Using an Apple Watch for Travel


We have been using Apple Watches as fitness trackers and travel watches since 2017 when we both got the Series 2 watch. In that time, the Apple Watch has proved an excellent companion on the trail and in our travels to several countries. 

The most recent iteration of WatchOS, combined with the additional sensors on the Series 6 Apple Watch, has made this device exceptional for our travels. The newest version of the watch is even more capable. The Apple Watch Ultra is an amazing tool for serious adventure travelers. 

Grant looking at his watch on the streets of Chicago.
Grant checking the walking directions on his Apple Watch in Chicago.

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What Makes An Apple Watch Great For Travel

The Apple Watch’s flexibility is the key attribute that makes it truly amazing for travel. The ability to customize your watch face with the exact information and tools you need while traveling is simply exceptional. You can even create multiple watch faces to use at different points during the same trip!

You can also easily switch out the watch band depending on the situation you find yourself in. If you want, you can use a nice, breathable band for a hike during the day and then switch to something more refined for dinner.

How I Customize My Watch Face

Grant's Apple Watch
The travel face I use has all of the info I need when traveling plus easy access to the camera control and workouts.

I make a point to use the analog Infograph face. It affords me a whopping eight complications, each providing me with pertinent information and capabilities.

“Complication” is the term watchmakers use to describe the small details included on a watch face that give information other than time. For example, most analog watches have some sort of complication for the date at the 3 o’clock position.

Timex watch face
The date indicator at the 3 o’clock position is a traditional complication found on many watches.

For Apple Watches, complications both display information and act as a shortcut to the app. Clicking on the weather complication, for example, will give you more detailed information. Some complications, however, are just shortcuts to the app on the watch.

If you don’t like how crowded the Infograph face is there are several other options that do not have as many complications cluttering the screen. Again, that’s what makes the Apple Watch great for travel.

Complications I Use 

Grant's Apple Watch face for travel
This is my “travel face,” which includes the complications I use on a regular basis.

Starting at the top left, I use the Calendar complication. While knowing the date is useful, I am more concerned about knowing what day of the week it is. In many places, both in the US and overseas, the day of the week can have a significant impact on what is open. 

At the top right, I have the time in my home city. I do this so I know what time it is for the majority of our family. That said, when Bonnie was in Paris without me, I changed that to be what time it was where she was. 

Read more about Bonnie’s trip to Paris here.

Below that, I use the Weather complication to give me the current temperature. It also gives me the high and low and current conditions. 

Pulling our camper over Powder River Pass in Wyoming
Pulling our camper over Powder River Pass in Wyoming.

On the inside left, I use the Altimeter complication. This is nice when we are out West traveling through the mountains. It is not as useful normally… until you realize it is also a shortcut to the Compass app. The Compass app is extremely useful for navigation.  

On the inside right, I use the Activity complication. This allows me to see my “rings” and know if I need to get up and move around more. The “rings” are Apple’s way of tracking your fitness. The three rings track how many hours you have been standing, how many minutes of exercise you have gotten and how many active calories you have burned.

Sunrise at the Grand Canyon.
Grant taking pictures at sunrise in the Grand Canyon.

Below that, I have the Sunrise/Sunset complication. I love to take photos during the golden hour. Knowing at a glance when the next sunrise or sunset will take place is key. This is also key for hiking so you know how many hours of daylight you have remaining.

App Shortcuts

At the very bottom of the screen, I have the Camera Remote app and the Workout app. I use the Camera Remote app often while out on the trail. This is particularly handy if I want to put my iPhone on a tripod and take a selfie. The Workout complication is perfect for quickly launching the app for a hike or a long walk. 

I find these complications to be quite useful and give me a lot of useful information at a glance.

A selfie using an Apple Watch for travel at Dead Horse Point State Park.
I took this selfie at Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah using a tripod and the Camera Remote app on my Apple Watch.

More Tips For Customizing Watch Faces

One of the tricks I like to do is to create other faces for specific purposes. Since you can easily swipe right and left between various faces, you can create a face just to suit a specific function.

For example, I have a “Time Face.” This allows me to have all of the complications useful for keeping track of time, like Timer and Stopwatch, on one face an easy swipe away.

Creating a “Time Face”

A screenshot of Grant's Apple Watch
This is my “Time Face.”

I use the World Time watch face and I add in four time-related complications: Stopwatch, Timer, Alarm and Calendar. That way, I can easily just swipe to this face to access those apps without them taking up real estate on the watch face I walk around with.

I use the World Time watch face because it allows me to see where the sun is up around the world. This is quite useful when you are working on planning a trip and you want to know whether it is daytime when you are calling for a reservation. 

