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5 Travel Apps That Are Actually Useful (and 5 That Aren’t)

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If I see a major magazine or blog publish another “Best Apps of XXXX” story, I’m turning it into wrapping paper. Too many times have I read these “reviews” only to find that not only is it clear that the apps haven’t even been tested (the trifling articles offer no evidence of such), but the apps themselves are riddled with faults, useless, or have gone extinct. It’s time for me to introduce to you, valued Vagabond viewer, a host of travel apps that I could not live without in the digital age…and some of the worst ones I’ve seen listed in other “best app” reviews.

(Oh, and in the true Vagabond spirit, all of these apps are free!)

Love:

1. Waze

When a friend introduced this app to me about a month ago, I snubbed it at first, wary of both its simplicity and the fact that reports were user-generated. But as 75% of my job then involved being on the road, I soon found it absolutely indispensable. After inputting your desired route, you can follow it and see exactly where you will hit traffic. Wazers can also report hidden cop sightings, cars stopped on the shoulder (not really sure of the significance of this yet, but perhaps it’s to foreshadow bottlenecking caused by curious onlookers), and gas station prices. It’s terribly intuitive and the maps are updated manually, and frequently, by Waze staff. Of course, since the point of the app is to identify heavy traffic areas, you can easily request an alternate route, and then continue on your way by following Waze’s built-in GPS navigation.

waze-app_DCE

As for cons? I’ve yet to find any. The fact that it is community-based means that traffic may have already dissipated by the time you start your route, but every time I have used it I’ve found it to be spot-on. So far, routes cannot be mapped outside the continental United States (which includes Hawaii, Alaska, and even some parts of Canada).

2. Foodspotting

foodspotting-app_DCE

This app combines the resourcefulness of Yelp and the beauty of Pinterest into one drool-worthy digital menu of the best entrees in your area. Foodspotters upload photos of their favorite dishes and the app sorts them according to location and rating. Once you’ve found your grub of choice, simply click on the entrée photo to view restaurant information, get directions, and view Yelp reviews. It’s a streamlined approach to engaging on your next culinary adventure and takes the pain out of photo-less menus. Photos are uploaded from restaurants all over the world, so feel free to expand your palette!

3. Tipping Bird

tipping-bird-app_DCE

Save yourself a look of disdain and/or being booted from a restaurant by referring to Tipping Bird for tipping etiquette in the country you’re visiting. My first thought was, “Why hasn’t someone thought of this before?”, since tipping varies so much from country to country. Plug in a nation and Tipping Bird will tell you the suggested percentage for tipping at restaurants, bars, hotels, and for taxi drivers and tour guides. The only downside is that the app still has many countries yet to add (there are only 30 so far). Best place for tipping so far? Japan…because there is none!

4. Hotel Tonight and HI Hostels

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I have but one word for this app: easy. GPS automatically locates hotels in your area. Each hotel has a cute descriptive icon paralleling what kind of stay you’re in the mood for (“Hip,” “Luxe,” “Solid,” “Basic”), and you can book instantly through the app. Unfortunately, Hotel Tonight only lists hotels throughout major North American cities and a few European ones, but it also shreds at least 15% (usually much more) off each night’s stay. You can view hotel photos, location, and details down to every last amenity.

For Vagabonds on a budget, the HI Hostels app is just as efficient (but without the sweet discounts) and also logs all of your bookings in an easy-to-read itinerary.

5. PassBook (iPhone only)

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This app was one of the only reasons I miss my short-lived tenure as an iPhone user. After receiving your airline itinerary, open the link and click to add your boarding passes to Passbook. Next, breeze through boarding without having to dig awkwardly in your bag/pocket/jacket (because after security, who knows where it will end up) for your paper pass. Sure, most airline apps already allow you display a mobile boarding pass, but the beauty of Passbook is that you truly can keep everything in one place without the hassle of a.) making an account somewhere, b.) sifting through paragraphs of irrelevant flyer information, and c.) worrying that certain passes won’t display. You can add event tickets, coupons and retail rewards cards (Walgreens, Sephora, Target, etc.).

