Should You Use a Smartwatch When You Travel?

Shawn Forno

The future of travel might just be on your wrist. Find out if you should start traveling with a smartwatch and what exactly you should look for when you’re in the market for a great travel-friendly smartwatch, because there are a lot of options to choose from. 

I defy you to find someone who doesn’t travel with a smartphone. Go ahead, I’ll wait. This once futuristic, ultra-premium, expensive piece of technology is now just another thing that we toss into our backpacks or pockets on the way to the airport. In fact, you probably don’t even think of “packing” your smartphone, since it’s always with you.

But that wasn’t the case just ten years ago.

A decade ago, traveling with a smartphone wasn’t a thing. The battery life was bad, the camera (singular!) was laughable, and they didn’t really do much (other than replace calculators and flashlights). No booking an Airbnb or calling an Uber because they didn’t exist yet. Mostly, you just had to use them as a phone, and even that was a problem since it cost a small fortune to call or text in other countries.

Fast forward to today. Smartphones are so useful, affordable, and portable that literally billions of people have one. I’d even argue that smartphones have become one of the most useful travel devices you can buy. Book your hotel, cab, flight, and connect with friends (and even potential dates) via your smartphone when you travel. So, the question is—what changed?

The answer is three-fold, and has everything to do with why I think you’ll see a lot more people traveling with a smartwatch in the next couple of years:

  1. International cell phone plans got cheaper
  2. Phones got way better
  3. Normal people adopted smartphones

5G connection is coming in the next year or two, which will mean insanely fast mobile internet speeds, international plans are already incredible (and getting better), and more “regular” people are buying smartwatches every year. Why? Because smartwatches are getting really good..

Here’s an in-depth look at the best travel-friendly smartwatches for men, women, and unisex designs; as well as a few useful smartphone features for travel, and what to look for in a travel-friendly smartwatch. Find out if you should travel with a smartwatch before your next big trip.

The Best Travel Friendly Smartwatch Features

Mobile Payment

Mobile payment alone is a strong argument for picking up a smartwatch for your next big trip. The ability to pay for things with a tap of your wrist is nothing short of futuristic, and it’s got a lot of practical travel applications.

A mobile payment enabled smartwatch means you can carry less cash and even fewer credit cards while still having access to all your accounts. Heck, if you’re in an urban area you might not even need to regularly carry your wallet. That freedom and security is game changing.

Once you store your cards in the “wallet” app or payment equivalent, you can pay for things at nearly any store that uses a credit card reader. No, really. Wireless payment is accepted in more places than you think and doesn’t require you to bring your phone along. It’s really great for things like grabbing a coffee after your morning run, but will be more, and more common as smartwatch adoption expands—especially in places like China and Japan where wireless payment platforms are becoming the norm.

Best Mobile Payment Smartwatch Apps: Apple Pay (Apple Watch Series 4) / Samsung Pay (Samsung Galaxy Watch)

Mobile Boarding Pass

You know what’s better than fumbling with your phone when boarding the plane? Tapping your wrist on the scanner like a freaking FUTURISTIC TECHNO WIZARD. That’s right, you can not only save your credit card and payment info in apps like Apple Wallet—you can add mobile boarding passes.

Welcome to the future of wearable travel.

Best Smartwatch Air Travel Apps: Apple Wallet, App in the Air

Custom Watch Faces

This is the whole point of a premium smartwatch. With the right watch face you can not only show off your unique style, but you can check the weather, time, calendar alerts, texts, notifications, emails, and the surf report all in a single glance.

Best Custom Smartwatch Faces:

  • Planets: You can see where all of the planets are currently at. C’mon. That’s awesome.
  • Surfline: Just. Wow. Everything surfers need to know including tide, wave height and frequency, and swells. Actually, don’t download this. You’ll never get anything done ever again.
  • Out: All the info you need on your next hike.
  • Digitless: A great ultra minimal watch face that still shows the time, weather, steps, and alert notifications (if you want).
  • And many more

Always Connected

If you enable your smartwatch with an LTE plan (available from most major carriers), you can basically treat your watch like a tiny wrist phone—which is pretty much what it is. Answer calls, dictate texts or emails, stream music, most of what you do on your phone can be done on a connected smartwatch like the Samsung Galaxy Watch.

