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crowdIn “Super Sad True Love Story,” Gary Shteyngart’s fictional novel set in the near future, bar patrons use advanced smartphone-like devices to detect the best-looking person in an establishment and rate all patrons on a numeric scale of attractiveness. Such an app, thank everything that is holy, does not exist. Yet. But a similar kind of app is rolling out across the U.S., and it could, surprisingly, offer some advantages for travelers.

11 Essential Travel Apps

SceneTap, a free app for iPhone, Android and the Web, uses facial detection cameras to determine the male-to-female ratio of people in select bars, as well as calculate the average age of everyone inside. It’s kind of like Big Brother — that is, if Big Brother were a sleazy rake seeking gender-specific bar patrons of a certain age.

The app, which launched last month, presently functions just at bars in Chicago. But the folks at SceneTap are working hard to bring their app to a drinking hole near you. SceneTap spokesperson Andrew Cross told me in an e-mail that more than 250 bars and nightclubs around the U.S. have signed up to join SceneTap. And the company is in the process of researching international markets.

Now, here’s why I might actually use SceneTap. In addition to serving up the creepy age and gender stats, the app shows how many people are in a bar, and lists relevant food and drink specials. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve showed up at a historic pub listed in my guidebook, only to encounter a sweaty pack of patrons pushing out the door, half of whom were likely led there by the same mass-produced guidebook. Crowds spook me. So when this happens, I usually turn around and go someplace less interesting. I think it’d be useful to know how packed a place is before taking two tubes and a bus to get there.

What’s your take on SceneTap? Is it a useful travel tool … or an app for tools?

– written by Caroline Costello

smartphone smart phone cellphone cell man park textEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

So you’re going overseas and you’d sooner cut off a limb than leave your smartphone behind. (We understand. There’s nothing like a little Angry Birds to while away a long flight.) You probably already know that you can call your carrier and have an international calling/data plan temporarily added to your account to cover the dates of your trip. But Ed Hewitt identifies one potential pitfall:

“When you make a connection overseas, you are typically not connecting to your own carrier’s service, but to a third-party carrier, which then bills your carrier, which bills you. Some of these carriers will not bill your account in an entirely timely manner, such that data connections made in July might show up on your August bill. As such, you will want to make sure the dates for your data package extend long enough after your trip to cover these late-billing companies, and you will want to watch your account to make sure all charges have been applied before turning off your international package.”

If you remove your international package too soon, any subsequent overseas calls or downloads could be charged at your cell phone carrier’s normal (read: exorbitant) rates.

Don’t assume that your carrier’s international plan is your best option. Hewitt offers his own secrets for avoiding calling and data charges in Traveling with a Smartphone: Cut Costs Overseas.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

computer vacationIs your obsession with the “Real Housewives” franchise interfering with your hygiene? Has your spouse ever referred to your Blackberry as “that tramp”? Do your travel photos consist mostly of images of you posting travel photos to Facebook? If you answered “yes,” a digital detox package could help.

According to the Wall Street Journal, legions of hotels are offering digital detox packages to cure gadget-obsessed guests of their technology addictions. These packages encourage travelers to dump their smartphones, laptops and other vestiges of modernity in the lap of the hotel concierge (or, in a less dramatic move, to just leave them at home), in exchange for certain perks.

How do the hotels manage to wrench perfectly good iPads out from under the restless thumbs of wired travelers? They sweeten the transaction with discounts — and the occasional copy of “Anna Karenina.” Writes the WSJ, “Typically, they ask travelers to surrender their electronic devices upon check-in. In return, concierges provide them with old-fashioned diversions, from board games to literary classics. (Most, but not all, also yank TV sets and telephones from ‘detox’ rooms.)”

Here’s an example: The Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel is offering a special promotional rate for guests who turn over their electronic gizmos at check-in. The hotel’s “Zen and the Art of Detox” package includes accommodations and kayaking lessons for nightly rates starting at $199. Before you get to your room, the hotel staff will remove the TV, phone and iHome dock station, and replace such contraband with “literary classics.” If you leave the hotel during your stay, a staff member will follow you and pelt you with Jane Austen novels whenever you come within 500 yards of an Apple store or a Starbucks with an Internet connection.

Are we so obsessed with megapixels and apps that we need someone to drag the flat-screen out of the hotel room and confiscate our phones before we can relax?

I must add, removing the phone from the hotel room could be a safety hazard. If someone breaks in or you choke on your dinner, how do you call for help? Are you supposed to ring some kind of antique service bell? I suggest bending the rules a bit and smuggling an extra smartphone into your room in case of emergency. (Try baking it into a cake — this seems to work in prison movies.)

What’s your take? Would you book a digital detox vacation package, or is this kind of thing just a silly marketing ploy?

– written by Caroline Costello