The Best Travel Gadget is Your Smartphone

Shawn Forno

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Your smartphone is the best travel gadget you own.

I know, I know—you want to “unplug” and you think the incessant search for wifi and an outlet are no way to travel. Calm down, hippie. I agree with you.

There’s just one problem with your Luddite travel philosophy: Smartphones are too damned useful to ignore. To prove it to you, I’ve compiled this list of every single piece of travel gear in your bag that a smartphone outright replaces. I’ve even made a list of things your phone can do in airplane mode so you can “unplug” like the neo-Luddite traveler you are.

Enjoy traveling with the most advanced piece of consumer technology ever designed, right in your pocket.

Pay Phones, Calling Cards, & Landlines

Let’s start with the most obvious, yet strangely undervalued “travel gadget” your smartphone replaces while you’re on the road—pay phones, calling cards, and landlines.

travel gadget

Remember international calling cards? I do, and let me tell you, millennials, they sucked. Hard. Each minute cost way too much and just figuring out where to get an international calling card in the first place was a nightmare. Why? Because you didn’t have a freaking smartphone in your pocket to Google where the heck they sold them.

Calling cards weren’t universal, meaning you had to get new ones for different countries. I lost mine (constantly), and there were always service fees. Plus, you had to use them at pay phones (remember those?) with confusing country codes and contact info that was never up to date. If you were lucky, you could use the hostel common room landline surrounded by drum circles and hacky sack. The 90’s was a weird time.

The fact that you can call home at the drop of a hat, text your friends on the other side of the world, and share the experience in real time with photos and social media from your own device in the comfort of your Airbnb is a friggin miracle. Stop taking this superpower for granted.

DSLR Camera

I have a DSLR camera. It’s a pretty good one, too. When I summon the energy to lug it around New York City for the day, I like the video and photos. However, the last time I took it on a trip was Iceland. Two years ago.

Travel Video Gear Guide

I just don’t usually have the patience to pack all the travel camera gear: Camera body, multiple lenses, tripod, batteries, charger, flash, Rode mic, and all the other travel gadgets unless I’m shooting a time-lapse documentary for Nat Geo (I’m not, but that would be awesome).

No, instead I’ve kitted myself out with a GoPro Session (for the crazy stuff) and an iPhone 6. That’s usually it.

ultralight travel gearThe iPhone 6 is a great camera that not only captures quality video and photo, but stores it, lets me edit it, and ultimately share it all on the go. Now the iPhone 7 dual lens is taking smartphone travel photography up a notch with stunning depth of field options and an actual, honest to gosh zoom (not that “optical zoom” garbage).

“The best camera in the world is the one you have with you,” the old saying goes. It’s never been more true. Speaking of pictures…

Physical Photos

Traveling with physical, paper back ups of your important documents is a good idea—like health records and a picture of your passport—but your phone can handle the rest of your nostalgia and memorabilia without taking up cabin space. My phone, for example, is basically just a repository for videos of my nephew, photos of my niece, and screenshots of my girlfriend acting like a beautiful idiot on Snapchat.

Everything else is just decoration.

Polaroids are fun if you have the space and the patience to lug a camera and the expensive film along with you, but aside from that, leave the photo album at home.

Flashlight or Headlamp

ultralight travel gearI’m not a big fan of headlamps in the first place—they’re uncomfortable, clunky, heavy, battery hungry, and the good ones are expensive. The other thing I’m not a big fan of is smacking my face into a wall in the middle of the night, or walking into a spider web on my way back from the latrine. Hate that.

Luckily, pretty much every smartphone has an impressive flashlight built in. If the default settings aren’t enough illumination for you, here are some of the best free flashlight apps for Android and iOS.

Watch, Alarm Clock, Stopwatch & More

When’s the last time you wore a watch? Heck when’s the last time you saw someone even point to their wrist when they asked you what time it was? You haven’t, because everyone knows what time it is all the time because everyone has a smartphone.

