iPhone tips for travel

15+ Amazing Travel Tricks Your iPhone Can Already Do for Free: Translate Signs, Get Flight Status, Measure Bags, More

If you have been traveling with an iPhone for a while, you might assume you already know all the things it can do for you. But for the past few years, Apple has been quietly adding new features to iOS, the operating system that runs Mac smartphones and iPads. 

Thanks to Frommer's, guide books exist for exotic places all over the world, but there's no guide book to the new secret functions on your iPhone. Most people don't know that the regular iPhone they're already carrying around is capable of performing some magnificent feats for travelers, from translating menus to measuring the size of your luggage. And we say that as fans, not partners. 

These iPhone tips work are already installed for anyone whose system software is fully up-to-date.

It bears emphasizing: iPhone owners already have all these apps. No new downloading or app purchases are necessary—the standard apps that automatically come with your iPhone can do everything I'm about to tell you.

Publisher's note: Frommer's has no affiliation with Apple or its products. 
iPhone tips for travel: get flight status with Messages app
iPhone Messages (left) and Notes (right)
How to get live flight status on your iPhone

To find out if airline flights are on time, iPhone users don't have to go to the airlines' official apps or websites. That data can now be accessed from the Messages app or the Notes app. Those icons are pictured above.

I'll describe how to do it in a second, but to trigger the function, you'll need to know your flight number and the official two-figure code for your airline. Some airlines, like Delta Air Lines (DL) and American Airlines (AA) have intuitive codes, but others, like JetBlue (B6) are more arcane. Fortunately, two-character airline codes are standardized across the industry, and you can look up any airline in the International Air Transport Association at this link.

iPhone tips for travel: get flight status with Messages app

Let's say you want to know the status of American Airlines flight 44. In that case, you'd open the Messages app and text AA 44, with a space between airline code and flight number, to yourself or anyone else.

Your iPhone will then underline that airline code and flight number, indicating that it has been turned into a link. Tap it, and then tap Preview Flight

That brings up an up-to-date map of the flight's current location, its airports including the correct terminals, departure and arrival times, duration, and even gate numbers and baggage claim locations, if those have been announced. (If you text your flight to someone else and they also have an iPhone they, too, can tap this link for the same result.) 

My iPhone’s time is always set to the 24-hour clock so I don't accidentally set alarms for the wrong time of day when I travel, so that's how my results are shown (above). But Apple will show you your times by the 12-hour clock if that’s how your phone displays the time. (You can choose your clock format in Setting > General > Date & Time.)

On some flights, you can swipe left on the written information to see more details about future legs of the journey or flight status details for tomorrow's flight.

Apple offers this service in another app as well, so you don't have to text anyone to trigger the link. You can achieve the same result in the Notes app by typing AA 44 (or your own fight code and flight number) into a note. Highlight that code and  and flight number—you can do so by running your finger over it and then hitting "select all"—and in the bar that appears, tap the right arrow until you get to Look Up. Tap that. The first result will be your flight. 

iPhone tips for travel: make currency conversion with Notes app
iPhone Notes app
How to convert currency, temperature, and measurements on your iPhone

If you need to perform a conversion, you no longer have to download a third-party app for iPhone.

In the Notes app (pictured above), type the value you want to convert: distance, money with a currency symbol, weight, temperature, you name it (except clothing sizes).

For this to work, your currency amount must have the right currency symbol. On an iPhone, if you need to a currency symbol like € or £, hold down the dollar sign (if you're using an American phone) until a menu pops up.

iPhone tips for travel: make currency conversion with Notes app

If you highlight the numbers you wish to convert one at a time and tap, your iPhone will pull up a horizontal bar that shows you the conversions most relevant to you. So, for example, if you wish to convert British Pounds, and you're using an American phone, it will give you the conversion in dollars. You might have to tap the right arrow on that bar to get to them, or you may need to tap Look Up, or you might have to tap your highlighted text twice once your phone underlines it—but your phone can do it.

The exchange rate is current, too, as long as your phone has a signal of some kind.

Just as with flight status, this functionality is doubled in another app. You can also make instant conversions in any sent texts in Messages, too.

iPhone tips for travel: scan documents and save them to your iPhone
How to scan any document to your iPhone for free

We're still in the Notes app.

You can use Notes to take a photo of any document and save it. This feature is handy for lots of things—your passport, your proof of insurance, or even things like trail maps for when you're away from a signal. (In the photos above, I'm scanning the National Park Service's brochure of Saratoga battlefield as an example.) Using Notes' special scanning feature cleans up documents to make them more readable than a standard photograph can.

