8 indispensable travel apps for your smartphone

Bison head keeps watch on Hotel Paisano lobby in Marfa TX, taken with and edited on a phone (photo by Sheila Scarborough)(Updated October 2020 with some travel apps and sites I discovered during the SXSW tech conference.)

A phone these days does a lot more than make calls and send texts; it’s a small but powerful computer in your purse or pocket.

The GPS feature is what makes the difference; it knows where you are, so it can then tell you what is around you. Sometimes that is obvious, of course, so you should just look around with your eyeballs, but when that doesn’t tell you what you need to know, phone app technology can really help when you travel.

Everyone’s preferences are different, of course, but here are the apps that I turn to again and again on my own Android phone….

1 )  Yelp  –  Want to know what’s just down the street or behind that building? Fire up Yelp to find info and reviews of every sort of business around you. I use it mostly to locate good restaurants (including whether they’re open right then or not) and gas stations when that pesky little light comes on.

2 )  Foodspotting  –  (Update – now sadly defunct) Want to know about good things to eat that you can find nearby? Foodspotting is people taking and sharing photos of whatever they’re eating, and it’s usually pretty yummy-looking. This app led me to inexpensive but delicious Thai seafood curry in San Francisco, in a place a stone’s throw away that I would have otherwise missed.

3 )  Maps  –  I’m old enough to feel more comfortable with backup paper maps in my car or purse, and in rural areas with low data rates I can’t really depend on a mapping app, but when they work and are accurate, they’re wonderful.  Google Maps is seamlessly integrated with the OS on my Google-developed Android phone, but there are other options available. Just get one.

4 )  Kayak  –  This metasearch engine is my preference for one-stop hotel and flights price comparisons and booking, and there’s a Kayak app as well.  What I really like is that once you’ve made a decision, Kayak transfers you to the actual airline or hotel website for final payment. You get the advantage of metasearch but the customer credibility of booking directly with the business and not having to deal with middlemen like Expedia or Travelocity.

5 )  Flashlight app (various) –  These turn the light from your phone’s screen or camera flash into a decently bright flashlight. Handy when you need to find dropped keys, look under the car hood, or read a historical marker in the middle of the night. Not that I’m a historical marker nerd, or anything….

6 )  Mobile banking app  –  This will depend on your bank or credit union (I’m a long-time Navy Federal Credit Union customer) but wow, is it handy to be able to transfer money around and check your balance from your phone.

7 )  Instagram  –  The Instagram photo-sharing app is new to Android after being iPhone-only for a long time, and it was just bought by Facebook so who knows what will happen to it, but it is fun to play around with effects on my photos.

8 )  Postagram  –  This is a great mashup of the ease of digital photography from a phone, and the enjoyment of getting snail mail that is actually enjoyable. Snap a photo, add a short message, enter an address, connect a credit card to your Postagram account, and the service will create and mail a hard-copy postcard with your photo and message for about US$1.00 (bonus – the photo is perforated around the edges and can be detached from the postcard.)

Bonus additions from a recent SXSW (South by Southwest):

**  Packing. The Packing Pro travel app (iOS only) includes sample lists (typical male or female, light or super-light packer,) alerts, ability to add photos and share lists with others, CSV file sharing if you use Excel, Numbers, or Google Docs to track your packing needs, and backup. Since I’m all about the best way to pack a carry-on suitcase, this would be a favorite if I didn’t own an Android phone.

**  Finding vegan/vegetarian food. There’s a website, forum and blog, plus a Happy Cow app food guide for traveling vegans and vegetarians.

**  Bringing your dog. Yep, just what it sounds like: the Bring Fido app (iOS only) guides you to dog-friendly hotels, restaurants, cities, parks, and pet services like grooming.

**  Local cooking and eating. At a SXSW travel meetup, I spoke with VizEat (Now EatWith) meal-sharing website co-founder Camille Rumani; she works to connect travelers with local hosts who cook a meal in their home. It’s a wonderful way to learn local culture and food; current cities with hosts include London, Boston, Haifa, New Delhi, and Brussels.

Did I miss any of your favorites? Please let us know down in the comments!

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One Response

  1. Craig Zabransky April 14, 2012

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