Your phone is more than a clock in your pocket. It’s a series of alarms, timers, countdowns, and even a world clock with every time zone on earth relative to the one you’re currently in. Thanks to smartphones, not only can you set multiple alarms tailored to your schedule, you can track your sleep, link your alarm to bluetooth headphones for a smooth waking experience, and listen to white noise while you drift into slumber. See ya later AAA batteries.

White Noise Machines

Sure, you never traveled with one of these back in the day, but now there’s a white noise app for that. Booyah.

Paper Maps

travel gadgets

This is a big one. Obviously connectivity is the biggest change that smartphones have brought to travel, but the ability to see current, accurate maps of practically any spot on the planet without lugging a 50-pound atlas or a dedicated GPS gadget in your backpack is game changing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve navigated home from the bar in Rome, or found my way back to the hostel in Spain, using nothing but my offline maps and that sweet little blue GPS compass arrow telling me where I was and which direction I was heading.

Life saver. Literally.

Offline and online maps on smartphones have changed the way we plan trips, navigate during vacations, even how we get around on foot while touring ancient cities. I know the cliche picture of a tourist is a clueless sap with a heavy camera around his neck and an accordion folded map crumpled in his hand, but pretty soon the common tourist will look like the rest of the locals—facedown, buried in a screen.

Calculators

A smartphone turns even someone like me into a mathematical savant in seconds. What’s even cooler is that, thanks to Siri and…whatever Google calls its A.I. overlord, you don’t even have to punch in the numbers anymore. Just ask Siri what $53.42 divided by 6 is and you’ll avoid any awkward dinner conversation with your mathlexic friends.

Speaking of money…

Bank, Cash, & Credit Cards

I remember when traveling involved traveler’s checks (cheques?), currency rates, foreign banking fees everywhere you turned, and lots more cash. Thanks to smartphones, things in the travel finance game have well and truly changed.

Don’t have local currency yet? Don’t worry. You can pay for your cab from the airport with your credit card on Uber. Don’t have cash to split the check at dinner? You don’t need to search for an ATM when you can pay your friend back on Venmo. Don’t have the cash to pay for the bus ticket in person? Book the reservation online and pay with Paypal or Apple Pay.

If you’re connected and savvy enough, you can legitimately travel the world with little or no cash, and your smartphone can save you hundreds in transaction fees, ATM surcharges, and service and billing fees—not to mention making splitting the bill with a new travel buddy or a long-time road warrior a breeze.

Currency Conversion Calculator

If you do need to get that cold hard cash, at least your phone can help you get the best rate. The XE app has obsessively updated currency rates on a customizable dashboard. You can always know the rate you should be getting with just a tap.

Pen, Paper & Moleskine Journals

travel gadgets

Yeah. Smartphones are even coming for the good old travel journal and Moleskine. Thanks to updated touch technology and sensitivity, as well as affordable digital stylus tools like Pencil and Paper from Studio 53, sketching, writing, taking notes, and doodling on your phone are as seamless as a pen and a paper.

What’s fantastic about the artistic tools available for digital tablets and smartphones is how many art supplies and logistical concerns they alleviate. Traveling with art supplies is tough. If you digitize as many as you can, you keep your bag light and your creativity flowing.

For the more pragmatic note taker and journal keeper, simple apps like the default Notes setting in iOS sync to a number of apps that make tracking and sharing your trip a breeze. Tortuga’s co-founder Fred Perrotta has a full suite of apps and hacks—from Dropbox, Google Drive, Evernote, and more—to replace your physical journal with your smartphone.

Voice Memo

Not many people travel with dictaphones or 4-track recorders, but I used to. There’s something magical about hearing the audio of a trip—your higher pitched voice from a younger you that you only remember from photos. I dunno… I like leaving voice memos for myself. It’s a funny analog reminder of a time and place, and I’m kind of surprised more people don’t do it while they travel.

