A few months ago, a friend finally bit on buying the latest heavily hyped smartphone, and assigned the following signature line to all e-mails sent from the phone: "Sent from my Yeah I Got One Too." His point wasn't so much that he finally got with the fad, but that he got with the times — now that the world of information (and commerce) has gone mobile, there is no going back, and everyone finally seems to know it.
For travelers, the proliferation of apps and the mobile Web is all upside — except that in these early days, travel apps are flooding into the market in numbers too large to follow and with quality controls too variable to rely on. To help you figure out what works and what doesn't, read ahead to part one of a two-part series of the most useful and interesting travel apps out there for multiple devices and platforms. This first round will look at what I call somewhat "essential, nuts and bolts" apps; following are 10 sections (plus one) for a total of 18 apps. In part two , we look at less essential but potentially very useful "accessory" apps.
1. Itinerary tracking: TripIt
Platforms: iPhone, Blackberry, Android, Web, mobile Web
Among the apps that help organize all of your itinerary info and tracking numbers, TripIt was the first and has gone the furthest in the itinerary tracking arena, and continues to set the standard. I found TripIt Pro to be almost idiot-proof. I sent it itineraries from multiple sources in multiple formats, some of them utter gobbledygook — I just e-mailed whatever I had to firstname.lastname@example.org (which is also easy to remember) — and in all cases, TripIt figured it out almost instantaneously and spit the information back to me in-app. This included flight bookings for three different people, hotel reservations, rental cars and even a restaurant reservation made online — all from different booking services. TripIt collected and displayed everything I sent it, right down to frequent flier numbers. And the list of supported sites/vendors is capacious — TripIt can handle almost anything.
Not everything works perfectly, though, as info can be dependent on the airlines pushing the information out; for example, I received a text alert about a gate change about an hour after that information was posted on airport flight status screens, around the same time the boarding process started. The change required going to a different terminal; had I relied solely on the SMS alerts, I would have been a long way from my gate.
One important note: TripIt's "lite"/free offering is missing some features many travelers might deem essential, such as real-time flight alerts sent to your phone, alternate flight options (for when your flight is canceled and you need to know another way home) and automatic sharing of trips — these are reserved for TripIt Pro accounts, which cost $49/year. If you travel a lot and can justify the expense, TripIt Pro is highly recommended.
TripIt's most direct competitors are TripCase and TripDeck. TripDeck looks extremely promising and entirely free, but is currently available only for the iPhone, so I chose not to include a full review here.
2. Booking engine itineraries: Apps by Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz
The Big Three travel booking sites all offer their own itinerary tracking apps, intended mostly for use with itineraries booked on that particular site. The upside to these proprietary apps (i.e., apps that are offered by the same folks from whom you are booking your travel) is that there are few or no format conflicts.
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When I used TripAssist for itineraries booked on Expedia, it worked exceedingly well. Earlier this year Expedia updated TripAssist to accommodate non-Expedia itineraries as well (with some critical limitations, see below), and offers at no cost some of the functionality that TripIt grants only to paid subscribers, including free real-time flight alerts sent to your phone and/or e-mail, alternate flight info and SeatGuru seat maps.
The TripAssist app also offers an option to purchase travel, but when I tried it, it merely kicked me out to the Expedia mobile website. I guess this represents some level of convenience, but it's not what most users might expect.
In my use I found it considerably less ravenously flexible than Tripit at gobbling up anything I sent it — in particular, for non-Expedia itineraries, I had to enter the full itinerary myself instead of forwarding whatever garbage e-mail I received from the booking service. It's also unfortunate that the app is available for iPhone only at present — but the service is improving all the time. On my next trip, I am going to try using it exclusively to see if the free app can compete with TripIt's Pro app — which will determine whether TripIt is worth the $49 or not.
The Travelocity and Orbitz apps work pretty much along the same lines; the Travelocity app is also available for the Android; Orbitz is also available for Blackberry.
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3. and 4. Local businesses and restaurants: Yelp and Urbanspoon
Platforms: iPhone, Blackberry, Android, Web, mobile Web
While these two free apps are frequently mentioned in the same breath, and I combine them here, they do have very different feature sets and serve different constituents. I put them together here to emphasize the differences, not the similarities.
Urbanspoon is essentially a restaurant app. Its "Shake" view looks like a slot machine, with restaurant location on one wheel of the machine, type of food in the next and price in the third; you can either lock or unlock (really a filtering mechanism) all three very easily, making customized searches quick and intuitive. Of particular value are the "like it" percentage ratings, which serve as a rapid way of sizing up a restaurant without reading all the reviews (which aren't bad either). Despite being a little gimmicky in action, the information Urbanspoon offers is solid and has rescued at least a couple of my evenings on the road this past year.
Yelp is a much wider ranging service, with a large number of categories beyond restaurants, including banks, gas stations, drug stores, home services, entertainment, pets services, local flavor and more. When I travel, I find that Yelp works best in "map" view, as you can expand or shrink the mapped area for services depending on how far afield you are willing to go. For example, when looking for a drug store while traveling, you probably want the closest store, not the best/most popular/best reviewed/etc. Yelp does a LOT more than find restaurants. Try the Monocle feature for a 21st-century freakout; when you hold your phone up and move it around, the business names show up superimposed on the live landscape in front of you. And a lot of Yelp's features are actually useful rather than merely "cool."
Both apps are highly recommended.
