Saturday, March 17, 2012

Apps useful for my trip to London

Recently I traveled to London. I am not much of a photographer, neither in frequency of shots taken, nor, as many will rightly say, in quality of shots, but having the 4th generation iPod Touch with its camera led me to take some shots, like this one of the Big Ben Clock Tower.

In preparation for the trip, I created a (free) Google Voice account which would be able to call U.S. (and Canada, I believe) numbers for free until the end of 2012 (I believe that was extended from its original end of 2011 cut-off date) 2013 ( A knowledgeable friend had advised me that such an account could be used by the (free) Talkatone app to turn the iPod into a phone (1/3/14: That capability is ending on 5/5/14 due to changes by Google; see, for instance, the 10/31/13 post on I installed Talkatone, and despite a few hiccups during stateside testing, it worked quite well from London, allowing me to retrieve some messages from my answering machine. After returning from London I did a little more testing and, on one occasion, I was surprised that I could call a landline but could not reach a cell phone. Anyway, the combination of these two things served me well across the pond, even if the sound quality is not great.

I loaded up some additional free apps for the trip, listed below in approximate order of usefulness. Some of them would have been more useful, except I had alternate, more helpful, resources, which I will also mention.
  • London: Travel Guide - Time Out has assorted information about London.  I did browse this a bit, but it was of minimal use to me because I had the good luck to borrow from the library the (more useful) 2010 Kindle e-book of Time Out London, which I consulted instead.  I also had several similarly recent, printed London travel materials on loan from a friend.
  • Brighton Museums was good for £1 off entry to the Royal Pavilion in Brighton (about an hour by train from London).  It has photos and brief information about the Royal Pavilion and other attractions, but its primary benefit to me was the discount.
  • Tube Map has, in addition to a map of the London Underground ("the Tube"), a Lines button which shows up-to-date information by subway line, e.g., "Good service", "Planned closure", "Part closure", "Line issue" (all of which I am seeing as I write this entry).  A small popup window may show periodically on the map with Tube alert-type information; I'm not sure if that overlaps with the Lines information.  The Tube Map app's buttons, advertising, and alerts naturally take up part of the iPod's precious screen space.  With hindsight I should have checked the Lines status each day before leaving the hotel (or leaving anywhere else I had WiFi), but I did not run into any meaningful Tube schedule disruptions (and at various stations I did learn in person of some minor scheduled service changes which were part of preparation for the coming Summer Olympics).  I had also loaded a PDF of the London Tube map (which I'd found using Google) onto the Dropbox app and saved it as a Favorite therein so that it would be available without WiFi access.  That was my real Tube resource, and was extremely useful both for scoping out trips in advance and while on a train.  In the most extreme situations, when riding with only one hand free, it was still easy to use spread-to-zoom and swipe motions to confirm that I was on the proper train, which easily beat doing so using a clumsy folding map with tiny print.
    (3/21/12: With their 4.1 update, the makers of this app have added integration with their Bus London app, of which I just learned, and could have been handy for the Tate Britain museum, which is a bit of a walk from the nearest Tube station. Supposedly within the Tube Map app, you can now find bus departures around a Tube station.)
  • Hidden London contains photos and information about some less well-known attractions.  Although I had mentally noted some of those attractions before the trip, in the end it was only by accident that I happened to walk by one (the Cartoon Museum) and actually went to one (the Cafe at Tate Britain).  Regarding the latter, I had gotten confused about museums and went to the Tate Britain instead of the Tate Modern, but as this app notes, this "little know[n] excellent cafe hides in the basement of this grand art gallery.  Open daily, the cafe serves amazing cakes, snacks and a range of tea and coffee."  The cafe truly was excellent!
  • ExCel London provides some general information, including food availability, about the convention site, which would presumably only be of interest if you are attending an event there.
  • i-Shop has some information about possible discounts or tax refunds from selected shops.  I did see the Global Blue symbol (Global Blue is either the producer or somehow related to this app) inside the Tower of London gift shop, but I did not buy enough stuff to make serious investigation of this app worthwhile.

In addition to the Time Out London e-book mentioned above, I also borrowed a recreational reading e-book from the library before the trip.  Library e-books "return" themselves, so you never need to worry about them (unlike the half-read physical book which I had to return to the library on my last night in the U.S. during last minute trip preparations!).  I also bought an e-book for the Kindle app, so was well stocked with reading material.

The Notespark app, which I originally wrote about here, facilitated organizing London topics and a daily schedule.  I used a particular Tag for all London notes, and starred all of those notes.  Most of the time I would just work with the group of Starred notes.  I also dedicated a single note for each day's potential agenda, an agenda which often went through revisions.  When the contents of any note were no longer relevant for the remaining days of my trip (although I expected to revisit all London notes after the trip), I unstarred that note so that it would no longer be visual clutter.  I could use Notespark to search through whichever group of notes was more relevant, the Starred ones, or the group associated with the Tag which I used for this London trip.

When I had WiFi access both before and during the trip, I saved static copies of a number of London-related web pages, e.g., for various tourist attractions and travel tips, using the Opera Mini browser (about which I wrote most recently here).  I'll admit that despite getting a bunch of information in advance about Oyster Cards and Travel Cards (both of which are options, pointedly not mutually exclusive, for using the Tube and some other transportation systems), it wasn't until pretty late in the trip that I felt I really got a fuller understanding of them.

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