When I began traveling, I thought I knew how to use a smartphone, but eight months into the trip, I had learned tons of smartphone techniques that I wish I knew from the outset. These techniques helped me:
- Learn more about the places I was visiting
- Give myself self-guided tours
- Navigate accurately
- Learn local languages
- Budget and save money
- Discover places that were off my radar
Not only do these techniques help in these areas, they can all be done OFFLINE! I’m a huge proponent of using your phone offline, especially when travelling. I actually travelled for 8 months without using a sim card! That’s right, 8 months, NO SIM CARD. While I understand a sim card might be helpful in an emergency situation, I found I didn’t need one. Here are the benefits of traveling without a sim card or travelling in airplane mode:
- No internet distraction: When you are travelling, you’ll maximize your experience by being in the present and reducing mental distractions. Research has shown that attention is significantly reduced when a phone is present. By not having a sim card, you will not be wondering “who texted me”, “how many likes did I get”, or “did my friend email me back?” Everywhere I’ve traveled has had internet in cafes and accommodations. You can wait to check on this stuff when you get to a restaurant or accommodation.
- Save money: If you don’t buy sim cards, that’s more money you can spend on traveling
- Save battery life: Cellular connectivity is a huge battery drain. By always keeping your phone in airplane mode, you’ll be surprised at how long your battery will last.
- Force yourself to interact with locals: If you don’t have the crutch of internet, you’ll find you are interacting more with the world around you, and this will allow you to get more out of your trip.
This post is an overview of the techniques I wish I knew at the beginning of the trip, which I think can help any short- or long-term traveler. I used an iPhone, however these techniques can be used for Android as well. I’m also interested in learning about your techniques – how do you use your smartphone? I would love to hear your comments at the end.
1. Create a “language cheat-sheet” In your notes app
One way to experience culture is by interacting with locals. When I travelled through Asia, most locals didn't know English. By learning a few words in their language, I was able to have fun interactions with locals. Speaking a few words in their language also allowed them to warm-up to me and encouraged them to help me.
To learn some of the language in a country, you of course need to practice. To do this, I found it very helpful to create a language cheat sheet in my notes app. Before going to a country, I would write down a list of common words in my notes app, google for the words in the local languages, and write what I found next to the corresponding words in the notes app.
Words that I found to be most helpful are:
- Good morning / good night
- Good food / delicious
- This is beautiful
- Thank you
Once you have your cheat sheet completed, leave it open on your phone. Whenever you need to say one of these words, force yourself to say it in the local language. If you forget, bring out your phone and check. For the first few days when I’m in a country, I will often constantly be checking my phone to remember the words. By the end of my time in a country, however, I’ve remembered the words and often begin learning new ones.
Even though you will likely only learn a few words, the ability to interact with locals and experience the culture by learning these few words will be well worth the effort. And, it’s fun! Additionally, when locals see you are making an effort, they sometimes will help you learn new words, or perfect the words you already know, so you can really hone your language skills. You'll be surprised with how far a few words can go.
2. Create a notes file in your notes app
When you immerse yourself in a foreign country and culture, you are inundated with new information. It is easy to forget so much of what you learned if you don’t write it down. Simple notes can do wonders to jog your memory later. Plus, writing notes is kinesthetic and will help cement what you’re learning in your mind. You might not go back to the notes page again, but by writing it down, you’ll be impressed with how much you remember.
3. Create a spending file in your notes app
Since I was traveling for eight months, I wanted to keep track of my spending. I also had an interest in the costs of different categories of spending, such as food and accommodations. Since most of the places I traveled to accepted cash only, it was not possible to track expenses through my credit card online. Therefore, for every country to which I traveled, I created a new spending file in my notes app. Every time I spent money, I made a note of it on my phone. This sounds cumbersome, but it’s not – it just became a habit. When I was back at my hostel, I would enter my costs in excel, which allowed me to run any analysis I wanted. This is what enabled me to create the KPI page and provide a cost overview in my travel blogs.
4. Create a “Things To Do” file in your notes app
If you are traveling long-term, you will likely be making your schedule as you go. This is what I did. I discovered that I often felt concerned that I was missing things. I had this mindset that each place I visited would be the only time I would visit that place in my life, so I had to see and do EVERYTHING. But how did I know I was seeing and doing the best stuff? How would I know if I was missing something?
Of course, there’s no way to do everything, or to know if you are missing things. I did find a technique, however, that greatly improves my ability to know what to do in each city. This is by aggregating the experiences of people you meet along the way. To do this, create a Things To Do file in your notes app for each country or city. Whenever you meet someone who has been to that destination, ask them about it and make notes in your file as they tell you about it. It's a brain dump and will not look pretty, but it will give you the starting points to know what to research, where to go, and what other travelers have enjoyed.
