Best Apps for Travelers

William Hook, flickr

The exploding world of mobile apps is nothing short of overwhelming, especially when it comes to finding the best travel apps.

More than 5,000 of the products available in Apple's app store and on iTunes have something to do with travel. From apps that walk you through global cultural customs, to apps that tell you how to tip in foreign countries, the sky is the limit with this new form of mobile interaction. Though Apple offers the largest selection and best-known apps for its iPhone, there are also Droid apps as well as BlackBerry apps (and pretty much every other brand of mobile device). Apple is also developing a list of flashy iPad apps as well.

But wading through the thick sea of thousands of travel apps is a nearly impossible task, complicated by the fact that many apps come in a basic free version as well as a premium paid version. Below is a cherry-picked menu of travel apps to help you navigate the crowded app jungle (be aware that prices change frequently, and it's not rare for an app to suddenly fall in price or have a special promotional free day). You might be surprised to find out how many free apps do the same job as the pay ones -- if not better.

Airport apps: AirportAce ($0.99) vs. FLYsmart (Free)
There are all kinds of apps to get you through the mini cities that are modern-day airports. For instance, the Newark Airport Parking app reserves a spot for your car before you show up, and the Airport Wifi app points out free WiFi from a database of over 10,000 airports.

But a nifty do-all app, called AirportAce, is one-stop-shopping for every question that has ever crossed a traveler's mind while they've stumbled around an airport: restaurant listings, gate maps, smoking areas, public transportation options and even numbers for taxi companies.

Tightwads who don't want to shell out less than a buck for AirportAce can opt for the free FLYSmart app instead. This app also gives you lists of businesses in airports, gate locations, restroom locations, etc., in addition to the Geodelic guide for different cities. FLYSmart also informs you of arrival and departure updates. The only catch is it's currently available for only 14 airports in major U.S. cities like Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. AirportAce is good for 52, plus 13 international airports.

Restaurant apps: Zagat To Go ($9.99) vs. Urbanspoon (Free)
Restaurants live and die by their Zagat ratings, and Zagat To Go compiles info and reviews from 45 of the company's guidebooks into one handy-dandy touch-screen app. Its search and filter functionality is superb (you can choose what kind of restaurant decor, service, and cost you'd prefer), and you can reserve tables instantly as well. This award-winning app also hosts tons of "best of" lists and thousands of actual menus. Zagat To Go's hefty $9.99 price tag reflects the company's guidebook publishing roots, versus today's affordable 99-cent app world.

For free restaurant guides, try Urbanspoon, which is a lot more fun to use. You shake your mobile phone, and the screen spins like a slot machine, filtering different types of cuisine and neighborhoods until you have pinpointed something that's right up your alley. Urbanspoon gives you ratings from newspapers, bloggers, and fellow eaters and uses GPS to help find restaurants closest to you. Eating out is always gamble anyway, so a slot machine restaurant finder actually makes perfect sense.

Nightlife apps: NightLife ($0.99) vs. UrbanDaddy (Free)
Like restaurants apps, there are a zillion nightlife-finder apps for the tipsy and bleary-eyed who are trying to find where the next club lies. There are plenty of location-specific nightlife apps, but NightLife is a universal app with maps all over the U.S. to locate bars and clubs -- as well as those late-night necessities like liquor stores, tobacco shops and taxis. And don't worry -- if your misguided finger jabs can't seem to dial the number correctly, the app will call the establishment for you.

No-cost nightlife apps are as free-flowing as keggers at spring break with names like SloshSpot and clubZone. The award-winning UrbanDaddy is the mother, or should we say father, of all nightlife apps. If you want to be the know-it-all in your group who directs everyone to the hip and happening underground lounge or model-heavy techno rave, this app gives you the insider scoop in a trendy, tongue-in-cheek voice. Moreover, you get tons of exclusive offers and private entries, helping you slide effortlessly past the velvet rope. The only drawback is that UrbanDaddy currently offers listings in just ten U.S. cities -- making it only that much more exclusive.

Travel journals: Travel Diary ($2.99) vs. (Free)
Perhaps you recall the days your grandparents hauled out their slideshow and systematically tortured the family with tales of their last vacation. Well, now you can do it to every one of your casual acquaintances via the Internet! The Travel Diary app has really thought this one through: You snap a photo or record video while traveling, link a Google map to it, record your voice narration, and then easily post it to Facebook, your own web page, or via old-school, in-your-face email. Photos can be uploaded individually, or in "chapters" to create the epic saga that is your holiday.

But why fork over $2.99 when gives you even more for free? Along with the same photo and video sharing capabilities, the app has more interactive maps and directories to plan out your trip before you leave, as well as location templates to stylize your travel diary, notifications to alert your friends when you've updated your diary, and helpful info like local weather.

Travel postcards: Postcard ($1.99) vs. WN Postcard (Free)
The art of postcarding hasn't died, it's just been automated. As anyone who has sent an e-card knows, there is little reason to pay for a digital postcard when a multitude of freebies float all around cyberspace in search of senders. Which begs the question: Why pay $1.99 for an app like Postcard? Sure, using it is simple: Take a picture with your phone, add a message, click on an email address from your contacts list, add a Google map, and send. But it only allows you to tell your loved ones how much you miss them digitally.

The free app WN Postcard can do all of the above, but also physically mail a high-quality glossy postcard anywhere in the world for $2 (purchased through PayPal). In addition, WN Postcard offers some groovy postcard borders to place around your photos, and best of all they make it simple for users to donate to the Footprints Network which funds health and education projects in developing nations. It's a nice way to give back to the unique places that have given travelers so much.

Have a favorite travel app of your own? Let us know in the comments below.

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