However, even if you don’t want to pay for another cell plan, you can still tether to your phone for all the same functions at arms reach. The major upside of a smartwatch is that you’re always connected, but the interface of a watch (get it? inter-“face”) isn’t designed to suck you into a scroll-fest on your phone. When you get a WhatsApp alert, you probably won’t open up Facebook to scroll through the feed and see what your ex’s college roommate is up to. Because the screen on the watch is designed for that.

Smartwatches boast most of the same functionality with minimal distractions. And if you want to go ghost protocol you can configure your watch to only show alerts when you ask for them. It’s very customizable.

Music on the Go

Many of the higher end smartwatches have enough storage for hundreds of songs right there on your device. No internet required. It makes them ideal for a morning run or workout without having to lug your phone along. Just connect a pair of bluetooth headphones and get listening.

And if you opt for an LTE smartwatch plan you can stream Spotify or Apple Music ’til your ears bleed. You can even listen to podcasts and audiobooks with apps like Wear Cast.

GPS, Maps, and Altimeters

Getting lost sucks. Luckily, almost every smartwatch has GPS enabled so you’ve got a compass, GPS, and searchable map strapped to your wrist. This is awesome for navigating on the go, and while you can do all this on your phone it’s really nice not having to pull your phone out every time you want to check where you’re going in a strange city.

Plus, GPS is one of the fastest ways to drain your smartphone battery. Save your phone’s battery for bigger things and navigate with your smartwatch.

Best Smartwatch GPS Apps and Maps: Google Maps, Garmin Connect

Fitness Tracking & Health Monitoring (aka “steps”)

Staying healthy on the road can be a challenge. Sometimes all you need is that little nudge. There are hundreds of fitness tracking apps, watches, and monitors to choose from, but the point is that your smartwatch can become a powerful fitness tool if you want to use it that way.

Fitness tracking capabilities range from counting steps (basic), to sleep tracking, heart rate monitoring, and even the ability to take your blood pressure using your watch band as a type of tourniquet (it’s some next level mobile medicine).

Apple Watch is making some big strides in this area, but dozens of top tier smartwatches from FitBit, Samsung, Garmin, and more feature most or all of these features. Taking care of yourself and monitoring your heart and even stress levels while you’re traveling is a game-changer.

You can even up the ante with dedicated “fitness” smartwatches that come loaded with fitness apps, digital trainers, and online workouts for dozens of sports from running and cycling to climbing, swimming, and even surfing.

Best Smartwatch Fitness Apps: Strava, Seven

Sleep Tracking

I mentioned this in the fitness tracking section, but sleep tracking is kind of its own topic, since not everyone works out, but we all need to catch those zzzs. The best part of a smartwatch for travel is that you can use some high level tech to fight against jet lag.

Track your sleep (and see when you’re waking up during the night), set alerts for when to power down, and use one of my favorite smartwatch features—vibrate to wake. Ditch the outdated buzz of an alarm clock and wake up with a gentle nudge from your smartwatch to take on the day.

Best Smartwatch Sleep Tracking Apps: Sleep Cycle, Sleep Time

Note Taking on the Go

Remember that thing you said the other day? No, not that, the other thing? Yeah, well you could have just yelled it at your smartwatch to take a note on the go instead of forgetting that billion dollar idea. Way to go.

And the best part about smartwatch note taking apps like Google Keep is that they’re integrated with the cloud so they’ll show up on all your other devices automatically. Talk about travel friendly.

Wearable Flashlight

Remember when the most useful app on your phone was the flashlight? Well, now you can throw out that stupid headlamp and embrace the brilliance of your smartwatch. You don’t even need an app. 

Just ramp the screen brightness to max and boom—instant flashlight. It’s perfect for those early morning checkouts and going to the bathroom in the dark. Some of the more rugged hiking watches have dedicated flashlights, but bumping the screen brightness is more than good enough to find what your dropped on the floor.

