The iPad is an almost perfect travel computer. But as convenient as it is, a little preparation will make things even smoother. Here are some things you should do before you leave the house.
A 3G iPad is a wonderfully useful machine, but outside of your home country, unless you're willing to pay extra for roaming or a new, local micro-SIM, you'll be back on Wi-Fi. Get ready for this by preparing a few apps.
OffMaps is an iPad (and iPhone) app which lets you download city maps for offline use. This lets you use the GPS (or Wi-Fi triangulation) on your iPad without an internet connection. City-specific versions of OffMaps are free, but a master version costs just $2 and lets you grab any map, for free, from within the app.
Maps are organized by country and then city, and are sourced from OpenStreetMaps, the crowd-sourced map project. There are also city guides which can be downloaded, and these not only give tourist hints and tips, but add a user-built database of restaurant, hotels, tourist-spots and so on. This makes searching the map double-useful. The guides cost around 30-cents each, and are paid for by buying tokens from within the app. Three free guides are included with the purchase.
A Wi-Fi Hotspot Directory
One way to get online in a foreign city is to find some free Wi-Fi. But if you don't have an internet connection, you can't download a hotspot database. Do this before you leave. There are several free and paid apps in the store, although I couldn't find anything good for the iPad, so I just picked the free Wi-Fi Finder for iPhone and use it pixel-doubled.
If you're spending your days outside, a weather app is pretty essential. You'll need a connection to use it, but a once-a-day update should be enough. I use Weather Pro for iPad, which costs $5. It's uncannily accurate and easy to read, and yet offers an embarrassment of detail, from animated weather-radar charts to an hour-by-hour breakdown of rainfall predictions. It also works worldwide, unlike some rather short-sighted U.S-only apps.
Which one you choose depends on where you are going, and quality is astonishingly variable. For vacations, though, you should opt for a travel-guide app rather than a full-on dictionary, as these will have useful phrases grouped together. Try learning the numbers one to ten by looking them up individually in a dictionary instead of together on a page and you'll see why.
Why bother? Because if you are like most native English-speakers, you are an arrogant traveler, and you assume that you can just start talking English at somebody and they'll understand. They probably will, as these foreigners are smart enough to learn another language, but they'll hate you. You'd be amazed how far the local words for "hello", "please", "thank you", and "do you speak English?" will get you. I tried it in jaw-crunching Polish this past weekend and the helpful, warm smiles I got betrayed just how few people bother. This happened despite my truly dreadful pronunciation.
Wherever you store them, you should put your useful travel information in PDF-format for your travels. Well known guides are available as apps for some cities, but some of you may have illegitimate copies of the paper versions, or even saved Wikipedia articles. Convert to PDF and store on the iPad for fast, offline retrieval.
Stealth and Cases
You don't want to stand out as a tourist, and in some areas you won't even want to pull out your iPad. To help, you'll need a case. It should be quick-access, as you'll likely be consulting the various guides and maps pretty often. The best kind is probably the flip-open type which makes your iPad look like a book. Failing this, a slim slip-cover will work, although you'll have to hold it as you read. Avoid anything big or bulky, and above all don't use something that looks like a computer bag.
If you're really not comfortable pulling out your iPad, or you just must consult the paper guide-book, cover that book in something. Do not wander the streets with a Lonely Planet book in hand. It screams "mug me" and makes you look like a dork. Best of all, try the little Moleskine City Guides, the most covert maps you can buy.
As you won't be using 3G, you should switch it off. The same goes for Wi-Fi, most of the time. The iPad has a great battery life, but you can extend it further by switching off unnecessary radios, especially if you are in an area with no 3G coverage (the constant search for a network will drain juice double-quick).
Don't do it right away, though: The GPS will grab its initial location much faster if it can use local cell-towers and Wi-Fi signals to give it a rough idea first. After initial acquisition, you can turn them off. Don't use airplane mode, though, as this also kills the GPS.
Plan to Share
You can load the iPad up with the Lord of the Rings trilogy (books and movies) and the latest RPGs from Square, but won't you please think about the children? Or at least consider your non-nerd fellow travelers. Before you leave, download some multi-player and family-friendly games (Labyrinth 2 HD is a great choice, and has a free lite version). Also, consider short, throwaway TV-shows that everyone will like, and that can be watched in half-hour chunks. Think less "The Wire" and more "30 Rock". And don;t forget a cheap, two-way headphone splitter for shared movie-watching.
And if you're sharing, there will come a point when you're left staring out the train window, bored to death. This is where you pull out your secret weapon: Your iPhone or iPod Touch, loaded up with all the same goodies. And one more thing: Put all the above apps on your first home screen. You'll thank me for it.
There must be plenty more great ways you can use your iPad when traveling, especially the online services I haven't covered here. Got any apps, accessories or general tips? Leave them, as ever, in the comments.
Top Photo: Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg works on an iPad in a lounge at Newark airport, Wednesday April 14, 2010, before his flight to Oslo from the United States was diverted to Spain because of the cloud of dust from a volcanic eruption in Iceland hanging over northern European air space. (AP Photo/The Prime Minister's Office, ho)