Recording the sound of traffic in Vietnam, the rush of a waterfall in Ecuador, and the pleasant chatter of conversation and clink of glasses in a new friend’s backyard in Australia are all sonic artifacts of a trip well taken. A lesser utilized feature for sure, the audio recording capabilities of your smartphone are more than you think. Take ’em for a spin next trip. You’ll like it.

Musical Instruments

If you’re like me, traveling without an instrument makes you itch. I love making music, so I inevitably lug around a mic, guitar, and a heavy laptop stuffed with recording software when I travel for anything longer than two weeks. It’s a sickness. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

travel gadgets

Building on the audio capabilities of your smartphone, you can create whole soundscapes with apps like GarageBand. I’m anxious to try recording a full length album on nothing but my phone this year. GarageBand is available for mobile, and thanks to a few midi keyboard applications and some sampling ingenuity from the built-in iPhone mic, it might actually sound pretty great.

Guitar Tuner

If there’s one thing you’re sure to encounter on the road, it’s a guitar. And not just any guitar—an out of tune one. Unless you have perfect pitch, it’s just not the same playing “Wonderwall” slightly out of key. However, packing a guitar tuner is kind of ridiculous. Luckily, I have a Guitar Tuna on my phone. Dashboard Confessional has never sounded so good.

Calendar & Travel Planner

Ditch the to-do list and go digital. There are way too many smart calendars available that offer full integration with both Safari and Chrome as well as Gmail, Google, Outlook, and more, but I like Tiny Calendar, as well as the good old fashioned Google Calendar app.

You can customize alerts for projects on the road and even create travel calendars that you share with friends and family to set joint travel itineraries and keep them up to date on where you’ll be on the road. Apps like TripIt also keep everything nice and organized.

Never forget about flights, work, or birthdays again. Thanks, phone. You’re so smart.

Contact Info

In a very real sense we’ve outsourced a lot of our memory to our phones. I still remember a few select numbers, close friends and family, but it’s impossible to keep everything straight, especially on the road. Luckily, you can ditch the scrawled notes in the margins of your sketchbook and just check your phone.

Country codes are confusing as hell, not to mention multiple emails and address info. Save Airbnb host information so it’s available offline. Remember to email that contact you met in Dubai. Call your Mom.

Everyone’s info—all of it—is stored in one place. That’s awesome.

Travel Mirror

Sure, there are reflective surfaces everywhere, but your phone in selfie mode is the ultimate way to check whether you have spinach in your teeth (you probably do). It’s a small feature, but, hey, a digital weightless travel mirror is nothing to scoff at.

Remotes

If you think smart remotes are just travel gadgets for rich people with smart TVs and drones you’re… right, but that’s not the whole story. You can use the remote function of your smartphone on the road to capture great video.

GoPro’s Capture app lets you set up your GoPro and start recording, change resolutions or modes, and even monitor areas remotely with your smartphone. Perfect for difficult shots, time lapses, and making sure your camera is still in place if you can’t be right next to it all the time.

What’s even cooler is GoPro’s Quik app lets you edit footage right on your smartphone. The hardest part about making great video is sifting through hours of footage weeks after your trip. Skip the lag, and do it right then and there with mobile video editing.

iPod, CD Player, Walkman (How old are you?!)

travel gadgets

This is usually the first thing your smartphone replaces, because carrying physical music devices sucks. CDs are hilarious, and even lugging a separate iPod, or iPod shuffle, can be kind of a hassle. Packing the extra cords, cables, and chargers and keeping it updated and charged is just one more thing you have to do.

Migrate your go to audio files onto your phone and let the good times roll. Or, get Spotify Premium and rock out to all the music you want and download the good ones for flights and offline listening.

And get into podcasts. The Adventure Zone, My Brother My Brother and Me, What Did You Get?, Science Vs., Power Trip (Our podcast!), Stuff You Should Know, Buff Nugs and so many more. Podcasts might be my favorite thing about my phone. Seriously.