With GPS enabled, the app will also give you reminders about store-specific deals or remaining rewards when you walk past that store. It’s a win-win for both retailers and consumers, and has a beautifully fluent interface to boot.

Loathe:

1. PassWallet

The worst thing about this app is that… it doesn’t work. Literally. I’ve yet to find a way to get any pass whatsoever loaded into the thing. And according to GooglePlay reviews, I’m not the only one. If you happen to find a pass that it will actually display, please comment. Otherwise, do encourage your developer friends to make a better Android version of PassBook.

2. AroundMe

I’ll give this app one accolade, and that is that the icons are FREAKING ADORABLE. Otherwise, it’s a crapshoot. The idea is that you can search for various establishments – hospitals, restaurants, parking, banks – “around you” by clicking on the type of establishment for which you are looking…much the same as Maps, which is already installed on every smartphone. AroundMe tries hard to make itself stand out by offering up reviews and photos, but they are from Foursquare, which no one uses anymore, so they’re all outdated. Speaking of outdated, the app itself is outdated. Several of the places that it claimed were “AroundMe” actually no longer existed, and so I wasted a good amount of gasoline on this garbage app. You’re better off chatting with locals to find out what’s “AroundYou”…it’s more accurate, and probably more exciting, too.

3. TripIt

Yet another raved-about app that essentially does exactly what your airline app already does. First of all, I can’t stand any app that makes you log in. I have enough passwords to memorize without having to remember ones for every single phone app, too. After setting up a TripIt account, you then have to waste more time setting up “Auto Import” to import flight and hotel information.

The idea of the app (I think) is to “have everything in one place,” a sort of personal assistant that manages your travel schedule. If you’re a frequent business traveler, you likely already have an engagement planner who does this for you. If you have an iPhone, you can just use PassBook (see above). And if you’re smart, you’ll probably travel on the same airline most of the time so you can rack up mileage points rather than flying different ones and installing a ubiquitous amount of airline apps to track your flights. All in all, it seems like more work to import all this information into one app than to check your confirmation e-mails. I expected much more out of you, TripIt.

4. Zuji Packman (iPhone only)

An app that allows you to make a packing list. Which you could also do on your phone’s pre-installed notepad app (or an even better app called Checkmark). Supposedly the benefit is that you can compare your packing list to those of your friends. But do my friends really need to know that I’m packing tampons?

5. ImageIt

I thought this sounded like a brilliant concept at first: an app to help you break the language barrier by communicating visually. Unfortunately, it’s not as good (or useful) as it sounds. ImageIt is a simple app that allows you to put together a series of pictures, in the same fashion as a rebus, to display a sentiment or request to someone who may not speak your language. After making the sequences you can then swipe to reveal a toolbar allowing you to add text or a drawing into the sequence.

First of all, I couldn’t figure out how to use the thing until I viewed a tutorial, and even then, the Android version appeared flawed as I could not reveal the toolbar by swiping. Moreover, it simply takes too long to make a sequence when, in most cases, communication is faster through body language (especially in an emergency…most body language is universal then!). Great idea, but far too high-maintenance for what it seeks to accomplish.

Filed under: Travel Gear, Travel Tech

About the Author:

Tiffany Zappulla is VagabondJourney.com’s Korea correspondent and travel tech reviewer. She pinched pennies throughout college, sacrificing parties, treats, and occasionally even food so she could start traveling to foreign lands. So far she’s toured Scotland, Spain, and Japan (twice) on a budget, and spent three years living in South Korea actively engaged in the culture and lifestyle. Aside from her qualifications in ESL, Tiffany does other freelance writing and odd jobs. She is currently living the broke American life for awhile before deciding on her next adventure. Connect with her on Google+. has written 31 posts on Vagabond Journey.

  • http://www.kq7a.com/ Jack@GETPESOS

    Nice list, I have to check them out. One I’d add to this list is Google Translate. :)