Top Travel Apps for Smartphones
Top Travel Apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch
By Steve Flahive
The iPhone and iPod touch are quickly becoming essential travel tools.
With the incredible growth of downloadable third-party software (apps) on iTunes, the iPhone and iPod touch have suddenly become an electronic Swiss-army knife for road warriors and avid travelers.
As few as five or six years ago (back when iPods were impressive merely for their ability to play and store large amounts of music), an MP3 player would not be a solution to your travel problems.
Today, the reverse is true: an iPod touch is capable of performing so many functions, it is hard to choose what is worth using–there are simply too many apps to choose from.
Apps Apps and More Apps
What apps are worth getting? Between apps for budgeting, scheduling, translating, and navigating–not to mention apps which serve as guide-books, audiotours, phrasebooks, currency exchanges (in addition to multiple brands serving each purpose)–the hassle of finding the right app can seemingly outweigh any possible benefit they might provide. Instead of wading through all the options, here is a rundown of what’s out there.
One note: many apps rely on the iPhone’s GPS to determine your location and show nearby points of interest. For iPod touch users, this is something to be aware of. While you can still use the app by manually entering your location, this requires wi-fi, and wi-fi coverage is hard to predict in unfamiliar areas.
And there’s the catch: nearly all of these apps work great for the iPhone, and wonderful for the iPod touch–so long as you have an internet connection–but without that, you’re out of luck. This might not be an issue for iPhone users–just a drain on batteries–but for iPod touch users, it’s a game changer.
If you do a bit of planning ahead, though, you can still take advantage of them. Simply do your research while you’re in range of wi-fi, note the addresses you’re interested in seeing in TripIt (or, perhaps, on a piece of paper) and then go explore.
Best Apps for Travelers
RATING KEY: The GoNOMAD rating–between ? and ????? followed by the app’s name, then the average iTunes customer rating (between 1-5 stars) and finally the app’s price.
TripIt (3 stars) - Free
This app lets users sync a TripIt web account with an iPod touch or iPhone. If you don’t have an account, you’ll need to sign up for one on TripIt.com, but they’re well worth it (and not just because signing up is free).
To take advantage of TripIt.com, users simply forward flight, hotel and rental confirmation emails to email@example.com, and the website automatically creates itineraries for each trip.
All of the information in these emails–flight number, carrier, arrival and departure time, rental car and hotel reservations etc.–populates into an online master itinerary which can by synchronized with agenda software (MS Outlook or Google Calendar) and even shared with friends family and colleagues on LinkedIn or TripIt.com.
Individual events can be created within each trip, and each event can be opened to display further details (for example, you can create a meeting on Sat, Apr 25 with Bob Jones at 1 Main St.; a concert on Sun, Apr 26 at 100 West Ave.; and you can even create (and save onto your iPhone!) directions within your itinerary to get from 1 Main St. to 100 West Ave).
One notable plus for the TripIt app has to do with the fact that your information is stored on the device itself. This means that you do not need to connect to wi-fi or your 3G internet in order to retrieve your travel data–everything you need is saved as an electronic file for offline reviewing.
It is hard to think of a reason not to download TripIt and sign up for an account. At the very least it is a great way to back up your travel information. Plus, for those who keep a full schedule while away from home, TripIt can provide a streamlined interface to manage a pile of information all in one place. (And it’s free!)
Currency (3 stars) - Free
This is a very simple app, and a great one to have for international travel.
Opening Currency up displays Australian Dollars, British Pounds, Canadian Dollars, Chinese Yuan, Euros, Japanese Yen and U.S. Dollars with the default $100 U.S. and a current exchange for each of the other ones.
By clicking on, for example, Australian dollars, and typing in an amount, you can find out how far that will get you in each of the other currencies.
According to the company’s description, “Currency provides up-to-date exchange rates for over 90 countries and 100 countries.”
In short, this app is a nice way for travelers to check up on rates when basically standing in front of an exchange without any other source to reference–a utility well worth its “free” pricetag. But if you’re trying to move around large sums of money, go through the trouble to find the most accurate exchange rate.
Where (2) - Free
This is probably the most comprehensive “location-aware” app out there (both a plus and minus). Located in the “Navigation” category, this app could also be useful for travelers.
Using the iPhone’s GPS to zone in on your current location, Where finds nearby points of interest and then superimposes them over a map display. Using this app, you can find Starbucks, Zipcars parking spots, gas stations (and gas prices), and local events like concerts and festivals.
