Or how to avoid being happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time.
Truth be told, when I'm travelling with other people, I kindof like getting lost. It's fun, sparks great adventures, and makes me feel like an explorer.
Throw me on my own, though, and that's a whole different story. As a female solo traveller, my smartphone becomes my lifeline. While I don't like to travel with my nose in my phone, in those instances it becomes a translation platform between myself and the unknown, from me to the outside world and back again. It enables me to communicate, record, organise and orientate myself all at the same time - NEVER to see. I make a conscious effort to avoid ever using it as a looking glass, but rather as a tool to help me deal with what I experience first hand.
To this date, the most extreme case of such desperate need for a smartphone was China, where I truly found myself happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time - despite feeling a solid 20.
So, without further ado, here are the 10 lifesaving apps you need for that China trip you're planning - and hey, if they don't save your life, they'll at least save you from boredom on that 30-hour train ride.
If you have to download 1 single app for your trip, make it this one. To call it incredibly useful would be an understatement. Not content with simply being a Chinese - English dictionary, it can also act as a pronunciation guide, language-learning tool, word-finder and even lets you look up words with your camera: ideal for street signs or restaurant menus (this last one requires wi-fi)! My favourite feature by far, though, is the "full-screen handwriting" option, which allows you to hand-draw characters into the dictionary's search bar. This is convenient for 2 reasons: 1) You can use it offline, to copy words that you see written but may not necessarily know the pronunciation of. 2) If, like me, you find pronunciation extremely hard to grasp, just hand your phone to your interlocutor, and they can draw it in themselves!
This is my favourite Map app when I'm travelling. You can download city maps with or without Wiki Plus data so you can access them offline anywhere in the world. Now you can set destinations and draw up itineraries without roaming charges! Also, you can avoid the tell-tale tourist red dot that is staring at a map with a confused look on your face. Walk around staring at your phone, looking blasé, and tadaaa! you look like a local. Which is always a plus. (Hey, it worked for me, people in Hong Kong were asking me for directions! When in fact I was so lost I couldn't even find the bloody Peak.)
You know that feeling when you suddenly decide that you MUST IMPERATIVELY go and visit that far away town, but it's a 35-hour train ride away and you don't have the time to spare? That's what Ctrip is for. It will help you find that stupidly cheap flight alternative, at the last minute, and book it with no second thoughts. I hesitate to tell you the embarrassing story of my love affair with Ctrip... Let's just say I had a little too good a time in Beijing, and... didn't manage to wake up on time to go see the Great Wall. Not once. But one simply does not go to China and miss out on the great wall. A week later, some 2000 km away in Chengdu, I decide I will not stand for it and be made a fool. I book my £70 flight and hop! 2 hours later, I find myself back in Beijing.
It's the only social media site that actually works pretty much all the time in China. When everything else is blocked, it's nice to have something to fall back on for letting your friends and family know you're okay and eating unidentified street food with #nofilter. And, you know, to check that everything is still dull and boring at home because you're #totallynothomesick. Right.
Also because, let's be honest, sometimes things do look better with filters, especially when it's a blurry phone snap.
Ahhh, VPNs. What would we do without them, lost in China without access to our precious Facebook... and, you know, Youtube, Skype, etc. For those of you still untouched by the magic of VPNs, they effectively trick the world into thinking you are in a different country than that indicated by your connection, making it a very convenient life hack. Because if your phone thinks you're not in mainland China, you can Skype your mum... and, yes, check Facebook. If you must.
I personally use VPN Fire, which is only for iOS, but there's also an array of options for Android. Prices vary; they're usually free to download and you then get a subscription.
Because I can assure you that nothing you arrange in advance will go as planned in China. Only last-minute plans will generally work out, and, while I believe that's for the best, it's good to come prepared. My advice to you: have a rough itinerary in mind, at least a week ahead of time, book your hostels for approximate dates, and keep their phone numbers saved. Then you can tweak your bookings. Because losing a 2-pound deposit is better than roaming the streets at night looking for a spare dorm bed. Trust me, I've done both.
Realistically, there's a somewhat sizable chance that your phone will end up either at the bottom of a river or in the bottom of someone else's pocket. Why take the chance to lose all your photos? With Dropbox, the photos you take on your phone can get backed up automatically the moment you hit a wi-fi spot.
My favourite travelling app in general, it does everything a specialised 'travel journal app' tries to do, and it does it better. You can use it as a trip planner, travel journal, records thoughts, notes and impressions but also sounds, attach pictures, documents and reminders, all of which can be organised in a fully customisable manner. And to make things even better, they all get automatically backed up online whenever possible, synchronised with your other devices, and your notebooks can be shared if you so desire.
WeChat is THE single most used chatting app in China. It pretty much does the same thing as any other chatting app: texting, emoticons, voice messages, photos, video calls and so on. Why bother with this one, then? Because it's your best chance at staying in touch with locals, who often won't have facebook. It's a good way of staying in contact with people you meet locally, arranging meetups while in town and keeping in touch afterwards. Besides, it's free, so why not?
If, really, you *must* download a travel guide app, Triposo's your guy. It includes a travel encyclopedia, destination planner, practical information, local clock, weather forecast, currency convertor, map and phrasebook. It lets you save 'favourite' destinations and build a travel log by Checking In wherever you go (for which you can add pictures and comments). And best of all, most of these features are available offline, meaning you can keep informed at all times.
So here we go! Even though it didn't make it on the list, I feel a special mention should go to Viber, which is a handy way of staying in touch with family (I mean, it even works on Blackberry!). Also, a final word of caution: you might want to invest in an extra battery pack! Those long train rides will kill your battery.
What are YOUR favourite travel apps?