To scan a document on your iPhone, create a new note in Notes. Above the keyboard, but below the white space, tap the Camera icon and then tap Scan Documents (pictured at top left). This turns on your phone's camera.

Make your document as flat as you can and capture a photo of it. Your phone may have trouble figuring out where the edges of your document are, but don't worry, because  it gives you a chance to drag circles to adjust the borders of your document manually (top middle) and crop out anything you don't want to include. Once you've made your borders correct, don't forget to tap Save.

The resulting scan looks a lot better than you'd think, and you can keep it right here, in its own note, for future use.

But you can also send a copy to your Files app, which is a part of the iPhone that many users don't even know exists. To save documents to your Files app, look just above the photo and tap Scanned Documents (later on, that phrase may be replaced by words in your document) and then tap Save to Files. 

You will have a chance to name the file to make it easier to locate during searches of your phone. After all, it's a lot easier to find an important item in the Files app than it is to fish it out of a photo library of thousands of images. 

iphone tips for travel: translate foreign languages with free iPhone app
iPhone Translate app
How to translate languages for free with your iPhone

Some of the most incredible and most useful new travel features Apple has added to its smartphones can be found in Translate (pictured above), which is another app that comes standard with every iPhone at no extra charge.

We'll take its best features one by one, starting with Translation, the button on the bottom left when you first open the app.

iphone tips for travel: translate languages by typing or speaking

With Translation (the icon at bottom left) selected, you can type phrases and choose the translated language you want by tapping on the language name. But you don't even have to type! Tap the microphone and you can speak instead—and so can anyone else who talks into your phone. Your iPhone will transcribe what's said and instantly translate it. 

As of May 2024, there are 20 built-in language options, which isn't a lot, and so far, there's nothing for the Chinese spoken in Hong Kong (Cantonese) or India's native languages. But many of the most popular European languages for American tourists are included.

By default, your phone must be connected to a network to access language translation, but if you want translation to work offline instead, to save on data usage costs, you can choose to fully download languages to your phone ahead of time via Settings> Translate> Downloaded Languages.

Each completed translation looks like the middle screenshot above. Tap the star beneath any translation to save it as one of your Favorites (which you can access by tapping the star at the bottom) so you don't have to repeatedly enter it during a trip. You can also tap the two diagonal arrows to render your translated phrase as an easy-to-read, horizontal full-screen version (top right), flash card-style, so you can more easily communicate with others. To get rid of previous translated phrases, swipe left on each one.

Tap the Play icon (a triangle within a circle) to have your phone speak phrases aloud instead. 

iphone tips for travel: translate a live conversation in a foreign language with your iPhone for free

To more actively engage other people in language translation using the Translate app, tap Conversation (the third icon on the bottom).

The first screen shot (above left) shows the default Conversation screen format (Side by Side), which allows you to pass your phone back and forth to someone else to communicate. The format is pretty much like a text chat.  

Both parties can either type or speak phrases (using the microphone button) in their own language. Your iPhone will convert the words instantly for you, and you can always tap the Play button to hear the phrases pronounced aloud.

And if you tap View at the top left of the screen, you can switch to Face to Face mode (above right), which allows the person you're communicating with to stand on the other end of your phone and still see what's going on.

iphone tips for travel: translate menus and signs with the Camera in the iPhone Translate app

One of the coolest things the iPhone's Translate app can do is decipher text live, second-by-second, through the phone's camera.

In Translate, tap the Camera icon (second at the bottom of the screen). You can then point your phone at anything you want to translate. Your iPhone will adjust the words on your screen live, as you watch.

But that's not all—it also works on photos in your image library, Photos. Just choose any existing picture you'd like to translate—of a business sign, of a museum description, of a menu, or anything else—by tapping the image icon located to the left of the X (pictured above left) and choosing it from your existing photos. (Here, my iPhone is translating the menu at a restaurant in Lucerne, Switzerland.)

Whether you take a live image or choose one you've already taken, you can zoom in to read the translation more closely (pictured above right). 

Translate's camera function even works for handwriting, although it has to be at least somewhat legible. 

iphone tips for travel: translate foreign language texts with Messages on your iPhone for free
How to translate languages with iPhone's Message app

The Translate app is the place on your iPhone with the most fully-formed features, but you don't have to use it to translate. Apple includes a simple Translate feature pretty much anywhere you can type text into your phone. 

