Top travel apps

Before you fly away, be sure to download these five essential free mobile apps for international travel.

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As I was ready to embark on a recent trip to Thailand, my kids told me I needed to download WhatsApp. 

I immediately thought of WYSIWYG “What You See is What You Get,” a popular phrase back in the 1980s and ’90s. 

We were obviously speaking different languages. 

I quickly came up to speed not just on WhatsApp, but other traveler technology as well.

Here’s a look at a few mobile-app finds that I would recommend for those who love to travel internationally as well as folks getting ready for their first adventure — especially women traveling solo (which can be a wonderful way to go)! 



This free app is almost identical to the typical text messaging apps that come standard with any mobile phone, except it’s designed to use a wi-fi connection, versus cell phone minutes, to help you avoid costly long-distance charges.

It works on any smartphone model and desktop computers, too. And it’s free. (Charges may apply if you use cellular data.) 

Most foreign travelers use it to not only keep in touch with loved ones back at home, but also to text, call and share photos with new friends they meet along the way. 

With more than 1 billion users, WhatsApp (purchased by Facebook in 2014) is most popular with the younger generation. And yet I found it to be one of my most used and helpful apps during my vacation. 

Any time I met someone new, whether they were from France, Spain, Korea — regardless of age! — we were able to quickly share our contact data, create group chats and send photos to one another. 

With WhatsApp, you can also make voice and video calls and even leave voice messages. It also offers location tracking and sharing, a nice thing to have in an unfamiliar city when you’re trying to connect with members of your travel party or new friends. 

Before you head out, download this easy-to-use app that will keep you connected — even after the vacation is over. 

Google Translate

Google Translate

You can easily translate phrases on anytime, but there’s also a highly rated Google Translate app that’s free and ideal for international travel. 

Yes, you can learn a few key phrases in the language of the country or countries you’ll be visiting before you go. But on your trip, you may also encounter people who speak other languages from across the world. 

Google Translate (also available for desktop) includes 103 languages and is available offline (with 59 languages), which can be ideal if you’re backpacking or walking down narrow cobblestone streets and alleyways, where an internet connection is often hard to find.

Thanks to “instant camera translation,” you can translate foreign street signs and other print texts such as those on menus — photographically in real time, using your phone’s camera — which is especially helpful if you’re skeptical of what food, bug or animal you might be ordering! 

You also can take or import photos for higher quality translations; translate bilingual conversations on the fly; draw text characters instead of typing; and create your own phrasebook by starring and saving translated words and phrases for future reference.

Don’t let a language barrier prevent you from chatting it up with strangers on your next adventure. 

When you’re offline

When your phone’s lost its juice or you decide to simply unplug to better experience your surroundings while traveling, it’s a good idea to keep on hand some personal business cards (or even small slips of paper) that include your name and WhatsApp number.

As you meet new friends along the way, you can share your information (judiciously, of course) for them to connect with you another time. 

One of my best memories was meeting three Chinese men during an early morning beach walk. Of course, it was a rare occasion of having left my phone in the hotel room. Even though they didn’t speak a word of English and I don’t understand Chinese, we had an entire exchange of photo-taking, laughing, running in and out of the water, and then writing our names in the sand. I wish
I had thought to give them my number as well so I could look back fondly on a photograph of our short yet meaningful time together. 

When traveling internationally, it’s easy to see that regardless of where we’re from, we all speak the same languages of joy and love. 



Does the mere idea of packing stress you out? 

What to take, how much can you really get in that suitcase or backpack ­— it can all be very confusing. Travel experts agree: Pack as little as possible! If you want help organizing a list of items to include, the PackPoint app has you covered. Rated Fodor’s Best Travel App in 2019, PackPoint generates recommendations based on type of travel (business or leisure), destinations, number of nights and planned activities. 

This smart, free app even looks at the upcoming weather forecast to customize clothing and/or accessory options to make sure you’re prepared and not left out in the rain. 

For a small fee, you can upgrade to a premium option that allows users to connect to TripIt and Evernote apps. 

XE Currency

XE Currency

With 70 million downloads worldwide, XE Currency is the international traveler’s app of choice with its easy-to-use interface and features that allow you to: 

  • Monitor up to 10 currencies at once;
  • Set rate alerts and notifications;
  • Compare your cost with the mid-market rate and transaction rate;
  • Transfer currency in 65 currencies to more than 170 countries (fees apply);
  • Work offline.

One big question among newer travelers is whether to get foreign currency before traveling or upon arriving at their destination. Research shows that it’s best to exchange currency right here at home with your local bank or credit union and to sell it back upon return. These establishments often offer the highest exchange rates with the lowest fees.

Don’t be short-changed: Download this efficient, free app to ensure you have up-to-date pricing so you can literally get the most for your dollar. 


Meetup is an online community that connects people with shared interests to help facilitate in-person meetings. Its resulting app is a must for solo travelers or for anyone interested in meeting locals, ex-pats or fellow tourists.

Started in 2002 and purchased by privately held WeWork in 2017, Meetup caters to more than 35 million members with 300,000-plus groups, according to Business Insider.

That translates to approximately 4,000 meetups per day across the world, including travelers. 

As a solo traveler myself, I found it comforting to know that there was a group of people I could meet in an unfamiliar country where we had an immediate connection and at least one thing in common. 

In my case, the commonality was that we were traveling throughout Thailand at the same time. Getting together — in person — is an ideal way to share stories, get suggestions on places to visit, provide restaurant recommendations and make new friends, all in safe and public places. 

Search your travel dates and destinations on (and download the free app) before you leave so you don’t miss
an opportunity to connect with other likeminded travelers or locals during your stay.

Sheryl Stillman
Sheryl Stillman of Minnetonka poses while visiting a farm outside Chiang Mai as part of a two-week vacation that took her throughout Thailand, also including Phuket (above), a rain-forested, mountainous island off the Southeast Asian country’s west coast. Photos by Sheryl Stillman

Sheryl Stillman of Minnetonka has spent the last two decades traveling alone, both professionally and personally, capturing tips and tricks along the way. Learn more at