Technology is making traveling easier by the day. Not too long ago suitcases and backpacks alike would be jammed with maps, language dictionaries, guide books, reservation confirmations, plane/train tickets, cameras, video recorders and other travel necessities. Nowadays all you need is your smart-phone and your Panda Guides guidebook, and you’re set for the trip of a lifetime! For your convenience, we’ve made a list of the best smart phone apps that will make your journey through the Middle Kingdom as hassle free as possible. Of course, if you have not thought about it already, most of your favorite social media won't work without getting a VPN.
Weather, date & time
China Air Quality Index (FREE) – Due to the notorious clouds of smog covering the country, this app provides an up to date air quality index for every city in China and serves as a great way to avoid places with high levels of pollution.
The Weather Channel (FREE) – Though not limited to Chinese cities, it’s still probably the most professional and accurate weather app available. It literally has everything you need to know about the weather conditions in every city in the world.
Calendar Conversion (FREE) – With so many festivals in China, and with those like Spring Festival (aka Chinese New Year) greatly affecting transportation comfort and pricing, you’ll definitely need to know which days local holidays fall on. Calendar Conversion does just that and can help you avoid hectic travel seasons throughout the year.
Currency & unit converter
Convert Free (FREE) – As straight forward as it comes, this one converts currency and every other international unit of measurement.
XE Currency (FREE) – XE is better than Convert Free if you’re solely looking to convert currencies rather than other units of measurements. It has over 80 international currencies and gives an instant update with the shake of a phone.
Metro China Subway ($2.99) – This one presents a complete guide with maps and other useful information for the largest subways in Mainland China (Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Tianjin and Nanjing), Hong Kong and Taipei, Taiwan.
Driving in China ($1.99) – In case you’re tired of using overcrowded public transportation, you can rent a car and go your own way (just be prepared to face massive traffic jams). This app quizzes and prepares you for the national Chinese driving test that’s required for both locals and foreigners looking to obtain a driver’s license.
Aibang Trains (Àibāng Lièchē;爱帮列车) (FREE) – Despite requiring an internet connection, Aibang is still useful for checking out national train times, information regarding specific train routes and departing/arrival stations. It is even updated for the speedy new D-trains (aka bullet trains) for those in a hurry.
Pleco Chinese Dictionary (FREE) – Pleco is perhaps the best Mandarin-English electronic dictionary out there. You can write in English or pinyin for a translation or upgrade some add-ons at a cost to get flashcards, a camera based optical Chinese character recognition device, full touch screen handwriting and other tech-savvy accessories.
HanZi Card ($5.99) – An electronic flashcard system coupled with a voice pronunciation feature for the top 3,000 most used words in the Chinese language. You can even personalize your list to narrow down your trouble words. This one is recommended for anyone serious about learning Mandarin.
Nemo Chinese Phrases (FREE) – Nemo is a user friendly app for the short-term traveler that has the 50 most used phrases in Mandarin. It’s also compatible with English, pinyin, Chinese characters, and an audio voice device.
Waygo Chinese Translator (FREE) – In case you don’t want to purchase a camera based character recognition device on Pleco, get Waygo’s for free. Though it’s mostly aimed towards menu vocab and simple phrases, it’s still extremely useful. All you have to do is take a picture of the characters on your phone and Waygo will translate them instantly into English.
Google Translator (FREE) – Just like everything else Google makes, this is another popular app. Type English, pinyin or simply draw the character with your finger on the touch screen to get an instant translation. You can also use the voice translation function, which is fairly accurate.
China Travel Guide by Triposo (FREE) – A complete travel guide for all major Chinese cities with the latest info concerning everything from nightlife, entertainment, hotels/hostels, leisure activities, tours, tourist attractions, restaurants/cafes, outdoor activities, parks and shopping. It also includes maps, pictures, recommendations, prices and operating hours.
World Travelpedia Nightlife ($5.99) – The app a party animal can’t live without, this displays the hottest parties, nightclubs and bars from every major city in the world. There’s even a map to show you the best spots closest to you in case you get drunk and are lost from one club to another.
City Weekend (FREE) – This app lists all the popular bars, restaurants and other venues by category and area in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. It also provides a map, directions, reviews and contact information of each place.
Communication & social media
QQ (FREE) – QQ is China’s favorite instant messaging portal and is used by everyone from students to businessmen. In fact, you may hear the signature QQ “beep beep beep beep” for incoming messages hundreds of times a day while in China. It’s fantastic for keeping in touch with local friends or meeting new ones.
WeChat/Weixin (FREE) – Another popular Chinese instant messaging program, WeChat (known as Weixin in Chinese) also allows you to send voice messages, share photos, meet new friends with the shake of the phone and meet random people with a message in a bottle.
Skype (FREE) – Skype is without a doubt one of the cheapest and easiest ways to contact loved ones far away. There’s also a video chat so you can actually show them all the fun you’re having.
China Daily News (FREE) – Stay informed with one of China’s premier English news services. Here you can get the inside scoop for all the latest events happening across China.
Hostelworld (FREE) – Handy for booking hostels within and outside of China.
Booking.com (FREE) – Another accommodation app similar to Hostelworld, but focuses more on hotels than hostels
Chinese History Timeline (FREE) – This one can help the confused traveler trying to digest 5,000 years of history make sense of all the dynasties and historic relics found in one the world’s oldest civilizations.
iMaps+ for Google Maps ($1.99) – With Google’s classic street view, road maps, GPS and directions, this is a wonderful gizmo to get you from point A to point B. However, it must be noted that Google is frequently “unavailable” in China.
百度地图 (Bǎidù Dìtú) (FREE) – This might be a better option for the expat who can read Chinese. It’s similar to Google Maps but better, with walking, driving and public transportation directions.
Sit or Squat (FREE) – A potential life saver, especially if you haven’t learned how to say the most important travel phrase out there, “Where’s the bathroom?” Sit or Squat shows you the closest public restrooms near your current location and, get this, even rates them on cleanliness. You’ve got to love technology!