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Essential Travel Apps, Part One: The Basics

hotel sign5. Hotel (and Other) Reviews: TripAdvisor
Platforms: iPhone, Android, mobile Web
While Yelp has more momentum in the mobile space and does more than travel, TripAdvisor is arguably the big brother of travel review services, and has packaged heaps and heaps of content into a slick app. There is simply no substitute for TripAdvisor's hotel reviews, in my experience. If you are a TripAdvisor regular, this app is for you, without reservation.

6. Consolidator and Fare Searching: Kayak, FareCompare, Priceline
Platform: Varies
I found the Kayak app to be fast, smart and really easy to understand, if slightly less full-featured than the Web site. Specifically, I live nearly equidistant from several major airports, and where the "include nearby airports" option on the Web site shows all of my usable airports, the Kayak app showed a much more limited subset of those airports. For me, this small deficiency will route me to the Kayak Web site every time, but for folks with a single preferred airport, the app is everything the Web site can be.

FareCompare, Kayak's direct competitor, certainly has its own fan base, and its app does look nice if quite limited -- titled "FareCompare When-to-Fly Airfare Alerts," it functions mainly as a price drop notification app rather than a more wide-ranging app like Kayak's (note also that FareCompare does not include hotel, car rental or other information). Real-time alerts can take the guesswork out of buying at the right time, although to be honest the alerts I programmed in produced few actionable alerts this past week. I will keep at it, and the app is worth a look.

Finally, I recently read about a traveler who decided to extend a day trip to the beach for a couple of days; she pulled over in her car, called up the Priceline app, bid on and accepted a hotel room at about half price while the engine was still running, drove less than a mile to the front door of the hotel, and checked in. I have not had an opportunity to use this app, but that sounds pretty promising to me.

7. ATM Finders: Various Apps
Platform: Varies
There are a number of ATM finder apps out there, including those embedded in official bank apps (such as the Bank of America app); platform availability varies for each, but you will find one for almost any smartphone. Here are a few I tested.

ATM Finder: $0.99 app uses geolocation to return a map or listing of nearby ATM's. In my testing, it performed extremely well; some bank names appeared to be outdated, however (not really a surprise in these times of bank mergers and failures, but still).

myATM: $0.99 app displays the largest banks and common stores (Circle K, CVS, Safeway, etc.) by their logos, a very nice approach. It's a bit buggy, however, as a screen refresh sometimes dumps all the results, making it appear that there are no ATM's where once you saw several. If they work out the bugs, this is a great looking app.

atm woman girl money cashATM Hunter: Free app returns a list of nearby ATM's, including information on the establishment in which you will find it (bank, gas station, mall, store, etc.). It also allows you to filter to find a specific bank, a drive-through, wheelchair accessibility, 24-hour operation and a bit more. It's one of only a few ATM finders that claim to offer worldwide information. Unfortunately, it only offers map view once you have selected a specific ATM.

8. Airport Security: MyTSA
Platforms: iPhone, mobile Web
As helpless as folks feel when faced with flight schedule issues, navigating security checkpoints has to be the most stressful and strange part of the travel experience. The TSA tries new tactics all the time to make the process simpler and easier to understand, with decidedly mixed results. This free app continues in that vein.

The app has a real-time airport status map, which is useful enough, and reproduces the agency's standard traveler's guide, including all the information about liquids, choosing your security line, medical needs and more. The Security Wait Times feature is the most promising part of the app, although it depends wholly on travelers self-reporting in the airport, which resulted in a few of the searches I did showing information that was several hours or even days old, and other airports having no information whatsoever.

The "Can I Bring?" function is a bit of a crapshoot -- given that airline food is all but ancient history, I searched on "fork," and was instructed that a tuning fork is a musical instrument, which is "permitted in the cabin of an aircraft or in checked baggage, although some special conditions may apply." What conditions? For example, can I eat with it?

9. Parking: Car Finder
Platform: iPhone 3Gs or later only
Talk about finding a need and addressing it -- who hasn't come back from a long trip, or just a trip to the grocery store, and wondered where the H they put their car? To make this $0.99 app work, you will need a 3Gs iPhone or better, as the application uses the compass and camera built into those phones to pinpoint the location of your car. When saving your car's location, you take a photo of the car, which is assigned a location that will show up on a map when you return to find your car. The new Parking Meter Alert is an excellent addition; it will give you a notification that looks the same as an appointment notification.

Some users have reported spotty results, and the company is up front about admitting that performance depends largely on the accuracy of the GPS signal at the time you pinpoint as well as return to your car. I used it in the Target parking lot with perfect results, however, so these may be isolated complaints.

10. Bathrooms: SitOrSquat
Platforms: Mobile Web, Web, SMS, iPhone, Blackberry
Did I mention that Car Finder addressed a basic need? Well, this app outdoes even that. When nature calls, you need a way to answer, without fail. SitOrSquat, a Web site with apps for iPhone and Blackberry, shows you a map and/or list of nearby publicly accessible toilets -- and it even has a free text message system, yeesh.

11. The Future Is Now: Continental's Mobile Boarding Pass
This app is absolutely the future of checking in, although it is available only in select airports -- and even then some agents barely know how to use it, according to some traveler reports. The crux of it is this: You wave your app-embedded reservation in front of a bar code reader, and you are checked in. Continental currently leads in this arena, but watch for other airlines to follow suit. Whether this will go big is hard to say, but it makes so much sense it's silly. Even better: Bring this same tech to concert, movie, theme park and other admission setups.

Don't miss the next story in this series: Essential Travel Apps, Part Two: Accessory Apps.

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
TravelersEd@aol.com
Features Editor
The Independent Traveler

Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns SeatGuru.com.

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