“Must Have” Travel Apps

October 11, 2013

in App Reviews

  • SumoMe

iPhone 5(On Monday, I was a panelist on a program hosted by cellular carrier Sprint for the travel and technology media entitled “Travel to 2014: Apps & Smart Devices for Next Year’s Travelers.” The other panelists were Chris Brydon, Northern California Area Director for Sprint, Jared Simon, co-founder and COO of HotelTonight, and Ori Zaltzman, co-founder and CTO of Gogobot. San Francisco Chronicle Travel Editor, Spud Hilton, was the moderator. Here are the travel apps favored by this panel of experts, plus a few “bonus” apps not covered during the program.)

 

Trip Planning and Booking

I use Kindle e-book versions of printed guidebooks. With the free Kindle Reading apps (available for Apple, Android and Blackberry mobile devices, and Mac and PC computers), I can read, annotate and bookmark guidebook entries at home on the big screen of my desktop computer, then open and read those annotated books with my tablet and smartphone when I’m on the road. (I could to the same with novels and non-fiction books, too.)

America's Cup SF Waterfront App screen shot

Sutro Media of San Francisco has produced about 800 travel guide apps collectively for the iTunes App Store and Google Play. They are written by “locals” who know their “hometowns.” The apps have photos, maps, videos and links to Websites. They are easy to use, cheaper (typically $2.99-$4.99) than Kindle e-books (often $10-$20), and particularly handy if you’re on a long-weekend trip and simply need restaurant and sightseeing recommendations.

Gogobot (free via your Web browser or smart device app) uses a combination of “crowd sourced” recommendations from ordinary travelers plus professional travel writers (I’ve been one of its contributors) to help you plan a vacation trip.  Be sure to check out the Gogobot blog for stories that will inspire you to travel. Jared Simon of HotelTonight uses Gogobot.

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You can add hotels, restaurants, and attractions to a trip you’re planning to a specific destination, book hotels via TripAdvisor or Priceline, and reserve a spot at a restaurant using OpenTable. You can also solicit advice from other Gogobot users.

HotelTonight (room booking via apps only, not the Website) does exactly what its name says: It finds you an unsold room for tonight (and up to four subsequent nights, in some cases). It provides last-minute booking at discounted, non-refundable rates, but with no ability to pick the specific type of room. You can’t book in advance, and have to wait until noon or later on the date of arrival to find a place to lay your head that night.

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Ori Zaltzman of Gogobot likes HotelTonight, and also AirBnB (Website and apps) which can be used to book lodging in apartments, boats, and even tree houses. He also uses Priceline (Website, Apple and Android apps) which covers not only hotels, but flights and car rentals.

San Francisco Chronicle Travel Editor, Spud Hilton finds Hotels.com (Website and free apps) helpful for booking hotel rooms at the last minute, although you can also use it to make reservations in advance of the day of arrival.

Itinerary Management

Spud finds TripIt (Website and apps) indispensible for keep track of flights, hotels, and other aspects of a trip. I used it on a recent trip to Colorado and liked having all of my transportation, hotel, dining, and sightseeing arranged in an easy-to-read timeline.

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I’d always typed up an itinerary by creating a table in Microsoft Word that listed my flights and lodgings, when and where to pick up a rental car, and other details. It was an easy, but time-consuming process.

But if I forward e-mailed travel reservation confirmations to TripIt, it will automatically include them in my itinerary. (Some information may still need to be entered manually).

A free TripIt accounts lets you assemble your itinerary and share it via e-mail. The “Pro” account (free 30-day trial, then $49/year) also:

  • Lets you know if you are entitled to a refund on airfare.
  • Reminds you that you’ve got an upcoming trip.
  • Tells you it’s time to check in for your flight (and print boarding passes).
  • Sends alerts if your flight is delayed or cancel, or is departing from a different gate.
  • Tells you the carousel in the airport baggage claim area where your bags will be delivered.
  • Provides a complimentary 1-year membership in Hertz #1 Gold Club and Regus Gold.
  • Lets you create an “Inner Circle” of people who can access your trip information.
  • Provides information on your past trips.
  • Lets you track points on some travel loyalty programs.

Maps, Navigation and Getting Around Town

All of the panelists use Google Maps (free, available as apps for Apple and Android devices, and on computers via Web browsers).

