Apps for travelers and expats

Technology allows us to travel and move much more efficiently than would have ever been possible 20 years ago. I do try to be as minimalist as possible in my technology usage. Having accounts all over the world can present security threats. Additionally, simplifying our technology means less to carry around when traveling and moving, and less data to be stolen or lost. But, that said, I also like to be prepared. I have a 3-year old Macbook Pro and Tiffany has an older Macbook. These are pretty versatile, light, and have good battery life. For phones, I use a Galaxy Nexus and Tiffany has an iPhone 4. We also have some external drives for Time Machine and storing TV shows and such.

Keep in mind that we don’t just travel, but we are also expats. Every day is sort of like traveling for us, so our needs are broad. I will be listing the apps we use for our Macs and our phones (the OS in brackets just tells where we use it). Also I will break them into categories for general travel apps, apps for traveling Germany, and apps for traveling France.


General travel/expat apps

  • Aperture [Mac]: This is important for me, because I take a lot of photos when we travel, and I usually post the best ones to Flickr. This is why I’ve included it, though realistically it’s generally the sort of thing that you just need once you get home. Aperture is Apple’s pro photo processing app. If you are serious about photography, I highly recommend it.
  • DEVONthink Pro Office [Mac]: We use this to manage our paperless office. There is a lot of bureaucracy in France, and a lot of paper. I scan every paper we get, use OCR in DEVONthink (available only in the “Pro Office” version) to convert it to a searchable PDF, and file it in the database. Tiffany and I are currently sharing the database using the built-in Dropbox sync feature which saves the “sync store” to a shared Dropbox account. Note that you cannot store the database itself in Dropbox as this can lead to corruption, particularly if you access it from two computers at once. The Dropbox sync feature locks the sync store during writes, to prevent corruption. Unfortunately this makes use of Dropbox’s “Apps” feature, storing the files in a directory that cannot be shared using the normal sharing mechanism in Dropbox. To get around this, we both share a single Dropbox account. I must say that we had a sync problem last week that led to some changes being lost after a really big revision on one computer. But, I think if we are more careful when making large changes going forward we will be fine. I chose this solution over others, like Evernote, because I wanted the ability to control the database for security reasons and because free solutions go away.
  • Dropbox [Mac], JottaCloud [Mac]: The cloud is important when traveling around. If my laptop is not handy, or broken, I may need to access files from another computer. You probably already have Dropbox (if not, click here for referral), but it’s a good way to have free cloud storage. The NSA undoubtedly has access, but it is more mature and stable than JottaCloud. I use JottaCloud for files that don’t change rapidly, due to past experiences with sync bugs. The nice thing about JottaCloud is that it has no operations in the US, meaning that the NSA will have a harder time getting access. JottaCloud doesn’t have a referral link, but if you ask me I can refer you with an email address.
  • Skype [Mac, Android]: I don’t like it much. It’s closed-source and buggy. But for some reason everybody uses it so it’s a must-have.
  • Google Hangouts [Android]: It’s horrible compared to Google Talk, which it replaced, but it’s my primary way of messaging from my phone (which I rarely do, really).
  • Wunderlist [Mac, Android, iOS]: As expats, there are always a lot of gears in motion to satisfy bureaucratic requirements. We use the free version of this app to sync our todo lists.
  • Tunnelblick [Mac]: This is an open source VPN app that I use with the VPNBook service. I also used Hotspot Shield for a while, but I didn’t like the ads. Sometimes things (videos, etc.) are blocked in certain countries or establishments. These apps can often get around that. They can also  I don’t have any loyalty to a particular app or service, but it’s a good idea to have one installed if living overseas.
  • Google Authenticator [Android]: This mobile app generates verification codes for 2-factor authentication on many websites, including Dropbox, Google, Linode, and GitHub. Security is extra important when traveling. If a laptop is stolen or data is intercepted on an insecure wifi network, 2-factor authentication provides great additional security to prevent unauthorized access to your accounts. Of course this means you should try not to lose the phone, but even if you do most accounts will still allow you to login from trusted devices for some time period before requesting a new code. In this way, you can likely still access Google from your laptop even after you lose your phone.
  • Google Maps [Android, iOS]: This one is kind of a staple and its use should be self explanatory.
  • Google Translate [Android]: This translation app even allows me to take a picture of some text, highlight it with my finger, and get a translation. Between this and normal keyboard-based translation, it’s very handy.
  • OnTheFly [Android]: ITA Matrix is the most powerful flight search engine, accessible via the web. You still have to buy the tickets on another site, but I know from first-hand experience that searching here can save you money. In my understanding, many other search engines actually use ITA Matrix under the hood. This is the mobile app. I don’t use it much, because normally I book from my couch. But I figure it’s a good idea to have for unexpected itinerary changes.
  • TripAdvisor [Android, iOS]: We use this to look at restaurant reviews almost every time we eat while traveling, though I guess it also works for other attractions.
  • Where’s My Droid [Android]: I’ve luckily never used it, but it should help find a stolen phone.
  • Undercover [Mac]: Again, I’ve never had to use it, but it helps locate stolen Macs.
  • Moni [iOS]: Tiffany uses it to categorize our expenses while we are traveling.

Germany apps

  • DB Navigator [Android, iOS]: We can search for trains all around Germany, purchase the ticket, and just show the conductor a QR code on the phone’s screen. When I last used it, I had a German bank account. I’m not sure what the payment options are if you don’t. However, the app is extremely valuable even if you must go to a machine and buy paper tickets. For example, an ICE ticket can be used anytime in a given day so this app makes it easy to search for alternate trains if you miss one or one is late/cancelled.
  • VBN [Android]: This app allows me to search and plan tram and bus routes all over Bremen.

France apps

  • FreeWiFi [Android]: If you live in France, Free is an inexpensive choice for home internet (also TV, phone, and mobile phone). The home internet package comes with a router that can broadcast two SSIDs, one private and one public. If you have Free and enable the public SSID (I have, but my box must be broken because I don’t see it), you can access Free hotspots all over the country. This Android app saves time by automatically signing me in.
  • TheFork [Android]: This is the mobile app for LaFourchette, a restaurant search engine that is used around France. In the big cities it can be used to find discounts. It is easy to save 30-50% at a nice restaurant in Paris, for example, if you book through the app.
  • Voyages-SNCF [Android]: This allows for searching and buying train tickets in France. We don’t travel by train much here, as train service is much worse than we are used to from Germany, so we don’t use the app much. I recall that you can only buy tickets through the app if you have a French phone number.
  • SNCF Direct [iOS]: This tracks trains in real time.

One final tip: I always keep scans of our passports and visas on my phone.

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