Back in 2009 when I first ventured to Italy, the only easy way to communicate with my family back home was via email. And that was dependent upon our already spotty wifi in our giant converted convent in Castiglion Fiorentino that was shared amongst 100+ college students.
I could of course call my family from my cell phone directly but that would result in a ridiculously expensive phone bill as soon as I got home. Skype was just becoming popular but that also had the added expense of buying a plug in camera for my laptop, and my family back home having a Skype account and a similar set up.
Meandering Italian streets was done by paper maps and lots of guesswork. To navigate the trains you had to read the paper schedules at the train stations to check what time you were expected to roll into your stop, and then be listening for the garbled loudspeaker on the train to announce that you were next.
Deciphering menus at restaurants was done by asking the friend in the group that knew the most Italian, or by quickly thumbing through our pocket Italian-English dictionaries under the table. Or just sticking to the words you knew...or thought you knew. I have seen many people order pizza with "peperone" only to have bell peppers on their pizza instead of pepperoni salami!
SO. MUCH. has changed in just 10 years that has transformed traveling in Italy from being a stressful (albeit exciting) adventure to one that's much easier to navigate (of course still with the Italian quirks). These are some of our go-to apps that we recommend all our guests download prior to their departure to the bel paese.
And even better, all of these are FREE to download!
By far, one of the best advancements with traveling overseas and communication is WhatsApp! This app uses either a data plan OR wifi and you’ll be able to send photos, messages, voice messages and even call friends that also have the app! Keep in mind, your friends in Italy (or back home) will also have to have the app downloaded AND be connected to data/wifi for them to receive your messages but it’s still an amazing resource! If you want to call someone back home too, you can call them through the app (so long as they also have the app downloaded). Did we mention this app is totally free? Winning!
This is a great tool for Amazon Prime users. It's a free App that runs in the background (on wifi) that will save all your photos to the Amazon cloud so you can access them from your laptop later! It even offers some space to save videos too.
Italian Language Apps
This one is a little more useful in preparing for your trip to Italy if you want to learn a little bit of the language. DuoLingo is our go-to app to keep our Italian fresh and sort of wake it up before we touch down in Italia. It's set up like a game so it gets addicting to practice! Plus it's a good way to kill the time while waiting for your plane or land or train to arrive.
Another great language app to download is Learn Italian, which offers a phrasebook of common Italian sayings to help you navigate your daily adventures.
Knowing where you’re going in Italy can be stressful. Unfamiliar streets with poorly labeled names in a different language can make for a real headache. To combat this, we highly recommend downloading Google Maps! Before traveling to a new city or a new AirBnb, I love to look up the route from the Train Station to my destination using wifi. I screenshot the whole route and the directions so I can find my way easily WITHOUT using data!
You can also download directions for trips, both driving or walking...I’ve downloaded driving routes from the Florence airport before driving down to the Villa, it’s wonderful. Google Maps also has the option to download WHOLE CITY MAPS to use offline! This is an awesome feature in bigger cities. You can even set an expiration date so this big space taker leaves your phone before you run out of photo space.
Oh Google, ya’ll really are geniuses. On top of the Map feature being incredibly useful, we LOVE the Google Translate App too. When you have the App downloaded, you can also choose to download specific language dictionaries to use OFFLINE!
At a restaurant with no signal or wifi and not sure what a specific ingredient is? Type it into the App and know within seconds! Even cooler (somehow, it’s possible) is that when you have the language loaded in your phone you can hit the camera feature! Scan over the menu and watch the words (roughly) translate on your screen. While Google Translate still isn't *quite* perfect, it's really helpful in a pinch to get the gist of what you're trying to translate.
We really can’t sing enough praises about Google. Their photo App is another great feature if you’re a photo snapping fiend like us! It’s not unusual for us to run out of space on our phone a couple times during the summer. With the Google Photo app, it saves all your photos to the Google cloud so you can look at them on your computer or delete off your phone and not worry about losing all your favorites. Should your phone get stolen or damaged (fingers crossed it won’t!) you’ll still have access to all the photos in the cloud when you get home too! Just open the app every few days to refresh the saved content and you’re good to go.
We are HUGE fans of AirBnb! Not only is it a great way to find affordable places to stay, most places will have a host that greets you and can give recommendations of places to eat in your new town! It’s a great, easy to use App and we’ve found some GEMS to stay all over Italy! Even some with air conditioning! We have some ex-pat friends in Italy that even manage their own AirBnbs if you’re looking for some English speaking hosts (Amanda in Castiglion Fiorentino and Vanessa in Lucca!). VRBO is a great option too but we typically have better luck finding deals and traveling solo with AirBnb. VRBO is great for searching for larger groups!
Worrying about conversion fees when withdrawing money is not fun when you’re on vacation. Neither is constantly worrying about how much you have left to spend on gelato! Before we venture abroad, on top of calling our banks to notify them of our travels, we like to download our banking apps! This is an easy way to keep track of your spending, the banking fees, and also communicate with your bank if they place any holds on your account or you lose track of your card.
Airline & Train Apps
Another great way to keep an eye on your travels is with airline and train apps! Depending on your airline, they should all have apps so you can check in, check your luggage requirements, see if any times have changed and even load your boarding pass.
Tren Italia, the main train service in Italy, also has an App so you can check train schedules, routes, prices and even buy tickets ahead of time! This is especially useful when traveling on the bullet trains that have seat reservations and can sell out quickly during the summer months.
What other apps are your go-tos when navigating Italy? Leave a comment and let us know so we can add it to the list!
Written by Chelsea Ward, the host and founder of Wanderful Retreats