The Geek's Travel Guide: 25 Online Apps to Help Plan Your Trip
So you're driving across the country, making good time, until you hit Chicago rush-hour traffic. How were you to know that you just signed up for four hours of gridlock? Well, one way you could have avoided the situation altogether was to use a traffic density map to help plan your trip route and timing. And while you were at it, you might have used a whole lot of other online tools to help make your trip go smoother and be a whole lot more fun.
I work at VroomVroomVroom.com which compares car rental prices and am always finding that drivers are so underprepared when trekking in a new city or venturing on a longish road trip. So this article reviews all those geeky websites that I wish people would see before they rent!
Today, tech savvy travelers can use online apps to make sure they are getting the best gas prices in every city, find the classic rock station in every town along their route, have a reserved parking space when they arrive at their destination, and even sign up for a program that lets them text message other cars using just their license plate number.
But despite all the online technology roadtrippers and vacationers could be using to improve their trips, most of us are still resorting to Web 1.0 sites like Mapquest, simply because we didn't know there was a better way.
In this article we introduce you to 25 of the best online travel apps, so that the next time you need to take a trip, you will be prepared.
Maps and Traffic Reports
Perhaps the most basic piece of equipment for any traveler is a good map. In this section, we highlight the best the web has to offer when it comes to global maps driven by web 2.0 apps. From driving directions to traffic reports to local attractions, these maps have all the tools to successfully navigate you to any destination in style.
- Google Maps
The majority of travel websites and software have integrated Google Maps into their architecture due to the application's ease of use and popularity. But despite all its popularity, the standard Google Maps layout should just be a starting point when mapping out your trip.
Instead, you should move beyond the simple grid style map and try Google Maps "Hybrid" feature. In this arrangement, Google Maps superimposes easy to read street names and direction markers on top of clear satellite images in order to combine the mapping benefits of being able to see the actual road with the readability that only superimposed markers can bring.
In addition to its hybrid functionality, Google recently integrated live traffic reports from major U.S. cities into their maps' interface. To activate the feature, simply click the "Traffic" button and zoom in above a city with traffic monitoring enabled.
While Google Maps can provide you with a quick traffic overview, for the most comprehensive traffic data, look no further than Traffic. Traffic contains breakdowns of the highways that pass through major U.S. cities instead of just limiting traffic reports to generalized city congestion.
In fact, the reports Traffic provides are so thorough that data is actually broken down from mile marker to mile marker on the major freeways. The application also gives up-to-date information on the critical intersections and "hotspots" within a city, that way you'll always know what to expect from the routes you travel the most.
But the real genius of Traffic from a traveler's perspective, is that by incorporating the traffic data from the site into your travel plans, you can schedule around peak traffic times on each road and thus effectively minimize any chance of hitting traffic congestion during your trip.
- Ask City
But our favorite Ask City feature is the ability to draw and save doodles on the map. This is especially useful for plotting directions in difficult areas and correcting inadequate routes.
Parking Spot Locators
One of the most difficult tasks to do in unfamiliar cities is find a parking spot. To solve that problem (and relieve most of us from having to parallel park) a new industry has come about buying and selling parking spots. No, we're not talking about selling standard spaces at the mall, but rather spaces that wouldn't normally be available to the public such as spots in company garages or parking in a stranger's driveway while he's on vacation. The three apps we've selected provide international parking assistance, so no matter where your trip takes you, you won't be without parking.
SpotScout is the United States' solution for the parking spot market. The site acts as a link between the driver searching for a parking space and the parking space owner looking to rent out a space. The two parties hook up on SpotScout's website and payment is made to the parking space renter. Once payment is received, the parking space rentee is allowed to park in the space for the agreed on amount of time.
Unfortunately, SpotScout is only available in Boston, New York, and San Francisco at this time. However, SpotScout already has plans to go nationwide in order to keep up with the growing demand for reserved parking spaces, so keep an eye out for this option in the future when planning a trip to any major metropolitan area.
