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They're Called Smartphones for Good Reason

Posted by Mark Gallo on

I prefer to use my bike to get around my hometown of Santa Barbara. So naturally I see firsthand the number one distraction of modern life - the smartphone. And it’s not just drivers, but cyclists and pedestrians are guilty of it too. On the other hand, the device has been positively life transforming. For travelers, the smartphone is like a digital Swiss Army knife - capable of meeting so many of our “survival” needs yet fits in our pocket. I use an iPhone 6 so I’m going to reference its functionality, but Android phones are similarly capable if not more so.

Basics

We get so wrapped in texting, web browsing, emailing, and occasionally talking on our phones that we sometimes overlook the obvious. Flick up from the bottom of any screen to reveal shortcuts to the basics - flashlight, clock/travel alarm, calculator, and camera. There was a time - say 10 years ago - when reading the menu in the dim light of a restaurant, or setting your bedside alarm, or calculating currency exchange rates, or taking a picture required a separate device. Since we still get requests for travel alarms and mini flashlights at CircaTerra Travel Outfitters we do stock them, but I always urge customers to travel as light as possible. Use your phone’s utilities instead.

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Camera

I try to minimize the paperwork I travel with nowadays. I use the camera to record vital travel documents like my passport, driver’s license, and credit cards. Snap a picture to remember your parking spot, or the condition of your rental car before you drive off, or take a screenshot of something important on your phone by pressing your power button and home button simultaneously for a couple seconds and then releasing.

Did you know the camera has a magnifier feature? Go to Settings/General/Accessibility/Magnifier and tap “On”. Clicking your home button three times in quick succession activates the magnifier, complete with slider bar for zooming in and lightning bolt icon for light. Very handy to read fine print.

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I find the geotagging feature of the camera very handy for verifying locations of photos. The feature is enabled by default, and it approximates your location using GPS, Bluetooth, crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspots, and cell tower locations. If you’re creeped out by the notion of creating an electronic trail then you can disable it through Settings/Privacy/Location Services.

On our recent trip to Japan it proved invaluable in identifying each shrine and temple.

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Navigation via Google Maps

I bring old fashioned printed maps and use Google Maps regularly when I travel. The printed maps are more of a planning tool to help me put locations in a larger context, while I use Google Maps more for navigating from point A to B. Google Maps is great for public transportation options, revealing subway and train routes and stops. I like the restaurant location ratings feature too when trying to find a place to eat. Even though I’ve used Google Maps a lot, I can still get befuddled following directions on foot, especially in a crowded city. Unlike in the relative quiet of a car, the din of city sounds makes it nearly impossible to hear the audible directions. Also, starting out can be confusing with directions like “head north 100 feet, turn left toward State St 400 feet, turn right toward State St 0.2 miles…”. Which way is north? If it is unclear I either guess and walk a minute in one direction and then check my progress on the map, or open up the Compass feature in my Extras folder and follow the arrow. Neither method is foolproof as we found out in Mexico City last March when we couldn’t figure out which walking route to take back to our hotel from Chapultepec Castle. We were facing a pretzel of roads converging on the east side of the park. It took a lot of trial and error to find our way back given all the street choices.

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Uber

Like millions of other people I’ve become a big fan of Uber. I tried it for the first time in a foreign country in Mexico City last March. I was leery of using anything but a taxi requested by the hotel or going to a taxi sitio (stand); however a young couple from New York happened to be sitting nearby at lunch and said they had great results with it. So we tried it and found it quick and convenient. The driver already has an idea of where you’re headed through the app and there is no fumbling for payment, tip, etc. at the end of the ride. The cars were newer models and clean. Of course Uber is not operating everywhere. Case in point - Japan. But in Japan taxis are incredibly clean and efficient and with their “no tipping” culture there is no stress about whether to give a gratuity. As an aside Google Maps now has a ride share option with price ranges displayed.

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Apple Wallet and Airline Apps

I do have a credit card stored for use in places that accept Apple Pay, but what I really like is the capability to store mobile boarding passes here. Many airline apps (free) can send mobile boarding passes to the Wallet feature, which makes for easy gate access when it needs to be scanned. In addition, the airline apps can be useful for notifying you of flight and gate changes. Some also provide access to in flight entertainment via your device.

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Travel Organizer - TripIt

The basic TripIt app is free and is all I’ve ever used. TripIt keeps track of all the details of your transportation and lodging for each trip in one convenient location. It also seamlessly integrates with many calendars like Gmail and Yahoo. The app itself is a handy way to reference flight numbers, arrival/departure times, seat assignments, hotel and rental car details including confirmation numbers, and maps of your destination. Also you can easily share your trip itinerary via email. Your trip data can either be “pushed” out to tripit by forwarding your travel confirmation emails to plans@tripit.com, or TripIt will automatically scan your inbox for relevant travel information.

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Language Translation

There are many language learning, dictionary, and translation apps on the market, but I use Google’s translate feature to remind me of everyday foreign phrases and pronunciations. It’s simple to use and the audible feature means I can try to mimic a native speaker. Of course you can use the audible feature and let the machine do your speaking for you if you’re so inclined. I just find that even more awkward!

Mobile Power Supply

You really appreciate the value of your smartphone when your battery dies. Spring a few bucks for a decent mobile charger so you don’t have to worry about it. They’re getting cheaper and more powerful every year. Make sure the charger you buy has sufficient capacity to fully recharge your phone. The iPhone 6 has an 1810 mAH battery; the Plus has a 2915 mAH battery.

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