I find that Google Maps is very good for “seeing” what’s near your location. For example, zooming in and out on the map’s “pin” for your hotel can display nearby restaurants, museums, and shops.  And the new “Explore” function lets you quickly find a categorical list (“Eat,” “Drink,” “Play,” “Shop,” and “Sleep”) of places surrounding you. (Click here for my full review.)

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But I prefer MapQuest over Google Maps driving directions. It’s easier to turn off and turn on its voice turn-by-turn directions. During our panel presentation on Monday, I said that adding additional stops along the route from “A” to “B” is much simpler than in Google Maps. But since then, Google Maps has been updated and you can now add up to 9 places in a single itinerary, along with three other new features.

Gogobot’s Ori Zaltzman and I both use Waze (Website and apps) for getting current traffic conditions, although I prefer INRIX app.

MapQuest can’t provide directions for getting around a city using public transit. Google Maps can, although its inability to provide fare information means that a destination-specific transit app could be more useful.

Jared Simon of HotelTonight uses the Uber app (available for Apple and Android devices) to call for a car and driver. I’ve used it (and reviewed it), too.

Dining Out

Both at home on while traveling I use OpenTable (Website, Apple and Android apps) to reserve a table, especially for the first night of my stay in a city and before I’ve had a chance to ask my hotel’s concierge for dining recommendations.

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Its easy to use the OpenTable mobile app to change the date or time of a reservation, or cancel it if my plans change.

If I phone a restaurant to make a reservation, especially during a the busy lunch or dinner service, I’m taking a chance that my name won’t make it into the reservation book. But I’ve never had that happen with a reservation made with OpenTable.

In fact, OpenTable is so easy to use that the odds are slim and none that I would dine in a restaurant that doesn’t use it.

Jared Simon of HotelTonight also likes Yelp (Website and apps) which can provide not only restaurant listings (with user reviews), but also help you find a wide range of local businesses.

Photography and Video

Although our panel didn’t have time to discuss smartphone photography and video apps, here are some “bonus” tips for iPhone/iPad apps from Spud Hilton and myself.

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Spud told me about Photogene, a iPhone/iPad photo editing app ($0.99, iTunes App Store) that has a myriad of functions that you’d probably have to use several different apps to achieve:

  • Full featured photo editor: crop, straighten, color adjustments (including histogram and curves), sharpen and denoise, retouch tools and more.
  • Export or upload several photos at once. Photogene supports a wide selection of export destinations, including Flickr, Dropbox, Facebook, Twitter, Picasa, FTP and e-mail
  • Special effects: center focus, tilt-shift, vignette, frames, reflection, text boxes and much more.
  • Presets: large collection of predefined presets. Instantly give your photo a new look and then tweak it yourself.
  • Collage maker: combine several photos into one piece of art using a variety of templates.
  • Metadata editor: visual display of all the information stored in your photos. Including location on a map, date&time, file size, etc. IPTC editor included.
  • Resize your photos as you export them.

I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly “road test” Photogene yet, but I think that I’ll find it a very useful tool.

I don’t shoot many still photos with my iPhone 5, preferring to use my new SONY RX-100 point and shoot camera for that purpose. And although I don’t use my iPad (4th generation) to shoot photos, I do copy photos from my Sony’s SD card to it using an iPad Lighting to SD Card Camera Reader (there’s a separate model for older iPads that use the 30-pin connector).

I use the Photo Transfer app ($2.99 for Apple devices, $1.99 for Android, free for computers) to move photos and videos between my iPhone, iPad, and iMac desktop computer.

Spud Hilton is a big fan of the Vine app (free for Apple and Android devices) that produces 6-second videos. On his “Bad Latitude” blog for the San Francisco Chronicle, he regularly includes Vines shot by travelers.

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While I like the stop-motion feature in Vine, I prefer to create longer travel videos with titles, soundtracks, and either still photos or a mix of stills and videos, using apps like Ptch and iMovie.

A Final Word on Travel Apps and Smart Devices

Smartphones, tablets, apps (and associated travel Websites) can be great tools for planning and taking a vacation trip.

But don’t forget to put down those fantastic gadgets from time to time, and look at what you traveled to see and experience.

And remember that “Ask A Local” and “Ask The Concierge” aren’t apps. They’re people who are more knowledgeable and “user-friendly” than any of the high-tech gizmos that we carry along with us on our travels.

(Tales Told From The Road regularly reviews travel apps and other travel technology. Purchasing a SONY RX-100, or other products from Amazon.com, through links on this page, helps us continue to bring you a wide range of travel-related stories.)

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