In the Messages app, for example, type a phrase you'd like to translate in the text field. Highlight the text you want to translate, and in the menu bar that appears over it, navigate to the right to tap Translate.

You then have the option to Replace the original-language text you typed with the new translation.

Using your iPhone's built-in highlight-and-translate method like this, you can conduct entire text conversations in a foreign language with someone who doesn't read English—or you can translate foreign-language texts into something you can understand.

iphone tips for travel: scan photos for foreign language and translate with iPhone
iPhone app icons for Camera (left) and Photos (right)
How to translate text on photos with iPhone's Camera and Photos apps

You don't have to use the Translate app to translate the text in images, either. The same capability is now automatically built into your existing Camera and Photos apps (pictured above). 

It's a little easier to use in Photos, where your library of images is stored, because images there hold still. So I'll show you how to do it using that app, but it works the same for both apps.

iphone tips for travel: translate text in Photos on iPhone for free

Most people don't know that the iPhone's Photos app can search inside images for an incredible array of things. In any album, tap the magnifying glass at the bottom right to search for whatever you can think of. Photos of cats, cars, noodles, coffee, babies, bridges, churches—your iPhone is fairly good (but not perfect) at identifying things in the pictures you take. 

Your iPhone can even read text in pictures. And that's the feature that you'll use to translate words you take a picture of.

Here, I used a photo of the book that kicked off Frommer's in 1957, Europe on 5 Dollars a Day. First, once the photo has loaded, tap the icon on the bottom right of the image that looks like a square with four corner brackets and tiny lines inside. That turns on you phone's ability to interpret the words on the picture.

Highlight the text you want to translate, and in the menu bar that hovers above, tap Translate. That brings you to a page with the translation of what you chose. (You can also copy text you highlight and paste it somewhere else, including as a text to soemone in Messages or a new note in Notes.)

iphone tips for travel: identify and caption images in iPhone's Photos app

You can use the iPhone's ability to understand what's depicted in images to help clarify and organize your memories of your vacations.

For example, if you took a picture of a major landmark as you fly by in a taxi but you don't remember or know what it was called, you can often find the answer right in your Photos app. 

Select an image, as we did with this shot of St Paul's Cathedral in London. Then slide the photo up or tap the lowercase I on the bottom of the screen. This brings up an info page with lots of facts about that image, including when and where it was taken. 

If the subject of the photo begins to shimmer with an animated white glow, as the Cathedral is starting to do in the image that's above left, then you can tap that item to pull up another mini-menu. Choose Look Up from that menu, or, if you see the option, tap Look Up Landmark. That takes you to a result that looks like the middle image, above. In this case, the iPhone figured out that it's St Paul's Cathedral, shows you where it's located on a map, and it even adds more links to more information and images for it. 

For things that your iPhone can't easily identify, like the delicious burrata dish at London's Dovetale restaurant in the third image above, iPhone also gives you the little-known ability to write your own captions for any shot you take.

On the same info page that pops up when you tap the lowercase I, you'll find a blank line under the image. There, you can simply enter a caption of your own. Whatever you enter will be searchable from Photos' magnifying glass, too.

You can categorize every photo from your trip this way, and you don't need to forget the name of the things you photograph ever again.

iphone tips for travel: find train schedules using Maps on iPhone
iPhone Maps app
How to look up train schedules using Apple Maps on iPhone

As if your mind isn't blown already, there's more. You can find live train times in many cities, too.

Open Maps, which looks like the icon above.

iphone tips for travel: find train schedules using Maps on iPhone

In Maps, search by the name of the station. You'll get not only a map to it, like the app was designed to do, but you'll also be shown a current schedule of live, upcoming train departures.

Tap on the little oblong labels underneath Departures to switch between service providers (pictured above left), then tap a specific departure to see the schedule of its route (pictured above right).

In the case depicted above, I used my iPhone's Maps app to find the next train from New York City's Pennsylvania Station to Jamaica, where airline passengers catch the AirTrain tram to JFK airport. 

(Wayfinding bonus: On the maps, if you toggle the 2D/3D button on the top right, in many cities you can even see the shapes of the buildings, which helps make things easier to locate when you're walking in a town you don't know well.)

iphone tips for travel: find train schedules using Maps on iPhone

Guess what—the rail timetable feature works in lots of countries! You can use Maps to find up-to-date train schedules, including many forms of public transportation, complete with service disruption and delay warnings. Above, these are for Melbourne, Australia, and Hong Kong, but Maps collects live schedules for many more places, too.

using iphone as a compass
iPhone Compass app
How to use your iPhone as a compass

iPhones come with a built-in Compass app, too, which looks like the icon above. This one's self-explanatory. Use it when you're turned around.

set up iphone tickets and id in Wallet app
iPhone Wallet app
How to store tickets in Wallet on your iPhone

If you set up your Wallet app (pictured above), you can use your iPhone to store tickets, make payments from your credit cards, and even as official identification at airports in some U.S. states.

