You're finally landing after a slightly terrifying and turbulent flight and you're now in Bangkok, or Kuala Lumpur, or Hanoi.

20 years ago you would have had to deal with getting out of the airport, getting ripped off on a cab drive, breathing in a ton of pollution, and trying to figure out where you were by looking at a map that seems to not be current. Times have changed, but you've got similar problems and lucky for you,  I've got my Top  7 list of apps that'll help you navigate Southeast Asia without a hassle.

Here's the quick list for those of you that are in a hurry, but I've got some really useful tips and explanations for each one. I'd skip to the ones you want some more info on before downloading them. Links to iOS and Android downloads below.

Quick List

  1. Maps.me
  2. Grab
  3. AirVisual
  4. Skyscanner
  5. Google Translate
  6. Nord VPN
  7. Hostelworld

Maps.me

Maps.me is an open source offline maps platform that crowd sources information from backpackers like you and me. You can download offline maps to places you're going to go with very little data, and not only this, it downloads public transport timetables as well.

It's not as well rounded as Google Maps but it does quite a good job when it comes to offline maps. You can definitely download offline maps on Google Maps too, but its restricted with functionality, for instance, you can't get directions for walking or public transport - I use both.

Note: In the case you do have internet, nothing beats the Google Maps app, it's got reviews, public transport timetables and live times, routes for cars, scooters, bikes, walking, and ride share.

Maps.me iOS
Maps.me Android

Google Maps iOS
Google Maps Android

Grab

Grab is a ride sharing, meal delivery, and entertainment app - but you're going to use it for getting transport most of the time. It's the go-to app for cabs in Southeast Asia but unlike cabs or Ubers, on Grab you can get picked up by scooters, bikes and Tuk Tuks (depending on where you are), in addition to cars.

SEA roads are overwhelmingly populated by bikes and scooters, meaning that getting around fast on the road will involve you getting a nimble scooter that can weave around traffic. Not only is this faster than a car, but it's also multiples cheaper.

You can add a card but most users opt to pay in cash at the end of the trip. No haggling required, no extra fees, just pay whatever's on the screen (you confirm the amount when you confirm the ride).

Note: Some SEA countries will have alternatives, for example, Indonesia is primarily Gojek.

Grab iOS
Grab Android

AirVisual

Much like back home where you open up your weather app to check the weather, this app lets you check the pollution. A lot of the countries in SEA although quite modern and have come miles in terms of development - they're still developing in terms of waste management, emissions, and pollution.

It's super handy to know that if the next town over, or the next destination in your circuit is going to be polluted or not. If the pollution is quite high, you might want to reconsider. Note that just like the weather, you need to constantly check the pollution to see how bad it is on a given day.

AirVisual Screenshot - Bangkok: Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, George Town: Moderate
AirVisual Screenshot

AirVisual iOS
AirVisual Android

Skyscanner

Cheap flights and lots of tools to compare them with. On Skyscanner you can:

  • Compare flights by day, airport, airline and destination all with easy graphs
  • Search departures from your city to 'everywhere' and discover flights and destinations you wouldn't have thought about
  • Set up price change alerts to be aware when something goes on sale
  • Book routes that aren't offered by airlines directly that involve self transfer

Other cool features include the fact that it'll let you know if there's a cheaper flight that's close to the dates you've selected, or if you can switch up the departing airport for a better deal.  It's been one of the most handy apps I've had for my backpacking trips.

Graph of flights from Bangkok to Tokyo and Destinations from Bangkok to everywhere
Skyscanner Screenshot

Skyscanner iOS
Skyscanner Android

Google Translate

Yes you can get to it in the browser, but having it downloaded gives you so many more features and it's honestly a life saver.

  • Downloadable languages for when you don't have internet
  • On-the-fly language translation by pointing your camera at text
  • Voice translation
  • An option for conversations

If you're looking to find some good food in Southeast Asia, a lot of the very local gems don't have English menus a lot of the time. This will be your savior.

Google Translate iOS
Google Translate Android

Nord VPN

An absolute life-saver when it comes to getting to restricted internet content in Southeast Asia. There's a fair bit of censorship in certain countries and the easiest way around it is with a VPN. In my experience, the best mobile VPN has been with Nord.

The best features:

  • 6 simultaneous connections, so with one subscription you can get all your devices protected
  • 62 different countries to connect from
  • They're based in Panama so no laws for data retention
  • They keep no logs of your data
  • 30 Days money back policy, great if you're wanting to test it out first
Nord VPN UI showing examples of countries
Nord VPN UI

They have a chrome extension, mobile app and the best UI for both. It's the only app on this list that costs money, but in my opinion it's well worth it. The price is usually $466 for a 3 year plan, so around $12 a month but I've got a code that discounts it by 80% so it becomes $3.5 a month -  a 3 year plan ends up costing you $125, you also get 3 free months. Pretty sweet.

If you're looking to get it, be sure to use this link when you sign up to get the discount.

Nord VPN iOS
Nord VPN Android

Hostelworld

There's tons of apps and sites for booking hostels and hotels like booking, agoda and more. But the reason why Hostelworld is here is because Southeast Asia is hands down one of the best areas for backpacking, and the hostels are a level above the rest of the world when it comes to quality.

  • Pools set up in a resort style
  • Atmosphere: beanbags, ukulele, books and conversation
  • Quality beds that are great sizing
  • Clean and modern bathroom facilities
  • 5 min walks to the beach depending on the area

And Hostelworld displays the ones that matter by omitting places that don't cater to backpackers through community functions. The app uses crowd sourced review data to rank hostels on price, location, and atmosphere among many. Definitely go by atmosphere for the most part 😉

Even if you don't book on Hostelworld, you can use it as a catalog to find some great looking hostels and go there in person to book with them directly (cutting out the middle man).

Hostelworld iOS
Hostelworld Android


That was the full list, if you have these apps on your phone before going on your trip, you're going to take some annoyances right out of the experience book. If you want some more tips on traveling the world on a dime, make sure to subscribe to the Thrifty Backpacker Email list.