Creating a Heart Face 

Grant's Heart Face on his Apple Watch
This is my “Heart Face,” which includes shortcuts to all of the apps I use to keep track of my heart health.

Because I had a heart attack back in 2015, my heart health is always in the back of my mind. So, I created a watch face I could swipe to for my heart.

Read more about my heart attack in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

I use the Modular watch face to give me easy access to the Heart Rate complication, the ECG complication and the Blood Oxygen complication. 

I have found the heart rate measurements to be consistent with the blood pressure cuff I have at home. Since I do not have atrial fibrillation, the ECG function is not as important to me. That said, if the heart rate sensor is having difficulties (due to the hair on my wrist) the ECG will pick it up. Plus, it gives me piece of mind if my heart is racing even though it cannot detect a heart attack. 

Grant day hiking in Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Grant hiking on the Mount Harkness Trail in Lassen Volcanic National Park. This trail was pretty steep at the end and Grant was keeping a close eye on his heart rate here.

The blood oxygen sensor is mostly accurate. That said, when I got COVID back in August 2021, I did not rely on the measurements from the watch. Rather, I used a pulse oximeter. Still, for casual measurements, it is reliable enough. 

Apple Watch as a Navigation Aid

Probably the best use of an Apple Watch is as a navigation aid. If you use Apple Maps for navigation in your car (which we do all the time), the watch will give you haptic alerts for turns. That is quite useful if you are in the midst of an excellent podcast (like the Dear Bob and Sue Podcast about the National Parks and other public lands) and are about to miss an exit or a turn. Having that buzzing alert on your wrist is a nice reminder. 

Grant in a Jeep on the highway in Maui
Grant driving a Jeep in Maui, using the Apple Watch to get turn-by-turn directions.

But where that really shines is if you are renting a car without Apple CarPlay, like the Jeep we rented in Maui. Even though I had no informational display on the car, I was still able to keep my eyes on the road while using navigation by following the prompts on my Apple Watch. It made getting around the island that much easier.

Read more about our trip to Maui here.

Using Apple Watch For Walking and Mass Transit Directions

Any time we are in a city and need to get around, we use our Apple Watches extensively for walking and mass transit directions. 

The walking directions allow you to leave your phone in your pocket once you have put in the route. The directions pop up on your wrist, alerting you with haptics when you approach a turn. It is quite convenient and allows you to enjoy walking through a city without burying your head in your phone. 

Grant using his Apple Watch for working directions.
Grant using his Apple Watch for walking directions in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The mass transit directions are similarly good. They do not, however, have as many haptic prompts in metro stations. That is mainly because they are mostly underground and GPS signal is tough. 

On a recent trip to Chicago, we used our phones extensively to navigate the city and had an excellent experience. 

Using Apple Maps for transit directions.
Transit directions on Apple Maps in Chicago

Read more about our trip to Chicago in Bonnie’s upcoming article.

Pro tip: You can set up an Express Transit Card in Apple Pay section of the Watch app on your phone. That will allow you to just tap your watch on the turnstile and breeze through.

The Updated Compass App: A Game Changer

If you are a hiker, having a good approximation of your compass bearing is useful when using a paper map. The real benefit of the newly redesigned app is you can track your steps and follow a set of digital breadcrumbs back to where you started.

Using the breadcrumbs on the Apple Watch for retracing my steps in travel.
Following the breadcrumbs to retrace my steps with the Compass app.

I cannot tell you how useful this would be if you decide to just wander around an area like the narrow streets near the Acropolis in Athens. After a while, the streets all start to look the same. If you aren’t keeping track of where you are going, it is easy to get lost.

The app also tracks where you parked your car (if it was connected via Bluetooth or CarPlay). That’s really handy in large parking lots. 

Walking the streets of Athens
Walking the streets of Athens

Making Use of Focus in iOS and WatchOS

One of the best additions to iOS 16 and Watch OS 9 was the addition of different Focus settings. I have set up a focus just for travel. When I turn it on, it automatically changes my watch face to my travel face. It also is set to only allow certain notifications from apps.

I have set up different watch faces with different complications based on which complications I use at home, at work, out and about and while traveling. For example, I have Outlook calendar notifications turned on for my work face, allowing me to know when my next meeting is. At home, I have the Latch complication on my face because the apartment I live in uses that app to control common doors.

Grant's work face for Apple Watch
This is the face I use for work. I use the stopwatch for timing speeches in class.

Focus and Lock Screens

The focus setting also customizes my Lock Screen. I use one of the Weather & Astronomy lock screens which shows where I am on the globe, even if I don’t have cellular service. It was really cool to see my location displayed on the Lock Screen in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico while on a recent cruise.

Read more about our cruise aboard the Norweigan Breakaway in an upcoming article.