Best Smartwatch Travel Apps

And those are just a few of the hardware features of today’s travel-friendly smartwatches. You can still use tons of other apps with your smartwatch including: 

  • Google Keep: Note taking on the go
  • Foursquare: Maps and finding good food (yes, it’s still around, and the smartwatch app is great)
  • Wear Casts: This app lets you download and play podcasts directly from your watch: Boom
  • App in the Air: Real time updates (like gate changes and check-in alerts) on your wrist
  • Uber Smartwatch App: Yes, there’s a standalone smartwatch Uber app; you know, for cars and stuff
  • Wear Audio Recorder: Record stuff on the spur of the moment and save it to your Dropbox or Google Drive
  • Spotify Smartwatch App: Not quite as robust as the smartphone app (you can’t search), but you can still listen to all your jams
  • Google Maps Smartwatch App: Because, of course
  • Telegram: A great texting app that is designed for a watch (unlike WhatsApp)
  • Seven: 7 minute workouts to keep you active
  • IFTTT: If you are all about automating things in your life, you need If This Then That; this app is fantastic for optimizing productivity—especially on a smartwatch

Best Smartwatches for Travel

Ok. Enough dithering. Here are some of the best smartwatches for travel broken down by use case and category.

Best User Friendly Smartwatch

Apple Watch Series 4
$499 cellular version / $399 GPS only

The Apple Watch Series 4 is the undisputed king of smartwatches—and for good reason. It’s sleek, well designed, and fits into the Apple ecosystem beautifully. The smartwatch app store features thousands of apps that are specifically designed for the Apple Watch screen in UI, so it’s no wonder that it’s the world’s most popular smartwatch.

The screen got an upgrade, the interface is sick, and if you have an iPhone, you’re primed to take advantage of all the premium features. However, the Apple Watch might not the best “travel” smartwatch for a few simple reasons:

  1. It doesn’t work with Android (which is the standard nearly everywhere outside of the US)
  2. It’s expensive
  3. It’s not super durable
  4. The battery life is just ok

My biggest problem is that the Apple Watch simply doesn’t work with Android devices. Period. If you don’t have an iPhone, this isn’t the travel smartwatch for you. Second, it’s expensive. Not as much as some ultra premium models, but at $499 it’s at the top of a lot of people’s budget.

Finally, the battery life is fine, but not outstanding. Two days is the bare minimum recommendation for a travel-friendly smartwatch, and that number goes down with heavy usage—especially the new heart monitoring and health & fitness features. Granted, it’s got a lot of functionality, but it’s worth noting that it comes at the price of top-tier battery performance.

All in all, this is a great smartwatch, and if you’re completely immersed in the Apple ecosystem you don’t need to be told that this is the smartwatch for your trip. However, several smartwatches on this list have better battery life, cooler features, and more overall travel functionality than the Apple Watch.

Pro Tip: Used Apple Watch Series 3 is available for $199 if you’re looking to save some cash.

Best Features: Wireless payment. Apple Watch simply supports more banks and wireless payment systems than anyone else. If you want to ditch the wallet, it’s the clear winner.

Best Entry Level Travel Smartwatch

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active
$200

Samsung has updated their previous smartwatch, and the new generation is fantastic for travel. It’s significantly lighter and thinner—which makes it a lot more wearable—and the price is unreal. Make no mistake, this is a “flagship” smartwatch that costs nearly half what the Apple Watch costs.

It’s water-resistant up to 50m, sleek, comfortable, rugged, and packed with travel-friendly features like GPS, altimeter, and lots of health and fitness tracking features like calories burned, heart rate monitoring, and lots of passive features that are baked in. It even features a robust sleep tracking app.

My favorite feature is that the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active even maps your run (or hike) without bringing your phone along. Oh, and this watch will work with an iPhone. Seriously. It’s just Apple that doesn’t play nice with others. You get a lot for your buck when you abandon the Apple ecosystem.

Best Feature: Wireless charging. You can even charge this off the back of the new Samsung Galaxy S10.

Best Waterproof Smartwatch

Nixon Base Tide
$100

I can’t put my finger on why I love this watch design so much. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a watch with a point of view. Oh, and it’s waterproof up to 100m. So, there’s that.

This smartwatch is aimed at surfers and water-sports enthusiasts who want to know the time, date, and surf report. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but the sleek design and retro display make this thing so danged elegant. If you spend anytime in the water, this is the smartwatch for you.

Most Stylish Travel Smartwatch

Garmin Vivomove HR
$349

This thing is slick. It looks like a “real” watch if you want, and does so with a classic customizable case ranging from gold and rose gold to stainless steel (there are a lot of options). But once you dig into the features it can keep up with the most tech savvy watches on the market.

