Have Smartphone, Will Travel
The summer travel season is heating up, and more of us are heading out of town to destinations unknown for a little fun in the sun, or off to visit somewhere new and different that we’ve never seen before. Most of us will wind up heading to the airport with stacks of paper folded up in our bags, like our flight confirmations, hotel reservations, and other critical information like maps and phone numbers.
You may not know that the smartphone in your pocket can be the ultimate travel companion, and can do everything from store your itinerary and alert you when there’s a weather or travel advisory to help you keep your friends and family back home up to speed on how everything is going on your out of town vacation.
In this roundup, we’ll look at apps for multiple mobile platforms that can help you collect all of your travel information in one place, help you get to your destination safely and without getting a migraine in the process, find something to do while you’re there, and tell everyone back home what a great time you’re having.
All apps mentioned in this article are free, unless otherwise noted.
Half of the hassle of traveling (and none of the relaxation) takes place before you leave the house. Booking airline tickets, making hotel reservations, checking flight departure times, notifying friends on the other end of your flight when you’ll arrive, all of it can be hectic and draining, especially if you’re about to hop on a plane for what’s supposed to be a relaxing summer getaway. Here are some mobile apps you can install on your smartphone that can help you make sure you’re organized before you head to the airport, stay up to date on changes, and ready to deal with problems that may pop up.
TripIt is part Web service and part smartphone app that, after you’ve used it once, you’ll never want to leave home without. The app is available for the iPhone, Android phones, and Blackberry phones, and gives you one place to store and retrieve your travel itinerary. Simply sign up for an account, e-mail all of your travel details like your flight confirmation, hotel reservation, appointments, and even rental car details to the service, and it will build a complete start-to-finish itinerary for you that you can access from the Web or from the mobile app at any time.
The itinerary includes everything you need for a smooth trip, like maps from the airport to your hotel, flight confirmation number, departure gate and time, and directions from place to place along the way. Best of all, it’s completely free. If you sign up for the pro version ($49 per year), you an get proactive alerts about flight delays or changes in your itinerary that may crop up while you’re not paying attention. The service recently updated to include social features, where you can find friends using the service, connect with them if they’re traveling in the area, and share your travel plans with them or on Facebook if you want someone else to know where you’re traveling and when you plan to be there.
TripCase does a number of things similar to TripIt, but there are a few stand-out features that make both apps worth having when you take a trip. First of all, TripCase automatically updates your flight information from the airline and will even direct you to the gate where your flight is expected to depart. If anything about your flight changes, TripCase will let you know. Additionally, TripCase recently updated with the ability to publish your trips and itineraries to a public calendar so others can see when you’re headed out of town and where you’re going.
If your flight is delayed and you’re worried about making a connecting flight, the app can even suggest alternate flights for you so you don’t have to worry about spending the night in an airport because of a missed connection. The app supports iPhones, Blackberry devices, Windows Mobile phones, and unveiled their Android app several weeks ago.
The worst feeling in the world is getting stranded at an airport or in a hotel lobby because the gate agent or receptionist overbooked or can’t find a record of your reservation. Thankfully, the Travelocity app and mobile site can help you look up your reservations to prove them to gate agents or hotel receptionists, and can direct you to alternate airlines with departing flights and even hotels in the area with vacancies in case there’s a problem.
The app (which is iPhone only, although their mobile site has the same features and works on any smartphone) allows you to see all flight schedules for a specific airport or city, and lets you check room rates at hotels near you. Once you’ve found another hotel with vacancies, you can even book online through the app or touch to call them and get the Travelocity rate. The app is designed to be a frustrated traveler’s friend, and lets you call or book flights, hotels, car rentals, and even entire vacation packages directly from your mobile phone.
Getting There and Getting Around
Before you leave home, the first thing you’ll need to do is pack for your trip, and before you can pack for your trip, you’ll want to make sure you pack appropriately for where you’re planning to travel and how long you’re planning to stay there. Packing Pro for the iPhone and iPod Touch can help you make a packing list that’s right for the time of year, the weather, and where you’re planning to go. You certainly don’t need an app just to tell you how to pack for a trip, but Packing Pro will help you make sure you have the basics covered if you’re traveling alone, traveling with someone else as a couple, or bringing an entire family with children to the airport.
