Yesterday my friend, Layal, sent me an email telling me she was planning a trip to New York. She asked if I had any recommendations for iPhone apps that could help her navigate the city and find things to do. At first, I didn’t think I had any particularly distinctive suggestions. I only use a handful of travel apps, but I do use those apps almost every time I step outside of my front door. I also realized that I use a few popular social networking apps to get travel information in a way that many users may not realize is possible.
Here are the ten best travel apps I’ve found to help you keep organized and find information when you’re on the go. All are available on both iPhone and Android, unless otherwise marked.
TripIt is an itinerary and data management tool that helps you collect all of your important travel details (flight times, hotel bookings, tour/event times, maps, confirmation codes) in one place on your phone. I never have to worry about losing copies of my confirmation emails, and scraps of paper with my check-in codes and flight times on them. TripIt lets me pull all this information up any time I need it. Adding information to the itinerary is easy, just forward your confirmation emails to a dedicated email address and it will import the data itself. If you use Gmail, Yahoo, or Outlook.com, you can even set it to scan your inbox regularly and automatically import the data from the emails you receive after making a traveling booking.
I reference this app constantly while I’m traveling anywhere that requires a flight or an overnight stay.
Just a few years ago, you needed to reference separate maps and transit agency websites to figure out how to get from one place to another using public transportation. Today, in many parts of the world, Google Maps is able to pull that information into their app so you have a one-stop shop for maps, driving directions, walking directions, and transit directions. I’ve used it in countries around the world.
Even when you don’t have a data connection or are not connected to wifi, if you had previously opened the local map when you had a connection, when you go offline, the GPS will record a blue dot of where you are and give you some big picture information about what is around you. (Zooming in on the pre-loaded map won’t work if you’re offline, though.)
This language translation app is handy for looking up foreign words or phrase you may come across in your travels and saves you from having to carry a separate, bulky dictionary. Unfortunately, this app requires an internet connection, unless you have an Android phone that allows downloadable dictionary files. I don’t believe downloadable files are available for iPhones, yet, but it’s still a nice resource to have available you if you ever get stuck and need to find out how to say something in the local language.
While I get specific transit directions from Google Maps, I use this app to reference more than 200 offline (downloaded) route maps for subways and urban rail networks around the world. I’ve used it in cities abroad when I didn’t have a cellular data connection, but I also found it handy in NYC because I couldn’t get a cell signal in the underground subway tunnels. Unfortunately the downloaded image files make this app fairly bulky, so I delete it when I’m not traveling and re-install it before I leave on a trip.
Pinterest is my favorite tool for researching places and curating articles, posts, and photos of places I want to remember. Pinterest is a visual search engine where you can “pin” images (linked to online articles) to a virtual bulletin board. Before I go on a trip, I scour the site looking for links to articles that have been written about a place, and then I “pin” them to a board I make for the destination. I have boards arranged by place name (e.g. San Francisco, Japan, Death Valley National Park) and by topic (e.g. Markets + Food Adventures, Museums of the World). I have a country board for almost every country I’ve visited and when I’m starting to plan a trip, I create a new place board so I can start to pin articles and photos that I want to remember and reference.
Pinterest has a new feature (called “Place Pins”) that allows a board owner to map the destinations on your boards. More and more pinners are taking advantage of this new feature to create maps of things to see and do. Look for Place Pin boards when you search boards (look for the grey pin symbol in the upper right hand of the board). Checking out mapped boards is a great way to find things to do that are near a place you are staying, working, etc.
As an example, take a look at my New York City board on Pinterest where I collect blog posts and articles I find about NYC. I map any articles or photos that are about a particular geography by adding the location of the photo. Click on any of the pins to find the location and then click-through to the article to find out more information in an article or blog post.
Afar’s app is a project of Afar Magazine, the esteemed independent travel publication. Their app offers access to thousands of mapped ‘highlights’, or short narrative reviews of a place, many of which written by professional travel writers and bloggers that live in the local communities. These authors are marked as, “local experts”.
I love that most of these reviews are written by travel experts and tend to be longer and more detailed, so they seem more trustworthy than a single review on some of the fully crowdsourced sites. The sleek design is easy to use and attractive, too.
Another app that offers crowdsourced and mapped recommendations for restaurants and attractions is Gogobot. This app allows you to search in three categories targeted for travelers: “stay”, “eat”, and “play”. The destinations that come up are then listed with brief user reviews. You can create trip plans within the app and pin places you want to visit and your hotel so you can always see where you are staying in relation to the places you want to go. It’s a nicer interface for travelers than Yelp, but because it doesn’t have nearly as many user reviews, you have to consider each single review is less representative of the spread.
Yelp is the old granddaddy of review sites and thus has the largest database and number of reviews, but is not geared toward travelers. The only way to save places is to add them to a bookmark list (which can be unwieldy when you are saving a lot of travel destinations)
Urban Spoon is an app dedicated to finding restaurants and places to eat in an area. The users are more likely to be adventurous eaters and love food, so the individual reviews seem to be of higher quality. But as I mentioned with Gogobot, there are fewer of them so it’s worth comparing the reviews to Yelp to see how the rankings compare.
If you can get beyond the selfies, Instagram is a great place to find visual travel inspiration. Start by searching for place-based hashtags like #newyorkcity, #nyc, or #brookyn. This will turn up the most recent photos that have been tagged with that location.
If the physical location of the photo is tagged , you can click right on the destination (see “Flatiron Building” in the left image below) to pull up the map and get directions from wherever you are, to that place. Easy!