The Ultimate Guide to Travel Apps

Published May 25, 2011

| Budget Travel

From booking flights to reserving a table to finding a clean bathroom, travel apps have the potential to make any vacation easier and more affordable—but with hundreds of thousands of options out there, it's hard to distinguish the essential downloads from the clutter. Not to worry. 

We've scoured the market and tested hundreds of travel apps to come up with the ultimate tool kit for the vacation-bound. Best of all, we're not stopping here. We'll be relentlessly evaluating the new arrivals across platforms (iPhone, iPad, Android, and BlackBerry) and regularly updating this list with our favorite travel apps—leaving you the time to, well, actually travel.

AIR TRAVEL

FIND A FLIGHT Kayak's website set the standard for streamlined searching, and its app delivers the same ease of use on the go. Simply enter your destination and travel dates, and the app spits back options sorted by price, time, or airline; a single click takes you to the corresponding booking site. Free.Download it: Android,BlackBerry,iPhone/iPad.

TRACK YOUR ITINERARY Forget paging through printouts of confirmation codes and terminal info. The TripIt travel app culls flight numbers, gate information, and even loyalty-program account numbers from e-mail receipts you forward. From these, it assembles a master trip itinerary you can access from anywhere. Free. Download it: Android, BlackBerry, iPhone/iPad.

MAKE THE MOST OF A LAYOVER Consider it Yelp for airports. GateGuru's app contains searchable directories for 98 U.S. airports (124 airports overall) and more than 25 international hubs. They take the guesswork out of finding an ATM, a decent cup of coffee, or a 10-minute massage station—wherever you happen to be delayed. Some locations even have user reviews, rankings, and photos. Free. Download it: iPhone/iPad.

RAFT A CONTINGENCY PLAN For the frequent flier who has no time for snafus, FlightTrack Pro is an essential aid. In addition to storing and tracking your flights, FlightTrack Pro pulls vital info like gate changes and weather reports for 5,000 airports and 1,400 airlines. If your flight is canceled or delayed, it's easy to search for other connections while you're standing in line for the gate agent or even from 30,000 feet—you can access the app's route-maps feature offline when you're in the air. iPhone, iPad (FlightTrack Pro), $10; Android, Blackberry (FlightTrack), $5. Download it: Android, BlackBerry, iPhone/iPad.

KILL TIME ON THE FLIGHT The perfect nervous-passenger distraction, Flight Control HD for iPad gives folks something to focus on while surviving a long-haul flight: an air-traffic-control strategy game that lets you manage planes' flight patterns by dragging them along the touch screen. If only getting to your real-world destination were so easy. iPhone (Flight Control), $1; Android, BlackBerry (Flight Control), $3; iPad (Flight Control HD), $5. Download it: Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad.

LODGING

OMPARISON SHOP With thousands of user-generated reviews of hotels, restaurants, and attractions worldwide, TripAdvisor has long been a mother lode of unvarnished assessments. What it hasn't been is a model of simplicity. The travel app cuts through the clutter, bringing just the facts—er, opinions—filtered by price or neighborhood, to the fore. Free. Download it:  Android,iPhone/iPad

SCORE A CHEAP ROOM If landing a rock-bottom rate ranks higher than remaining in complete control over where you stay, roll the dice with Priceline Hotel Negotiator app. You choose a preferred star rating and an ideal price (recent successful bids in the area are listed as a guide), and the tool will lock in a room that meets your criteria. Bonus: The app uses GPS, which is priceless for lining up convenient last-minute accommodations for unexpected overnighters. Free. Download it: Android, iPhone/iPad.

GET A BIRD'S-EYE VIEW You've probably already used Google Earth's satellite images to zoom in on your childhood home or your current residence—in almost scary detail—but the intuitive app also serves as an easy way to suss out a hotel's rooftop pool deck or the size and location of various parking lots at a big museum or other attraction. Free. Download it: Android , iPhone/iPad.

CRUISING

FIND THE RIGHT SHIP With more than 12,000 itineraries on 20 cruise lines, the new Cruise Finder app by iCruise.com has one of the largest listings databases out there—plus plenty of other features to smooth your sailings. Want to preview your digs? Check out the detailed cabin photos and deck plans. Need help locating the port on departure day? The travel app provides step-by-step directions from your front door. Free, requires Wi-Fi (Cruise ships usually charge for Wi-Fi on board—expect to pay around 75¢ a minute). Download it: iPhone/iPad.

SET A BUDGET It's easy to lose track of all the scattershot incidental costs that add up over the course of a cruise. Typing daily expenses like tips, excursions, and that round of karaoke-lounge mai tais into the Cruise Card Control app each night helps ward off any sail's-end surprises at the purser's desk. Bonus: The app's running tally doesn't require Wi-Fi, so you can watch your spending without going overboard on data fees. $1. Download it: iPhone/iPad.