Additionally, Packing Pro takes into account what type of vacation you’re planning, so if you’re headed to the beach, the app will suggest that you bring sunscreen and sunglasses. If you’re planning a visit to a ski resort, the app will suggest you bring ski goggles and gloves. It also allows you to build your own packing lists and save them if you have a favorite vacation spot that you like to fly to every year, but don’t want to forget anything. The developer just updated the app for the summer travel season and drastically expanded the number of items to pack, templates, and the ability to quickly search your lists.
Once you’ve left for your flight and you really consider yourself “on vacation,” the last thing you want to deal with is getting around while you’re waiting for your flight or after your flight lands. From when you enter the airport to when you leave the airport at your destination, there are a number of great apps for multiple mobile platforms that can help you find a gift to bring home after you’ve been through the TSA security maze, make sense of the crazy subway system in the city you’ve come to visit, and keep your vacation weather report at your fingertips at all times.
Airports don’t have to be frustrating, and with GateGuru, you’ll never have to worry about getting lost in an airport or wondering how far it is to the closest café or coffee shop in the terminal again. Once you have the app installed, you can see photos and reviews of gift shops and in-terminal restaurants at your airport, and the app even tells you which eateries and shops are behind security screening and which are before, so you can decide whether to eat or buy a book before you’re screened for your flight. The app even has some social features, where rating restaurants or uploading photos will earn you points and prestige among GateGuru users.
The app is iPhone only, but the developers claim versions for other mobile phones are on the way soon. Additionally, it was just updated to include over a dozen additional international airports in North America, so regardless of where your flight takes you, GateGuru likely knows the layout of your airport and how good the bar next to your gate really is.
Google Maps may seem like a no-brainer, but that’s mostly because it’s included on almost every smartphone. If you have a Nokia running Symbian OS or a Blackberry, you may need to download it manually. Still, Google Maps is the Swiss army knife of mobile apps to help you get from here to your destination. Combined with GPS, the app has all but replaced carrying a physical map with you when you travel, and when your flight lands and you have no idea where your airport is, Google Maps can be invaluable, even if it’s just for directions without the use of GPS.
Best of all, the Google Mobile team is constantly updating Google Maps. Most recently, Google Maps for Blackberry and Android updated with new directions for people who are looking to use public transit to get around town when they get to their destination, and Google Maps for every platform updated with new ways to share your location via Google Latitude and find businesses in the area you’re visiting. Best of all, Google Maps now allows you to read other visitors’ reviews of nearby businesses so you can decide if you want to visit, post your own reviews afterward, or even call the business directly from your mobile phone with a single tap.
When your flight lands in a city you’ve never visited, you may not immediately know how to get from the airport to your hotel, or from the airport to the restaurant or bar where you’ll meet friends, or even across town to your vacation destination. If you find yourself in the middle of a metropolitan area with no idea how to get around, you can certainly try to flag a cab, but alternatively you can try Metr0, a mobile app that can help you make heads or tails of subway and mass transit systems in over 40 cities in the United States and hundreds more worldwide.
The app allows you to select specific origin and destination stops if you know where you’re planning to go, and lets you type in generally where you’re headed and the app will fetch the closest stop and best route on the transit lines it supports for you. In addition to subways and rail lines, the app even supports local bus routes if you’re traveling from suburb to city or vice versa. The developers just released a new version this month to add more cities, and update regularly as more cities and transit lines in covered cities are added. Metr0 is available for the iPhone, Windows Mobile, PalmOS, Blackberry phones, and even Symbian phones. An Android version is in testing, and the app is completely free.
If you have a favorite airline or tend to fly one more than others, it’s worth downloading the mobile app from your preferred airline or booking the mobile version of their site. Most major airlines have a mobile app for at least one mobile platform, and usually it’s the iPhone, Blackberry, or Android. Even airlines with mobile sites and no apps give you the basics, like the ability to look up flight information, see flight schedules, contact the airline, or check-in for your flight. Airline apps allow you to do all of these things, but often include additional features like the ability to book connecting flights, upgrade using frequent flyer miles, notify friends when your flight is scheduled to land, or buy premium services in the air.
For example, Virgin Atlantic’s mobile app for the iPhone and iPad allow you to check the status of your flight, and comes with a soothing voice to help you stay calm through turbulence or deal with nervousness and anxiety. Alaska Airlines’ new mobile app gives you tools to get alerts if there are flight delays or changes, helps you understand clearly when your flight will take off and land in local time, and even helps you check in for your flight and choose a new seat if you don’t like your assignment.
