I was driving alone through Montana, 1,900 miles from home on a two-lane road in the sticks, when my phone lost its signal. I was near my Airbnb cabin but may as well have been in Oz, with no idea what road to look for or where my next turn was. Did I mention it was getting dark?
Luckily, I’d jotted down the directions in my spiral planner, old-school style, that lay on the seat next to me, but with a little preplanning, the right apps can make solo travel safe, enjoyable, and easy. Having driven alone (as a woman!) up the West Coast, down the East Coast, and lots of spots in between, there are several beneficial apps I see mentioned repeatedly and use myself. With the holiday travel season upon us, it’s an ideal time to check some of these out.
To avoid feeling lost and vulnerable when you’re off on your own, a reliable offline downloaded map is essential for solo travel. Maps.me is a crowd favorite that’s popular among frequent travelers. It’s considered the best for offline navigation (and would’ve saved me in Big Sky Country). It doesn’t require data or Wi-Fi if you download maps beforehand. Unlike other mapping apps that also allow you to download maps offline, this one retains detail and accuracy, even offline, and it doesn’t nag you to reconnect if it’s missing information. It also allows you to search offline without being connected to the internet: by name, address, category, or coordinates. Also, besides being accurate and easy to navigate, it supports walking, cycling, and hiking trails (by name) and shows when you’re about to go uphill or downhill. You can share your location as well as plan your route in advance and save in bookmarks. (Available for free for iOS and Android.)
Flush is exactly what it sounds like. This app will find you the nearest toilet, and some potties even have reviews. This was a lifesaver when I was driving up the Northern California coast and pulled into a gas station filled with unfriendly faces. Not wanting to leave my car unattended or draw unwanted attention, I just chose to keep going. Flush will let you filter bathrooms by “disabled access,” “requires key,” and “requires fee.” You can also rate and report erroneous information or misleading reviews to the developers, which hopefully keeps the listings clean and useful. (Available for free for iOS and Android.)
I joined Trusted Housesitters, a highly rated international platform of house/pet-sitters, two years ago for a nominal yearly fee of $129, and I have enjoyed free accommodations in more than a dozen beautiful homes from Texas to Maine, in exchange for caring for someone’s pet. Stays can range from one night to several months. I got to explore new areas, many times with a dog or two in tow. You apply to sits that interest you and correspond with the owner to see if it’s a good fit on both sides. (Caveat: must love animals.) (You can browse the app for free in iOS and Android but must pay to join.)
While I’m a meat-and-potatoes girl, not everyone is. HappyCow is a vegetarian search tool that finds plant-based dining options in 180 countries. Filters help search locations, types of cuisine, and price in several categories: vegan, vegetarian, options where businesses must offer at least three plant-based choices, and nearby stores, which can include bakeries and ice cream and food trucks. You can bookmark favorites or add listings you’d like to try to the Trips tab. HappyCow users can also add their own reviews and suggestions. (Available for $3.99 for iOS and free on Android.)
Rome2Rio was an asset when I wanted to drive from Mystic, Connecticut, to Montauk, New York, and the most direct path involved crossing a large body of water with no bridge. Three ferries and one Dramamine later, I arrived unfrazzled thanks to this user-friendly trip planner. It provides options, routes, and fares for flights, trains, subways, buses, ferries, rideshares and more worldwide. Unlike some other travel apps, Rome2Rio is great at connecting multiple transit options into a single itinerary you can look at and stay on top of. It will even link you directly to third-party transit operators, in case you’re stuck and need tickets or have to plan a route you didn’t account for. Especially helpful in my case was the fact that it provided booking details that I could click on, since I had no copilot to look things up. (Available for free for iOS and Android.)
Sure, there’s no one beside you to keep you awake with their snoring or loud breathing, but what about road noise, barking dogs, and leaf blowers? I’ve been using the White Noise app for years (set to “Heavy rain pouring”) to drown out a multitude of annoyances. Just make sure your phone is charging when you go to sleep or you’ll wake up with no juice. The sound catalog is vast. Choose from rain sounds to a cat purring, crickets chirping, a clothes dryer, pink noise, and everything in between, or add your own. You can set a timer or set it to fade out, and it’s much more efficient than packing a sound machine. (Available for free for iOS and Android.)
One of the joys of solo travel is listening to what you want, when you want. Free with any library card—and many libraries offer e-cards available online—Hoopla is a digital media platform that allows you to instantly stream or download eBooks, audiobooks, music, comics, movies, and TV shows. You can borrow up to 10 titles per month, depending on your library, and there are no late fees or holds. Simply return items when you’re finished with them (or they expire on the due date). I recently borrowed Taylor’s version of “1989” the day it came out. (Available for free for iOS and Android.)
When I was hiking to Devil’s Bridge in Sedona, Arizona, the trail unexpectedly ran into a dry riverbed and stopped. Several of us stopped in confusion until a young hiker came through with AllTrails loaded on her phone. I think we all went home and got it that day. AllTrails lets you search for the closest or most popular trails nearby, and its filters help you set your difficulty range (easy, moderate, hard) and length. The app needs a data connection to load content, but once on the trail you can put your phone in airplane mode to save battery or bring along a portable charger. (Available for free for iOS and Android.)
When traveling alone, I tend to make time to appreciate nature more: sunsets, mountain views, and a clear night sky. If you find yourself away from city lights when it’s dark, Sky Guide will help identify any star, planet, satellite, or constellation in the sky. It is, as one reviewer called it, a “mobile planetarium” and makes the night sky—as viewed through your phone—look like a magical sparkly geode. There’s even a Night Vision mode that bathes everything in red light, so you don’t lose your night vision just by looking at your phone. You can set notifications to ping you for meteor showers or when the International Space Station will be visible overhead. (Free, but only available on Apple devices. Android users can try Google Sky Map, which is old but still one of the best, and it’s free.)
Polarsteps is a fun way to remember your extraordinary solo adventure and share it with friends and family. The app lets you turn your memories into a curated travel book (starting around $40). The app records your route and travel stats automatically as you make notes and take photos—to which it adds location and time stamps—and lays it all out on a digital map. You can make your trip public or private, follow others with similar travel interests, and change your privacy settings at any time. (Available for free for iOS and Android.)
Whichever software you decide to use, some travelers find it helpful to drag all travel apps onto one screen (or into one folder) for quick access, as well as save emergency info on their phone’s lock screen. Whatever works.
While it’s nice to be in control and have everything planned out, it’s also wise to leave room for spontaneity. In June I was driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina and my phone showed zero bars. There were only two ways you could go—north or south—so I knew I’d be all right if I stayed the course. I was heading north into Virginia.
I rolled down the windows, turned off my phone, and pulled into the next scenic overlook. Sometimes the best thing you can do on a trip is set your phone aside and take in the spectacular view.