I’m getting ready to embark on an 1800-mile road trip. In addition to having my car checked out, packing my bags, and picking out a selection of fine roadfoods at my local Trader Joes (ah, Sweet and Salty Trail Mix…) I’ve also been loading my blackberry up with useful software to lend a hand on the road.
While some rural areas don’t have data coverage, by now most interstate corridors do, as well as just about every reasonable-sized town. So at worst, I’ll find myself in a data blackout zone from time to time, usually as I navigate the straightaways between towns where I won’t need to look anything up anyway. (Just in case, I’ve marked my route on a current road atlas, and have printed out information about anything I know I definitely want to check out along the way.)
Wit location-aware phones becoming more and more common, a smartphone can take a lot of the sting out of driving. From finding a place to eat or fill up your gas tank to avoiding traffic jams and speed traps, as the folks at Apple would say, “there’s an app for that.”
Here are the ones I’ve decided are essential. I’m listing them by category, naming the one I’m using on my Blackberry, and naming some alternates in case the same app isn’t available on other platforms.
- Maps: Even if your phone isn’t GPS-enabled, as long as you have a connection to a cell tower today’s phones can pinpoint your location reasonably well. Although there are many high-quality paid apps out there, I am perfectly happy with the free, cross-platform Google Maps (you can download one, some, or all the Google Mobile apps at that link). Google Maps does a great job of creating directions, finding nearby businesses, listing traffic in major metropolitan areas, and if you’re not too worried about the privacy implications, letting selected family members know where you are (using the new Latitude system).
- Local Search: Google Maps is pretty good, but sometimes a dedicated local search app will find businesses that Google doesn’t – or present other information in an easier-to-use way than Google. On my Blackberry, I like Poynt. It’s slick, easy to use, and does local search and movies (for when I’m back home). It also has maps, but like I said, I like Google Maps best. Similar apps on other platforms include Live Search Mobile for Windows phones and Yelp Mobile for iPhone (non-iPhonies can access Yelp through their phone’s web browser, too). Palm users are pretty much stuck with Google Maps, which sucks because once upon a time they had the best of all local search apps, Vindigo, now gone forever.
- TwitPic: Technically not an app, TwitPic is nonetheless useful on the road where you might not have the time or ability to download pictures and email them to friends and family as you travel. Instead, take a picture with your cameraphone and email it to your personal TwitPic email address (under “Settings” – TwitPic is free, by the way) to have the picture posted online and a tweet automatically sent to Twitter with a link. Any phone with email can use it, although some Twitter clients have TwitPic functionality built in, too.
- A Twitter client: On Blackberry, there’s really just TwitterBerry. On Palm Treos, there’s MoTwit. Windows Mobile users like PocketTwit. iPhone users have 16.482 different Twitter clients to choose from, all of them good. Point is, you’re traveling – forget email. Forget postcards. Tweet. 140 characters from the base of Carhenge (in Alliance, Nebraska – go now if you’ve never been!) or the rim of the Grand Canyon is enough. Keep the wordiness for when you get home.
- GPS Tracking: Track every step of your trip with a good GPS tracking program. The best are the ones that produce a stream that can be merged with your geotagged pictures to create a visual map of your voyage, but even if you can’t (maybe your camera doesn’t geotag?) you can still create a pretty nifty map using something like GPSed on your Blackberry, iPhone, Win Mobile, or Symbian device. (Sorry Palm users – if it’s any consolation, maybe the release of the Pre next month will attract developers? In the meantime, Garmin used to make a pretty good GPS tracking program that it sold with it’s Bluetooth GPS devices – and maybe still does?)
- Qik: Qik is in a category of its own, allowing you to stream live video from your phone. In a rare turnaround, iPhones aren’t supported (yet); everyone else can look for their phone on the supported phones page. Streaming video from your phone will burn through your battery pretty fast so make sure you have a car charger handy…
- Picture Shopping: On the road is nowhere to be buying everyday items. A wooden carving of Mt. Rushmore, certainly, but not a wrist-rest for your mouse. Now image recognition technologies allow you to use camera-enabled apps to shop – you just take a picture of the thing you want and the app figures out what itis. On the Blackberry, there’s Amazon Mobile, which will add the item to your Amazon wishlist (or you can order it immediately once the picture is identified, which takes about 10-15 minutes – this isn’t on the spot shopping!), which is also available for the iPhone. iPhonies have another choice, though ,that’s arguably better: SnapTell (also available for Android phones). SnapTell reportedly works faster and searches more sites than just Amazon.
- Speed Trap Finder: Trapster collects data from thousands of users to warn you of impending speed traps, red-light cameras, and checkpoints to let you know what’s coming up. To make sure the reports are accurate, Trapster gives more weight to reports confirmed by multiple users, and you can set the level of reliability you want to respond to. Trapster runs on most phones except Treos (and Android, it appears).
- Weather: There are a million of these, take your pick. Try to find one that lets you track weather in several locations, and add your destination for each day. I use WeatherEye (to save memory, I only install WorldMate – see below – when I’m traveling by plane). Unfortunately, you can’t add a second city – but it does pretty good short- and long-term forecasts that kind of make up for that.
- Travel Planner: WorldMate runs on Blackberry and Windows Mobile; you’ll have to search around for other platforms, because I don’t know anything quite like it myself. WorldMate stores itineraries, and sends you reminders for flights and other time-sensitive events. It also does weather for several locations, so scratch #9 above if you can use WorldMate. The neat thing about WorldMate is that you can forward reservation confirmation emails to them and they’ll automatically enter them in your itinerary – and they do a pretty good job of pulling the relevant data, too!
There you go – 10 great mobile apps for travelers. Tell us what you use in the comments!