5. Hotel (and other) reviews: TripAdvisor
Platforms: iPhone, Android, mobile Web
While Yelp has more momentum in the mobile space and does more than travel, TripAdvisor is arguably the big brother of travel review services, and has packaged heaps and heaps of content into a slick app. There is simply no substitute for TripAdvisor's hotel reviews, in my experience. If you are a TripAdvisor regular, this app is for you, without reservation.
6. Consolidator and fare searching: Kayak, FareCompare, Priceline
I found the Kayak app to be fast, smart and really easy to understand, if slightly less full-featured than the website. Specifically, I live nearly equidistant from several major airports, and where the "include nearby airports" option on the website shows all of my usable airports, the Kayak app showed a much more limited subset of those airports. For me, this small deficiency will route me to the Kayak website every time, but for folks with a single preferred airport, the app is everything the website can be.
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FareCompare, Kayak's direct competitor, certainly has its own fan base, and its app does look nice if quite limited — titled "FareCompare When-to-Fly Airfare Alerts," it functions mainly as a price drop notification app rather than a more wide-ranging app like Kayak's (note also that FareCompare does not include hotel, car rental or other information). Real-time alerts can take the guesswork out of buying at the right time, although to be honest the alerts I programmed in produced few actionable alerts this past week. I will keep at it, and the app is worth a look.
Finally, I recently read about a traveler who decided to extend a day trip to the beach for a couple of days; she pulled over in her car, called up the Priceline app, bid on and accepted a hotel room at about half price while the engine was still running, drove less than a mile to the front door of the hotel and checked in. I have not had an opportunity to use this app, but that sounds pretty promising to me.
7. ATM finders: Various apps
There are a number of ATM finder apps out there, including those embedded in official bank apps (such as the Bank of America app); platform availability varies for each, but you will find one for almost any smartphone. Here are a few I tested.
ATM Finder: $0.99 app uses geolocation to return a map or listing of nearby ATM's. In my testing, it performed extremely well; some bank names appeared to be outdated, however (not really a surprise in these times of bank mergers and failures, but still).
myATM: $0.99 app displays the largest banks and common stores (Circle K, CVS, Safeway, etc.) by their logos, a very nice approach. It's a bit buggy, however, as a screen refresh sometimes dumps all the results, making it appear that there are no ATM's where once you saw several. If they work out the bugs, this is a great-looking app.
ATM Hunter: Free app returns a list of nearby ATM's, including information on the establishment in which you will find it (bank, gas station, mall, store, etc.). It also allows you to filter to find a specific bank, a drive-through, wheelchair accessibility, 24-hour operation and a bit more. It's one of only a few ATM finders that claim to offer worldwide information. Unfortunately, it only offers map view once you have selected a specific ATM.
8. Airport security: MyTSA
Platforms: iPhone, mobile Web
As helpless as folks feel when faced with flight schedule issues, navigating security checkpoints has to be the most stressful and strange part of the travel experience. The TSA tries new tactics all the time to make the process simpler and easier to understand, with decidedly mixed results. This free app continues in that vein.
The app has a real-time airport status map, which is useful enough, and reproduces the agency's standard traveler's guide, including all the information about liquids, choosing your security line, medical needs and more. The Security Wait Times feature is the most promising part of the app, although it depends wholly on travelers self-reporting in the airport, which resulted in a few of the searches I did showing information that was several hours or even days old, and other airports having no information whatsoever.
The "Can I Bring?" function is a bit of a crapshoot — given that airline food is all but ancient history, I searched on "fork," and was instructed that a tuning fork is a musical instrument, which is "permitted in the cabin of an aircraft or in checked baggage, although some special conditions may apply." What conditions? For example, can I eat with it?
9. Parking: Car Finder
Platform: iPhone 3Gs or later only
Talk about finding a need and addressing it — who hasn't come back from a long trip, or just a trip to the grocery store, and wondered where the H they put their car? To make this $0.99 app work, you will need a 3Gs iPhone or better, as the application uses the compass and camera built into those phones to pinpoint the location of your car. When saving your car's location, you take a photo of the car, which is assigned a location that will show up on a map when you return to find your car. The new Parking Meter Alert is an excellent addition; it will give you a notification that looks the same as an appointment notification.
Some users have reported spotty results, and the company is up front about admitting that performance depends largely on the accuracy of the GPS signal at the time you pinpoint as well as return to your car. I used it in the Target parking lot with perfect results, however, so these may be isolated complaints.
10. Bathrooms: SitOrSquat
Platforms: Mobile Web, Web, SMS, iPhone, Blackberry
Did I mention that Car Finder addressed a basic need? Well, this app outdoes even that. When nature calls, you need a way to answer, without fail. SitOrSquat, a website with apps for iPhone and Blackberry, shows you a map and/or list of nearby publicly accessible toilets — and it even has a free text message system, yeesh.
11. The future is now: Continental's Mobile Boarding Pass
This app is absolutely the future of checking in, although it is available only in select airports — and even then some agents barely know how to use it, according to some traveler reports. The crux of it is this: You wave your app-embedded reservation in front of a bar code reader, and you are checked in. Continental currently leads in this arena, but watch for other airlines to follow suit. Whether this will go big is hard to say, but it makes so much sense it's silly. Even better: Bring this same tech to concert, movie, theme park and other admission setups.
Don't miss the next story in this series: Essential Travel Apps, Part Two: Accessory Apps.