Sharon Machlis

Mobile apps & more for international travel

June 22, 2012 5:58 AM EDT

There are lots of useful travel apps out there that can help you find everything from low gas prices and least 'agonizing' flights (considering both price and travel/layover time) to good local restaurants and nearby national parks --as you can see in this roundup review. But if you're traveling abroad, there are some additional things you might want on your mobile device, whether to cut down on pricey data use, find a data connection or get help with a foreign language.

Here are some apps and podcasts I found useful during a recent trip overseas. Have other favorites? Please leave details in the comments section below.

Connectivity

Boingo
Type: App & paid service
Price: App is free, Wi-Fi credits are $1.99 for iPhones and iPads
OS reviewed: iOS

If you're a tech-savvy professional in America, you probably don't need an app to get connected when in the U.S.; chances are you've already got a data plan to serve your needs. However, that might not be the case when traveling overseas, where data roaming can be quite pricey.

It's easy to find hotels offering Wi-Fi in many international destinations, but it can be surprisingly tough to connect in airports and train stations. For example I discovered last year that Amsterdam's airport offers free Wi-Fi, but only with an access code they send to your phone via SMS; and since I didn't have a phone that worked in Europe, I couldn't get an access code.

By far the cheapest way I found to purchase Wi-Fi minutes overseas is Boingo, where you can buy one-hour credits through iTunes for just $1.99 each. You've got to be at a place where Boingo has an international partner for this to work (you can search on the Boingo site before purchasing credits to see if there's a partner where you expect to be); but if you are, it sure is a great deal. Note that once you use a credit it's gone, even if you've only been online for 20 minutes; you can't save credit fractions. But it was nice to have an hour of photo-upload time in the Brussels airport last month for less than $2.

Bottom line: If you're going to be sitting around an international airport for awhile and want to get online from an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, Boingo Wi-Fi credits are a great deal -- assuming there's an available Boingo partner network. If you think you want to get online just for 5 or 10 minutes at a time to check email, though, an app like Skype WiFi that charges by the minute might be a better choice (prices vary by country).

Communication

Skype
Type: App & paid service
OS reviewed: iOS
Also available on: Android, BlackBerry, Symbian
Price: App and device-to-device calls are free; per-minute charges vary for calls from app to phones

There are several alternatives for free device-to-device voice and video calls over IP, but I keep heading back to this old standby. More people I know are on Skype than other VoIP/video chat services. Although Google+ hangouts are becoming a compelling alternative for work-related communications, I hesitate to use it when on vacation, since I tend to get sucked into the Google vortex of checking email and Plus and next thing I know, an hour has gone by that I've been typing in my hotel room instead of strolling the streets of Brugge.

You can use Skype to call a landline or mobile telephone as well as another system running Skype. It was extremely easy to fire up Skype on my iPad from Belgium and call a phone in the States, for example; all I needed was WiFi at my hotel, and it cost just 2.3 cents/minute plus a 4.9-cent connection fee.

Bottom line: Skype calls are easy and fairly cheap, although quality depends on your Internet connection, which may not always be ideal from a hotel room. If you happen to have access to a direct-dial telephone as well as the Web, you can consider a callback service, where you arrange via the Web to have the service call you and then connect to the party you're calling. I used LD Post's Peanuts Callback service a few years ago when staying with friends in Switzerland and was pleased with the call quality; these days, that would cost about 4.6 cents/minute (full disclosure: a friend of mine owns LD Post).

Foreign language

Berlitz iPhrase 

Type: App

Price: $9.99

OS reviewed: iOS

Berlitz iPhrase

Why lug a paper phrasebook around when you can have an app on your phone or tablet not only lighter, but more easy to search? That's the appeal of Berlitz iPhrase books, which also let you star favorite phrases to find more easily as well as add phrases to flash cards you can use to drill yourself before your trip.

The Berlitz app is structured for browsing as well as searching, with sections on topics such as essentials, eating out, money and so on. My main quibble is that searching is more cumbersome than it should be. After you type and hit search to see the results in English, you need to tap a second time in order to see the translation and option to hear the spoken phrase. It's not the most elegant of interfaces if you're in a hurry, but it'll do in a pinch.

