Travelling? Pack these handy apps
IF YOU don't think technology can improve your trip, meet Judy Williams. When she and her husband recently checked into the Radisson Blu Hotel in Zurich, a clerk asked them to sign the dotted line on a room rate hundreds of dollars higher than that in their online confirmation.
"It was not a budget stay," says Mrs Williams, a lawyer from Billings, Montana.
But it became more of one after her husband fired up the Booking.com app he'd used to purchase their room on his smartphone.
"As soon as we showed him the rate, he honoured it," Mrs Williams says.
Technology may create its fair share of challenges for travellers - indeed, it may have led to the Williams' rate confusion in the first place - but it can also remedy them.
The solutions go beyond verifying a hotel rate. The latest apps can protect you from a frivolous car-rental damage claim or connect you with your friends without racking up high roaming charges.
If you've asked Santa for a smartphone, you might want to install these handy programs after he's granted your holiday wish. (Unless otherwise specified, all apps listed are for iOS and Android, and free for the basic version.)
But first things first. The latest version of Booking.com is among the most feature-rich booking programs. Users can select hotels by location, make a secure booking and view the confirmed rate, so they never need to renegotiate their room price.
Frivolous damage claims are one of the most vexing problems for car-rental customers. Often, the evidence presented by the firm of a ding or dent is less than convincing.
Enter Record360 (iPhone only), which allows rental-car customers to note any pre-existing damage to their vehicles. If everyone used this app, I'd be out of a job.
The program, originally intended for use at car-rental locations, will be available as a consumer app this autumn.
Shane Skinner, one of Record360's developers, is a former car-rental employee who wanted a way to offer both the renter and the company "an objective, time-stamped view of property at time of exchange", he says. "This protects both parties from damage-related expenses and fees."
But you could also use the program for other types of rentals, including vacation homes, boats or ski equipment.
Another pain point for travellers is traffic that eats away precious vacation time. There's a new app for that, courtesy of MapQuest, called Commute.
As the name implies, it's aimed at users who have to make the same trip every day. But if you're headed to Los Angeles or Honolulu, where visitors can easily get stuck in hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic, Commute can still help.
Just input basic information about your destination and expected departure time, and the app will start sending you traffic data 15 minutes before you leave. Testing Commute proved to be a challenge for me, because my home address is about 1,450km from my place of work.
But if you have only a short distance to travel through a densely populated area, you can use Commute to steer clear of congestion.
Several app developers have come up with a novel way around often bandwidth-hungry map applications.
Maps.me (US$4.99, S$6.45) allows users to download maps of the cities they're visiting and view them offline. The offline maps work with your smartphone's GPS, so you can use them without running up a huge wireless bill.
The same is true of Stay.com, which integrates offline maps with curated guides by local experts from 150 cities.
Another source of travel-related conflict and confusion is money. That's particularly true when you're dealing with a foreign currency.
The latest version of Travel Money Tracker (US$1.99, iPhone only) helps travellers prevent currency mix-ups. It instantly converts a country's native currency to yours, so you know exactly how much that espresso in Milan costs in dollars.
One neat feature is the ability to set up an alert that tells you when you're overspending, which can sometimes be a problem when you're on vacation. The only catch is that you have to remember to record all your purchases.
To quell anxiety about major disruptions, there's Travel Safe (US$1.29), a clever program that helps users dial emergency numbers when they're overseas. "It's good for peace of mind," says Helene Sotsky, the operations manager for a travel agency in Needham, Massachusetts.
Travel Safe even shares your GPS location with emergency services. Even if you can't speak the language, they'll know where you are.
When it comes to phones, perhaps the most irritating travel problem is connectivity. One of my favourite Wi-Fi networks is Boingo (subscription required). This autumn, it's deploying a new network that it says reimagines public Wi-Fi based on usage profiles. It's one of several connectivity apps bringing us closer to a day when you don't have to rely on expensive mobile networks to phone home.
If you want to upgrade messaging during your travels, try a new app called Glide. It allows you to instantly send video-text messages to individuals or groups. It's optimised for low-bandwidth scenarios, so there's no need to worry about getting a ridiculous charge on your roaming bill at the end of your trip. Glide is now being used by tour guides who want to reach large groups, according to its developer.
Taken together, these apps remedy some of the most common travel problems. But not all of them. Some things, no smartphone can fix. Which means I get to keep my job - for now.
The writer, National Geographic Traveler's reader advocate and author of How To Be The World's Smartest Traveler (National Geographic), maintains a consumer-advocate website at elliott.org