Smartphones have revolutionized travel. From no longer looking like a tourist when grappling with a map, to re-booking a flight from the palm of your hand, technology and travel are perfect bedfellows. Here are seven essential apps to download before planning and executing that next trip.
Search for and book the best deals on hotels and flights with this user-friendly app. Hipmunk compares all the top airlines and travel sites in one easy to use interface. Flight results are presented in a visual "timeline," which includes a handy "Agony" option that displays flights by a combo of best price, shortest length and fewest layovers. As a bonus, Hipmunk's dancing chipmunk logo is darn cute.
An essential all-in-one travel planner, Tripit combs through your email account and automatically identifies itinerary-related correspondence and organizes it into a master itinerary. If Tripit somehow misses that hotel reservation, just forward it to your Tripit email address. The pro version ($49 a year) will also track your flights, alert you to any delays or re-routing, and help you adjust your plans accordingly.
3. Google Maps
Probably the app that has converted most feature-phone users to smartphone users, Google Maps is the number one reason to have a mobile device while traveling. Being able to throw away those unwieldy maps and walk around a new city like you were born there is priceless. And with built-in walking, driving and transit directions you'll never need to ask for directions again.
Stay in touch with friends and family who have Macs, iPads or iPhones for free using FaceTime. It works with a WiFi or a data connection, saving you long distance charges (as long as you have a roaming data plan). It's easier to use than Skype as there's no need to launch a separate app. Simply launch the Phone app as if you were going to make a call, but instead select FaceTime under your contact's phone number. There will be two buttons, a video camera or a phone symbol, indicating a FaceTime video or audio call. Audio is a good option when you're not on WiFi as it uses less data.
An online Yellow Pages, Yelp is an essential companion in a new area. The handy "nearby" toggle in the mobile app lets you quickly search around you for everything from restaurants and bars to churches and child care. No idea where to start? Search the "Hot and New" category. The real power of Yelp however, is in its user base. Avoid wasting precious vacation hours in a subpar place by reading through the user-submitted reviews of that eatery or hotel before stepping foot inside.
When Google Maps dropped off the iPhone for a while, HopStop became the go-to transit app (even endorsed, and then bought by Apple). It's a very handy tool for door-to-door transit, walking, biking and taxi directions. Currently covering about 300 cities worldwide, with HopStop you can plan your day's transit in advance from your hotel room or quickly find the nearest subway station when you're lost in the middle of Times Square. Of course, you can do most of this in Google Maps, but some of HopStop's extra features, such as estimating travel time and cost for a taxi, finding wheelchair accessible and stroller friendly routes and quickly pulling up transit maps and schedules, make it worth a spot on your homescreen.
Bonus App: Apple's App Store
When you arrive at your destination, fire up Apple's App Store app and hit the "Near Me" button. This brings up the most popular apps being downloaded in your current location, a handy way to discover what the locals are using.
Technology truly is your best travel companion, but remember there aren't many power outlets at the Roman Coliseum, so it's worth investing in a portable battery charger to replenish your smartphone during a heavy day of sightseeing. There are a variety of devices on the market, but this article rounds up a selection of the best. Once you're powered up and ready to go, remember to take lots of pictures with that smartphone and share them with your friends and family back home.
Jessica Johnson works for www.extraspace.com and contributes to the Extra Space Storage blog, exploring various aspects of organizing and storing possessions.