Almost every smartphone has a weather tool or widget that will tell you the current temperature and conditions where you are, but The Weather Channel mobile app is available for the iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Palm OS, and Windows Mobile, and there are even non-smartphone versions of the app available from every major carrier in the US. The iPhone app has just been updated with “future radar maps,” or predictions of what the cloud cover in your area will be in the next few hours, and the Android version just saw a complete overhaul that makes it sharper, easier to use, and more like its well-polished iPhone counterpart.
The beauty of the smartphone versions however is that they include features that are especially useful to travelers, like the ability to save multiple locations, quickly search for a new city based on its zip code, name, or nearby airport, and even see short video weather reports, complete with a meteorologist on-screen in front of animated radar maps and temperature readings.
Once you’re on vacation, off your plane, checked-in to your hotel, and just starting to come down off of the travel high, you’re probably going to notice you’re hungry. If you’re traveling with friends, it’s not such a big problem, but if you’re traveling alone or don’t know much about the place you’re visiting, you can be hard pressed to find a place to grab a bite to eat. Thankfully, your smartphone is there for you with a few well known and other not-so-common apps to help you grab a bite near you, or find your way to the hot spot where all of the locals hang out.
A free download for Android phones and the iPhone, Geodelic mashes up augmented reality with restaurant and business search. You can use the app to find everything from the closest Pizza Hut to the most highly rated sit-down restaurant near your hotel, and the app will put them all on a virtual globe that shows you how far you’ll have to travel to get there. The app recently updated to include even more businesses around the country, and also is now using Skyhook for location-detection, as opposed to purely GPS using Google Maps.
Geodelic will obtain your location when you launch it using GPS or Wi-Fi, and once the app knows where you are, you can browse all nearby locations and businesses on the “carousel” by spinning it from side to side, or by selecting a specific category from the top of the screen, like fast food, bars, and restaurants. If you find a location you’re interested in, you can tap it to go to its Web site or bring up some basic information about it like the phone number, address, and buttons to call, get directions, or rate it. You can also read a summary of the business, or see an aerial view that marks your location in one spot and the nearby restaurants as push-pins in the map.
Yelp and OpenTable have both been around for a while, and both services have their own apps for the iPhone, Android, and the Blackberry, so finding a place to eat, grab a drink, or hang out in your area using Yelp and then making a reservation using OpenTable shouldn’t be new to anyone. Even so, both apps are absolute necessities if you’re looking for somewhere to eat or drink in a place you’ve never been and you want to find a place where the food is good and is well liked by other visitors.
What is new, however, is the joining of the two. Since so many people would use Yelp as a community to find and rate good places to eat and drink and subsequently go to OpenTable to make reservations, the two companies have partnered to integrated OpenTable into Yelp so you can find a place and make a reservation all in the same app. Fire up Yelp (as long as you use the same e-mail account for both) and you’ll be able to find a place to eat, tap to make a reservation, select a time and date, and even get credit at OpenTable for the reservation you made. Now, Yelp serves as your one stop shop for finding, reading about, getting to, and being welcomed at restaurants or eateries of your choice, wherever you roam.
Urbanspoon started as an app to help you or a group of hungry people determine where they wanted to eat, since the app features a “slot machine” that you can spin (by shaking your phone, if you've got a phone with a built in accelerometer such as iPhone) to randomly select a location, a type of cuisine, and a relative price. You can even lock one of those three criteria if, for example, you know you only want to pay a certain amount, or if everyone’s in the mood for Thai, but the rest is up for grabs.
Urbanspoon has been around a while on the Blackberry and iPhone, but it’s recently made the leap to Android phones and the iPad, and even more recently unveiled its new reservations feature, allowing diners to book tables at supporting locations. The reservation services are still in beta and only available in a few cities, but Urbanspoon is slowly but surely rolling them out nationwide. In the interim, what used to be a reason to envy Blackberry owners is now available to anyone indecisive about choosing a place to eat in an unfamiliar place.
A vacation wouldn’t be a vacation without taking some time to do something fun or relaxing. Whether you want to just see the sights around town or relax on the beach with a good book, there are a number of great apps worth installing to help you find something to do in your spare time, or even use your phone to entertain yourself while you’re relaxing in the sun—that is if you want to do anything but sit in a hot tub while you’re on vacation.