It has heart rate monitoring, fitness tracking, sleep monitoring, GPS, and the battery lasts for 5 days—which is amazing. You get what you pay for, but this watch rules. And the best part is that there’s a “sport” version of the Vivomove with all the same features for just $199. That alone makes the sport a contender for any active traveler.

Best Hiking Smartwatch

Garmin Instinct
$299

If you want to get the heck out there yet stay connected, embrace the military grade quality of the Garmin Instinct. Garmin has been the name in GPS since… the beginning of GPS so it’s no surprise that their 3-axis GPS system is considered one of the best in the smartwatch world. 

This watch is rated for 100m underwater, thermal ratings way above normal, and enough shock resistance to stand up to the craziest things you can do in the woods. 

Bottom line, this is a great smartwatch packed with features like fitness and health tracking, notification support, GPS, and up to 14 days of battery life. You can even switch on Ultratrac mode if you get super lost to help people find you. That’s nice.

Best Everyday Travel Smartwatch

Fitbit Versa
$199

FitBit is known for their fitness trackers, but the Fitbit Versa might just be one of the best full-blown smartwatches on the market right now. Oh, and it weighs less than one ounce.

It features:

  • 4+ days of battery life (although results can vary)
  • Sleep tracking
  • Steps and calories
  • 24/7 heart rate monitoring
  • Exercise modes
  • Real-time pace and distance (fun for hiking!)
  • Tons of apps
  • Female health tracking software
  • Waterproof
  • Music storage and downloading
  • And for an extra $30, you can get the Fitbit Versa Special Edition with on-wrist payment functionality (it’s worth the upgrade)

If paying for stuff with your watch isn’t a big deal, save $30 and get a great top-tier travel-friendly smartwatch with a huge battery life and lots of features. If you’re not sure about smartwatches, this might be the watch to change your mind.

Best Features: Vibration to wake you up. That’s right—no more marimba alarm jolting you awake

Best Smartwatch for Runners

Apple Watch Nike+
$499 cellular / 399 GPS only

If your primary use for a travel smartwatch is to track your run, this is your new best friend. Centered around the Nike Fitness app, this watch responds to voice commands—you can ask it to take you on a 30 minute run or a 5-mile run.

It’s also great for tracking everything. Heart rate, elevation, location, stress, calories burned, you name it. If you’re on the move while you’re… on the move, this is one of the best smartwatches out there.

The Garmin Forerunner 645 ($449) is designed with runners in mind, but it’s just not quite right for a few reasons. Yes, you can download up to 500 songs and play them back from your device, and you get contactless payment (via the Garmin app which isn’t accepted everywhere).

However, the battery life is only 5 hours (down from a claimed 7 days!) when you’re using GPS and playing music, which just doesn’t cut it when you’re traveling. For that price you might as well just snag an Apple Watch. At least you’ll the payments will work most of the time.

Best Smartwatch Battery Life

Amazfit Bip
$79

I kind of love this watch. And not just because it’s only $80. If you just want a straight up great  travel smartwatch, the Amazfit Bip is for you. It’s stripped down to the essentials—step tracking, an always on display, sleep tracking, but still looks like an honest to goodness smartwatch thanks to the large screen.

But the best part, the part that makes it a contender for best travel smartwatch is that it can go for 30-45 days between charges (depending on your notification settings). That’s bonkers. Remember, this isn’t a fitness tracker. This is a smartwatch. Apple should be getting a little nervous about this thing.

Ok, maybe that’s an overstatement—this isn’t an Apple Watch. But you can get notifications, track your workout, and get some health information from a watch that costs less than $80. Oh, and the always on display means you’ll actually be able to tell the time. This is a killer smartwatch and easily the best budget option out there.

Should You Travel with a Smartwatch or a Fitness Tracker?

There’s a big difference between a smartwatch and a fitness tracker—and it’s not just the price.

Fitness trackers don’t feature wireless payment, text message capabilities, and aren’t compatible with any apps or stores, so what you see is what you get. However, there are some great fitness trackers out there for active travelers who want to track their travels in a different way while staying relatively off the grid with long battery life and tons of rugged builds.

Best Fitness Trackers for Travel

Vivofit 4
$79

If all you need is a great fitness tracker that counts steps, tracks your sleep, calories, and works in all conditions, you’re all set with the Vivofit 4. Plus, the battery lasts for one entire year without needing to be charged. A whole year.

