This app and built-in Google phone feature makes it easier to read foreign language signs and menus, and identify buildings, plants, fruits, and so much more.

By Elizabeth Sile
August 01, 2019
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Two years ago, before a trip to Peru, my husband and I each downloaded the Google Translate app, anticipating it might come in handy to help us (two people who studied French…more than a decade ago) read menus and signs via the instant image translation feature and do some quick Spanish translations in a pinch in more remote areas where English was not common.

What was something of an afterthought of an App Store download ended up being a lifeline on that trip. We used it to understand some rather confusing bus schedules and ticket policies to get to Machu Picchu, and at restaurants, it helped me better navigate reading menus and talking to waitstaff about my food allergy. I’ve since relied on Google Translate on every trip abroad.

But now I have a new go-to app that includes my beloved image translation feature and so much more.

On a recent trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, trying out the new Google Pixel 3a ($399, phone, I found my new go-to phone feature for travel, Google Lens. On a basic level, Lens uses image-recognition technology to identify things when you hover your camera over them.

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I can point my phone at a menu or sign, as I’ve done with Google Translate, and get instant translations. Walking around Oaxaca, I pointed my phone at various churches, landmarks, and restaurants, and Lens correctly identified them and gave me the option to pull up more information (in the form of Wikipedia pages, websites, and Google business pages with hours of operation and contact info). I identified fruit I’d never seen at Mercado Benito Juárez and various flowers and cactuses. It can even be used on clothing and home decor and searches the internet for similar items to buy. If you don’t have internet, you can also use Lens on a photo back on hotel Wi-Fi to tell you what you saw. While I've primarily relied on it when I've been in another country, it certainly also adds to any domestic trips and even just day-to-day.

On the Google Pixel 3a, Lens is handily integrated right into the phone’s camera so it’s always there if you want it. Don’t have a Google phone? You can still use Lens—for free—on your next trip via the Google app (free on the Apple Store) for iPhones—just click the Lens icon right there in the search bar when you launch the app—and through the Google Lens app (free on Google Play) for Android phones.

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For me, Lens doesn’t replace the fun, fulfilling parts of travel—going on walking tours or food tours with local guides when I land in a new place, poking around a new city on foot without a map, and even fumbling my way through an interaction in my bad Spanish. But it’s there, like a virtual travel guide, when I need it.