Even if you don't plan to phone home while away on vacation, a few well-chosen apps can serve as concierge, tour guide, translator and lifeline when you need them the most. As a tech writer and (theoretically, at least) an expert on mobile apps, I’m always on the lookout for unusual new ones that think outside the box. My recent search for new travel apps that are helpful, fun and simple to use unearthed the following 10. They should erase any doubt or guilt you might have about buying an overseas data bundle.
10 Terrific Travel Apps
1. Postcard on the Run: You do remember the quaint ritual of sending postcards to friends and family? Now you can save some valuable margarita time with this clever app for your iPhone, iPad or Android.
Once you download the app, you simply take a photo or pick one from your phone's image gallery. After tapping out a quick message, you select a recipient from your address book, then add a signature using your finger as a pen. The coolest part: A day or so later, depending on your mail service, an actual postcard will land in the recipient’s home mailbox. If you can't remember Aunt Sara's address, the app has a clever Postal Gopher feature that automatically emails or texts the person and requests this information.
A basic card sent to the United States is 99 cents, chargeable to your credit or debit card. You can add such extras as a tiny map of your location (found using GPS) or even a scratch ’n’ sniff scent, like “sun lotion” or “ocean breeze,” for about 50 cents more. Free
2. IAmHere: When a postcard, even an electronic one, is too much work, this simple app for iPhone or iPad will grab your current location from the nearest GPS satellite and email it to a friend or relative as a Google Maps link, along with a brief message typed by you. Here's a tip: Send off a blast message from the airport once you land as a quick way of saying "Hi, we got here fine. Still alive. See ya later," without having to dial a half dozen numbers. Free.
3. Word Lens: Even “seen it all” tech writers like me sometimes do a double take at a particularly remarkable bit of technology, like Word Lens. This augmented reality app uses your iPhone or iPad camera and some very clever software to take a printed sign or menu in a foreign language and translate it into English, overwriting the original text in the same font and even from the same angle.
It is hard to do this app justice with a simple description: You really need to see it at work. It isn't perfect yet — it’s currently available only in French and Spanish and struggles with handwritten letters — but when it works, it’s like magic. Free download; language packs at $4.99 each.
4. Movie Looks HD You want to preserve your vacation memories, so why not make them look as good as you can? This app is like a mini–film editing and processing studio for your iPhone or iPad. It can transform landscapes photographed on dreary days into vibrant ones, make colors in your footage pop, or enshroud images in moody noir palettes. Any device with a phone cam can turn wobbly video clips into professional looking vacation movies using the same kind of color processing effects that give Hollywood movies their distinctive looks. $1.99.
5. Urban Spoon: Not new, but worth including in any round-up. This popular app for iPhone, iPad or Android takes the hassle of out finding the best eating places anywhere in the world. Using GPS to ascertain your location, it will list nearby restaurants, cafés and diners in order of distance. Each comes with reviews, which are user-submitted and presumably more objective.
The app's coolest feature is the Shake. You set three fruit machine–like “dials” for place name, cuisine type and price, then shake your device to get a random restaurant recommendation based on those preferences. (There’s a button to press if for some reason you don’t like the idea of shaking your phone.) You can “lock” the dials with a tap so that you can focus your choices; i.e., only Chinese food or restaurants in an affordable price range. Free.
6. mPassport: Illness or accident can turn a vacation into a nightmare, so knowing how to get medical help provides vital peace of mind. mPassport comes in city-specific versions (just download, for instance, London or Budapest when you visit) that give you fingertip access to doctors, medical clinics and pharmacies with easy-to-follow directions and instant contact numbers. The app for iPhone or iPad covers 30 major cities on five continents with more to come.
All the medics indexed by mPassport are there by invitation only and are guaranteed to speak English. Also useful is a handy drug equivalency guide that gives you international brand and generic names for prescription drugs to aid you in finding prescribed medication when away from home. 99¢ per city.
7. Hearplanet: What's more necessary for travel than a good guidebook? How about a guide that you don't have to carry around with you, or even read for that matrer. Hearplanet grabs your location via GPS, then uses Google maps to associate useful snippets of audio description with the surrounding area. You get interesting facts about landmarks, historical sites and even public transport links in locations from San Francisco to Sevagram in India.
The app for Apple products or Androids uses audio content from Wikipedia and user submissions, with some clips provided by tourism companies. Even if you don't want to use it as a walking tour guide, Hearplanet can give you a feel for a place before you set foot outside your hotel room. $3.99.
8. Smart Traveler: Not every app gets to feature the Great Seal of the United States as part of its icon. This one happens to be, however, a product of the U.S. Department of State. It's designed to help Americans enjoy foreign travel by knowing that their government is monitoring any potential trouble spots or emergencies from natural disasters to terrorism.
The meat of this app for Apple products is the list of the State Department’s official Travel Alerts, which keep you abreast of anything the government considers a short-term threat to travelers. In addition to its browseable list, the app can help you find a U.S. embassy or consulate in the event of an emergency, and provide assistance if your passport is lost or stolen. Free.
9. Wikitude is also ideal for getting your bearings in a foreign city by using more augmented reality — this time it has your iPhone or iPad or Android give you a sort of “heads up” display. The phone screen shows you what is in front of you, as captured by the phone's camera, and overlays it with speech bubbles that can be tapped to give useful information. If you are looking at a street scene, the app might superimpose labels on storefronts, which you can tap to visit the company's website, or onto a famous landmark to give an instant primer.
The app uses sites like TripAdvisor, Hotels.com and Wikipedia as data sources so there is an element of advertising to some of the entries. The sheer wealth of information, however, more than makes up for that. Free.
10. TravelButton: This helpful app hooks your Android phone up to your hotel's phone system so that incoming calls are routed to your room via your cellphone. The app makes getting the concierge, room service or a wake-up call just a screen tap away. The app also comes with a “Nearby” button that instantly shows you local points of interest. Free (iOS version for Apple coming soon).
Stuart Houghton is the former U.K. editor at Kotaku.com and a freelance tech writer with more than 15 years of experience covering science, computing and gaming for British newspapers and the Web.