On the other side of the globe, Findacarpark is Australia's solution for buying and selling parking spaces. Findacarpark charges a one time $30 (Australian) fee to the party wishing to rent out a parking space and publishes the space nationally on Findacarpark's website. The average prime location parking spot goes for about $200 (Australian) per month.
Unlike SpotScout, Findacarpark is available throughout the entire Australian continent making it extremely easy for everyone on the island to find spaces in adjacent cities.
The United Kingdom's leading parking spot locating company, ParkatmyHouse, boasts parking spaces covering all the major metropolitan areas throughout England, and has initiated plans expand to virtually every part of the U.K.
ParkatmyHouse's best feature is the interactive parking space map. Simply zoom in to your desired level (be it county, street, etc.) and ParkatmyHouse will display your options within that area. From there you're able to find the best possible deal by comparing location and price. Deep within the heart of London we found spaces as cheap as $20 per week; however, the average price was considerably higher than that.
If you're into road trips but are on a tight budget, or simply dislike driving long distances alone, you should check out the ride sharing apps in this section. These applications work by matching up registered commuters who are both headed in the same direction. The obvious limitation with all of these ride sharing applications is that it can be difficult to know too much about the person you'll be carpooling with ahead of time, so make sure to check the feedback other users leave about a user so that you don't end up stuck traveling cross-country in someone's dilapidated pickup with expired tags.
Ridester's clean interface and interactive design make it ideal for finding other travelers along your route. To start the ride sharing process, list your trip (including date, time, route, and price to tag along) on Ridester's network and wait for other travelers to contact you.
Once you find a worthy travel-mate, have them pay the "tag along price" you requested to Ridester and wait for the payment to go through. After the payment is processed (and Ridester pulls a small administrative fee) you're good to go. Be sure to leave feedback on any passengers or drivers you ride with to keep the community informed.
eRideShare contains more than 20,000 total ride share listings throughout the United States and Canada. But what sets this application apart is the wide range of trips it covers. For example, the site has listings for trips as short as running a single errand, to people looking for daily commuter carpoolers, as well as those looking for a cross-country companion. In addition, eRideShare maintains an extensive list of tips and tools for picking the right passenger to help minimize the chances of getting stuck with an undesirable companion.
So whether you're simply looking to carpool to work, save money driving around locally, or split costs on a cross-country trip, eRideShare has you covered.
Road Trip Specific Apps
The applications in this section are designed specifically to improve your roadtripping experience. From finding cheap gas prices, to automatically tallying up costs, to being able to give other drivers a piece of your mind through SMS messaging, these apps are certain to make your road trip a more exciting adventure.
There's nothing more infuriating than filling up your tank and then driving another 5 miles only to see it $0.50 cheaper. The price of gas is so different from city to city (and in many cases block to block) that finding the best deals is an important way to cut your travel costs. To simplify the process, GasBuddy compiles lists of gas prices around the nation making it possible for you to find the best deal.
Be sure to use the "Map Gas Prices" to get a view of all of the listed gas stations in your area -- you'd be surprised how much money you can save by going a few miles out of your way.
Every roadtripper is familiar with the tedious process of having to scroll through the radio dial for a radio station every time you pass through a new city. Thankfully, Radio-Locator has done all of the work for you by amassing a list of radio stations around the world.
United States and Canada residents can find local radio stations by entering in the cities or zip codes they will drive through, or by browsing for stations by genre. For international travelers, radio stations aren't broken down quite as well, but they are still available in complete lists.
- BizMile Tracker
If you're big into traveling for your business, you probably know that the miles you travel going from site to site can be deducted from your taxes. However, the problem has always been knowing how much to accurately deduct. BizMile Tracker solves that problem by helping you to quickly and easily keep track of the tax deductible miles you traveled for the year.
BizMile 2006 is available free of charge to help you process your 2006 tax deductions (but you better move fast, tax day is on coming soon!), and for $29 you can pickup BizMile 2007. Considering you only have to travel 65 miles to make up for the software fees, BizMile is a pretty good deal.
To stay in touch with your peers when attending a business meeting, you might want to consider using PairUp. PairUp allows you to coordinate the schedules of a group of people attending the same function, as well as find other industry members looking for people to correspond with. PairUp will also send you updates when colleagues are coming into town, so that you can always be prepared.