Bottom line: If you like to learn some foreign-language phrases before (or during) international travel, this is a useful app. The Berlitz iPhrase app is available in French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. Berliz also publishes  full, pricier dictionaries in a number of additional languages including Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Polish, Russian, Swedish, Turkish and Vietnamese. While iPhrase is only available for iOS, dictionaries are published for Android as well.

SpeakEasy
Type: App
Price: $1.99 for basic phrases; various 99-cent expansion packs
OS reviewed: iOS
Also available on: Android, Windows Phone

SpeakEasy offers similar options to Berlitz iPhrase and is available on more platforms. It's got a low initial price, but the $1.99 only covers a few phrases; you then can buy expansion packs on different subjects for 99 cents or 5 for $1.99.

What I liked about SpeakEasy is that it live searches as you type a query, and you don't need to tap again to see the translation (you only need to tap if you want to hear the phrase in audio). It also has the option to search in both languages and phonetically, although to use the phonetics you need to know how the app describes different sounds. It's also easier to look down a list of phrases on a single page using SpeakEasy; but unlike the Berlitz app, you can't star favorites or add them to flashcards.

Bottom line: For searching and looking at a lot of phrases at once, this is a helpful app. The search is quicker and easier than Berlitz's, but the Berlitz app adds more functionality such as favorites and flashcards. SpeakEasy is available for French, Italian, Russian and Ukranian.

Coffee Break French or Spanish
Type: Podcast
Price: Basic podcasts are free; additional written or audio review materials are available for membership levels ranging from £8 to £89 per language

I've been studying pre-travel foreign language phrases for years now, starting in the days of paperback-and-cassette-tape combos, and was pleasantly surprised when I found Coffee Break French: It's among the most useful language instructional aids for casual learners that I've tried. Taught in convenient 20-minute chunks ("language with your latte"), the format features an instructor and a student who learns along with us listeners.

What I especially liked about Coffee Break French is that it was reasonably entertaining to listen to while also conducting some drill work; and it offers explanations of how grammar works instead of simply making you repeat phrases. I ended up splurging on a £57 Level 1 Platinum membership to get the enhanced podcasts (with visual "flashcards" when viewed on my iPad or iPod Touch), written materials and review podcasts.

I did supplement this with my older phrasebooks and another podcast to help me drill numbers, but the Coffee Break podcast provided the bulk of my pre-trip study before heading to Paris last month. And while I was not exactly fluent, I could make myself understood when buying train tickets or ordering lunch -- and sometimes I even understand what Parisians said back.

Bottom line: If you want to learn or brush up basic language skills, Coffee Break French or Spanish are definitely worth checking out, especially since the basic podcasts -- useful as stand-alone tools -- are free. Radio Lingua Network has numerous other podcast formats for other languages.

Google Translate
Type: App
Price: Free
OS reviewed: iOS, Android

While Google Translate is far from perfect, it's pretty reliable for your travel basics: How much does that cost? Can we have a menu? Where is the bathroom? It will translate both typed-in and spoken words, although do be careful when speaking your non-native language for translation (let's just say that people in Paris understood my mediocre French better than Google). It will also speak your translated results, which can be handy for a language where you're not sure of pronunciations.

The app needs a data connection in order to do translations, but you can translate things you expect to need ("We have a reservation for 2 rooms for 7 nights") in advance and then star them to save for future use when you're not online.

Note that this app may not add words of politeness that people in other cultures expect -- it translates the phrase you give it. So if you're serious about trying to communicate in a foreign tongue, you may want to do a little more studying from a phrasebook or podcast. And some of the food translations are a bit disappointing -- telling me that a "croque monsieur" is a croque monsieur wasn't all that helpful when I wanted to know it's a toasted ham and cheese sandwich.

Finally, there's always a risk of mistranslation, which is why it never hurts to try retranslating back from your results into the original language.

Bottom line: This is a useful app when traveling abroad, but don't expect it to fulfill all your translation needs. If you're traveling to Europe, you may also want to add Sonio GmbH's iTranslate

Next page: Photography and Tourist info (Europe) apps

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