In addition to these functional widgets, Where includes some decidedly more novel widgets: a regional trivia quiz, star maps, a labeled display of topographical features (”Here’s Mt. Tom!”) and a buddy locater to snoop into the whereabouts of any iPhone-bearing friends with the “buddy” widget on their iPhone enabled.
Though it is nice to have all the features in one location, most of Where’s functionality exists in other apps, and usually in a more fleshed-out form. For example, Where provides a Yelp feed, but not all of the other features that the Yelp app offers (see below).
One reviewer explains that Where “contains information that road warriors may find irrelevant, such as random photos from people nearby, user polls and constellation maps.” In the end, Where is a fun free app to poke around on and discover new things if you run out of ideas, but don’t rely on it too heavily.
Urbanspoon (3) - Free
Urbanspoon takes user reviews and compiles them into a database of eateries and then tops this off with a fun-to-use interface.
Set up like a slot-machine, users shake the iPhone and watch the listings of nearby establishments whir around and finally settle upon a “location,” “style,” and “price range” between $ and $$$$.
If you’re not in the mood to offer up your gastronomic destiny to mere chance–or if you’re really in the mood for Thai, or maybe you want to dine on the cheap–you can lock in single categories and see what options pop up near you.
While this is a fun and entertaining way to explore different restaurants, it really doesn’t take the place of professionally reviewed and vetted guides. Because it relies upon users’ feedback, the validity and coverage can be spotty. If you stand 100 feet away from an absolute gem of a restaurant, but no ’spooners have written about it, that establishment may as well not exist; you can shake your iPhone until you’re blue in the face, but that listing will never come up.
Similarly, be wary of making a long trek in pursuit of a specific listing. Though Urbanspoon updates frequently based upon user reviews, if an establishment closes before someone new reivews, you’re out of luck.
The New York Times’ Frank Bruni shares his frustration at using the app in New York City, but he’s coming at this from the perspective of a well-informed foodie. Urbanspoon is clearly no substitute for strolling around a city with a New York Times food-critic staff writer, but, as a free app which weighs zero ounces while it fits into your pocket, for those travelers simply looking for a directory, Urbanspoon is a nice handy way to explore.
To sum up, if food is your mission, find a more credible review. But if your mission is adventure, Urbanspoon can make your traveling more…adventuresome. For the most part, using this app you can do no worse than if you randomly walk into an appealing restaurant on your own.
FlightTrack Pro (3) - $9.99
This app is targeted at the highly productive business travel crowd and people who, like them, really depend on knowing up-to-the-minute information on flight delays, cancellations, and gate changes. The laid-back zen-travelers among us can spare the money and skip this app–especially because many of the negative reviews on iTunes take issue with Flight Track Pro’s failure to update properly.
As the Flight Track people clarified in an email to me, Flight Track Pro's "data source is actually identical to FlightTrack's. In either app, the actual disparity between calling the airline and using FlightTrack is generally no more than five minutes... it’s about as timely as you’ll get."
Though Flight Track Pro is the cooler-older-brother of the less expensive, non-”pro” version, it seems as though most travelers who need updates can make do with the regular
Flight Track (4 stars) - $4.99.
Strangely, one of the biggest selling-points to Flight Track Pro (as compared to its half-priced brother) is the integration of TripIt–which we’ve already established is free.
Users forward confirmation emails to the same firstname.lastname@example.org and “TripIt flight itineraries will appear automatically in Flight Track Pro.”
One user of Flight Track Pro titles his review “Fully tested - NOT worth the money,” and explains: “my flight was changed several times but my confirmation number remained the same. If I didn’t send an email each time that my flights changed, the app would not update, so it was pretty much rendered useless.”
“As a frequent flier, I thought this app would be a boon to my iPhone. But as it stands, it really doesn’t do much more than an emailed itinerary from your airline does.”
Another complains that the app is “still not updating flights [even] until [the] next day!”
Despite some well-voiced detractors, the majority of reviews are 5 stars, and many give glowing recommendations.
One reviewer says “[there's] nothing better than sitting on the runway after landing in ATL and finding out that despite what my boarding pass says, my next flight is not at gate T1 but leaves from E32. This program does a great job at giving you real time gate info and also providing flight info while my colleagues are in the air.”
“This truly is a great program and the link with TripIt is just another step in the right direction. I look forward to future enhancements and am excited to see where this program ends up. That being said, if you fly like me (150k+ miles a year) you’d be crazy not to buy this.”
