Travel by Bits

By Eric Mueller

Originally published on Advocate.com May 18 2011 4:00 AM ET

 With summer here, the weather is perfect to get out of town and see the world…or at least the next town over.

Planning to travel internationally? Download the new Google Translate app (free) for Android and iPhone. It’s like having every language dictionary you can imagine in your pocket. The app can instantly translate between 50 languages and will display the translated word or phrase in large type. The next time you find yourself struggling to order a hamburger in Hungary, simply type it out, tap “translate,” and show your phone to the waiter. There’s also a sneak preview of the future with “conversation mode,” where you can speak in English and the app will translate to your target language and speak it aloud; it doesn’t yet work perfectly, but it’s not hard to imagine a situation a few years from now when you can use this app to chat flawlessly in any foreign language by simply speaking into the phone and letting it do the talking for you. Anything to get that hamburger to come faster.

If you’re staying closer to home, click over to RoadsideAmerica.com, a charming website that exhaustively lists hundreds of offbeat tourist attractions: Think two-headed snakes, medical-oddity museums, crazy themed restaurants, and lots of the world’s largest stuff (like the world’s largest twine ball, world’s largest egg, world’s largest frying pan, world’s largest rubber stamp). Reviews, maps, and updates keep the site fresh and help you to scratch that itch for the quirky, but it’s the site’s iPhone app ($2.99) that really shines. It will find attractions near your current location (for when you need to inject a dash of the weird on your next road trip) and can even be set to give you a fake call on your phone, helping you to “gracefully exit a dull museum or long-winded attraction host.”

Regardless of your destination, find a place to rest your weary head and make a new friend at the same time with CouchSurfing.org, a worldwide network of travelers with a couch (or extra bed) to offer. Once you make a profile (and flesh it out with photos, a bit about your traveling style, and what you’re passionate about), you can search for someone else who can host you on their couch, advertise that you have a couch available, or both. It’s easy to search for other gay “surfers,” and you communicate your expectations clearly before your trip to help minimize any surprises. There’s no charge, though typically travelers thank their hosts with a small gift or by doing something nice like cooking a meal or helping clean the house. Chris Fabbro, a Los Angeles–based firefighter and forest ranger, told me about couch-surfing through Italy. He says, “Now I have new friends to stay with when I’m back there, and I’ve invited them to come stay with me here in L.A.”