GET ADVICE FROM FELLOW CRUISERS The social-network-style Always Be Cruising app provides an instant entry point into the passionate community of die-hard cruisers: After creating a profile and sharing your itinerary, you can connect with other passengers—past, present, or future—and get advice on anything from where to book the best deal to which buffet to avoid to which cruise director doles out the most upgrades. Free, requires Wi-Fi (cruise ships usually charge for Wi-Fi on board—expect to pay around 75¢ a minute). Download it: iPhone/iPad

MANAGE YOUR TIME The vast range of activities found on today's mega-ships can be overwhelming—Waterslides! Rock climbing! Casinos!—but Ship Mate makes managing your time a painless proposition. Set up a daily schedule (for Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Princess, Celebrity, Holland America, Costa, or MSC cruises—plus Disney Cruises on the Android version), peruse deck maps, and plan excursions using the app's guides, which include prices for each outing. $2 each. Download it: Android, iPhone/iPad.

ROAD TRIPS

When I Spy has lost its appeal half an hour into the drive, enlist RoadTripBingo to entertain your junior crew through even the dullest stretches of highway. There are thousands of 25-square grids to play, with targets both ordinary (a hotel) and more obscure (a cactus). Even kids too young to grasp the game will get a kick out of tapping the icons and shaking the screen clear. Android, $1; iPhone, iPad, $2. Download it: Android, iPhone/iPad.

CHART YOUR COURSE It was only a matter of time before Google took its ubiquitous map technology to the next level with a full-fledged GPS service. Google Maps Navigation bundles all the best features of its popular mapping site—such as satellite images, street views, and traffic news—with voice search, step-by-step audio directions, and speedy rerouting options after a wrong turn. Garmin, you've been warned. Free. Download it: Android.

TAKE A DETOUR What better place to stretch your legs than at the home of the World's Largest Rubber Band Ball? Roadside America pinpoints wacky pit stops from coast to coast in six separate regional editions, with real-time GPS suggestions for a worthy detour near you. Buy only the area you need, or upgrade for access to all 6,000-plus oddities. $3 per region ($6 more for all six). Download it: iPhone/iPad

FILL UP FOR LESS With gas prices soaring yet again, it's no wonder that GasBook's service-station directory is consistently among the highest-rated travel apps. The tool uses GPS to map nearby stations and frequently updates standard prices with user-submitted data. You can also search by fuel grade or brand and bookmark your favorite local locations for everyday fill-ups. $1. Download it: iPhone/iPad.

ON THE GROUND

LOOK LIKE A LOCAL Because some things just require visuals, Howcast's user-generated video tutorials cover everything from taxi strategies in New York City to the proper consumption of soba in Japan to nude-beach etiquette. (Then again, maybe some things don't belong in a video.) The short clips load quickly and particularly shine on the larger-format iPad. Free. Download it: Android, BlackBerry, iPhone/iPad..

SURVIVE WITHOUT A PLAN So the museum you planned to visit was closed, and now you've got a free afternoon on your hands. Goby has you covered: The app searches events and activities near you—live-music shows, family-friendly outings, and outdoorsy pursuits—and plots them on a map with details and photos. Free. Download it: Android, iPhone/iPad.

SKIP THE LINES The new Undercover Tourist app made for savvy Walt Disney World–goers delivers accurate wait times for every ride in the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. At day's end, a built-in GPS helps you navigate right back to your car. $4. Download it: iPhone/iPad.

EXPLORE YOUR OPTIONS Lonely Planet has created the perfect pairing of inspiration and information. First, flip through the colorful, photo-heavy 1000 Ultimate Experiences iPad app for thumbnail takes on some of the world's most intriguing destinations. Then use the brand's dedicated guides (for over 75 cities) to hunt for specifics, like how to get a bus pass for the MUNI in San Francisco or when to catch the ferry for a visit to Alcatraz. 1000 Ultimate Experiences $5, city guides $6. Download it: iPad (The 1000 Ultimate Experiences); iPhone/iPad (city guides).

FIND A PLACE TO "GO" Like it or not, Starbucks outposts have unofficially replaced service stations as America's favorite rest stops. Fortunately for travelers, both are mapped on the SitOrSquat app. More than 99,000 restrooms are represented (concentrated in larger cities in the U.S. and Europe), with details like hours, changing-table availability, and, of course, a "sit" or "squat" recommendation. Free. Download it: Android, BlackBerry, iPhone/iPad.

FAMILY TRAVEL

DON'T FORGET THE DIAPERS Why is it that the tiniest travelers require the most baggage? Baby Pack & Go supplies packing lists that you can customize for each child. It also sends reminders to ensure globe-trotting doesn't disrupt baby's routine: Ding! It's lunchtime. Ding! Naptime. $1. Download it: iPhone.