As someone who’s never traveled 150k+ miles a year, I can’t argue that the $9.99 probably is worth it, even if it only helps out on a fraction of the instances when it might prove useful. If you’re in that crowd, this app is a buy; if you’re willing to check flight delays the old fashioned way (or even if you’re willing to use the browser on your iPhone), you can trust me that (a) airlines will still be displaying this same information on monitors of some sort–usually right next to the place you need to be–and (b) whether you read it on an Apple product or one of the airport’s screens, when the numbers next to your flight change, your reaction will probably be similar to how might have been otherwise.
Yelp - (3) Free
Much like Urbanspoon, Yelp uses an army of reviewers and serves as a location-aware app. Yelp, though, has enjoyed a loyal following well before it became an app.
Yelp.com serves over 5 million people a month and stands as one of the 200 top U.S. internet websites.
The grassroots & crowdsource power brought to a local level is what makes yelp so popular. Though it is a huge operation, Yelp primarily acts as a “local” search engine to provide reviews for everything from “financial services” to “pets” and each region has “best of” categories ranging from “active life” to “night life” and “shopping.”
One nice feature is the reputation system in Yelp: the more a user reviews (or…Yelps), and the more people appreciate these posts, the more clout these users accumulate; visitors can see who are the respected voices in a given yelp locality because user profiles track popularity, length of membership, number of reviews, number of fans (really–yelp fans), number of friends, number of “firsts” and their review rating distribution (how many 1’s vs. 2-5’s etc.).
For the die-hard Yelpers, the ultimate goal is “Yelp Elite Squad” membership. According to the Powers that Be at Yelp.com, “The Yelp Elite Squad is our way of recognizing and rewarding those yelpers who are active Yelp evangelists and role models, both on and off the site.”
“Elite-worthiness is based on a number of things, some of which include well-written and personal reviews of local businesses and services, being accountable for those reviews (use of a real name and photo, etc.), creating useful lists, voting on reviews and complimenting other yelpers, and good citizenship on Yelp Talk.”
“When the thousands of readers who visit Yelp see that Yelp Elite badge on a member’s profile, we want them to rest assured in the warm and fuzzy knowledge that it stands for all that Yelp - and the Yelp community - can be!”
While your average traveler might not care a whit about earning Elite Squad status, the fact that some people care about such things is surely a windfall for all of us. Armed with an iPhone (or at least an iPod touch with wi-fi), Yelp lets users browse a community’s offerings–and by encouraging yelpers to review early (earning points for “first” uncovering local gems) and often, (which enables local reviewers to rise up the ranks) the Yelp directories display a genuine representation of the best local flavor.
If you don’t trust just anyone to review your eateries (no matter how “elite” they might be) it will cost $10.
Zagat To Go ‘09 (2 ½) - $9.99
This app offers “40,000 restaurants, hotels, nightspots and shops.” Many people view Zagat as a gold standard for restaurant reviews–others, well…not as much. No matter which side of the debate you stand on, Zagat guides offer consistent and wide-ranging sampling of destinations, attractions, and places to eat. This guide in a huge amount of cities.
One of the really cool features for the iPhone version is how this app handles reservations. When you find a place which suits your fancy, just click the screen to reserve a table.
You can search by “nearby places” using the GPS, top rated, food style, decor, service, and cost (plus the advanced search, which gets at pretty much most other queries). Each review includes a reviewer’s comments and a descriptive paragraph to help you decide.
In general, the reviews skew toward the negative, and this has to do with crashing glitches and some complain about a lack of coverage in fringe neighborhoods or smaller cities.
“If you are a Zagat fan then you already understand how useful their guides are.”
“If all you want is a free app for the occasional lookup in a big city and you don’t mind sifting through reviews that have not been vetted or touched by a human hand, by all means use Yelp. But if you travel a lot and want restaurant reviews that have been vetted and curated…get the Zagat app.”
“I did dock the app 1 star for crashing and the inability to work without an internet connection. It seems people might want to use this on a plane to plan and research their meals”
This point is worth noting; Zagat To Go does not store the information on your device, so your ability to access it depends upon cellular service (in the case of the iPhone) or a wi-fi connection (for the iPod touch). While carrying a book is certainly more noticeable in terms of bulk, that information never goes away. Apps, on the other hand, can leave you high and dry.
Have2P (2 ½) - Free
Another location-aware app, only… not for restaurants; the name says it all.
One reviewer writes: “Love the idea!! Rating process super easy too–the more people using it and contributing, the better the data will be. Awesome work.”
And here is a video if you still don’t get it.
If you’re in need of a restroom, Have2P will bring up a list of establishments near you and any user ratings, pictures, or comments about the facilities.
Steve Flahive is a graduate of Mass Amherst. Studying abroad in Oxford and Granada offered him with his first taste of international travel, and, ever since coming back, Steve has been looking at backpack longingly.