I’ve always had an odd memory. I can remember the sights, smells and songs on the radio during hundreds of banal events from my youth, but unfailingly, I will forget to pick up shampoo and double-A batteries at the shops — even if Keiko reminded me minutes before. Now my phone has become my electronic memory and a surrogate brain — it is my reminders, my notepad, my planner and my go-to documentation tool.
My Top 21 Digital Nomad Apps
My reliance on the device — especially now that we’re traveling full-time — is a post for another day. Today let’s talk about how I use it instead. I’ve downloaded well over two hundred apps during my long and prickly iPhone relationship — many of which I consider digital nomad apps, or apps that I now find essential to life on the move. Many app purchases have been useless, while others were never given an opportunity to show their utility. Fewer still became part of my routine, and I share them below. I’ve shown you the iPad apps we use for homeschooling, but these below are what I use for work and travel planning.
I’ve left out some that seemed obvious: Skype, for example, as well as Instagram (do you really need me to recommend that one for you?). In fact, I’ll just leave photography apps for another post entirely. Click the images or titles to be brought to the relevant app’s site.
Ok, this may be an obvious choice for some of you, but not everyone uses Evernote the way I’ve learned to. If you’re unfamiliar with Evernote, it’s one of those digital storage services where you can add any digital content — pictures, notes, emails, voice messages and documents — both from your computer or scanned as a PDF. Evernote on the iPhone can even snap a pic your paper documents and turn them into PDFs, and then the words in the document can be searched in your account. For the first year or two of using Evernote, I stored stuff randomly, but I was using it all wrong. I kept receipts in one folder, family pics in another and so on. But then I found a method using something called “The Secret Weapon,” which mixed in GTD strategies. Basically, now all of my email flows directly into Evernote, but instead of hundreds of disconnected folders, I store basically everything in only three:
- CABINET (for reference material that doesn’t need to be acted on)
- ACTIONS PENDING (things that need to be done)
- COMPLETED (once something’s been completed, I put it here)
I keep track of everything through tags, not folders. Each item can be tagged with whatever it is (ie. receipt, wordpress, family, invoices, pictures, Read later, etc), as well as with level of urgency (1_Now, 2_Today, 3_This Week, and so on). Suddenly, Evernote became my go-to digital storage spot and a beefed-up to-do list. For nearly everything. I back up big stuff to Dropbox and Google Docs, but Evernote is where I keep track of my life. I use the voice recording and voice-to-text features all the time, taking notes or setting a reminder for myself without having to stop walking, set down my bags and look for a pen.
Confidentiality is a big deal for some of my clients, and of course I don’t want anyone snooping on me or hacking into my computer, so I take a few measures to ensure that doesn’t happen. When we first set out on this trip, I brought along an Apple Airport Express and simply set up my own password-protected network in whatever apartment we moved into. But that doesn’t protect me when I want to work outside the home. That’s where a VPN (virtual private network) comes in. This encrypts my data enough that I don’t have to worry as much about someone using the same wifi network (in a hotel, say) somehow snagging any passwords or other data from me while I work. Another bonus of VPNs like Vypr is that I can choose servers in various countries. This means that I can check Facebook in Vietnam (where it’s ostensibly banned), and use services that are only supposed to be available in America, such as viewing videos (Daily Show, et al) that are sometimes blocked to computers in other countries.
Speaking of security, I want to keep my passwords safe, and I have a lot of passwords: blogs, social media, banking, Paypal, Amazon, airlines, apps and many others. Sound familiar? For a long time I (foolishly) used the same three or four passwords for all of them, but fortunately realized that this needed to change soon before something bad happened. 1Password helps me create unique passwords for each of my accounts and then stores them on my laptop and other devices. Access to all those passwords requires just one long, complicated master password that only Keiko and I know. I can’t believe how I was handling passwords before this. If you buy 1password, make sure to install the plugin for Google Chrome, which makes it much faster and easier to save and store the passwords as you go.
Time zones are crucial to life on this planet. Time differences, however, are a pain in the ass. Sometimes they work to my advantage — finishing a job for a client and leaving it in their inbox before they wake up, for example — but for the most part, time differences are synonymous with sleep deprivation and checking (and double-checking, and triple-checking) meeting times. Apps like World Clock help make this easier to do. I can’t say that this app is better than others necessarily — it’s just the one I’ve stuck with. I should also mention the importance of the website Time and Date, and its meeting planner feature. This is the best way I’ve found to make sure that there are no misunderstandings when setting up a cross-continental Skype call. If there’s an app out there that can do this faster, and can then send a mail with the schedule of numerous cities, leave a link in the comments and I’d probably buy it immediately.
Update: A reader has mentioned that The Time Now is a better scheduling tool for the sight impaired. Thanks, Amanda!
I love social media. Correction: LOVED. I loved social media until I got hooked and had to leave it for a while. Back when I was chained to a Tokyo cubicle, I was really active on Twitter (my old handle: @jinki1). It’s actually how I met some very close friends. Seriously. Twitter is responsible for helping a group of random people in Tokyo — Japanese and non-Japanese, and with varied ages, jobs and backgrounds — to find each other and build long-lasting friendships (indeed, three of them recently came to visit us in Malaysia!). However, the truth is that Twitter and Facebook were more often a distraction from the drudgery of work. My job was boring and involved lots of empty pockets of time here and there. I filled those pockets by hopping from tweet to post in a directionless ritual of chatting and half-reading that kept me from focusing on what was important and what I needed to accomplish. I still enjoy diving into my feeds — and many of the fantastic people in them — but only at designated times. Otherwise, it pulls me away from important tasks. The thing is, when you’re promoting yourself and your blog, sites like Twitter and Facebook can help the most if you’re adding content and comments to them throughout the day. That’s fine, but if I go into those feeds every few hours, I increase my risk of staying to chat or read or whatever and falling behind on whatever I really should be doing at that moment. Moreover, sometimes I’m far away from an internet signal, so I couldn’t post or tweet if I wanted to. My solution is to add all the things I want to SMS in one service and let it distribute them over time for me. I’ve just started doing this recently, and now wonder why it took me so long. So do I love social media? Of course. Too much, in fact. Buffer helps me curb my usage but still post consistently.
