Cell phones, which traditionally operate as communication tools, are fast becoming a widely used interface for online information as well. You've probably seen people typing away on their complicated, expensive mobile devices — you know, the kinds of phones that take pictures, send e-mail and can communicate with animals. But travelers don't need to purchase an expensive iPhone or BlackBerry to use their cell phones for something other than gossip exchange.
Use your cell phone to take a guided tour of a museum, facilitate an airport pickup or check the status of your flight. Any simple cell phone can do this and more, and largely at no cost beyond what you pay for a standard phone call or text message. And don't worry, using a cell phone as a travel tool does not require a degree in mechanical engineering. (It only necessitates a thorough read of this article.)
Cell phone parking lots
Cell phone parking lots aren't available at every airport (especially smaller local airports), but they're a comfortable alternative to the traditional airport pickup dance that involves circling the airport eight times in search of your friend or family member. And better yet, they're free!
Airports with cell phone parking lots, sometimes called cell phone waiting lots, include Los Angeles International, Seattle-Tacoma, San Diego, Houston Intercontinental, Philadelphia International, JFK and Chicago O'Hare. The airports allow drivers to park for up to half an hour — for free — while calling their arriving loved ones to arrange a meeting point. Check your local airport's Web site to see if it has a cell phone parking lot.
Travel text messages
SMS, or Short Message Service, allows you to text your friends to ask about a good local spot to grab a meal, or to get directions to a museum. But your loved ones may not have all the answers (or they may innocently misdirect you). So add Google, Orbitz and a host of other knowledgeable organizations to your phone book for instant information. These services are free, but standard text messaging rates do apply.
- Google: To get addresses, directions, weather forecasts, movies, currency rates and more, send your inquiry to GOOGL (46645). For an overview of all that Google text messaging — officially known as Google Short Messaging Service, or Google SMS — can do for you, click here.
- Orbitz: Orbitz traveler updates provide flight delay information and weather conditions. Text your inquiry (you can find a list of commands here to ORBITZ (672489).
- Yahoo: Text YAHOO (92466) to get flight information, movies, weather, local restaurant locations and more. Yahoo's oneSearch feature also gives you answers to queries about, well, pretty much anything, by bringing Wikipedia to your phone.
- 4INFO: This free service offers less travel-related information, such as horoscopes, sports scores and the "daily insult," but it can also give you weather and news. Text the appropriate code for what you want sent to your phone (codes can be found here) to 4INFO (44636).
Cell phone tours
An increasingly popular way to tour a city or attraction, cell phone tours are great for someone who wants to get some in-depth information instantly. Although unreliable reception or the accumulation of valuable cell phone minutes may make this option seem less attractive to some, for travelers who love their independence, the chance to skip a guided tour may be a breath of fresh air.
Many museums and other attractions, such as parks, universities, aquariums and even festivals, offer cell phone tours (sometimes for free, sometimes for a fee, depending on the attraction) — so bring your cell along the next time you're walking the halls of your favorite art gallery and you may learn something new. Contact the attraction before your tour to find out what number you can call and how much the service costs. Keep in mind that costs may be accrued in addition to your regular cell phone minutes.
Flight notification updates
Do you obsessively call your airline over and over again the day of your flight to check its status? Save your sanity and your cell phone minutes — the next time you book your reservation online, opt to have flight status updates automatically sent to your cell phone via text message.
This feature is available on many airlines (American, Continental, Southwest and Delta are a few) and the drill is pretty much the same across the board. Punch in the details of your flight, such as departure date and flight number, along with your cell phone number. You will be notified via text message (though you can elect to receive a voice mail from some airlines) if changes are made to your flight. Visit your airline's Web site for instructions on how to use the service.
Don't use your cell phone while driving. However, the next time you use the Internet to get driving directions, forward them to your cell phone via text message rather than printing out several pages (or you can text your direction questions to the services listed above). Just make sure there is someone else in the car to fumble with the phone while you concentrate on the road.
This service is available from Yahoo! and is as simple as clicking on the "Send to Phone" icon and punching in your cell phone number. Your cell phone service provider may charge you for this.