BRING STORYTIME ON THE ROAD Dr. Seuss goes digital with iPhone- and iPad-ready versions of his best-selling stories. Let The Lorax app be your on-the-road babysitter: It reads the story aloud, and when you tap an illustration, the machine will speak its name ("Trees." "Grass." "Pond."). $5. Download it: Android, iPhone/iPad.

COLOR WITHOUT CRAYONS The ultimate airplane toy for antsy tots, Dora the Explorer Coloring Adventures is a virtual coloring and sticker book for kids ages two to six, with five scenes they can infinitely redesign. Here's to no more stray crayons under the seat! $5. Download it: iPad.

SCREAM FOR ICE CREAM First, give yourself some elbow room. Then fire up Scoops, a highly addictive game even a technophobe could master. Your only goal is to position a virtual ice cream cone under colorful scoops that fall from the sky, using the phone's motion-sensitive accelerometer to direct the cone with a tilt of the wrist. Free. Download it: iPhone/iPad.

DINING

SNIFF OUT CRITICS' FAVORITES If you're more interested in getting a recommendation on the spot, download Urbanspoon. The app makes a game of finding a restaurant: Search options are displayed slot-machine style, with neighborhood, cuisine, and price as the categories. Refresh with a simple shake of the device, or click off for critics' reviews and some menus. Free. Download it: Android, iPhone/iPad.

MAKE RESERVATIONS Instead of calling 12 restaurants to find one that can seat your party of four, let OpenTable do the work. Search more than 15,000 restaurants in Canada, the U.K., Mexico, and the U.S. by the number of diners and your desired reservation time, and then sort by cuisine, price range, and neighborhood. And in about five taps—voilá!—you've got a reservation. Free. Download it: Android, BlackBerry, iPhone/iPad.

SIP SMARTER With more than 1 million bottles of wine from Chile to Cali cataloged, the Cor.kz app is like a pocket sommelier. Search by region or varietal, peruse an exhaustive glossary, or scan a bottle's bar code with your smartphone to call up expert ratings and tasting notes. $4. Download it: Android,  iPhone/iPad.

AVOID MENU MISTRANSLATIONS Foreign phrases can be unforgiving—and that's where On The Menu comes in. A database of more than 1,400 terms from all over the globe allows users to solve culinary conundrums with a quick Google-style search. Bagna cauda? That would be Italian for anchovy fondue. $2. Download it: iPhone/iPad.

RUB ELBOWS WITH REGULARS It's no easy feat to cut through the restaurant-of-the-moment hype in an unfamiliar city, which is where the no-holds-barred user reviews on Yelp's app come in. Using your GPS-mapped location, the app reveals the highest-rated places near you, as determined by the people who know best. Search thousands of dining options in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Ireland by price, neighborhood, or the handy "what's open now." Free. Download it: Android, Blackberry, iPhone/iPad.

ASK THE EXPERTS Crowd-sourced restaurant reviews on Urbanspoon or Yelp can be telling, but you never really know who's behind them. The owner's mom? A foodie fussbudget? LocalEats relies on (relatively) objective parties-food bloggers, newspaper dining critics, alt-weekly columnists-to compile its top-100 lists in America's 50 largest cities. Locally owned spots are in, national chains are out, ensuring you'll find an authentic meal-without too much legwork. Android, iPhone/iPad, $1; BlackBerry, $3. Download it: Android, BlackBerry, iPhone/iPad.

CHECK DINER REVIEWS Globe-trotting gourmands have long relied on Zagat's city guides for quick takes on a restaurant's food, decor, service, and cost. The robust Zagat To Go app pairs more than 40,000 reviews across 100-plus cities worldwide with handy tools like GPS-enabled searching, concierge-style recommendations, and an instant online reservation tool. New reviews are added and updated weekly, making that onetime $10 price tag easier to swallow. Android, iPhone/iPad, $10; BlackBerry, $20. Download it: Android, BlackBerry, iPhone/iPad.

FIND A RESTAURANT WITH CHARACTER Feeding your family at a big theme park presents a small world of challenges—inflated prices, painful wait times, cookie-cutter meals tailored to pint-size appetites. The Disney World Dining app alleviates some of the angst. Users can browse photos and full menus for over 150 dining spots in more than 20 Disney parks and hotels. Bonus: A GPS-powered "Near Me" tool minimizes the distance between the first hunger pang and that must-have plate of Mickey-shaped waffles. $2. Download it: iPhone/iPad.

EXCHANGE AND TRANSLATION

PAY THE RIGHT PRICE There are dozens of free currency-converter apps, but Oanda Currency Converter stands above them all for its reliability and depth of data. To calculate exchanges between more than 190 currencies, the app pulls from inter-bank market rates—what banks use when trading money. For even greater accuracy, the app also adjusts results to reflect the specific transaction type (credit card or cash) you select. Free. Download it: Android, BlackBerry, iPhone/iPad.

