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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Apps to smooth your journey


Stephanie Rosenbloom, December 4, 2013


Many travel apps, while great in principle, are too complicated, wonky or simply not helpful enough to earn a spot on your smartphone home screen. Some, however, can make travel easier. And who doesn’t want that during the frantic holiday season? Besides, now that smartphones can be used during takeoff and landing, there’s no time like the present to turn yours into a personal travel assistant. So whether this season’s travels take you up in the air or on the road, here are a few of my favorite apps to make the journey smoother.

FREE WI-FI FINDER. You’re touring an unfamiliar city and in need of Wi-Fi — make that free Wi-Fi. With the tap of a button, this app (also free) uses your smartphone’s GPS to find nearby public Wi-Fi hot spots, be it at a coffee shop, hotel or city park. You can filter the results, which pop up on a map (or in list form if you prefer) by “venue type,” such as bar, hotel or library. Tap one of the locations on the map (or list) and you’ll be shown the address and directions to the hot spot. Free Wi-Fi Finder, which also allows you to search for a particular Wi-Fi spot, works in more than 100 countries, including the United States, Japan and Italy, and allows you to star favorites so you can easily find them again.

HEYWIRE. When traveling internationally, certain apps can save you money by enabling you to send text messages and photos without the usual phone company texting fees.WhatsApp is among the most popular, but another player, HeyWire, has some fun time-sucking features, like the ability to place digital stickers on the photos you’ve taken (who doesn’t want to slap a propeller cap on their travel companion?). A “meme” button allows you to add bold, all-caps text to your photos. You can also post photos to Twitter or Facebook through the app. Texts between you and anyone else with HeyWire are free anywhere in the world. If the person you’re texting doesn’t have the app, international texting is still free to any smartphone in the United States and Canada and most phones in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Everywhere else, regular text fees would apply. Keep in mind that wherever you are, you still need a data connection, like 3G or Wi-Fi, to send texts. (The app itself is free for the first year and 99 cents a year thereafter.)

When you download HeyWire, you’re assigned a United States phone number, which is what people who don’t have the app will see when you message them, so be sure to let them know it’s you. Note to minimalists: HeyWire is cluttered with a few too many bells and whistles, and there are advertisements in the app (not in the texts you send). But hey, it’s an inexpensive, entertaining way to stay in touch on the go.

HOTELTONIGHT. This free app enables you to find and book discounted same-day hotel rooms (thanks to unsold inventory) in more than 200 destinations worldwide. HotelTonight has been around for a few years, but it became more useful late last month when it began posting its daily deals at 9 a.m. local time, instead of noon. The app, which includes photos of the hotels and categorizes them (such as “basic,” “hip,” “luxe”), is most helpful if you end up stranded in a city. For instance, if you find yourself stuck at Kennedy Airport this Christmas, you can select “New York City — Airports” and find and book a room (up until 2 a.m. local time) without having to figure out which nearby hotels are available. (Speaking of airport snafus, many savvy travelers use the app FlightStats to track flights and keep abreast of delays and airport conditions.) HotelTonight occasionally turns up deals compelling enough to inspire a last-minute jaunt (you can’t book a room in advance, but you can book it for more than one night). According to the site’s executives, the lowest rates this holiday season can be had on Sundays, followed by Fridays.

IEXIT. We’ve all been there: driving on a freeway, hungry and in need of gas, a Starbucks, a Holiday Inn or all of the above. IExit enables you to push a button and see what’s coming up at major exits. You can then view restaurants and stores in list form or on a map (the app cautions drivers to refrain from using iExit unless they pull over or have a fellow passenger be in charge). The “lite” version is free but has advertisements; a 99 cent version has no ads and enables you to set up alerts for food or lodging and to see 150 exits down the road (as opposed to just 10 exits in the “lite” version).

PINTEREST. The creators of this digital scrapbooking site and free app finally realized that throngs of people were using Pinterest to plan, track and reflect on their travel experiences. The result: a new feature called Place Pins that allows users to add to their virtual pinboards maps with pins that include details, addresses and phone numbers. They can then send those boards to friends to share favorite sights. Or, say you’re touring Paris and snapping photos with your smartphone along the Champs-Élysées: You can immediately put those photos on a map with directions to each spot. So you’re not just taking pictures — you’re creating a photo album-cum-map that will show you exactly where you were when you bought those macarons.

POCKET. Most of us browse content on multiple devices and bookmark or email ourselves things to read later when we’re on an airplane, bus or in the back seat of a car. Pocket consolidates all of your digital reading material (articles, videos, images) in one spot — and on a clean, minimalist interface. It syncs across your devices, and you don’t need an Internet connection to read the content you send to Pocket. Tap the “how to save” button for a list of all the ways that you can send Pocket the things you wish to read later, be they links from web browsers, mobile browsers, your email inbox, Twitter or apps like Flipboard and Zite. It takes a few steps to set up, but once you do, you’re on the road not just to your destination, but to digital organization.

UBER. Cabs can be hard to come by, especially in bad weather. Enter Uber, which makes ordering a black car or taxi on demand in more than 20 countries — including New York, Paris, Berlin, Abu Dhabi and Tokyo — as easy as ordering in dinner. Begin by downloading the app and adding your credit card or PayPal account information. When you want a ride, the app will pinpoint your location using your smartphone’s GPS (and give you an estimate of how far away the closest car is), then select the type of car you want (like a black car or SUV). The app will show you your driver’s name, photo and a way to get in touch. And you’ll receive a text when it’s arriving: no waiting on a street corner in the cold. Tips are included in the price (unless you select the taxi option) and a receipt will be emailed to you. (If Uber is not available where you’re traveling, there are other taxi and car service apps you can try, like HailoTaxi Magic and MyTaxi.)