(Photo credit: Chris Sarsgard via Unsplash.)
The thing about apps is the thing about potato chips: No matter how many you consume, they keep making more – and you can’t stop with just one. The difference between travel apps and potato chips is that you can feel free to consume as many travel apps as you want.
Even if you use a travel app once or twice, it will have fulfilled its mission if it makes your travel experience richer, more rewarding, more adventuresome, less expensive, or better in any other way. And that’s such a more satisfying mission than making your mouth feel like the Bonneville Salt Flats.
With that in mind, here are some of our favorite new travel apps, with a few sites sprinkled in. Have any favorites you’d like to share? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your picks.
With that said, here are some of this year’s best apps for travelers:
THE MOST POPULAR TRAVEL APPS
All those nagging questions aside about Google-collected Big Data and its potential for nefarious use, the fact remains that Google does some things exceedingly well for travelers. Google Flights is a tool as inspirational as it is practical, and no map program or app can touch Google Maps (iOS) (Android) when it comes to accuracy, detail, and features. It can help you find public transportation, and you can pair it with Google Arts & Culture for a definitive listing of museums and exhibitions. Recent updates add travel time to the mix, letting you know with remarkable accuracy how long it takes to get from Point A to Point B, no matter how you choose to get there.
Without going down that whole “when I was your age we had to walk five miles to and from the airport, and it was dark and cold and uphill both ways” path, the fact remains that modern-day travelers have some incredible tools literally at their fingertips, with none more remarkable than Google Translate (iOS) (Android). The app has three modes custom-made for travelers: the traditional type-it-in mode, for when you need to be precise (also good for cheating at Duolingo); a spoken translator that’s getting better all the time; and the feature formerly known as WordLens, which lets you point your smartphone camera at any printed text in 38 different languages, and have it automatically appear in English (or French or German or any of 38 different languages). You’ll never struggle with a menu or a street sign again.
Speaking of incredible tools travelers have at their disposal, time was when an alternative lodging was a KOA, assuming you remembered to pack the tent. Airbnb (iOS) (Android) has changed that. Not only has the company opened up a universe of lodging possibilities, from treehouses to yurts to a cardboard box on a sidewalk, but its app is a glorious celebration of the wonders of travel and the possibilities of lodgings. Airbnb offers more than lodgings through its app; its Trips options have the potential to reinvent guided travel. Will they? That’s something we want to watch.
One of the best non-nefarious uses of Big Data we’ve seen, Hopper (iOS) (Android) employs aggregated data to tell you the cheapest dates to fly and then sends you push notifications to tell you the best times to buy cheap airline tickets. It’s dead-simple to use and works like a charm. Will you travel more if you can fly cheaper? Maybe; it’s certainly worth a try.
App in the Air
There are lots of places to get flight tracking updates, from airline apps to the Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection app. Why would you want another flight-tracking app? Because it’s awesome, that’s why. In addition to giving you fast real-time flight updates for more than 1,000 airlines, App in the Air (iOS) (Android) gives you walking times to your gate, security wait times, loyalty-points updates, and guides to the landmarks you're flying over. You can even take in-flight courses. With an upgraded annual subscription ($34.99) you can add your family and get automated check-in. Hey, and it works for the Apple Watch, too! Now, if they could only do something about that name …
We’ve had Hotel Tonight (iOS) (Android) on our phones for years, for a very simple reason: It works great. This last-minute deal site is perfect if you’re looking for a hotel deal in a city and aren’t super-picky about a particular brand or location. Whether you’re looking for a cheap hotel room near an airport or a more expensive choice downtown, chances are Hotel Tonight has something for you. And did we mention it can be a lifesaver when the weather turns?
Roomer has long been one of our favorite secret ways of getting hotel-room deals, and now more people are getting in on the secret. Roomer (iOS) (Android) buys rooms from people who have had to cancel their trips, and then offers those rooms at a discount via its app. As you might expect, the selection of cheap hotel rooms is better at more popular locations, but it’s always a good idea to check room availability on Roomer before going to any deals site, because you just never know.
TRAVEL APPS FOR GETTING AROUND
There are walking apps, and walking functions on map apps, but none of them work as well as Sidekix (iOS) (Android). This app lets you create routes, either on the walk or before you venture out; explore locals’ recommendations for routes and attractions; and search for events in real time. Whether you’re heading out for a daylight exploration or a nighttime crawl of great restaurants or clubs, Sidekix can help. And while it doesn’t work everywhere, the list of Sidekixable cities is at 100 and growing. Give it a try on your next big-city weekend.
Guides by Lonely Planet
Lonely Planet has a well-earned reputation as a sort of anti-travel guide – a travel guide for people who think they’re too hip for travel guides. Now Lonely Planet has an app-based series of guides (iOS) (Android) that’s even hipper than that. The app lets you can download a city guide for the city that redefines what a travel guide should be. In addition to the expected maps and lists of sights to see, each guide contains audio and video and real-world advice from real locals. Not only that, but each guide has a currency converter, a phrasebook, transport info, and lots more. There are 177 guides and counting, meaning practically every big city in the world has a Lonely Planet guide. Which makes city travel anything but lonely.