SPEAK LIKE A LOCAL Foreign-language mix-ups can make for some serious travel stress. The app iTranslate—basically a digital phrase book—comes to the rescue. It includes 52 languages and translates faster than you can say, "Huh?" Just type in the perplexing phrase and iTranslate displays it back in your language of choice. (The app requires Internet access, but you can store key phrases for future Wi-Fi-free reference.) Free. Download it:  Android, iPhone/iPad.

SNAG THE CORRECT SIZE Clothing size is unreliable from label to label—and country to country. Now men and women can shop with confidence by using Convert Clothes. When you roll a dial to pick your U.S. size in four categories (clothes, shoes, pants, and bra), the app's simple interface spits out the corresponding numbers for eight countries, including Japan and France. Whether anything will actually fit is another story. Free. Download it: iPhone/iPad.

CONVERT ANY MEASUREMENT Traveling can seem like one long equation, from figuring out temperature (Celsius?) to assessing how much gas is left in your tank (liters?). Conversion-catchall Convertbot does the math for you. Spin a wheel to select one of 20 categories—time, speed, even data download size—then type in the amount. The app instantly converts the figure into the desired unit of measure. You'll never go over the baggage limit in a foreign country again. $2. Download it: iPhone/iPad.

MAKE SENSE OF YOUR MONEY For up-to-the-minute currency conversions, try Quid Universal Currency Converter. It lists more than 190 exchange rates, updated with every tap of the refresh button. Tip: Turn off the auto-update feature while you're abroad to avoid sky-high roaming charges. $1. Download it: iPhone/iPad.

FIND THE PERFECT PHRASE Overcome awkward lost-in-translation moments with World Nomads. The 25-language translator apps cover keywords such as please and thank you, numbers up to 10, and a few phrases useful for other travel conundrums (our favorite: "Those drugs aren't mine!") in easy-to-scan categories like Introductions and Travel Health. Most phrases have audio clips. Free. Download it: iPhone/iPad (downloadable in 25 languages, including French, Spanish, German, and Italian).

PHOTOS AND VIDEOS

EDIT IMAGES A few tweaks can turn even the most drab camera-phone images into frame-worthy photographs. Use Photogene to add backgrounds and colorful borders, crop out unflattering details, or just remove red-eye from that otherwise-flawless family portrait in front of the Eiffel Tower. iPhone, $2; iPad, $3. Download it: iPhone, iPad.

ORGANIZE AND SHARE With Photobucket, you can sort your vacation photos before you've even boarded the flight home. Geo-tag the images you want to keep, drop them into folders, or find favorites using the key-word search—and save yourself one item on that just-back to-do list. Free. Download it:  Android, BlackBerry, iPhone/iPad.

INCORPORATE SOUND These days, the old vacation postcard doesn't quite cut it. Fotobabble lets you express a more unique sentiment: Just snap a photo, record your own audio message (up to one minute long), and send the file to a friend's e-mail account. Free. Download it: iPhone/iPad.

ADD A RETRO FEEL Looking to enhance your images with a little old-school flair? Hipstamatic, an app based on the discontinued 1982 camera of the same name, has nine options that add artful blurring, fading, and flashes to your photos to create that vintage-snapshot look. $2. Download it: iPhone.

SHED SOME LIGHT For all their strengths, many older-generation iPhones lack one important element: a flash. The Camera Flash+ app solves that problem, with a self-adjusting burst of light that allows users to take vivid, point-and-shoot-quality photos long after the sun has set. Free. Download it: iPhone.

TAKE THE LONG VIEW Some scenes are simply too majestic to capture on one screen. Enter Pano, which stitches together up to 16 separate shots to take in, say, a 360-degree view of the Grand Canyon. A built-in guide helps you line up each frame, and the app will hold your place if a call interrupts your shoot. $2. Download it: iPhone/iPad.

SEND A PERSONALIZED POSTCARD Nothing says "Wish you were here" like a good old-fashioned postcard—with your face smack in the center. For about $1.50 per note, HazelMail turns your photo into an actual paper card complete with a custom message and then stamps it and sends it off within about two business days, saving you the trouble of hunting down a local post office. Free. Download it: BlackBerry, iPhone/iPad.

DOCUMENT YOUR ADVENTURES It may have been invented for students, but Facebook's ubiquitous app has become an invaluable tool for all kinds of folks. Travelers can share crazy vacation moments on the spot, either in the live feed of status updates or in a mobile gallery where they can instantly dump cell phone pictures. Free. Download it: Android, BlackBerry, iPhone/iPad.

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Note: This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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