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Travel-related apps provide more information and power, but they can also pull you out of the moment.hocus-focus/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Stumbling out of a wine tasting on the dusty slopes of Israel’s Mount Carmel in August, I opened the Moovit app on my phone to figure out how to return to the nearby town of Zichron Yaakov. Wondrous by Canadian standards, the app has transit schedules and lets you pay for buses and trains all across the country. But while staring at the app at the bus stop on the side of the highway, I missed the moment when the bus approached. The driver – Israel’s transit workers are notoriously surly – assumed I was waiting for another bus and zoomed right past. I was forced instead to slowly trek up the mountain highway on foot under the searing midday sun.

As a veteran traveller from the days before smartphones, I’ve been amazed at how mobile apps have transformed the travel experience in recent years. Travellers used to be almost completely dependent on locals to figure things out, which made you more vulnerable to taxi scams and aggressive touts – but also left you open to those chance encounters that make travel so magical. Like so many technological advances, travel-related apps are a double-edged sword: They provide more information and power, but they can also pull you out of the moment and distract you from what’s right under your nose.

Google Maps, for example, has freed tourists from the shame of standing on a street corner staring at a paper map. You can wander off the beaten path with a fair degree of confidence of finding your way back. The app isn’t only useful for city streets – I found some wonderful walking trails on Mount Carmel this way – but the technology is still no match for places such as the chaotic maze of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Restaurant reviews on familiar sites such as Google Maps, Yelp and Tripadvisor can help you avoid tourist traps and point you to lesser known eateries. For example, an enthusiastic write-up promising a religious-like euphoria from eating a lamb pita at Jasmino in Tel Aviv led me to an excellent place I would have never otherwise have discovered. The downside, though, is that when facing an unfamiliar menu or bewildering street stall, it’s all too easy to retreat into your phone to satisfy your curiosity, rather than strike up a conversation with your server or another customer.

In terms of translation apps, we’re not quite at the level of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s babel fish – a small fish you put in your ear to translate any language – but it feels like we’re getting closer. Google Lens proved useful when faced with the daunting task of using a self-checkout grocery kiosk in Iceland during another recent trip, and I used it in Israel to translate tombstones, historical plaques and cocktail menus. The Google Translate app – where you can type or talk during a live conversation – is sometimes miraculous and at other times incoherent.

At their best, apps can even help you strike up conversations with strangers. PictureThis – one of many apps where you can snap a photo to identify a plant – sparked an interesting exchange with a nature enthusiast about rubber plants at the Ramat Hanadiv nature park. Using the classic song identification app Shazam at Tel Aviv’s hip Teder nightlife complex led to a great conversation with a music fan about Israeli pop – and allowed me to create an amazing playlist when I got home.

Still, as useful as these apps are, it’s good to go analogue sometimes. I took a cellphone-free trek to Jaffa’s beach from my Airbnb and it turned out to be a valuable lesson in getting my bearings without digital assistance.

So set off on your next adventure armed with a carefully curated set of apps, but be willing to abandon them and wander around like a bumbling tourist. After all, one of the greatest joys of travel is to be out of place, get lost and put yourself at the mercy of traveller’s karma.

Essential apps abroad

Roaming packages from Canadian cellphone providers have made using data abroad more affordable in recent years. Before you go, download the most promising apps, log in to them and add credit card information if needed so you’re all set.

Google Translate

This app allows you to type or speak and get text or audio output in a language of your choice. You can also point your camera at signs, menus or websites to translate the text. Before your trip, download the languages you need in case you have connectivity issues. The visual search app Google Lens also allows you to translate text from images in real time.

Google Maps

You might have this app already, but you’ll get more out of it if you set up a list of places you want to visit. This makes them easier to find when you’re wandering and you can share your updated lists with friends after your trip. Download offline maps for your region before you go in case network coverage is spotty.


This messaging and voice app, which uses the internet to avoid phone network charges, is used much more widely abroad than in Canada. You can use it to stay in touch with people you meet, and it’s often the best way to communicate with Airbnb hosts, tour operators and other businesses.

Airline apps

Download airlines apps, such as the ones from Air Canada and WestJet, as you might receive flight cancellation or delay notifications before they are known at the airport, as well as easier options to rebook.

Transport apps

Uber and Lyft are useful, but they don’t operate everywhere. Take the time to download the local taxi app if there is one; as payment is automated, you won’t need to haggle or get change from drivers. Also explore other transport options, such as bike share apps and electric scooter apps such as Lime and Bird.

Hotel apps

These apps can take some of the sting out of rising accommodation costs. HotelTonight offers deals on higher end urban hotels, while has a good selection of smaller, independent places. You can earn free stays on

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