1) Google Maps (iOS/Android)
Long gone are the days of fumbling around in the glove box for your half-torn, long-expired road map of France, as are the days of arguing over directions to the nearest beach and near-marital breakups over which exit to take on a roundabout. Google Maps have revolutionised the way we see the world.
As well as having built-in satellite navigation allowing you the additional freedom to choose public transport, cycling or walking directions, this app also lets you ‘street view’ roads in over 50 countries and covers the entire European continent. This feature is particularly handy for us van-lifers as we can effortlessly swipe left or right along a street and check for parking restriction signs, height barriers and all the other unwanted surprises we face daily.
Another great feature is the ability to download offline maps. Simply connect to WiFi or 3G/4G, search a location, select ‘download’ and zoom in or out until you have the area you wish to download filling your screen. This is currently only available as a basic map (not satellite) and each map cannot exceed 120,000 km2.
Live traffic updates and the ability to search amenities either locally or manually in other areas are also highly valuable features. For example, a simple search for ‘supermarkets’ will instantly pull up the majority of the options you have in your locality. You can then select your preferred choice and Google Maps will direct you to your destination, updating traffic information as you drive.
One slight drawback to Google Maps is it sometimes has difficulty distinguishing between roads and paths, particularly in very rural areas. Overall though, it has been an invaluable tool for finding secluded park ups and the odd hiccup is to be expected from time to time.
Finally, arguably the best feature of all, our Traveller’s Guides can be saved directly to your phone app with just a few clicks! Simply download Google Maps and sign in. Then, ensuring you are signed in to your Google account on your web browser, head to our page here and click the star icon in the middle of the top bar of the map widget. Re-open Google Maps and click ‘Your Places’. Our map will now be available to view and you can access hundreds of free park ups, water points, launderettes, public toilets and more at the click of a button.
As much as I'm sure we'd all love to ditch technology and run for the hills, it can actually be pretty handy for van life. Here is a list of helpful apps I have compiled that can make van life a little simpler.
2) Couchsurfing (iOS/Android)
Whether it’s a long planned trip or a last minute plea for shelter, Couchsurfing can be an invaluable tool for the 10 million travellers worldwide currently registered. I have hosted surfers from France to Taiwan and all in-between and most of the experiences have been great. The key to success is simple; be polite, friendly and respectful of your host’s home and everything else will fall into place.
The most important thing about Couchsurfing is understanding that people have different approaches to both hosting and travelling. Some, like me, will take time off work in order to show the guest around the area, cook some nice food and exchange thoughts and cultural differences. Others will take a different approach and allow you the house to yourself whilst they work, or simply offer you a room overnight and that’s it. On the other hand, some guests will prefer to just have a room and do their own thing during the day, whilst some would prefer being shown around by a local. It’s important that from the outset both parties make their intentions clear. This helps to respect people’s boundaries and continue the positive ethos of Couchsurfing itself.
So how can it benefit van-lifers?
Couchsurfing have recently introduced a great new tool to their app called Hangouts. Hangouts enables you to easily see who is available in your area to meet up. You can start a Hangout by selecting a predetermined activity such as ‘drink a beer’ or you can write your own. For example, if I wanted to go for a nice walk nearby, I would write this and it would appear as a Hangout option in the local area for all nearby members to see. It will read ‘Ben Fuery wants to go for a walk’ and last for three hours. If somebody is interested they will then click your hangout and you will be able to message them to arrange the details. This is a really great tool if you’re feeling a bit lonely on your adventures and fancy effortlessly meeting up with some like-minded travellers or hosts in the area.
Another possibility is to use their original format of contacting people as you travel and asking if you can use showers, wash clothes or even park your van on their drive. I must stress this is where it becomes important to express your intentions from the outset. If I had taken time out of my working week to host, I would feel a little disheartened if a surfer turned up at my door only to use my shower before leaving again having given no warning of this intention. Having said that, if you contact somebody with clear intent and explain your situation and your story people are generally very willing to help. It’s always a good idea to offer more than you wish to take. For instance, If I contacted a host in Rome asking to use their shower, I would offer to cook them a meal, some English language tutorials or something along those lines.
