5 travel essentials your phone can replace
Ditch that big suitcase and stuff your phone full instead.
This story has been updated. It was originally published on July 1, 2019.
Whether you’re heading out of town for a graduation, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, or any other occasion, traveling light has its advantages: you will have to remember fewer items to pack, you’ll have an easier time navigating crowded streets, and simply won’t have to carry as much.
So it’s good that one thing you probably carry no matter what—your phone and the apps on it—can replace several items in your luggage, letting you concentrate on getting from A to B.
Boarding passes and travel documentation
We feel pretty confident saying no one likes to fumble for papers at the front of a line of stressed-out travelers. Thankfully, many travel companies are up to speed with the progress we’ve made in the digital age and will allow you to save documentation such as boarding passes, vaccination records, or tickets on your phone—usually over a dedicated app.
Take the free Fly Delta app for Android and iOS as one example. You can store your trips, boarding passes, and flight information right inside the app, and it’ll let you check the status of your flight and the gate you need to be at. Other airlines have similar offerings—just make sure your phone is fully charged before you set off.
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The big hotel chains also have their own apps, and they’re usually worth installing to cut down on the amount of paperwork you have to take with you on your travels. The free Hyatt Hotels app for Android and iOS, for instance, stores your booking details and room charges, will let you check in early, and you can use it to request items to your room. In some locations, the app even lets you use your phone as a room key.
Other apps allow you to collect information from multiple sources in one place. TripIt, which is free for Android and iOS, is one of the best examples. If you forward all your confirmation booking emails to TripIt, it will build a custom itinerary, tell you exactly where you need to be at what time, and help you manage everything from flights to hired cars. If you pay $49 per year for a Pro subscription, you’ll get extras including real-time flight alerts and notifications about the length of the airport security queue.
Maps and guides
Gone are the days of stuffing hefty maps and chunky travel guides into your baggage, because everything in those pages is just a few taps away on your phone. From Maps.me (free for Android and iOS) to TripAdvisor (also free for Android and iOS), you won’t be short of information and advice while you’re out and about.
Most map and guide apps let you download content for offline viewing, so it’s a good idea to do this before you head off and potentially encounter expensive data charges. Visit A City (free for Android and iOS), for example, covers more than 3,000 destinations and works offline, giving you access to a host of pre-made itineraries, lists of things to do, and recommendations for the best attractions.
Here’s a neat trick for Google Maps (free on Android or iOS): if you open the app menu, tap your avatar, and choose Offline maps, you can download sections of the map to your phone before you start traveling. It’s handy in areas where you won’t or can’t, get any signal, and it’s something Apple Maps doesn’t yet offer.
If you’re vacationing in a place where web access won’t be a problem, Google Maps and Apple Maps can offer up a host of recommendations about what to see and do. In the Google Maps app, just drag up the Explore tab to look for bars, restaurants, events, and more. In Apple Maps, tap inside the search box to see a similar list of options for finding notable spots and attractions near you.
E-books and audiobooks
If you’re a serious reader, taking enough literature to get you through a vacation can really weigh down your suitcase. But this doesn’t have to happen, as your planned reading can live on your phone in digital and audio form. Even if you prefer books of the physical kind, it’s still worth it to think about switching to e-books and audiobooks for your travels.
The free Kindle for Android and iOS gives you access to a whole host of e-books for sale or rent, and if you own an actual Kindle e-reader as well, the apps will sync your reading progress between devices.
[Related: The best e-reader award is actually a tie]
Amazon owns the Audible audiobook platform, too, which means you can switch between audio and e-book versions of selected titles as you read through them if you want the variety. After your 30-day free trial is over, subscriptions start at $15 a month, which includes one free audiobook. Apps are available for Android and iOS. Alternatively, you can consider the Kobo app (for Android and iOS), Google Play Books (for Android and iOS), and Apple Books (iOS only), which are all free and support both e-books and audiobooks.
Ditch the camera
Your smartphone comes with a camera, of course, so it might be time to think about saving the space taken up by a dedicated digital camera and making do with what your phone can offer instead. This is especially true if you’ve got one of the newest handsets on the market, which may feature optical zoom, optical image stabilization, and special night mode enhancements.
You might consider packing some small extras to improve the quality of your vacation snaps. A portable, multifunctional tripod stand, for example, will make sure your photos stay rock-steady, and also means you can make full use of the camera timer on your phone to get yourself in the shot.
A pack of lenses like the ones you get from Keywing ($26 on Amazon) can make a big difference, too. Once you find a brand that’s compatible with your handset, they’ll give you the opportunity to take super-wide-angle, fish-eye, and other types of non-standard shots with ease.
Don’t forget the software either. Apps such as Halide (starting at $3 a month for iOS) and Camera FV-5 ($5 for Android) give you access to extra ISO, white balance, aperture, and color settings that you don’t get with the stock camera app on your phone.
Other app recommendations
Let’s briefly go back to the start of your vacation (or work trip). PackPoint is free for Android and iOS and helps you work out exactly what you need in your suitcase, based on your destination and expected weather conditions. In other words, it’ll help you avoid packing more wooly sweaters than you need. With a premium purchase (a one-off fee of $3) you can connect TripIt and Evernote, and customize your packing lists.
If you’re going to a place where people may not speak your native language, Google Translate can help. It’s free for Android and iOS, and fulfills the job once held by bulky foreign language dictionaries. It supports more than 100 languages, can work offline with no data signal, and can use your phone’s camera to translate text if you point it towards signs and menus.
We should also mention the wealth of mobile games available for Android and iOS, all of which you can find through the respective app stores on your device. How does this help you travel light? Well, you might be able to leave the Nintendo Switch or Scrabble board at home if you’ve got enough games to entertain you. A digital copy of Scrabble, for example, is free for Android and iOS and lets you play against friends of your choosing.
At least some of the suggestions we’ve come up with should prove useful in lightening the load for your next trip, but don’t forget you can also use your phone to look for cheaper travel deals and get around easily while you’re away from home. Just make sure you don’t lose your smartphone along the way.