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Essential Travel Apps, Part One: The Basics


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A few months ago, a friend finally bit on buying the latest heavily hyped smartphone, and assigned the following signature line to all e-mails sent from the phone: "Sent from my Yeah I Got One Too." His point wasn't so much that he finally got with the fad, but that he got with the times -- now that the world of information (and commerce) has gone mobile, there is no going back, and everyone finally seems to know it.

For travelers, the proliferation of apps and the mobile Web is all upside -- except that in these early days, travel apps are flooding into the market in numbers too large to follow and with quality controls too variable to rely on. To help you figure out what works and what doesn't, read ahead to part one of a two-part series of the most useful and interesting travel apps out there for multiple devices and platforms. This first round will look at what I call somewhat "essential, nuts and bolts" apps; following are 10 sections (plus one) for a total of 18 apps. In part two, we look at less essential but potentially very useful "accessory" apps.

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1. Itinerary Tracking: TripIt
Platforms: iPhone, Blackberry, Android, Web, mobile Web
Among the apps that help organize all of your itinerary info and tracking numbers, TripIt was the first and has gone the farthest in the itinerary tracking arena, and continues to set the standard. I found TripIt Pro to be almost idiot-proof. I sent it itineraries from multiple sources in multiple formats, some of them utter gobbledygook -- I just e-mailed whatever I had to plans@tripit.com (which is also easy to remember) -- and in all cases, TripIt figured it out almost instantaneously and spit the information back to me in-app. This included flight bookings for three different people, hotel reservations, rental cars and even a restaurant reservation made online -- all from different booking services. TripIt collected and displayed everything I sent it, right down to frequent flier numbers. And the list of supported sites/vendors is capacious -- TripIt can handle almost anything.

Further, I could share my itinerary with just about anyone, including folks picking us up, folks dropping us off, co-workers, you name it. There is a lot more you can do with the app -- the service is adding features and making improvements all the time, such as adding itineraries automatically from Gmail without forwarding, integrating with your calendar, and linking up with Facebook, LinkedIn and the like -- but these go beyond the core reason to use the app, which is simply to have all your itinerary info and confirmation numbers in one supremely accessible and easily shared place.

Not everything works perfectly, though as info can be dependent on the airlines pushing the information out; for example, I received a text alert about a gate change about an hour after that information was posted on airport flight status screens, around the same time the boarding process started. The change required going to a different terminal; had I relied solely on the SMS alerts, I would have been a long way from my gate.

One important note: TripIt's "lite"/free offering is missing some features many travelers might deem essential, such as real-time flight alerts sent to your phone, alternate flight options (for when your flight is canceled and you need to know another way home) and automatic sharing of trips -- these are reserved for TripIt Pro accounts, which cost $49/year. If you travel a lot and can justify the expense, TripIt Pro is highly recommended.

TripIt's most direct competitors are TripCase and TripDeck .TripDeck looks extremely promising and entirely free, but is currently available only for the iPhone, so I chose not to include a full review here.

2. Booking Engine Itineraries: Apps by Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz
Platform: Varies
The Big Three travel booking sites all offer their own itinerary tracking apps, intended mostly for use with itineraries booked on that particular site. The upside to these proprietary apps (i.e., apps that are offered by the same folks from whom you are booking your travel) is that there are few or no format conflicts.

When I used TripAssist for itineraries booked on Expedia, it worked exceedingly well. Earlier this year Expedia updated TripAssist to accommodate non-Expedia itineraries as well (with some critical limitations, see below), and offers at no cost some of the functionality that TripIt grants only to paid subscribers, including free real-time flight alerts sent to your phone and/or e-mail, alternate flight info and SeatGuru seat maps.

map travel trip plan planning senior seniors couple elderlyThe TripAssist app also offers an option to purchase travel, but when I tried it, it merely kicked me out to the Expedia mobile Web site. I guess this represents some level of convenience, but it's not what most users might expect.

In my use I found it considerably less ravenously flexible than Tripit at gobbling up anything I sent it -- in particular, for non-Expedia itineraries, I had to enter the full itinerary myself instead of forwarding whatever garbage e-mail I received from the booking service. It's also unfortunate that the app is available for iPhone only at present -- but the service is improving all the time. On my next trip, I am going to try using it exclusively to see if the free app can compete with TripIt's Pro app -- which will determine whether TripIt is worth the $49 or not.

The Travelocity and Orbitz apps work pretty much along the same lines; the Travelocity app is also available for the Android; Orbitz is also available for Blackberry.

3. and 4. Local Businesses and Restaurants: Yelp and Urbanspoon
Platforms: iPhone, Blackberry, Android, Web, mobile Web
While these two free apps are frequently mentioned in the same breath, and I combine them here, they do have very different feature sets and serve different constituents. I put them together here to emphasize the differences, not the similarities.

Urbanspoon is essentially a restaurant app. Its "Shake" view looks like a slot machine, with restaurant location on one wheel of the machine, type of food in the next and price in the third; you can either lock or unlock (really a filtering mechanism) all three very easily, making customized searches quick and intuitive. Of particular value are the "like it" percentage ratings, which serve as a rapid way of sizing up a restaurant without reading all the reviews (which aren't bad either). Despite being a little gimmicky in action, the information Urbanspoon offers is solid and has rescued at least a couple of my evenings on the road this past year.

Yelp is a much wider ranging service, with a large number of categories beyond restaurants, including banks, gas stations, drug stores, home services, entertainment, pets services, local flavor and more. When I travel, I find that Yelp works best in "map" view, as you can expand or shrink the mapped area for services depending on how far afield you are willing to go. For example, when looking for a drug store while traveling, you probably want the closest store, not the best/most popular/best reviewed/etc. Yelp does a LOT more than find restaurants. Try the Monocle feature for a 21st-century freakout; when you hold your phone up and move it around, the business names show up superimposed on the live landscape in front of you. And a lot of Yelp's features are actually useful rather than merely "cool."

Both apps are highly recommended.

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