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Unpack a few Google tools for international travel

For a better travel experience, carry less and use your smartphone more. Andy Wolber highlights a few Google tools for international travel.

Google tools for travel

Tech-savvy business travelers use smartphones and apps, because real-time access to maps and information enriches the travel experience. For example, smartphone maps make navigating easier, transit apps make taxi, train, and air travel (a bit) less of a hassle, and search returns information about local and historic sites.

Here's a look at several Google tools useful for travel planning. I used all of these during a recent trip to Europe.

1. Make plans with a shared spreadsheet

Create a Google spreadsheet and share it with your fellow travelers to plan your initial itinerary. Create columns for destinations, dates, venues to visit, hotels, and travel arrangements. You can easily add columns or rows as needed -- and add confirmation numbers or travel details as they're confirmed. For short trips, this works well. (Use the Google Sheets mobile app to edit or review your itinerary on the go).

For complex travel, organizations using Google Apps might add TripIt from the Google Apps Enterprise Marketplace (Figure A). A traveler creates a trip and then forwards confirmation details to a TripIt email address. TripIt organizes the information into an itinerary, which can then be accessed as a mobile app and shared with other people (including non-travelers).

Figure A

Figure A

Manage simple travel plans with a shared spreadsheet or complex itineraries with TripIt.

2. Create your packing checklist

Use Google Keep to create your checklist of items to pack. With Google Keep, you can quickly add or edit your list from the web or your Android phone.

3. Store travel documents

Scan and save images of important travel documents, such as tickets or rail passes, to a folder in Google Drive. This gives you a copy of important documents, which can come in handy if you misplace or lose the original documents for any reason.

To do this, install the Google Drive mobile app on your smartphone, then locate your document in the Google Drive app on your phone. Tap the "i" in a circle next to the folder, then move the slider for "Keep on this device" to the ON position.

4. Save maps for offline use

You can carry around a digital map of your destination(s) on your phone, which can be useful when you can't access mobile data or Wi-Fi. However, navigation and search won't work when using a map offline.

While logged to Google Maps on your phone, search for the name of a city on your itinerary. Tap the name of the city at the bottom of the screen, then "pan and zoom to adjust" the area of the map to save for offline use. (If you select an area too large, the app will let you know.) Tap Save at the bottom of the screen (Figure B).

To view your saved map, tap the person icon that appears to the right of the search box on Google Maps on your device. Scroll down to view your saved places and your offline maps. (See "How to use Google Maps offline mode on iOS, Android" for more details.)

Figure B

Figure B

No need for paper maps: save Google Maps for offline use.

5. Translate languages

Install two apps, Google Translate and Word Lens, to translate languages.

Google Translate converts spoken, typed, or photographed text between languages. For example, type a word or phrase in Italian, and the English translation appears. Android users may download languages for offline use (Figure C). I recommend you download packs for languages spoken at your destination(s). On my recent trip, I used Google Translate offline to look up French words, even though I never used spoken word translation.

Figure C

Figure C

Android users of Google Translate should download languages for offline use.

Word Lens displays translated text in real time. Simply point your phone at text in one language, and the translated words display on your phone in another language. In practice, I find Word Lens most useful to translate signs and menus. The translation isn't perfect, but often it's good enough.

(Google acquired Word Lens in May 2014 and made the app free soon thereafter. The capabilities of Word Lens possibly may be incorporated into Google Translate in the future.)

6. Identify landmarks

If you have an internet connection, use the Google Goggles app on Android to identify notable historic buildings or landmarks. Take a photo of a well-known building, and Google will likely accurately identify it. For example, I took a photo of Les Invalides in Paris, which the app correctly recognized. (However, the function doesn't work for everything. Several sculptures I attempted to identify returned obviously inaccurate results.)

7. Backup and share photos

Automatically backup your photos with the Google+ app (Figure D). To preserve your mobile data and battery, I suggest you configure your backup to occur only when charging and connected to Wi-Fi. See my article "Quick Tip: Backup your photos to Google+" for step-by-step details.

Figure D

Figure D

Configure Google+ to backup your photos while charging and connected to Wi-Fi.

Power and packing

All of this presumes that you have a way to keep your phone powered. The Euro USB Charger (by Skross) worked well for my trip to Europe; visitors to the US might look at the PowerGen Dual USB charger. For a portable battery pack, I suggest you read "The Best USB Battery Pack for Travel" at The Wirecutter, although their review may be more detailed than you need.

But the most important travel tip doesn't involve technology at all: pack light! Experienced travelers carry as few items as possible. "Overpacking tops the list of biggest travel mistakes," according to Doug Dyment's site, onebag.com, which teaches the "art and science of travelling light." He provides techniques and tips that will help you pack less on your next trip.

So, for your next trip, take your smartphone and apps, and leave your printed guidebook and maps behind. Carry less, and explore more.

What other apps do you use when you travel? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.

About

Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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