Stanza started off as one of the few free eBook readers for the iPhone that combined a virtual book store with the ability to save, categorize, and read eBooks. The app was recently bought out by Amazon, and has since partnered with a number of new publishing companies to include their books in the built-in catalog. One of Stanza’s best features is the fact that it has access to a world of free eBooks and PDF books from Project Gutenberg.
Stanza is a great eBook reader, and while it isn’t available for more devices than just the iPhone and iPod Touch, it turns the iPhone into a great reading device. The ability to read book summaries while browsing the library makes it easy to pick a book to read, and the Cover Flow-like navigation makes picking a book off of the virtual shelf fun. Best of all Stanza remembers where you stopped reading, so if you fall asleep on the beach with your iPod Touch, you can pick up where you left off when you wake.
Amazon’s Kindle App is free and already available for the iPhone, Blackberry, iPad, Windows and Mac Desktops, and as of this month, Android. The Kindle app allows you to purchase, download, and read eBooks directly from Amazon’s Kindle book store, and subscribe to newspapers, magazines, and blogs that publish through the Kindle Store as well.
If free books weren’t enough for you and you’re looking for some of the summer’s most popular book titles to take on vacation with you, it’s a safe bet you’ll find it in the Kindle Store, which includes an ever-expanding catalog of over 600,000 books. Books are available starting at $9.99, and the Kindle app works just like the Amazon Kindle device, which lets you make notes, bookmark chapters or passages, highlight text, and adjust the text size. While Stanza (also owned by Amazon) is great for finding free books and building a personal library, the Kindle app is perfect for people who want access to Amazon’s Kindle Store and the best selling new titles in every book category.
Zagat To Go
$19.99 per year
Nothing beats a good, old-fashioned travel guide that you can flip open and sort through when you want to find sights worth seeing or entertainment venues while you’re on vacation. They’re also great when you’re standing in front of an interesting place and you want to know more about it. However, carrying one of those big thick travel guides around with you is no fun at all. Thankfully, Zagat has rolled those travel guides, ratings, and expert reviews into a series of apps that you can take with you on virtually any type of mobile device, as long as you pay for the subscription.
Zagat To Go is available for the Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Pocket PC, Palm OS, and recently the service has updated its iPhone and Android apps and released version 7.0, which adds hundreds of additional cities and reviews. When you have Zagat To Go installed on your phone, you have access to Zagat’s reviews of over 40,000 establishments, guides and suggestions for hundreds of cities around the world, and click-to-call features so you can call them directly to buy tickets to a show, make reservations at a restaurant, or find out museum hours before you leave the hotel. The app uses GPS to determine your location to show you how to get to the location of your choice. Best of all, as long as your subscription is active, you have access to Zagat’s constantly growing and updating database of reviews and suggestions, so you’ll never be lost or bored when visiting a new city.
AroundMe, true to its name, shows you what’s near your current position, whether you’re looking for a bank, a bar, or a coffee shop. The app is also perfect for helping you find the types of services that you may not think of when you’re headed out on vacation: nearby hospitals, police stations, gas stations, and other essential utilities that you may take for granted when you’re safe at home where you know your way around. Nothing is worse than a medical emergency when you’re on vacation, and knowing where the closest hospital is definitely information worth having. AroundMe is an old app, but its recent updates bring a unique augmented reality view to the app that shows you where the service or location is that you’re interested in, how far away it is, and what direction you should travel in to get there.
The app is available for the iPhone and iPod Touch and released an Android version of the app last month. It’s one of the first to give you a category view of what businesses and establishments are near you that doesn’t rely entirely on restaurant listings and yellow pages. Simply tap the category you’re interested in to see a list of all matching businesses and their positions relative to you.
Part of the fun of being on vacation is telling everyone back home how you’re doing and letting them see some of the fun you’re having while you’re away from home or the office. Since you naturally have your smartphone with you, there’s no reason not to use it to share photos and updates from your trip with everyone back home, whether it’s to let them know you arrived safely or to show them what a good time you’re having.
There are all the traditional services: Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare, and others that are all great ways to stay in touch, but here are some additional apps worth considering for your trip if, for example, you want to join a travel-based social network, want more privacy than those services offer, or want to leave your comments behind for other travelers to find.
