Wanderlust: Mobile Apps for Intrepid Travelers



Have a serious case of wanderlust?

When you’re feeling the urge to stray from your nest — and by stray, we mean legions of miles from your doorstep – don’t leave unprepared. These days, there are many mobile apps to help you traverse foreign lands and learn about the rich, beautiful diversity of our world. Because true globetrotters don’t just sit at hotel resorts with a margarita; they go hardcore to the bone with lightly packed suitcases of comfortable, sturdy sandals and laminated subway maps and clothing that can be layered or that have all sorts of nifty pockets.

Oh, and their smartphones.

These days, mobile technology makes traveling to a foreign country easier than ever. If you don’t speak the language, there’s an app that can help you learn quickly, and for much cheaper than Rosetta Stone. There’s an app for free texting, no matter where you are in the world. And there’s an app for translating signs and other words in real-time.

Many Americans are far behind the rest of the world in learning a second or third language fluently. We have the huge benefit of happening to be born in a country that, by default, speaks the language everyone else wants to learn. We could easily sit back and coast through life without ever needing or desiring to learn another tongue. But if you’re going to hop borders and actually collect some stamps on your passport, it’s probably best to attempt to learn a few phrases. And it’s probably not too far off in the future that we’ll all need to learn Mandarin Chinese.

Last fall, I downloaded Babbel and signed up for the annual subscription which, at less than $50, is a steal compared to Rosetta Stone. Since then, I’ve been flexing my language skills everywhere. Instead of browsing Instagram or Facebook newsfeeds yet again, I’ve trained myself to open Babbel. I’ve been learning French in my bed before I go to sleep (you know you’re fluent once you start dreaming in a foreign language, they say), in the car at a stoplight (disclaimer: don’t text and drive), on my work breaks and, yes, even on the toilet.


Babbel won’t teach you Chinese, but it’s perfect for your sojourns to Europe. It offers 13 languages, including the well-known Romance ones, but also some less common options, such as Norwegian, Danish and Turkish. In recent years, the app has been lauded for its clean design and its easy on-the-go curriculum blending grammar lessons with savvy everyday conversations. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel has used it. Babbel teaches you basic vocabulary and grammar with easy exercises. Sometimes you match the correct phrases. Other times you have to type in the correct spelling. If you have your phone’s microphone on, you can even speak words in your target language and it will tell you if your pronunciation is way off.

Word Lens

Google just acquired Word Lens, the visual translation app, and it works kind of like a little miracle. Simply point your phone’s built-in camera at the source – a sign for “salida,” for instance – and watch words transform in real-time to English. ¡Voilà! Now you know that “salida” means “exit.” It’s like an English barcode scanner for foreign languages, including Portuguese, German, Italian, French, Russian and Spanish. Even better, you don’t need an Internet or cellular network connection to use it. It’s free for a limited time while the company, Quest Visual, moves to its new Google home, so hop to it before there’s a price tag on this nifty guy.


This app is the perfect way to stay in touch with your family or travel buddies while you’re abroad. Because at some point, your group will probably split. Someone will want to go shopping; another person will stay longer at the art museum. The only thing is, you do need to latch onto a WiFi connection or a data network to text. But there’s no texting fees. And there’s no ads, thanks to the strong philosophy of its founders. So text away to meet your family at the café around the corner in Venice, or to ping your Airbnb host in Istanbul that you’re about to arrive at their apartment.

But remember, mobile apps can only do so much when you’re new to a country. And there’s something to be said for immersing yourself in another culture and language sans technological crutches. Don’t worry, though, if you still get lost in translation — a genuine smile doesn’t need words.

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