Travel Tech Review: All The Apps You Need

A smartphone is your No. 1 go-to travel gadget.
Photo credit: Jordan McQueen via Unsplash.

How many apps does a person really need to travel with?

Every veteran traveler knows to pack light, to do the whole zip-off pants and black t-shirt thing, but does that commitment to economy extend to their smartphone? Smartphones have become the modern-day junk drawer, a repository for apps of occasionally occasional value that accumulate on the back pages and in the subfolders of subfolders until the phone’s innards explode, causing everyone on the train to stare quizzically at their earbuds and making a nasty stain in your pocket.

Well, enough of that. It’s time your smartphone traveled as light as your suitcase.

Listen, we all have fun travel apps that we don’t send on a one-way trip to Deleteville because … well, because. I hang onto Trover and Gogobot because I like their models and the North Korea Travel app for cheap entertainment. They serve the same function as the movie Airplane!, or that friend from college who never quite moved on. But when I’m going somewhere I never say, “Oh, gee; I need to check Gogobot before I go.” Much as Gogobot might like it to be otherwise.

I’m writing this from Portland, Ore., and I took this trip as an opportunity to pack light, smartphone-wise, and pare down my apps to the ones I felt would serve an essential function on my trip.

Here’s what didn’t make the cut.

By incorporating reviews and other content, the Expedia and Orbitz apps have upped their usefulness tremendously, but they still get left at home. Call me a weak-eyed Luddite, but I prefer to book travel in a format slightly larger than a smartphone screen. I haven’t yet reached that level of on-the-go-ness where I book my family vacation on my iPhone as I sprint out of a meeting into a limo waiting to whisk me to Bill’s Pizza, straightening my tie and flashing a Chiclet smile as I run. With any luck, I never will.

Airline sites are also left behind. If you’re just using an airline app for check-in, do it online. Most concerns about flight status will be answered at the airport; otherwise, sign up for push notifications with your airline, and have them contact you when they need to.

I also have this crazy notion that I travel primarily for me, so I don’t need a dedicated travel-photo-sharing apps to create and share my vacation brag book. I’m getting away from it all; even Instagram can wait.

Basically, the apps that come with me have to get me there, get me around, and give me something to do once I’m there.

The BHTP app is a great way to access and purchase AirCare – and you bet I buy AirCare for my personal travel. Why wouldn’t I? I really do fly happier knowing that I’ve got help, and I’m getting money, if my flights go haywire.

On the ground, I need a map program. CityMaps2Go is detailed and has potential, but for pure functionality it comes down to Google Maps versus Apple Maps. I’m into my 10th month of a side-by-side comparison, and Google Maps gets my nod. Apple’s interface is classic Apple – elegant and user-friendly as a golden retriever, but Google Maps is simply more useful. It’s like the difference between a pickup truck and a Tesla. A Tesla is a marvelous testament to human ingenuity, but when you have to pull a stump you need a pickup.

The ideal give-me-something-to-do-once-I’m-there app would suggest places to go and deliver useful, location-aware feedback. In that regard, I haven’t seen anything that can top TripAdvisor’s city guides.

Going with Apple and Google and TripAdvisor is like picking the Seahawks to win the Super Bowl, but there’s a reason why you go with the favorites. It’s critical mass: TripAdvisor has more and better developers, so the interface is super-smooth, and they have more reviewers, so the depth of knowledge is better.

Anytime we were questioning where to go or what to do in Portland, the TripAdvisor app delivered the information we needed. We were on the streetcar heading into downtown from the southwest waterfront and wanted to find a vegetarian restaurant where we could cool our heels. TripAdvisor found a highly-rated one at the next stop – quickly and easily. TripAdvisor was simply so right about so many things that it’s impossible not to recommend them.

Still, the most useful app in Portland didn’t come from some powerhouse like Google, Apple, or Trip Advisor. It was the ticket app of the local mass-transit service, TriMet.

The masses are finally realizing that cities are better without cars. Unless you’re connected at the hip to your vehicle or have the misfortune to land in a sprawling metroplex with no efficient mass-transit system – hello, Houston – it simply makes sense to go car-less and leave the driving to the autopilots.

Portland is so good at mass transit it’s almost European. TriMet trains and buses go everywhere – even to the airport – and ticketing is super-easy with the TriMet ticket app. Buy a one-day pass ($5) through the app, and your tickets go everywhere your phone goes, on the bus, streetcar, or light rail.

If you’re in a less-advanced place than Portland, check out the local mass-transit system’s app for functionality. You may want to augment it with the Uber, Lyft, Zipcar, and/or Car2Go apps – and if none of those are available in your chosen city, choose another city. Seriously. Unless the beer is out-of-this-world awesome.

Finally, remember that the best app of all is no app at all. Find friends who know a city and are willing to show you around or suggest some starting points. (We’re talking to you, Jenn.) Then get out and explore, for yourself, without anything else to guide you. Sure, you’ll make mistakes, but travel without mistakes isn’t really travel. It’s just a guided tour under another guise. And that’s not what you signed up for.

Who knows what might happen if you do that? The next review that reveals the next hot destination might come from … you. Hope so.


Author: Kit Kiefer

As content engineer for Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, I have one of the world's great jobs. Not only do I get to write about travel, but I get to edit the work of fantastically talented contributors from around the world. Plus I get all the maple syrup I can drink.