An iPhone app is like a potato chip. “You always want to have just one more,” says Chris Hall, editor in chief of 148Apps.com. His review website, named for the maximum number of apps an early iPhone user could own, tries to keep up with the influx of new programs, but with some 40,000 apps on sale and another 500 to 1,000 released each week, his team can’t help falling behind.
An app is simply a little application, or program, that’s designed to perform a specialized function. Many of them are a boon for travelers. Flashlight, for instance, illuminates your screen so you can fumble through a dark hotel room. Currency calculates exchange rates. The world’s 22 million iPhone users—including those who’ve snared the new iPhone 3GS model, released June 19—can browse and download apps, some for free and some for a few bucks, at the built-in App Store. True, some of the most popular apps don’t do much more than simulate fishponds or Zippo lighters, but as the field matures, so do the offerings.
These apps aren’t perfect, and some have problems that are amplified when you’re traveling. So buyers have to be choosy. Developers tend to write apps, including almost all of the language-translation ones, which can be expensive to run because they require a phone to draw lots of information from the network. That’s fine at home, but download just five megabytes of info when you’re abroad and you could be slammed with a $40 tab. A few other travel apps, such as ones that help find a taxi, don’t have data for international locations.
But a good iPhone app is like a tool in a toolbox, and when one works well, it’s transformative, doing a job that you probably never thought could be done so easily. For fliers, iFareFinder searches the major booking sites (Kayak, Orbitz, etc.) for airfare and then hands you over to the seller for reservations. Chris Hall’s personal app toolbox includes Yelp, a portal to the popular user-written website that reviews food and party spots around the world, and UrbanSpoon, a restaurant finder. “I was in Vegas last week,” he says, “and I had found about 30 restaurants nearby a minute after walking out of my hotel.”
Travel apps are improving by the month. The TomTom app, released in June at the same time as the 3GS (which shoots video), turns the unit into a GPS device, great for navigating a new town. Hall’s travel wish list includes an app for bringing Southwest’s Ding! discount fares to the gadget, since the airline refuses to allow anyone else to report its prices.
As more functional, practical travel-related apps come to the phone, the device becomes increasingly indispensable to people who know the right ones to download. Just remember when to say when.
Just press and hold the on-screen button while you speak into your phone (“Intersection of Wilshire and Fairfax” or “tapas restaurant”), and it’ll send you to your built-in browser or apps to call up a map, a Yellow Pages listing, a traffic report, or a Yelp review to speedily ease the way. Get this and you won’t need to download Yelp’s app too. A manual-input option is available for times it can’t understand you, but there’s something cool about barking orders into your phone like Maxwell Smart and getting immediate results.
Sound recordings of your destination are cheaper than trinkets, longer-lived than food, and second only to photographs for the ability to make past moments seem almost tangible. Touch iTalk’s big, red button to record Big Ben’s gong, birdcalls in Costa Rica, or street musicians in Barcelona. The quality is much better than you might expect—you can usually hear things clearly, even at a distance, and you can leave it on for minutes on end without making much of a dent in your memory. Once you get home, run iTalk Sync (also free) on your computer and it will sense your iPhone in Wi-Fi and instantly transfer your soundscapes to your system.
Most iPhone language apps have an Achilles’ heel: they require an expensive data connection to work abroad. Lingolook, though, lives on your phone. Its clean, cartoonish flash cards of important words and phrases—more than 300, from “I’m allergic to nuts” to “speak slowly”—are said aloud if you tap your screen, delivering you from faux pas and pronunciation debacles. Lingolook is sold in five languages (Spanish, Italian, French, Japanese, Chinese), with Hindi and German coming later this summer.
It’s like Zagat’s for potty breaks. Charmin sponsors this user-maintained database of where to find the nearest free toilet based on your location. We especially like the photos of the actual john and the piquant review blurbs (“the air freshener is overpowering, which I think is a good thing”). As with the best apps, this one’s useful for everyday life in your home city too.
The App Store is awash with converter programs for mundane info like temperature and distance. Most are about the same and work fine, provided you need to make density and pressure conversions on the beach in Rio. But this is one of only a few to include all the digits tourists crave: not just currency exchanges based on today’s rates, but also clothing sizes and shoe sizes, making it indispensable for European shopping runs. There’s a tip calculator that takes tax into account and divides the check by the number of people in your party, which obviates the need for that stand-alone App Store perennial, Tipulator.
Even the most experienced traveler sometimes forgets a mobile phone charger or a hair dryer. Packing Pro asks you to set up a few lists of must-dos and must-haves for the various types of trips you take. The next time you go somewhere, just check off each task, from stopping newspaper delivery to packing your prescriptions, as you prepare to leave. If you’re not in the mood to customize your chore list, an assortment of templates are tailored to women or men, kids or no kids (and how many), where you’re going, and for how long.
Open this one up and it senses your location via GPS and instantly shows you a map of your area that’s studded with gas stations and their current prices for the grade your car uses. You can obtain lowest-price tips from other users, confirm a rate you see is still valid, or tank up on good karma by entering your own to-the-minute reporting. Another feature lets you enter your car’s efficiency and log its fuel usage. Gasbag is only as good as the information submitted by its users, but the amount of data is growing as the app becomes more popular.
You play a frazzled TSA worker trying to process passengers as they stack up in the inspection queue, and your superiors pelt you with a barrage of never-ending, loony rule changes (sorry, no more pants allowed). Violate TSA mandates or civil liberties, and you lose. Cool feature: if you play this in an airport, it detects your location and doles out site-specific rewards for ace play, such as hot wings in Buffalo or pork barrels at Dulles. Jetset makes a good companion for Flight Control, a nerve-racking game requiring you to guide ever-increasing air traffic onto three very crowded landing strips. Maybe it’s better not to play that one in the departure lounge.
This app is a miracle of international communication, eliminating any need for a hotel-room phone. As long as you’re connected by Wi-Fi (and not by a data network such as 3G), you’ll get free phone calls to any Skype user in the world. And since calls to landlines are a mere 2 cents a minute, you won’t need to shell out for an international call to a helpline if your laptop hiccups or your airline bungles your reservation.
Road-trip salvation. ILoveInns.com, the web-based B&B finder, created this app to search for nearby guesthouses based on your GPS location in the U.S. (you can also search by city before you leave home). Tapping a property brings up descriptions, inn-provided photos, price ranges, user reviews, video (for some properties), and those all-important “call” and “e-mail” buttons for contacting the inn directly. American Historic Inns inspects and vets each property, which many Kayak and Travelocity searches consider off the grid. Bonus: there’s a section of recipes provided by some of the inns (cinnamon-raisin bread pudding from Grandma’s Cottage in Virginia, anyone?).