Travel Gadgets, Games, Playing Cards & Game Boy

Ask anyone I’ve ever traveled with and they’ll tell you I love playing cards on the road. But cards can get stale, especially when you’re by yourself on a crowded overnight bus. It’s nice to mix it up and play something else, and thanks to the supercomputer in your pocket you can play any game in the world. Literally.

Myriad gaming apps are available for free and for purchase, you can download and play tons of mini games on your phone. But it doesn’t stop there: Big name game developers are getting into mobile (Nintendo, namely), and there are emulators that let you run vintage games from Pac-Man right up to stuff for Nintendo 64. If you’re a gamer, there’s never been a better time to travel.

Even better, your phone can store some sweet party games, like that forehead guessing game from Ellen. That game is addictive as hell, especially when you enable the camera to capture everyone’s gestures and reactions mid-game. Priceless. But if those games aren’t active enough for you, you can always play Pokemon Go while you travel and explore the area. Maybe you’ll catch a Snorelax.

Books

You can access the sum total of human knowledge in a mobile web browser, but who cares as long as you can download the entire Twilight saga, right? eBooks have completely changed the way readers like me travel.

travel gadgets

I read door stopper fiction. In case you’re not a super cool person like me and don’t know what that means, “door-stopper” fiction refers to books that are so thick they can be used to prop open heavy doors. Tolkien, Goodkind, Pratchett, Asimov, Doctorow, Jordan, and so many more—not to mention fantastic authors that write shorter, but equally immersive books like Douglas Adams, Heinlein, Vonnegut, Coelho, and Daniel Quinn.

I can’t imagine traveling without a good book. Download an audiobook from Audible, or a full PDF version from Amazon, Google, or Barnes and Noble and you’ll be able to read any time of day. Oh yeah, and you won’t need a reading light. That’s another thing. Man. Smartphones are amazing.

Guidebooks

Guidebooks are a little different than fiction. They’re oddly helpful, and some people feel they need a good guidebook to plan and execute a seamless trip. But guidebooks are heavy. Once I even went to Strand Bookstore in Union Square and packed as many as I could cram into my carry on backpack. It wasn’t as many as you’d expect.

Ditch the guidebooks and get digital guides from a number of great reliable sources:

Language Guidebooks

travel gadgets

I don’t even know what to call those things anymore. Language guides? The point is, you don’t need to know how to say common phrases in Turkish (although it’s helpful), thanks to Google Translate. A few years ago Google translate was a joke. It’s not anymore.

Currently the Google Translate app allows text to text translation between 103 languages, offline translation for 52 languages, and, if you enable your camera, there are real time translations for 29 languages.

Seriously. Real time translation is here. Just point the camera at a sign in French and voila—English or Russian or Thai or Chinese….

Google Translate helps avoid mix ups in restaurants, reservations, even fine print. Plus you can download hundreds of other language apps and learning programs from Duolingo and Rosetta Stone to polish up on your “offline” translation skills.

Paper Tickets

You never have to print out a boarding pass again. Just check-in online, save your ticket to Apple Wallet (or the Android equivalent), and scan your way through security. Easy as pie. If you’re worried about connectivity and battery life, take a screenshot of that magic eye looking SKU code on your ticket and scan that—it’ll still work.

Compass, Altimeter, Pedometer

I mentioned it in the maps section, but GPS capabilities turn your phone into a pedometer, altimeter, and a compass without you really having to do anything.

Use the compass app that comes built in to navigate confusing cityscapes, and geek out on how far you’ve gone with a slew of fitness apps and tracking apps. It’s actually kind of fun.

TL;DR

Traveling with a smartphone is amazing. It makes your bag lighter, your trip more streamlined, and ultimately enhances your ability to explore. Embrace all the travel gadgets your smartphone replaces, but don’t get lost in that magic little screen. There’s a whole great big world out there to explore with your own eyes.

Here’s a look at some of the travel apps that the Tortuga Team can’t live without. Download away.