I was in for meetings or ‘hip’ hotels like the Ace or Moxy that were half their normal price. The app makes staying at top hotels in traditionally pricey cities more of a bargain—though I bet HotelTonight’s founder never expected it to appeal to the secondary market of overtired moms. I booked the Ace and cherished every minute.”—Laura Dannen Redman, digital content director

XE Currency (iOS, Free | Android, Free)

Math has never been my strongest subject, which makes doing currency conversions in my head essentially my travel kryptonite. It’s not the sexiest app out there, but XE Currency converter is probably the app I use the most when I travel abroad. Before your trip, just add the currency of the country you’re traveling to into your list on the app. Then when you land, all you have to do is plug in the price you want to convert to U.S. dollars or otherwise, and the app will spit out a rate equivalent in mere seconds. It’s super easy to use on the fly while you’re shopping or at a restaurant. You can even use the app to view rate conversions when you’re offline, as long as you saved the relevant currency to the app while using Wi-Fi.”—Lyndsey Matthews, destination news editor

Splitwise (iOS, Free | Android, Free)

“This app tracks shared expenses. If you’re traveling with friends on a group trip, it spares you the awkward conversations about whose credit card pays for dinner or who’s going to call the Lyft, and it prevents resentment that could arise from anyone paying more or less than their fair share. If you’re extra nerdy, like me and my friends, you can turn it into a game! You try to work it out so at the end of the trip everyone has wound up paying as close to the same amount as possible.”—Jeremy Saum, executive editor

More Travel App Recommendations from AFAR

→ The Most Helpful Translation Apps for Travelers

→ 6 Awesome Hiking Apps for Adventurous Travelers

→ Navigate the National Parks Better With These Essential Apps

Free Apps and Websites That Make Eco-Friendly Travel Easy

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