While setting up a Focus takes time, I have found it helps me get the most out of the flexibility of my phone and watch. By spending the time to get all of the settings right, I am able to automate customizing my phone and watch for different situations easily. 

Grant's travel Lock Screen for his iPhone
My travel focus lock screen lets me know I am right in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico despite no cell phone service.

For example, I have a Focus setting for while I am at home, at work, in the car, at bedtime, while traveling and when I don’t want to be disturbed. My home and work Focus settings come on automatically based on my location. My driving setting turns on automatically when my phone connects to a car or uses CarPlay. 

Travel Apps For Your Apple Watch

Honestly, I don’t use a lot of third-party apps on my watch. In terms of apps for travel, the big ones I have are the Fly Delta app, primarily because it pushes gate change notifications to my watch. 

I also have the Hilton Honors app but I only use it for notifications to check in for my hotel. I don’t use it for digital keys (I rarely use those) but I could. 

Bonnie hiking on the Lover's Leap Trail in Custer State Park.
Bonnie on the Lover’s Leap Trail in Custer State Park.

The AllTrails app is our staple for hiking. I have found that to be invaluable on the trail, especially if all of the data has been downloaded. Still, you have to run both the workout app and the AllTrails app if you want workout credit for your hike. 

Lastly, I use the FordPass app, which allows me to remotely start, lock and unlock our truck.

Hilton Garden Inn Rapid City, SD
Grant scraping the ice and snow off the truck on a winter road trip to Rapid City, SD. Using the remote start feature was handy and made scraping the ice and snow go a lot faster.

Cons of Using an Apple Watch for Travel

The single biggest con to using an Apple Watch for travel is the battery. The Apple Watch pretty much has to be charged every night. Additionally, if you are flying on an overnight flight, you may need to charge the watch during the flight in order to keep it up and running for an entire day when you land. 

For long trips on a plane, we have started carrying a small, rechargeable battery for charging our watches. It is also handy if, for some reason, we forgot to put the watch on the charger at night.

You can also have battery problems when using GPS without a cellular signal to back it up. When we hiked the Yosemite Valley Loop, Bonnie’s watch did not last the entire hike because she did not have GPS enabled on her phone for the hike. The battery just could not keep up with that much demand. 

Another amazing view along the Yosemite Valley Loop.
Hiking the Valley Loop Trail in Yosemite NP.

The next con is having an internet connection while you are traveling. If you are traveling overseas and are not using your phone’s data capability while traveling, some of the features of the watch are pretty much disabled, namely the Weather app. 

Lastly, while the normal Apple Watch is perfectly fine for swimming, it is NOT a dive watch. I learned that the hard way while snorkeling Cozumel. My watch did fine while swimming or in a hot tub several times before but diving down to check out a reef in Cozumel, even in about 15 feet of water, was more than it could handle. So, now I carry another watch with me if I am expecting to get deep. The new Apple Watch Ultra, on the other hand, is designed for diving to depth. 

Bonnie getting ready to snorkel at the beach at Punta Sur.
Bonnie about to snorkel in Cozumel.

So What Watch Would You Use For Travel if Not an Apple Watch?

If something were to happen to my Apple Watch or I feel like I am going to be in a potentially too deep water environment for it, I really like my Citizen Eco-Drive Field Watch. This watch is simple, has a solar cell to keep the battery charged, has a luminescent coating on the dial for reading the watch at night and is lightweight. 

Citizen Eco-Drive
This Citizen Eco-Drive field watch served me well on several trips. I keep it because it is about as simple and functional as it gets.

I really like the simple, classic look of an analog field watch. Also, I really love that I rarely need to worry about replacing the battery. 

Final Thoughts on Using an Apple Watch for Travel

The Apple Watch is incredibly capable as a travel watch. It gives you exceptional flexibility and customizations to provide you with either excellent information at a glance or the ability to quickly access useful apps. 

I use the watch extensively when I travel. While it has its drawbacks, they are more than outweighed by the pros of the device. 

Selfie on the way to Spinalonga, Crete
Selfie on the way to Spinalonga in Greece, where our Apple Watches came in handy.

We highly recommend the Apple Watch for travel.          

Travel Resources
What do you use to find a flight?

We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.

What do you use to find a hotel?

We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. You can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Click here to book a Hilton property.

If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
Click here to search for a hotel.

We recently partnered with Stay22 to add interactive maps to each of our destination posts. This will allow you to see a plethora of hotels and vacation rentals all in one responsive map of the area.

What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?

We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.

Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
Click here to book a rental car.

How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
Click here to book a cruise.

What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.

What do you use for booking tours?

We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you just can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viatour first.
Click here to book a tour.

Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.

We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
Click here to get a AAA membership.

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