Must Have Travel Apps: Tested On A Real Trip

On a trip to San Francisco last week, I invited technology to bring me to my knees. Choosing to surrender my formerly sharp analog city instincts for the purposes of an experiment, I mapped even the simplest of routes on my smartphone, dialed nary a hotel front desk and never once so much as lifted a hand to hail a cab the good ol' fashioned way. 

That's not to say that I needed any of the myriad apps that alternately had me walking the toward my destination and walking into traffic at any given time, but I was curious if relying wholly on my mobile devices would actually make my life easier or just add a layer of electronic hassle.

Here's how my starter pack of travel apps stacked up - from the essential to the ones that made me want to sacrifice my phone to the third rail. 

1. Getting Around Made Addictively Easy: Uber

As a former Manhattanite and all-around urban power-walker, I don't take cabs often. But in San Francisco, my constant frustration with the public transportation system drove me to it once or twice - and everyone kept telling me I had to try Uber. "You'll feel like a gangster," they said. "You have to order the black car just to see how it feels." So I did. Not only did it subtract every irritating thing that annoys me about getting a cab to begin with (Vying against fellow city-goers! Arguing about using a credit card! Awkward tipping!) but I felt like a mafia wife. Amazing.

2. #Epicfail: Apple Maps In iOS 6

At the moment, I use both an iPhone 4S and a Nexus 4, so I thought I'd put Apple's new Maps to the test. I rarely defend Apple's software choices, but recently I'd even reassured a few friends that iOS 6 maps wasn't that bad. Well, I'd like to formally apologize to anyone who listened to me - Maps in iOS 6 is godforsakenly bad. In San Francisco - the technology capitol of the United States - most of the time the app didn't even properly display the Montgomery, Powell, and Civic Center BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) stations in the middle of downtown. Instead, it always showed the Van Ness Muni (local San Francisco mass transit) station... and the Apple Store, of course. Want bus directions? Forget about it. Enjoy the redirect to a third-party app. I imagine Apple execs have quite a few Uber bills showing up on those expense reports.

3. A Lifesaver With Limited Options: Hotel Tonight

In a weird turn of events that involved geophysicists taking over SoMA, I had to basically had to hotel-hop for my four nights in San Francisco. After last-minute-ish Airbnb propositions consummately failed me, I turned to Hotel Tonight, which yes, books same-day hotels at deep discounts. I'm a comparison shopping junkie, so Hotel Tonight's simple, sleek interface and small batch of curated bookings was perfect. The app refreshes with new listings at noon (it sends alterts!), and was perfect for all of my last minute "I'm not sleeping in my rental car" needs. 

4. The Essentialest Essential Travel App: Yelp

Yelp has been one of my top three essential apps since… forever. It's almost a nervoud tic at this point - I can't actually cross the threshold of any kind of establishment without Yelping it, even in my own city. With reliable user ratings, a robust map view and awesome filters, Yelp will never do you wrong.

5. Serendipitous But Superfluous: Field Trip for Android

I've been playing around with this one a bit, and it's pretty neat if you're not in a hurry. The app, built by Niantic Labs within Google, is a handy little virtual tour guide that surfaces cool stuff nearby with contextual info. You can teach it what you're interested in and set up geo-triggered alerts for your stroll through a city. In my case I enabled the Architecture and Historic Places categories and disabled all of the deals and shopping stuff. It's far from essential, but it's a neat way to learn cool facts that will come up later on Jeopardy - and it ties into Ingress, Google's crazy new Augmented Reality game.

6. The Best Maps App, Still: Google Maps For Android

Ah, sweet, native Google Maps. The app has always been superior on its home turf, and with Jelly Bean and Google Now it's better than ever. It's got it all, turn-by-turn directions, support for public transportation (and biking routes!) and starring locations (akin to dropping a pin) is my favorite way to see where I've been and where I'm going.

7. Reality Gamification With Occasional Social Utility: Foursquare

Call me paranoid, but I don't open Foursquare unless I'm out of town - it just creeps me out. Since most of my travel is to tech events, Foursquare is suddenly transformed from stalker-bait to a bustling real-life mini-game that helps me find friends - and cut the signal-to-noise ratio when there are multiple events going on and you can't tell which is the cool one and which is the decoy event for losers. Don't be fooled- there's always a decoy event.

I may have almost walked into traffic more than a few times while triangulating my position when I wasn't particularly lost, but I did learn a few things. Whipping out a smartphone can be disruptive, but with smart notifications, dead-simple interfaces and cooler data, the best apps are getting even better at seamlessly weaving themselves into our worlds. Just look both ways before you cross the street.

Other handy apps that I didn't end up using on this trip: Kayak, Airbnb, Lyft, TripAdvisor.

San Francisco City Center image courtesy of Shutterstock.