If you're a business traveler looking to stay connected, PairUp might be your solution of choice.
Okay so maybe PL8SCAN isn't the most productive app, but it is certainly a lot of fun. By registering with the PL8SCAN website, users allow other drivers to notify them via SMS based upon their license plate number.
You can contact PL8SCAN members via text messaging "PL8ME" with the body "POST license plate number body" on the cell phone, or by simply filling out a form online. Some of the suggested body phrases include "your left tail light is out", "slow down 5-0 is up the road", and "thanks for cutting me off jerk."
Travel Search Engines
Most of us have probably used travel sites like Expedia, Orbitz or Hotels.com to find cheap flights and lodging. Those sites became so popular because they were able to search for and automatically aggregate deals from a wide variety of providers. The applications we highlight in this section have taken that model one step further, by aggregating deals from the travel sites as well as from major direct providers. The apps work by traversing through an extensive list of airlines, hotels, and other travel sites to bring you the best possible deals, and because of their particular ease of use and search capabilities, we have selected the following two apps as travel planning essentials.
The smart way to seearch and compare Airline Tickets prices. Searching cheap airfares and learn how to get the best flight for your next vacation. Find travel details on destinations, airports, airline information, search by date and flexible search options.
Kayak's clean interface and auto-complete forms make it extremely easy to book your trip. Gone are the days where you needed to know the airport code or exactly spelling of the airport you're flying out of -- "Honey how do you spell Chhatrapati Shivaji?" (an airport in India).
After completing your preliminary search, Kayak allows you to modify the options on the left side of the page to the find solution that's best for you. If you'd like Kayak to walk you through the process, click the "Need Help" link and just answer the questions Kayak asks you. "Do you dislike long layovers?" "Why yes, yes I do."
SideStep searches more than 150 websites to find some of the best travel deals the internet has to offer. The app features a comprehensive search list customizable down to the type of currency you prefer to see prices in -- Want to pay in the Ugandan Shilling? You got it.
Our favorite feature on SideStep is the application's ability to link everything together. When you specify that you're going to be landing in New York's LaGuardia airport, for example, SideStep knows you'll probably need a hotel and/or car on a certain date and has that portion of the app already filled out for you. Although that automation may only sound like a few seconds of saved time, SideStep's total trip integration really makes the booking process easy and ensures you won't overlook any needed bookings.
Community Based Destination Reviews
If you've decided to take the family on a road-trip down to Cancun, how are you going to know which restaurants will leave you full and happy, and which ones will leave you ... well, worse off. You might trust the restaurants' websites, but you don't often come across a website that announces that their food and service are terrible, even though you frequently find actual restaurants that are. So instead, one of the best options is to rely on the opinions and experiences of other travelers. Community-based destination review sites use the social networking concept and allow users to review restaurants, hotels, scenic areas and basically everything else related to travel. In this section, we highlight the three most comprehensive and most accurate community based destination review sites.
When it comes to sheer volume, TripAdvisor trumps all other review sites, boasting a library of 5 million opinions on 220,000+ attractions. Despite TripAdvisor's immense volume of knowledge, however, we found it a little difficult to find information on general topics.
To maximize your searching experience, you'll need to have a fairly good idea of what you're looking for. Instead of "restaurants Houston, Texas" try "steak restaurant Houston, Texas."
If you can't decide on where you'd like to vacation, check out VirtualTourist. VirtualTourist offers 2.6 million photos, 2 million mapped destinations, and one of the best travel guide libraries on the web, giving you all the information you'll need to plan the perfect escape.
As you're browsing through the apps travel tips, be sure to rate them, so that the next traveler to come along is advised as well as you were.
RealTravel takes advantage of the internet blogging phenomenon by pairing destination searches to blogs from local residents and other travelers. From there you gain a first hand account of what that destination is truly like. After all, who better to tell you where the locals prefer to eat than a local.
