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The headlines are full of news about Google Glass, futuristic eyewear that has the search and alert capability of a smartphone and could revolutionise travel by providing instant, geographically relevant information about unfamiliar areas on the go. But until the expensive device hits the market at the end of 2013, Google has a few lesser-known and more affordable apps to help travellers learn about their destination. The apps are free, useful and – to be frank – far less geeky.

Alternatives to Glass
Google Now
is an Android app that suggests things you might be interested in based on personal data, such as events in your calendar, your search history and your travel patterns. For instance, if it discovers an upcoming boarding pass and hotel reservation in your Gmail account, it will alert you on the day of departure to the status of your flight, provide a traffic report from your location to the airport and, after you touch down, present driving directions between the arrival airport and your hotel. Once you reach a destination, it can suggest nearby restaurants based on your past selections, and sometimes will even recommend dishes to try. The app may be iPhone-ready before summer, and the Android version only works in the US and UK so far.

Given that iPhone users can’t use Google Now, they may want to consider Grokr, a US-only third-party app that also alerts you to relevant information by analysing your device’s data and – in a trick that Google Now can’t do –tapping in to your social networks, analysing what you and your friends have posted on Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter and 70 other services. For instance, after seeing which artists I have followed or listened to, Grokr began sending alerts when these artists were scheduled to perform nearby. Grokr’s general search is also as smart as Google Now’s. For example, if you search for “Massaman curry near me”, it will only recommend nearby restaurants that serve that dish.

A pocket tour guide
If you don’t like an app tapping into your private data, you may prefer Google’s Field Trip, which susses out nearby attractions based solely on the interests you’ve chosen, such as architecture, historic landmarks, shopping, nightlife, galleries and things that are “unique”. The app can also suggest nearby promotions, such as a free drink at a pub, local tours and activities.

Both Android and, as of March 2013, iPhone versions are available, but they only work in the US and UK. All versions of the app notify you when you’re near something interesting by vibrating and flashing a message on your home screen. You can adjust the frequency of these alerts, or you can turn the alerts off and only see interesting places (in list form or plotted on map) when you open the app. If something catches your eye, you can save it or share it with a friend by email, Google+ or Twitter.

Google Field Trip has other advantages over the traditional printed guide. As I was walking down Bow Street through London’s Covent Garden neighbourhood, Field Trip sent an alert that the street was created in 1637 and had once been home to many notable people including author Henry Fielding and actor Charles Macklin. Similarly detailed street-level historical insight might have easily been overlooked in a paper guidebook.

The app’s information comes from blogs and publications such as Cool Hunting, Eater, Thrillist and Time Out, and you can opt to only receive tips from a selection of the publications on offer. The app even includes an option for a voice to read the discoveries aloud if you need to keep your eyes on the road.

Translation tools
Unlike these multi-talented predictive apps, Google Translate does only one thing – provide translations of words and phrases between 65 languages – but it does it well. You can look up a translation by typing it in or speaking the words into your phone’s microphone. In most cases, a computerised voice will then pronounce the translated word or phrase. In tests, the app was quick to return text-based answers, but the speed of the voice-based answers depended on the strength of a mobile’s network connection and the amount of background noise.

Google Translate has been free for Android and iPhone since February 2011. But in March, a new version for recent Android systems (2.3 Gingerbread and higher) added offline support, meaning it can now be used to download free language packs in advance and receive translations even when you’re not connected to a network. Google says it will soon add this capability to other versions of the app, but in the meantime, all versions let you save already translated words and phrases for easy access when you’re offline.

As great as Google Translate is, a faster way of getting your idea across is often to skip the precise translations and instead use pictographs – or illustrated symbols of words or phrases – to get your point across. The app Image It lets you quickly look up travel-relevant pictographs, such as a drawing of a stamp to indicate you want to buy one to mail a postcard, from an array of travel-related topics, from food to transport and medical emergency to shopping. Drag and drop up to three images to make a hieroglyphic sentence of a thought. Show the app to a local, and he or she can point at an illustration that represents their answer. The $0.99 iPhone and Android app uses French as the primary translation language, but you can switch the default language to English, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese or Arabic.

Sean O’Neill is the travel tech columnist for BBC Travel. He’s previously written about Google's travel tools. 

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