RoamTribe is part social network, part event suggestion app. The app was built on top of a database of venues and events in locations around the country that you can use to find something to do when you’re away from home. Even so, what makes RoamTribe really stand out is the strength of its community and its ability to share your plans, location, and your thoughts about the places you’re visiting with the world.
To use the app, you’ll have to sign up for an account or connect it with your Facebook account. Once you’re logged in, you can browse suggestions from other RoamTribe members based on the place you’re visiting or by category. Once you’ve selected a location and you go, you can rate the location and review it for the community to see right from your phone. The app also allows you to upload photos and video along with your review. You can also share your rating and review with other friends on Facebook. The app is new, but unfortunately is iPhone only.
MocoSpace is a social network that, when you look at the desktop version, looks a lot like MySpace: full of ugly backgrounds and “thanks for the add” messages on profiles. However, the mobile version (which is available even on non-smartphones), the iPhone app, and the Android app are much more elegant and fun to use. The service is designed almost entirely for people who can’t live without their mobile phones and who spend more time texting and snapping photos with their camera phones than they take phone calls, which makes it a natural network to join when you’re away from a computer or taking a vacation.
MocoSpace boasts over 11 million members, and recently updated its mobile apps to include live chat with other mobile members, so you don’t have to upload a photo to get in touch with a friend to let them know how your trip is going (although you can do that as well.) MocoSpace is aimed at younger audiences, and allows you to upload photos, post updates to member profiles, and tweak your profile all from your mobile phone, for free.
Many location-based apps are rolling in augmented reality features that allow you to overlay relevant information about businesses over a map or live view of your current location, but they start with the database of things to do and then add the ability to see where they are relative to you. TagWhat works the other way around, starting with the augmented reality view and gives you access to an already rich database of location information that you can contribute to. Anywhere you turn, you’re likely to find some information about where you are, and you may even find notes left behind from other TagWhat members that you can connect with to share your experiences while you’re traveling.
The beauty of TagWhat is that even though the app can suggest what restaurants, museums, or other points of interest are near you, you can also make notes about the places you’ve visited while you’re traveling for other members to see, including people you add as friends. This way you can build your own travel journal, complete with your own reviews of all of the things you saw, and you can share it with as many people as you choose, whether it’s with other TagWhat members or the general public. Also, you don’t have to be in a specific location to make a note – even if you see something beautiful in your travels that you don’t want to forget or want to tell someone else about, you can add a note to the map so you won’t forget and others can see.
RallyUp is a social network that mimics a lot of FourSquare’s functionality, but emphasizes privacy and prevents you from sharing your location information with the general public. If you’re concerned about privacy and don’t want your Twitter followers or Facebook friends to know where you are at any given moment but you have a circle of friends that you actually trust or want to know when you’re in the area, the RallyUp network is perfect for you. RallyUp is a new network and only available for the iPhone and iPad unfortunately, although FourSquare and Gowalla for just about every other mobile device are beginning to include the kinds of privacy controls that RallyUp already provides.
The best feature of the RallyUp network is the ability to add people as friends, but then give them a friend “level” that determines how much of your activity they can see. You can mute people you find annoying, or you can set granular permissions that let you see a specific friend but they can’t see where you are, for example. The service relies on real people inviting their real friends to join, and will only let you publish your check-in information to Facebook if you absolutely want to. The service makes no mistake that it’s designed for real friends, not just online acquaintances.
Be A Tourist, Without Looking Like One
Regardless of the model or OS your phone runs, there are apps to help you plan your trip, adapt to sudden changes and emergencies, make your trip itself as smooth and enjoyable as possible, and finally to share your vacation with friends back home. Just make sure you carry an extra battery or charger and keep your smartphone full of juice, and possibly carry a backup copy of anything really important in case your phone goes dead at an inopportune time. However, with a little luck and the help of a few travel apps, you may not need those papers and they can stay tucked away in your bag in case of emergencies.
One of the best things about taking a vacation is the time away from the stresses of the day-to-day. There’s no reason to add more stress to your trip by printing out dozens of travel documents, especially when you can keep all of your important travel information stored comfortably in your phone. This way, when you leave your house and head to the airport, you won’t have to fumble with paper to find your flight confirmation, you won’t have to unfold pamphlets to find the closest beach, and you won’t have to carry a thick travel guide to find something near your hotel worth seeing. Best of all, with a smartphone as your guide, you don’t have to look like a tourist.