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Five Easy, Essential Mobile Travel Apps

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smartphone smart phone cell travel traveler manWith over 70 percent of business people and a growing population of regular folk now sporting smartphones (not to mention netbooks, Wi-Fi iPods and more), the next 12 months will see almost everything under the sun go fully mobile -- and the travel industry should be leading the way, because who is more mobile than a traveler?

I have picked out five promising "mid-tech" applications and services that you can employ right now to make any trip better and more satisfying. The applications I chose require no extra wires, extreme downloads, high-level computer skills or in many cases anything but a phone connection -- they are services that any traveler can use.

1. Text Message (SMS) Flight Status Information
Almost blindingly simple and exceedingly fast, Google's SMS flight status notification comes through where other flight notification apps do not. Sure, you can sign up at the time of booking for an airline flight status notification that will go to your cell phone, which is useful information when you are on your way to the airport -- but which also means the only person who knows when your flight is delayed is you. And if you are sitting on the plane, you already know you are running late (and you can't use your phone anyway).

I've always found it more important for other folks to know about a traveler's flight status -- the person picking you up at the airport, your co-pilot during the drive to the airport or the friends expecting you at the house before nightfall. Google's SMS flight status service can be accessed by anyone with a text-enabled cell phone at any time.

How it works: Simply send your airline code and flight number to Google's text number (466453, which spells "Google" on phones that still have letters assigned to each number), and it will return your flight status within seconds. I had some friends coming into town today on Continental flight 14 from Honolulu, so I texted "CO 14" to 466453 (if you have any trouble, add the prefix "flight" -- so I would have texted "flight CO 14," although I have always found the service to work without it). The reply, which came within five seconds, even included the airline phone number:
2 Jul 2009
CO 14

Depart: 7:50PM
On time
Gate: TM

Arrive: 11:30AM
On Time
Gate: T C

CO: 800-523-3273
So I need to be at the airport to pick them up at Terminal C, 40 minutes from now -- gotta run!

2. Restaurants
One of the trickiest tasks while traveling is finding a decent place to eat; no one wants to spend hard-earned travel dollars on overpriced or subpar meals. And sometimes you need some critical assistance to deal with various food addictions like coffee, ice cream or, well, coffee. Yelp now has an application for many phones that will pinpoint your exact location using GPS and then create a customized output of your best choices close to that location. Or you can just use mobile.yelp.com and input your location yourself.

Similar to the flight status service above, Google can provide a rough and ready response to a simple query like "coffee" or "sushi"; the results don't include any reviews or feedback, but they get the job done.

OpenTable, which I have not used, is available on most smartphones and allows you to reserve tables directly from your phone. It apparently also lists restaurants with available tables.

3. Hot Tickets
On a recent trip to San Diego, I had a hunch about a night out for our sports-crazed two-year-old, so I checked the Padres' schedule. I noticed a Monday night home game at the (relatively) new stadium -- sounded very promising. I went to the Padres' Web site, checked ticket availability and hit paydirt: 12th row behind the home dugout, five seats in a row, perfect for our family and the folks we were visiting.
smartphone smart phone
But getting tickets while traveling isn't always so easy. For some events, you may have to buy your tickets even before you book your airfare. At the last minute, try Seat Karma -- put in the event name and it searches hundreds of "reseller" sites (yeah, we used to call these scalpers, but I guess times have changed), returning a map of seat locations and prices that even a little kid could figure out. Although a markup over "normal" prices usually applies, the recent offerings I saw were fairly affordable; $75 for a seat at a sold-out Bruce Springsteen concert at Giants Stadium doesn't seem too nuts. It's like a TKTS for the whole world -- without having to go stand in Times Square.

4. Currency Conversion, Driving Directions and Language Translation
I have three more Google texting favorites:

An extremely practical Google SMS service is the currency converter; text "120 euro in USD" to 466453 and within five seconds receive a note that reads "Currency conversion: 120 euros = 168.8 U.S. dollars." Do it in yen, pounds, pesos, you name it; it works for countless currencies.

The Google SMS directions service is solid as well; type "Directions Kingston NJ to Atlantic City NJ" and send to the Google SMS number, and it will send back turn-by-turn driving directions in perfectly readable text format. Why try to scribble out your mother-in-law's directions on an envelope when Google can take care of it?

One other decent option is the Translation SMS service: type in "translate how much does that cost in Spanish" and send to 466453; five seconds later Google sends back "Cuanto cuesta que el costo." It's not perfect, but you can check the phrasebook when you get home.

You can read more about Google SMS services here.

5. Flight Options
For years (particularly during the airlines' peak foul-up era in the late 90's) I have recommended going to the airport armed with information about other flights and airlines on the same route you are flying. That way, if your flight is delayed for any reason, you can try to get your airline to put you on another flight, whether on the same airline or another one. Since most gate agents don't want to have to do this, they will rarely if ever volunteer this information while you wait helplessly for your aircraft to be ready. Often enough, agents don't even know what options they might be allowed or obligated to offer -- so it is up to you to know which flight options might get you where you need to be, and to ask to be boarded on one of them.

airport line busy waiting travel travelersHaving this information on hand for presentation to a gate agent is easier said than done, however. The solution: Next Flight (currently available only for the iPhone) will list all direct flights between any two airports. Provide origin, destination and date, and the app returns complete information on all available flights for the route on that day. With this information, you can request that you be put on a specific flight, which should produce a far higher success rate than groaning about your plight at the gate counter.

Have any low- to mid-tech favorites of your own that you have found useful, or even essential? Send them to me and I'll compile the best of the lot for a future column. In the meantime, go mobile, and...

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
Features Editor
The Independent Traveler

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