Travel tech is now mostly software

Travel tech once meant chargers, backup batteries and luggage scales, but now it’s more about apps on your phone, tablet, and watch. Having just returned from a week in Japan, I relied on a whole new set of apps that made my travels more helpful and enjoyable.

I’ve been traveling to Japan on business for nearly fifty years and remember how I used to rush to Akihabara to check out and buy the latest digital watches, PDAs, music players, phones, and cameras. Those categories have now been co-opted by Apple, existing mostly as software.

Here’s some of the what I used that was most helpful during my travels:

Google Translate – A free augmented reality app that works like magic to read signs, menus and anything written in a foreign language. I used it to translate Japanese menus and signs to English. Just frame the Japanese text in your camera, and the English words are superimposed. It’s also capable of translating the spoken word, although that didn’t work as well..

Google and Apple Maps – These familiar apps work wonders when navigating in a foreign country. I ued them for all sorts of things, seeing my taxi rides, locating attractions, and exploring neighborhoods.

Reviews – A must while walking through local neighborhoods and searching for restaurants or other establishments. Yelp, which I use at home a lot, was mostly useless – it’s never developed much traction outside of the U.S. Instead, I constantly turned to Google Reviews and Trip Adviser for relevant information. Opening up Google maps and searching by category worked best, and the reviews were much more comprehensive than Yelp. Trip Advisor was also very useful to check reviews of hotels, attractions and restaurants. As with all reviews, I filtered out the very high and very low ones.

Photos – No longer do I travel with my Sony mirrorless camera, something I bought a number of years ago to replace my SLR with a lighter camera. It’s still too heavy with its large lens. This time I used my iPhone 12 Pro Max along with a tiny Ricoh GRIIIx digital camera. The GR is today’s version of the Minox. Yet as good as the camera’s images were, the iPhone sometimes did as well and often better because of its in-camera processing. It also made it easier to share photos by setting up a shared trip album on iPhoto that others back home could view.

United Airline app – No more printed boarding passes with the excellent United app that delivers preflight info and boarding passes directly to the phone. The app also let me send messages during my flight.

Payments – Japan uses a couple of universal payment cards called Suica and Pasmo that work most everywhere for most everything. I purchased a Suica card before I left and added additional funds in Japan. I used it for trains, subways, taxis, store purchases, and vending machines. I also downloaded the iOS app and added it to my phone. That let me add cash to the card from my credit cards in less than 30 seconds as long as I had an Internet connection.

FlightyPro – I used FlightyPro (see last week’s column) to keep informed of my flights.

Of course to use all of these apps require a good Internet connection. While there was free WiFi in many locales, cellular was a necessity. As Verizon customers, we used Verizon’s Travel Pass. For the three of us, the cost adds up quickly at $10/day each. This is when I wish I had T-Mobile with their free international data. I briefly looked at online downloadable software sim cards that you can install as an app. They can provide lower cost international calling. While the rates were decent, I didn’t bother because of the learning curve for each of us. Maybe I’ll try it on a longer trip.

by Phil Baker