The Best Travel Apps for Road Warriors and Explorers
Want to hit the road, but don't know where to start? Our favorite apps will get you ready to roll (A Guest Post written by my baby daddy, Ignacio Oreamuno)
Seasoned travelers are quick to say that all the GPS technologies that we now enjoy have killed the joy of traveling and discovering. You used to be able to find a deserted beach and claim it as your own for years, whereas now any bozo with Google Earth can not only find 'your beach' but quickly make it popular on TripAdvisor. So these days, it may seem as if there’s nothing else to discover and to lay your flag on.
I understand the romanticism, but even old school Pirates in the Caribbean had compasses and maps. I’m a modern day nomad so I’m going to share with you the technology and methods that I use to travel around and discover great adventures!
One of the best discoveries in our trip has been understanding that the travel between point A and point B is an important part of the journey. Nothing is more depressing to me than a modern highway with its tractor trailer trucks, fast food and disgusting billboards. Unless forced by the situation or timing, I refuse to take highways. We're still able to move fast enough off-highway, but we also get a feel for the land, giving us plenty to lay our eyes on without concentrating on passing trucks or being passed. Not all people know or use this feature but in Google Maps or Waze you can simply check “avoid highways” when you select your route and let it map out a highway-less path for your trip.
We could not do without the AllStays Camp & RV app. This incredible app is expensive (over $10 dollars) but I have used it every single day, several times a day on this trip.
I usually do not know where we’re going to sleep or camp out on a travel day. We just leave wherever we are and drive. When it’s my turn to take the passenger seat in the Great White I simply pull up the app and select a campground with the help of this app. What’s great is that it lets you filter your search in a variety of ways. If I’m looking for a cheap no-frills campsite and I only want to pay 25 bucks, I can search for that. If I’m looking for somewhere solid to stay for a week I can search for a more expensive one with great reviews and amenities. I can even set it to look only for ones that are members of the discount clubs we use (Sam’s Club, Passport America or KOA).
Once you find your campsite, the app lets you milk it for other really useful searches like rest stops, dump sites, RV repair places, overnight parking (like Walmart), state parks, and low clearance bridges. If you are traveling in a trailer or motorhome this is the app to get!
Passport America has been another incredible find. For only a $44 USD yearly membership you get access to a 50% discount on thousands of campgrounds across North America. This week, we stayed at an awesome campsite 15 minutes from downtown Austin with wifi/cable/electricity/water/sewer for only about $25 bucks a day. I thought the Passport America sites would be a notch down (quality-wise) from the more expensive ones like KOA, but I was proven wrong. To be honest, it gives a road warrior so much satisfaction to know you are paying 50% off that it makes anything wrong with any campsite seem like a problem one can ignore. I use the Passport America app for finding these gems and even though the app is kinda old and crappy, the information is up-to-date, giving you the details of each Passport America discount as it varies from campsite to campsite (some exclude weekends, or have a maximum time allocation for the discount).
No list like this could be written without including Google Earth, the mother of GPS visualizers. Google Earth is an app I use a lot in Costa Rica when I need to find secret routes to off-road destinations, and I have used it for similar purposes while in North America. I like to take the Great White off-roading and finding an online guide with off-road maps is hard. Google Earth gives you the best satellite view of a deserted road before you get there. I’ve been in the middle of incredible roads in the middle of nowhere and knowing I can ‘see’ the road from above with Google Earth gives me a feeling of safety. You can, of course, simply use Google maps and click satellite view but you can’t manipulate or see the view as well, so for this purpose I vote on making sure you play with and use Google Earth for routing like this.
We love biking with our daughter and I’ve discovered that wherever you travel, there’s no better way to discover a city than to bike it. TrailLink is the app by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, which converts old train tracks into bike trails. I don’t trust drivers and I have a massive fear of getting hit by them when I bike, so having a clear option to bike on car-less trails is something which I really love. I have used this app in big cities, small towns and hard-to-reach destinations, and I have never been disappointed. The trails have been gorgeous, with hardly any people, but all immaculately conserved. The app lets you know useful information like all the free parking places along the route so you can chose where to start or end easily, as well as the location of bathrooms along your ride. Other users post reviews and photos which let you gauge which trails to use and I have found the reviews to be bang on. I usually remember to leave a review behind each time I use it to help the database. What’s really cool is that it gives bikers detailed information on the grade of the trail so you know if it can be done in a city bike or if you need a more robust mountain bike. I purchased a one year membership to the conservancy which was $18 USD and gives you the perks of using the app in offline mode and many other benefits you can read about on their website (click here).
I’m listing both ViewRanger and Gaia GPS together because I’ve used them both and like them the same. When you’re in the middle of nowhere and want to find hiking, walking or biking trails as well as be able to see a detailed topographical map, these apps are the ones to get. I have gone to many major state parks and taken main hiking trails and still gotten lost because of poor signaling. Having these apps with you allows you to have a solid offline map with every single minor and major route. Both apps are highly complex and while I haven’t gone too deep into them, you can do things like set waypoints, record your route, read alternative routes others have taken, and even download many different types of maps (at a cost). If you are serious about walking in nature get at least one of these.
For Exploring and Doing
TripAdvisor is an incredible community, of which I love being a member. If you are the type of person that Googles reviews of places and things to do in a city on a regular basis, then making sure you leave a review of the spots you visit is just as important. Every single destination always has either extremely positive or negative reviews that can make or break it, and are most often than not written by travel trolls. I think that if you have a nice experience, it’s important to do the owners of that place a service and leave a good review to put false or exaggerated claims in the shadows.
Having said that, TripAdvisor is by far my preferred app of choice for selecting what to do in a city. What's so awesome about it is that you can simply get to a city and select ‘what to do’ and you get a really good list of the top things available in that city. The app allows you to filter what you’re looking for so that without much time invested you can hit a town, do what you have to do and get out. Almost all towns and cities have a vast amount of reviews, since the community is so active, so I have to say that I have not been disappointed by its picks.
Another great thing about the app is that it allows you to see both photos from the business owner, as well as from visitors, so you can a realistic idea of what you’re going to see. I always go through the visitor photos!
Finding out what do in a big city like Austin, for example, can be easily done through Google, but when TripAdvisor really shines is when you’re driving in the middle of nowhere. I’ve discovered so many little jewels this way! A small but gorgeous botanical garden in the middle of rural Costa Rica, an oyster farm in the middle of some campground along the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton, a gorgeous and free railroad museum in Cape Cod. Every small place you visit has jewels like this and TripAdvisor is a great way to find them.
Whatever apps you choose make sure you spend a lot of time researching them and testing out the competition. Once you find your favs — and I hope the above helps you get started — I am sure you’ll be using them quite a lot!
Thanks to Ignacio for the special contribution! He was the official tour guide of our cross-country RV trip, and is someone who loves that responsibility, so I was curious myself as to what he used to make our adventure so special. So, now you know, and me too! Read more from him on his blog The Great White Overlander Adventure (click here) and if you are curious, view his continued solo adventures on Instagram (click here).