Vivosmart 4
$129

If you want a slight upgrade to the biotracking features, you can bump up to the Vivosmart 4. While it’s still not a smartwatch, the added features are a big plus for hikers and fitness nerds on the go. 7 days of battery life

Vivosport
$169

This is the closest a fitness tracker comes to being considered a smartwatch. You can get “notifications” (via the Garmin app), and it can display things like the weather, but again, not through independent platforms outside of the Garmin ecosystem.

That being said, the slim profile and robust fitness functionality of this tracker (including on wrist heart rate monitoring) make it one of the best fitness trackers out there. It even has on-board GPS to track your hikes or travels (via the Garmin app). And the battery lasts for 7 days at a time.

Best Women’s Smartwatches for Travel

Fitbit Versa

This is the best watch for female travelers thanks to the slim, lightweight build that still packs a lot of screen real estate and functionality on your wrist. Loaded with features, customizable for any style, and under $200.

Apple Watch Series 4

(And series 3, honestly): There’s a reason this is the most popular smartwatch in the world. If you’re on the smaller side, make sure you try on different watch face sizes

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active

The slim fit and featherweight feel of this performance beast, mean that women can wear it without feeling any extra bulk (unlike other top tier smartwatches). You can even comfortably wear it while sleeping to track your sleep. It’s a great smartwatch in a slightly more manageable package.

Best Men’s Smartwatches for Travel

FitBit Versa

Just like for women, this is one of the best smartwatches a guy can buy. Embrace the rounded corners and brilliant performance of this mid-market smartphone and up your travel game.

Samsung Galaxy Watch 

This is the Samsung “flagship” smartwatch and it shows. It’s always on display, robust app store, killer tracking and health features, and outstanding battery life make it a contender for best travel smartwatch. I particularly like the “Daily briefing feature” that shows you what you’ve got scheduled for the day right on the watch—meaning you won’t get sucked into your phone first thing in the morning. It’s substantially heavier than the Samsung Active, making it a more likely smartwatch pick for guys, but if you like a beefy watch, for around $250, you could do a lot worse.

 

Garmin Instinct 

It’s just so danged rugged. And while it’s also awesome for women, the watch face does trend a little big.

The Biggest Problems with Smartwatches When Traveling

Smartwatches are incredible—if you get one that actually fits the way you like to travel. Smartwatches still have a little way to go before they become as ubiquitous as smartphones. And 5G isn’t quite here to save the day. Until that happens, it’s worth noting some of the things that are still a problem with a travel smartwatch.

Battery Life

If your smartwatch runs out of battery in a day or two, you’re not going to want to wear it for long. If battery life is a huge deal, pay for the upgraded version or just switch to a fitness tracker. They have battery life for days.

Security

It needs to be said that a smartwatch can make you look like a target for theft in certain places. Many smartwatches scream “I’m expensive!” which can lead to safety issues. Avoid gold faces, plush bands, and over the top watch faces if you want to avoid any unwanted attention on your wearable.

Data Usage and Coverage

You might want to opt for an additional wearable roaming LTE plan if you expect to use your smartphone a lot when you travel. Connecting via wifi is usually more than enough, but it’s nice to have the extra functionality of always on GPS, maps, and search when you need it.

T-mobile has a great LTE plan for wearables.

Constant Alerts

While it can be awesome to be connected all the time, it can also suck to be connected all the time. Manage your alerts and notifications to just the essentials and make your smartwatch work for your trip—not the other way around.

The best travel accessories and gear expand your options and make your travel better. Don’t get pulled out of the moment by your gear.

TL;DR

The future of travel might just be on your wrist. Dozens of today’s smartwatches are enabled with some of the best travel-friendly features of your smartphone—and even your laptop—all in a convenient, wearable package.

Find out if you should start traveling with a smartwatch and what exactly you should look for when you’re in the market for a great travel-friendly smartwatch, because there are a lot of options to choose from. 

  • Battery life is key—try to find something that lasts for 4+ days (or longer!)
  • Fitness trackers are a lot different than smartwatches—know the difference
  • Mobile payment on a smartwatch is a game changer
  • Track your trip in real time with smartwatch maps, GPS, and step tracking
  • Sleep tracking will change you, but not as much as vibrate to wake

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