When I began traveling through Southeast Asia, I knew a few months down the road I would be making my way to China. China, with its size and history, felt intimidating to me. How would I know what to do and where to go? Whenever I met travelers in SE Asia who had been to China, I’d ask them. As they told me, I’d jot down notes in my CHINA TTD file. By the time I got to China, I had a ton of suggestions all written out. This gave me confidence in the plans I made. It equipped me with the aggregate experiences of everyone I met. That is powerful. You’ll learn a ton by aggregating all this information.
As you travel, you want to absorb as much information as possible in an easy way that doesn’t rely on your brain. Create a TTD file in your notes app so you can use the aggregate knowledge of everyone you meet along the way.
5. PDF websites on your phone
I wish I knew this technique at the beginning of my trip. If you have an iPhone, you can save webpages by clicking the icon “save PDF to iBooks”. Then, you can go to iBooks and scroll through the webpages offline.
I often PDF Wikipedia pages and blogs. That way, when I’m at a historical site, I can pull up what I saved and read all about it. For instance, when I was biking around Ayutthaya, Thailand, the capital of Siam until 1767, I saved a Wikipedia page the city's history and temples. When I’d get to a temple, I had all the historical information in my phone, and could access it without wifi or a cellular connection.
This technique takes a few seconds – just google and save, and you’re equipped with information you need and it’s all offline.
6. Use Maps.me
Maps.me is the MOST USEFULL app I use when I travel. I didn’t know the breadth of its functionality until using it for months. Maps.me is an application that provides offline maps. It is open-sourced and some of the content is user generated. What this yields is local maps that are shockingly accurate with helpful location descriptions. For instance, when I was staying in a village in Tana Toraja, Indonesia, a remote area on the island of South Sulawesi, Maps.me had all the roads and locations, helping me to navigate to places like the weekend buffalo market. When I was in George Town, Malaysia, Maps.me had a bar labeled "cheapest booze in town", and sure enough, the bar was cheap and lively!
Maps.me allows me to give myself self-guided walking tours, or to figure out where to navigate when I first arrive to a city, while having my phone in airplane mode. Here is the basic way to use maps.me:
1) Zoom into the geographic area you would like to navigate, and a box pops up asking if you would like to download the map
2) When you have wifi access, download the map
3) Voila! You have an offline map. Smartphones’ geolocation works WITHOUT cellular connectivity or wifi. Thus, leave your phone in airplane mode.
Here are the pro-tips that I wish I knew when I first started using maps.me:
1) Save landmarks of interest or importance. You can do this by tapping on a landmark and then tapping on the star that says “save” underneath. The night before I explore a city, I go to google and search "[city name] blog" and open up a bunch of blogs in different tabs. I also open up the Lonely Planet page, and sometimes the Wikipedia page. I skim through all these pages, and when I get to landmarks or places I'm interested in seeing, I save them to on my maps.me. In about 30 minutes, I can have 20-30 saved locations. While saving locations, I do the techniques below, which is what enables self-guided tours.
Saving your locations also gives you a nice visual map of where you’ve traveled. It doubles as a way to remember where you’ve been and what you've seen.
2) COLOR-CODE types of landmarks to make it easy for you to identify on a map. To do this, push the white location bar on the bottom of the screen UP once you’ve clicked on a landmark. Then tap “Edit Bookmark”, then tap the color menu and choose your color. Here is my color-coding system:
I. Accommodations or places in which I stay I save as yellow – I chose yellow because it is bright and easy to pick up right away when looking at the map
II. Religious sites such as temples and churches I save as blue
III. Transportation hubs, such as airports, train stations, and bus stops, I save as purple
IV. General areas such as parks or streets I save as green
V. Restaurants I save as brown
VI. All other tourist attractions that do not fit into any of the above, such as museums and historical buildings, I save as red
3) Write notes in your saved locations. This is the key to giving yourself a self-guided tour. You can do this by pushing up on the white location bar at the bottom of the screen once you’ve tapped on a location. Then tap ”Edit Bookmark”, then write your notes where it says “Personal notes” in the white box. I stumbled upon this technique when I was in Bangkok and was fooling around with the app. I was reading through several blogs and saving a ton of places in my maps.me. When I noticed the Personal notes section, I copied and pasted information on the sites I was saving. Then, when exploring Bangkok, I would glance at my map, see what sites were around me, and read the notes I inserted. This technique is so useful, I use it for all types of navigation now, not just when I'm a tourist. If I’m taking a trip somewhere and want to remember what train to take, I just make a note of it in the train station location which I save in my map.
TripScout provides a mobile application for offline city guides for several cities around the globe, including audio guides and map guides. It provides much of the content and capabilities in numbers 4, 5, and 6, so you don't have to do any of the work, and makes touring a city fun and easy! If TripScout has a guide in a city I'm going to, TripScout is my "first stop" on my phone.