Making this lifestyle work means watching our money. I’ve attempted logging our expenses numerous times, with varying degrees of success. The Trail Wallet app, however, has given me the best results. Adding and categorizing items is really easy, as is going back and adding/editing an item from earlier with minimum effort. Currency conversion is built-in, and works really well, letting you manage multiple currencies at ones. For example, I set my base currency as Japanese yen, as that’s where my main bank account is and that’s the main currency I get paid in. But I live in Penang (using Malaysian Ringgit), and visit Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia (using Dong, Baht and Rupiah, respectively) and make online purchases in the US (using the almighty dollar). With Trail Wallet, I add everything I spend in the currency I bought it in, and the app gives me these great charts in my home currency. You can also back it up to Dropbox, and export CSV reports directly from the app.
I used the XE Currency website long before I discovered the app, and for quick conversions, I haven’t found anything better. Switching between multiple currencies when we travel every month can be confusing, and regularly converting into three main currencies (yen, dollars and ringgit) almost every day doesn’t make it any simpler. Keiko can do these kind of calculations in her head before I can even pull the iPhone out of my pocket, but she’s not around all the time. XE lets me convert multiple currencies simultaneously, which saves time by not having to recalculate again and again. You just need to make sure to update the rates every so often if you’re away from consistent wifi or in a country with wildly fluctuating foreign exchange rates.
Give this app access to your travel-related email and it collects all your pertinent information into one place: reservation numbers, frequent flyer accounts, you name it. I never bought a Pro account and haven’t used the app to its fullest, but I open it every time we walk into an airport. If you stay in hotels a lot, you may get even more benefit from it. A few years ago we went to Mexico for my sister’s wedding. We were staying in hotels near the airport due to the layover from Tokyo and Tripit plotted everything out for us, including directions to the rental car place and maps from the airport to the hotel and back. The only complaint I have with it is that it seems to collect any travel-related email and put it in the app, even if it’s not mine. For example, my parents and I have a habit of always sending each other our itineraries any time we fly somewhere. This means that every time they fly somewhere, I get an alert telling me “my trip” is coming up. Boo hoo. It’s still nice to have it all in one place.
To say that I use this app a lot is a gross exaggeration, but the very few times I’ve used it have made it something I’d recommend to have along. Symbolic is just lots of easy-to-understand icons for things you may need but don’t know how to say in the native language. For instance, in Vietnam a few weeks ago, we were on scooters outside a small town on the Mekong. We were looking for the ferry to take across the river, and we had ridden down a dozen different dirt roads and found nothing. No one spoke English around there, and the third farmer we asked didn’t seem to understand our pantomime of a boat, either. Then I remembered the app, quickly pulled up a picture of a boat, and I saw a light bulb turn on in the guy’s head: “Oh! You want the ferry!” This app is a last resort for me, but nice to have around.
Another occasional-but-useful app for my crumbling memory. Packing Pro is just an electronic checklist of everything you might want to bring on a trip. I may look at Tripit as I’m walking into an airport, but I’m looking at Packing Pro the night before. There’s a sample packing list in there, and I’ve customized it to our family, listing everything from socks and sunscreen to ziplock bags and iPad chargers. I have lists for the kids, too, and since they pack their own stuff, this helps them do a final double check. I had my packing list on Evernote before, and that would still work, but there’s something about this dedicated app that I like. For instance, each item is grayed-out once you check it off, and you can open and close different categories of items: toiletries, electronics, kids’ stuff, etc. Breaking it down like this makes it easier for me to focus on one thing at a time, instead of looking at a long white page.
This is my go-to app for reading web pages across all my devices. Like Instapaper and a few other reading/media/bookmark manager apps, you can change the background and font colors, making the background black and the letters white, which I find saves a bit of power if you’re reading for a while. But the reason that I like Pocket more than the rest is because it plays so well with other applications and utilities. I have the Pocket plugin loaded onto Chrome, and with one click, all the my web reading is in one place across all my devices (it saves audio and video, too), and I always back it up before heading to an airport or bus station. I use tags to categorize what I want to read and use a number of IFTTT recipes to organize it further. For example, this recipe lets me keep a spreadsheet of all the links I save.
Of course, no travel app list would be complete without Google Maps, but I also like using National Geographic’s World Atlas app just for the old-school map look to it. We use the AirBnB app to search for places to stay and to communicate with the renters, and use Skyscanner a lot when searching for flights. The Kindle app gets frequent usage in our home, and we’ve used Audible for audio books on road trips, but I’m considering canceling my membership because we’re just not in a private car long enough to justify paying for something I’m not using. For music, we run Spotify from my iPhone to a bluetooth speaker all the time. I loved Songza for its endless playlist collections, but it has stopped working for us over the last few months. Could have something to do with the new owners, but I have no idea. Hype Machine is great to motivating club tracks during housework.
There are many other apps that get used here and there, but these are the what gets used most. What digital nomad apps do you use? What’s worth looking into?
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