As our Sharyn Alden points out, solo travel is a wonderful thing, but it can be an even more wonderful thing if from time to time you do something with a group. The Solo Traveller app (iOS) (Android) is made for those times. The app lets you connect with other travelers (one “L,” if you please) to do everything from share a taxi to go on a backpacking trip. You can search by desired activity stay updated with friends, and sort by age, gender, location and interests. While it may not be an app you’ll use every day on every trip, SoloTraveller does the one thing you want it to do exceedingly well.
One of the favorites of our Kendra Collins, and something we’ve written about before, AutoSlash isn’t an app but a site for getting rock-bottom prices on car rentals. Here’s how Kendra recommends you use it:
- Start at VroomVroomVroom: This site compares rental-car prices from many different companies. You don't need a credit card to hold your reservation, and it’s easy to cancel if you decide you no longer want the car. Enter your dates, find a price you like, click on the car that you want, and go through the normal booking process.
- Head to Autoslash, enter your rental details in the "Track a Rental" box, then sit back and relax. You'll get a confirmation, and then you’ll get an email. This can arrive at any moment, which is what makes it so exciting. I've received emails minutes, days, or weeks after booking. The email will detail the lower price and also note any additional information.
- Act quickly once you receive the email, because the rates really do change rapidly. And don't forget to cancel your VroomVroomVroom reservation. It's the nice thing to do.
SAFETY AND SECURITY APPS
As the recent spate of travel warnings for Mexican cities bring into sharp focus, not every part of every city is dangerous, though the dangerous parts can be very dangerous indeed. It’s situations like those that make GeoSure (iOS) (Beta on Android) an essential travel safety app for any traveler who likes to explore their surroundings. GeoSure uses aggregated data and machine learning to map neighborhoods in every major city and give those neighborhoods the app’s proprietary GeoSafeScores. Nothing else does a better job of reflecting safety on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis – and in cities where conditions can change drastically within a couple of blocks, it’s a must-have.
Along the same lines, the RedZone Map app (iOS) (Android) uses crime and social data to suggest the safest route from where you are to where you want to go. Reviews of the app are not the best at present, but expect the app to improve in accuracy and depth of information as more users input data. You can be part of the solution; download the app and have at it.
When you have a vegan daughter, as I do, it can be hard to find a place to eat that meets her needs but also stands a fighting chance of mollifying the meatatarians in the family. HappyCow ($3.99; iOS) (Android) lists vegan and vegetarian restaurants in nearly 10,500 cities worldwide, but also lets you filter results (by location, vegan, vegetarian, health-food stores, vegan-friendly, and more), store a favorites list, share your experiences, and submit or read reviews. It’s the best way to satisfy the vegan in your life – and give hope to everyone else.
Yeah, this is nothing like Happy Cow, except for its ability to save your bacon (so to speak). Grab (iOS) (Android), an airport restaurant app, lets you browse maps and menus and decide on the perfect place to park yourself and nourish the Inner Person between flights. In some locations, it also lets you order airport food from your plane and pick it up when you land – perfect if you’re doing the airport dash between flights. Currently Grab works with 200-plus locations at 17 airports in the U.S., but more are coming on line all the time.
MISCELLANEOUS TRAVEL APPS
Think of 500px (iOS) (Android) as Instagram where everyone is a real photographer. Or think of it as sort of a Soundcloud for pictures. Either way, it’s wonderful. Through 500px you can submit photos to themed Photo Quests, present them in Galleries, complete a photographer profile, use the built-in camera, and browse top photo picks in a sleek interface. And since each image includes info on the type of camera used, shutter speed, and ISO (but not type of film – yet), you can see what works for some of the world’s best photographers.
What time is it? The time of our lives! It’s our vacation! High School Musical 2 references aside, it can be hard to know what timezone you’re in when you’re traveling. Fortunately, there’s Circa ($3.99: iOS) (Android), a sleek timezone tracker that not only lets you see what time it is where you are and back home, but lets you choose meeting times that align with people’s working hours or awake times. With its Apple Watch capability, you won’t need Zac Efron or Corbin Bleu to tell you what time it is; you’ll know.
This make sound harsh, but we’ll put it out there: There will be times when you’ll be traveling with people you like but don’t like so much that you want to pick up the tab for their minibar free-for-all or their chicken-fried-steak breakfast. Enter Splittr ($1.99; iOS). This app lets you enter how many pieces you want to divvy up expenses into – for meals, lodging, transport, and more. You add expenses as you go, and then when your vacation’s over Splittr will divide up the expenses and send bills to your traveling companions. Splittr won’t actually collect what you’re owed, but it will do everything short of that.
Sometimes you run across a travel app or site that you can’t decide whether it’s crazy brilliant or just plain crazy. Such is the case with Airmule. The site works by connecting you with a stranger looking to ship something. You get the package via Airmule, take it on your trip with you, and drop it off with Airmule when you arrive. I know what you’re thinking, but chill: Every sender and their shipment is verified, and no one is asking you to carry funny powders or bundles of small bills. You can make $500 a trip by being an Airmule, so the money is as real as your opinion of the service’s name (we’re officially on the fence). Is it for you? Sign up and see for yourself.
Active travelers need active travel apps. The Outbound app (iOS or TheOutbound.com) is all that. Originally designed for backpackers, Outbound specializes in identifying activities that fit you and the profile you submit. Since it’s based on user input, results are better in some locales than others, but for popular destinations the app is remarkably flexible, suggesting everything from a one-time hike to a full-blown adventure. It’s a handy storytelling platform, too.
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