Alternatively, rather than directly messaging people, you can select an area you are travelling to and post a brief description of your intentions for everyone there to see at their own leisure. They can then contact you if they are willing to help out. Remember: people are often prepared to help if you ask, just be careful not to abuse the trust.
3) Google Translate (iOS/Android)
It’s always good fun arriving in a new country and trying to remember how to ask for a bag with your shopping or a bottle of water with your meal. You glance down at the palm of your hand to see the roughly sketched notes have merged in to one big splodge of ink and begin to go red in the face as the shop clerk stares at you. Well thankfully Google have got your back again with their Translate app. This app is pretty self-explanatory but I’ll run through some cool features that will be sure to help you out in time of need.
The app offers text translations for more than 90 languages. It also has the ability to translate words on a photo from 37 languages which can be extremely useful in restaurants, or in my case reading the backs of things in shops to check they’re vegetarian. Furthermore, you can hold a conversation in 2 separate languages and it will translate live as you go. Another great little bonus is the ability to download language packs to use offline.
We’ve found this to be an invaluable tool that is essential to our day to day business. A word of advice though: it’s not entirely accurate and whilst the words in front of you may be correctly translated, Google won’t necessarily be able to structure your sentence in a grammatically correct way. For example, the English language places the adjective before the noun, whereas Latin languages place the noun before the adjective.
How can it help us van-lifers?
The photo tool is a godsend. Rather than typing out an entire parking notice you can simply take a snapshot and Google will give you the gist of what it’s saying pretty instantly, thus saving you a headache when you come back to find a clamped van after a day out exploring.
4) Open Signal (iOS/Android)
The OpenSignal app is really handy if you need to stay connected. It uses crowd-sourced data from its users and has several advantageous functions.
Upon opening the app, the first screen available is a signal boost compass which will help you find the strongest signal mast in your area. Simply rotate your device until it is in line with the arrow.
You will also see options to test your connection speed for both downloads and uploads.
As well as the above, this app can also locate nearby WiFi hotspots. With over 3 million downloads, the app looks like it will be getting more and more reliable and beneficial to have.
This app has helped us work out what areas are good to stay in for a night if we have lots of work to catch up on, so it’s definitely worth downloading. The only drawback is to use app, your device will require an internet connection.
5) Park4Night (iOS/Android)
It’s 10pm, you’ve been driving all day and the last thing you ate was half a bruised banana at a service station six hours ago. All you want to do is find a place to kip for the night. We’ve all been there.
Park4Night has helped us several times in these instances and although far from perfect, we have found a few gems using this app. The many features include searching you area, searching a specific area and choosing what type of place to look for. This can include paid sites, picnic areas, parking, overnight wild spots and more. The app has sites for over 22 countries although the majority are in France. The majority of comments about places are also in French and there is no option to translate, although a few are written in English and German too.
No registration is required to view places but you will be required to sign up to leave comments and add new sites. Because all the sites are user generated, some can be unreliable and incorrect. There are a lot of drawbacks with this app but ultimately it is free and can help in times of need.
6) Skype (iOS/Android)
Okay, this final one isn’t strictly van related so I’ll keep it short. Skype suddenly became very useful to us when our van broke down in Spain a few months ago and we were left to constantly chase our breakdown cover provider and the DAF garage. I use 3 as my service provider for internet abroad and calling the UK but this isn’t any use if I need to call local numbers.
Skype offers very low cost rates to countries worldwide. They offer unlimited plans and minute bundles and you can call numbers using your original phone number or you can select a new one.
The drawbacks are you can’t seem to block numbers or return calls directly and more often than not, even when my 3G signal is strong, the quality of the call is below par.
What apps are essential to your everyday van life? Comment below!