Many airlines, transit companies, theatres, loyalty accounts, theme parks, and even cruise lines will furnish a digital ticket with a QR code directly to your Wallet app. Look for a "Add to Apple Wallet" button, badge, or link after you make purchases. If you add a ticket to your iPhone's Wallet, you won't need to print a paper ticket. Just open your Wallet, find the ticket, and scan your way in.

To use your iPhone for contactless payments, something that is now as common as mud around the world, you must set up Apple Pay before you travel. Go to Settings> Wallet & Apple Pay and add your credit cards. To make payments, you'll double-click the right button of your iPhone and give approval with a face scan so that payments are always personally authorized. Setting up this capability can make a huge difference in the ease of buying fare on transit systems in many countries now. Instead of scrounging for local coins and buying fare cards at clunky vending machines or kiosks, you can simply tap your iPhone at the turnstiles and go.

You can also use a double-click and a tap of your iPhone to validate your identity at airport security checkpoints in a few U.S. states. You must set that up before leaving home, but if you're eligible, your iPhone will walk you through the steps at Settings> Wallet & Apple Pay.

iphone tips for travel: measure luggage with the Measure app
iPhone Measure app
How to use your iPhone to measure things

The Measure app can even use your iPhone's camera to measure things. Honest! You train your camera on the thing you want to measure, tap the plus sign, tell the iPhone where its endpoints lie, and it calculates—remarkably accurately, we must say.

You might not need to use the Measure app very often when you travel, but there are some lifesaving uses, such as if you need to figure out if your luggage is oversized or if you're shopping for something that you're not sure will fit back home. If only an app could determine the weight of your checked baggage, too.

iphone tips for travel: satelitte view in weather app
iPhone Weather app
How to access rain, wind, and air quality maps with iPhone's Weather app

Lastly, lots of iPhone users complain that the Weather app (pictured above), which comes native on the main page of iPhone, doesn't include enough detail.

It's true that at first glance, the Weather app appears to lack information—where's the animated satellite view of clouds that other apps have?—but in fact, there are a lot more feature hidden away. :

iphone tips for travel: get rain maps, wind speed, air quality from Weather app

Call it bad design if you want—but Weather's best stuff is hiding behind an oft-ignored button. Here's how to find maps for precipitation, wind speed, temperature, and air quality.

Open the Weather app, then click on the icon with three dots and three lines that's stacked at the button right (the "hamburger menu"). From the resulting page, search for the place you want, then click Add

Once a place is in your main list, select it. (Newly added places appear at the end of the list.) When that city page is open, you'll see an icon that looks like a tiny folded map at the bottom left (seen above, at left).

Tap that. It opens up a whole new world of meteorological information. On the resulting map, the icon that looks like a stack of square tiles (top right) allows you to switch between map types for a much more detailed forecasts than the Weather app seemed capable of at first glance.

iphone tips for travel: turn your iphone into a nightstand clock
How to use your iPhone as a nightstand clock

Finally, you can instantly turn your iPhone into a nightstand clock with built-in feature called StandBy.

No app is required. All you have to do is lock your phone, just like you regularly do when you put it down (press the right button on your iPhone once). Then after a few seconds your phone's screen will change to something like what you see above. Your phone must, however, be charging for this to happen, either with a cord or via the MagSafe charger on the back. If the phone is not charging, this won't work. 

You can swipe the various elements on the screen with your finger to change the look, and the display will also turn a dark red color, as seen above, so your screen won't illuminate a dark bedroom and keep you awake. The screen eventually goes dark, but it will briefly restore the view if it senses you're looking at it. You'll just need something to keep it propped up as you sleep. (For this purpose, Frommer's recommended a travel-ready battery/ nightstand in our 2023 holiday gift guide.)

So, iPhone users, admit it: Some of these hidden iPhone tools were total surprises to you, right? Apple doesn't do a strong job of educating its customers about built-in features—so it's up to us travelers to look out for each other. Share this article with an iPhone owner you think could use these pointers, and let's travel better together.