RealTravel's best features are the "recommendations" and "editor's picks" tabs. The recommendations section asks you a few personality questions and identifies potential locations that would be of interest for you to travel to. The editor's picks section highlights some of the best blogs and travel photos of the day, which can be a great way to come up with new ideas for travel destinations.
Cheap Travel-Ready GPS Solutions
No matter how much planning you do for a particular trip, there will always be times when you want to get off the plan and explore something unexpected. When that happens, it is often a good idea to have a GPS available to get you back onto the beaten-path once your diversion is over. Unfortunately, a stand alone GPS device typically costs hundreds of dollars and often they are tied to a vehicle or only have a short battery life. In this section, we highlight three very affordable GPS devices which work with smart phones and PDAs, so that you won't need to purchase a stand-alone unit, and you can take it with you walking around city streets.
When traveling, you often need on-the-fly directions from not just within the car, but walking around too.
TeleNav is the premiere solution for GPS navigation on your mobile device. For less than $10 per month, you can reap all of the benefits of a stand alone GPS device such as; turn by turn navigation, voice guidance, automatic re-routing when you miss a turn, and business locators. Before you rush out and by TeleNav, however, take a moment to make sure that it is compatible with your mobile device.
Whether it's keeping track of the various members of your family or monitoring the location of your off-site employees, 3DTracking has got you covered free of charge.
The technology works by interpreting GPS locations from mobile devices -- with 3DTracking's software installed of course -- and displaying the data in a web app. User's can access the information by creating an account on 3DTracking's website.
AccuTracking goes a step beyond 3DTracking and provides extremely detailed information about the location, speed, heading, and mileage of the mobile devices being tracked. AccuTracking also takes advantage of Geofencing technology and notifies you when the mobile devices being tracked have stepped out of bounds of the fence you've created. This can be a very helpful technology for families in which teens want the freedom to walk around Disneyworld unsupervised, but whose parents want the comfort of knowing where they are at all times.
Itinerary Planning and Organizational Apps
The apps we've covered thus far will help improve the portions of your trip when you are actually in transit, but what about when you finally arrive at your destination? In this section we cover applications designed to help you fill your itinerary with fun events as well as a few tools to keep you organized while you're doing it.
- Epic Trip
If pictures don't give you a complete enough idea of what a destination will actually be like, you should consider checking out Epic Trip's virtual tours. From hotels to day spas to museums, the "ideas + interests" section of Epic Trip contains close to 2,000 videos of popular attractions world wide. The videos are categorized by country, state, and topics ranging from "beaches + waterfronts" to "casino areas."
Epic Trip also maintains a section of the website dedicated to students. The "student travel" section contains information on how to obtain student discounts and attractions geared toward college kids.
Travel websites are usually setup to accommodate the interests and itineraries of one person, or in some cases your immediate family. But if your goal is to plan a trip for a diverse group of people, you'll need to seek the help of TripHub.
TripHub allows a group of people to access and modify the details and event schedule of a trip, making it possible for traveling groups to stay organized and for everyone to have some input in the trip's events.
A delayed flight can devastate a travel itinerary. Fortunately, late flights tend to be concentrated around specific time-slots within particular airports. So, by knowing which flights are typically late, and avoiding them, you can reduce the chances that your trip scheduling is thrown off. To gain the most amount of information about the airport you flying out of, the airline you're flying with and the flight that you're on, you've got to check out FlightStats.
FlightStats marquee feature is their live tracking app that keeps you up to date on the stats of your flight, and all the flights currently coming in and out of the airport you'll be flying out of. To top it off, FlightStats maintains scorecards on the various elements and companies involved in the travel industry to offer consumers the most comfortable flying experience.
If you know where you want to go but don't have a clue what to do when you're there, you should check out TripTie. TripTie is a community where travelers post their vacation itineraries including where they're staying, what activities they'll be doing and how much the activities are going to cost.
- BONUS APP: 43Places
So you've made it in to town, you're done with the company meeting and you're ready to experience the night life but don't have a clue where to begin. Don't worry, 43Places has all of that worked out for you. Simply type the name of the city you're staying in into 43Places search box and hit enter. From there, a list of activities will pop up and give you plenty of reasons to turn off the computer and go out on the town.