Updated: Oct 25, 2018
The Best Travel Apps In 2018 - Tips From a Travel Writer
As a travel writer, I'm on the road at least once a month, and sometimes more than that.
Within just one year, I've been to Mexico, Scotland, Canada, Japan as well as U.S. cities such as Miami, Park City and Austin. I rely on apps to get me through to flights, to keep me updated on gate changes, to track my bags and to speed me through customs.
Here are the essential travel apps you should have, as recommended by a travel writer.
This sounds completely obvious, yes, but it's been my experience that even savvy travelers make a few mistakes with airline apps. They don't update the app in the days leading up to the trip, and again on the night before they fly. (An old or outdated app can't help you.) Also, travelers don't always turn on push notifications (the app can't help you if it can't reach you.)
Whether you fly Delta, American, United or any other airline, always start with downloading the app of the carrier you're flying with. Link your frequent flyer number and enter all your contact info. International airline apps are hit or miss, and a few are downright useless, but it's better to have one than not.
In the best scenario, not only can you use your phone to scan a boarding pass, but most airline apps will send updates on your checked bags, changes in gates and any delays in boarding. For example, one night last winter, a major storm was due to hit before a planned morning flight to Mexico. Just as I would have been falling asleep, United's app buzzed with news that my 7 a.m. flight was cancelled. Within the app, I booked myself onto an earlier flight and left before the storm arrived.
This is my most indispensable travel app, and it's more than just a back up to airline apps. It is more useful and faster; TripCase tends to beat even the airlines with notifications about gate changes and delays.
TripCase is a trip manager, and you can link entire bookings, including hotels, car rentals and attractions, with your flight.
This is the Type A Traveler's dream app. It features relevant information which is sometimes obscured in airline apps, like total travel time, type of plane, indoor airport maps and airline phone numbers. You can save receipts or even order an Uber directly within the app. If you only get one travel app, this is the one to get.
If you really want to indulge your inner airline nerd, then FlightAware delivers real time tracking of airport conditions and flights, including private and charter planes.
Typing in "JFK," for example, brings up a list of all departing and arriving flights. The app shows plane routes, and even has real time updates when planes land, taxi and take off from airports.
These options are helpful if you're tracking someone else's flight status or trying to figure out if your connecting flight has arrived (or left).
You can also track airport delays around the world. On a recent afternoon, San Francisco was dealing with up to four-hour delays on inbound flights due to high winds, and 30-minute departure delays due to taxiway congestion. At the same time, Paris Orly also had departure delays of 30 minutes but JFK and Newark had no reported issues.
Dark Sky is a geo-location app, which is handy for notifications about where you physically are. But you can also use it to research what the weather will be like around the world, which is helpful in packing. It also comes in handy when you're wondering whether a storm is going to be just a few flakes or something major that may impact your travel.
While Dark Sky can sometimes make weather mistakes (as it did with a big Northeast winter storm recently), it has been, and remains, my weather app of choice for several years now. Its strength lies in predicting weather for the hour, so you can know if you need to huddle inside a coffee bar for 20 minutes or whether your entire day is going to require an umbrella.
International travel is great. What isn't great? Getting off a long flight, and heading into long lines at Customs.
If you don't have Global Entry, you'll be herded into a long line and wait to be called before a U.S. Customs agent. Even if you do have Global Entry, you still have to go to a kiosk, check in and show your receipt to an agent.
With Mobile Passport, you fill out your flight information on your phone as soon as you land (I do it the second the plane hits the tarmac and I have service again). You answer the usual customs questions, and if you have nothing to declare, you're issued an electronic receipt good for three hours.
Once off the plane, you have a dedicated line, which is usually the same line that diplomats and airline staff use. A customs agent checks to see that your phone scans properly, and may ask to see your passport, but the entire process is worlds faster than the other options. On a recent return from Mexico, I was the only person in my line. Next to me, two full flights of people queued for the normal Customs check in.
The upside: It's free and authorized by U.S. Customs. The downside: It's only in use at 24 airports and 1 cruise port. But more locations will be added soon.
Pro tip: Add your passport and personal information before you land, not after. You can reuse your profile once it is set up; you'll just update the flight numbers.
I once arrived in Dublin at 10 a.m. with no where to sleep that night. Within a half hour, I was in the lobby of my soon-to-be favorite new hotel, the Dean Dublin.
That said, it pays to do your research. I researched hotels in the days prior to my visit. I was aware of the Dean, and was hoping, like a Vegas gambler, that I could save money by waiting until the last minute before booking. I did save money, but I also wasn't able to get a Saturday night stay at the Dean, which means I switched hotels and then came back on Sunday.
HotelTonight offers a curated list of hotels I'd actually want to stay in (as opposed to a slightly shady airport motel or a rowdy hostel that might show up in other hotel apps). HotelTonight's selections tend to have a range of prices, from super luxe to accessible boutique, as well photos that give you a sense of the place (which not all hotel sites and apps do well). The app is cleanly designed and easy to use, and you can find lists of amenities (Are dogs ok? What kind of bath products?) as well as descriptions.
But while HotelTonight is where I may locate the place I want to stay in, I always make sure to check other apps before paying. Hotels.com and Trivago have a lot more data, and a lot more options, which can be overwhelming. That said, sometimes you can find the same rooms on various apps for slightly different prices (I once saved $50 by comparing the same room across various apps), so it's worth shopping around.
Another reason to do research: Sometimes various cities will be have big conventions going on, such as Food & Wine Fest in South Beach or Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. Events like these will increase demand on hotels. The three apps mentioned all do a good job of tracking high demand and alerting you of drops in availability as well as drops in prices for last-minute stays.
It pays to book at the last minute, provided you know you may not get your first choice.
Every city has its own favored car app. Sometimes it's Uber, sometimes it's not. You won't always know which car app is best until you land in town.
Some apps are specific to cities (when I visited Dublin, the city had a thing for Hailo, a now-defunct app).
How can you tell which app is the best to use? Ask the concierge when checking into your hotel. When traveling, just assume you may end up collecting new car apps.
Is that sweater $60 or more like $75? Take the guesswork out of currency conversions with a real-time calculator. Calculator and converters exist in all sorts of flavors and styles. Years ago, I discovered CalConvert, a free app which converts various units and currencies plus offer basic calculator functions.
A currency calculator doesn't stop me from spending too much on clothes, but it does save me from the occasional sticker shock.
I am a former Wall Street Journal reporter and video producer, and the founder of Ambianceuse.com, a website dedicated to luxury travel, food and spirits. Follow me on Instagram at @HelloAmbianceuse.