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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 I see firsthand the number-one distraction of modern life: the smartphone. And it’s not just drivers that are distracted 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 it 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.

The basics

We get so caught up 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 four separate devices. Some travelers still pack travel alarms and mini-flashlights, but I urge them to travel as light as possible, using their phone’s utilities instead. 

I try to minimize the paperwork I travel with nowadays. I use the phone 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 a lightning bolt icon for light. Very handy for reading fine print!


I find the built-in 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. For example,in the shot below geotagging provided the location “Takayama - Soyujimachi” at the top of the image and the date - June 18. (Oddly, the time reflects your home time zone.)

I rely on Google Maps when I travel but bring along old-fashioned printed maps too. While I use Google Maps to navigate from point A to B, I use printed maps to put places of interest like parks, museums, and historical sites in the larger context of the city or region. Google Maps is great for public transportation options, revealing bus, subway and train routes and stops. Locating places to eat is important while traveling, and Google Maps provides restaurant locations around your chosen destination, with Google ratings a click away, for better or worse.

Even though I’ve used Google Maps a lot, I can still get befuddled following its walking directions. For example, consider these directions “Head north 100 feet. Turn left toward State St 400 feet. Turn right toward State St 0.2 miles. . . .” Which way is north?

If compass direction is unclear, I either guess and walk a minute in one direction and then check my progress on the map or I open up the Compass feature in my Extras folder and follow the arrow. Neither method is foolproof, as I found out in Mexico City I couldn’t figure out how to follow the prescribed walking route back to my hotel from Chapultepec Castle. Facing a pretzel of busy roads converging on the east side of the park, I had to try several walking routes because Google Maps seemed to guide me on to roadways without sidewalks.


Like millions of other people, I’ve become a big fan of Uber, the phone app where you tap a button and get a ride that’s often quicker and cheaper than a taxi. I tried it for the first time in a foreign country in Mexico City last March. The guidebooks str

ongly urge tourists to avoid hailing cabs but to use taxi stands (sitios) where the drivers are licensed and regulated. But sitios can be a long way from your departure point.

On the recommendation of some fellow travelers, I tried Uber while there. Unlike conventional taxis, the Uber driver already knows where you’re headed before they pick you up so you avoid struggling to convey critical destination information in a foreign tongue. I found the Uber cars were newer models and clean, plus there is no fumbling for payment, tip, etc., at the end of the ride because payments are made automatically from your credit card information you set up once in your profile. Of course, Uber is not operating everywhere like in 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 displays ride-share as a one of several transportation choices along with price ranges for Uber and its competitor Lyft. The ride share option is the waving person icon displayed between the walking icon and the bicycling icon in the screenshot below. 

Apple Wallet

Apple Wallet is an app that comes with your iPhone operating system. It’s accessed by the Wallet icon and is a place you can securely store your credit or debit card for ease of making purchases with your phone at retail stores that accept this form of payment known as Apple pay. Instead of whipping out your credit card and inserting it into the chip reader you simply hold your phone close to the chip reader at checkout and wait a couple of seconds for your phone prompts. More helpful for travelers, Apple wallet will store your airline mobile boarding pass for ease of scanning at boarding time. I find it works best in conjunction with the airline mobile apps that can be downloaded for most airlines from the App store.

Travel Organizer - TripIt

The basic TripIt app is free and is all I’ve ever used for easy organizing of my trip itineraries. TripIt keeps track of all the details of your transportation and lodging for each trip in one convenient location. It also links with many digital calendars like those in Gmail and Yahoo.

The app captures your vital travel information like flight numbers, arrival/departure times, seat assignments, hotel and rental car details (including confirmation numbers) and maps of your destination, and 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 [email protected], or TripIt will automatically scan your inbox for relevant travel information. Here is a sample itinerary from a screenshot.

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 and the phone is useless. Spring a few bucks on a decent mobile charger so you don’t have to worry about it. They’re getting cheaper and more powerful all the time.

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.

Got tips of your own? Share them with our readers by adding to comments below. Thanks!

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