There’s an app for just about everything, from making the most of an extended flight delay to tapping into local culture. Here are the best digital tools for travellers.
Everyone has an airport horror story. But you can make the most of a bad situation with apps like Flight+, which will keep you abreast of the latest delays and gate changes. And if you need a shower, unlimited Wi-Fi, or a work space during your extended layover, LoungeBuddy will alert you as to which free and pay-as-you-go lounges are available.
These are just two of the digital tools that can improve your experience on the road—among the 100,000-plus travel apps on the market. No need to feel overwhelmed, though. We spent the past year travel-testing apps and websites, everywhere from airplanes and buses to airport lounges, cars, and remote camping sites across the globe. The resulting list represents the best of the best, with runners-up in categories where the competition is fierce.
Google certainly makes an appearance, given the search giant’s strengths in navigation (Google Maps), translation (Google Translate), photo management and storage (Google+), booking (Google Flight Search), and communication (Gmail and Google Hangouts).
Still, there are plenty of areas that shine brighter in other companies. RouteHappy’s flight ratings guide you to the most stress-free flight; Booking.com‘s stellar customer service delivers an actual human on the other end of the help line; and Flickr offers a whopping 1 terabyte (TB) of free photo storage.
Read on for more innovative apps and websites that will help you every step of the way: planning your vacation, getting there, exploring, and sharing trip photos and stories after you return home.
Find Rock-Bottom Fares: Adioso
Don’t know where you want to go? This flexible search tool lets you browse airfares by continent, country, region, or type of trip (say, adventure) to find deals that fill the bill. The site also delivers inspiration in the form of “Wanderlists,” which show you what it might cost to get to the best cities for art lovers (London; Miami) or top beach destinations (St. Bart’s; Hawaii), among other categories. Free; adioso.com.
T+L Tip: You can shop Adioso with specific dates in mind, though you can also look for departures “any Friday” or “sometime this fall.”
Pick a Pain-Free Flight: Routehappy
Cheap tickets can come with high hassle factors (impossibly short connections; multiple stops). Enter Routehappy, which uses “Happiness” scores to prioritize itineraries that are shorter, have the simplest layover logistics, and the best prices. Its user-friendly design makes it easy to see the benefits of each route and book your favorite in just a few taps.Free; routehappy.com.
Track Fares: Yapta
Not only does this scrappy site watch your airfares and alert you when the price drops but it also monitors your ticket (or hotel) after you’ve booked, up to the day you depart. Should it fall further, Yapta automatically helps you secure any rebates you’re eligible for; the average user saves $335 annually. Free; yapta.com.
Runner-up: Trip Watcher
Compare Vacation Packages: Kayak
The flight aggregator you know and love has a new feather in its cap: the package search now lets you know whether bundled deals for airfare and hotels are actually more affordable than the sum of their parts. Make reservations directly on Kayak, or click through to third-party providers; the site that offers the best price will be shown front and center. Free; kayak.com.
T+L Tip: Kayak’s app includes loads of valuable extras, such as an itinerary manager, a flight tracker, and a currency converter.
Runners-up: Momondo, GetGoing
Don’t End Up In a Bad Seat: SeatGuru
News flash: you don’t have to pay for a costly upgrade to get extra legroom on your next flight. SeatGuru’s search tool lets you look for seats with maximum pitch, power outlets, in-flight entertainment, and Wi-Fi. Want to shop like a pro? Check the site’s plane charts before booking your ticket to make sure you’re not sacrificing precious inches for a slightly lower fare. Free; seatguru.com.
T+L Tip: If the best spots on the plane are unavailable, try Seat Alerts by ExpertFlyer (free;expertflyer.com). It e-mails you when better options open up on your scheduled departure.
Track Your Status: Points.com
This site’s Loyalty Wallet manages all your rewards programs (airline, hotel, credit card, and more) in real time, without requiring you to manually input recent statements. Simply plug in your membership numbers and let the site do the rest. It’ll even help you make smarter use of those hard-earned points, with special offers from travel companies and the option to roll over any soon-to-expire balances. The best part: unlike other mile trackers, Points is compatible with all major U.S. carriers, except Southwest. Free; Points.com.
Weigh Your Transportation Options: Rome2rio
To figure out how to get from point A to (even the remotest) point B, try this innovative travel planner. It aggregates every possible method of transportation—flights, trains, local buses, and even taxis—and offers time estimates for each leg of your journey. Browse the site and results will also include estimated prices. Free; rome2rio.com.
Get the Skinny on Your Next Cruise: Cruise Critic
We’ve long loved this site—a resource almost as old as the Web itself—for its professional reviews of seafaring companies, cabins, ports, and even excursions. Also useful: Price Drop alerts, a new feature that monitors rates for sudden, significant discounts (we’ve seen up to 79 percent off). Deals cover luxury and affordable lines alike, and are valid whether you’re booking in advance or planning on the fly. Free; cruisecritic.com.
T+L Tip: For inspiration for your next cruise, turn to T+L’s Cruise Finder.
Book Activities Abroad: Viator
Want to skip the line for tickets to the Eiffel Tower or take a Game of Thrones tour in Malta? Try Viator, which lets you find and reserve excursions in more than 1,500 locations across the globe. No need to print out tickets, either, thanks to integration with iPhone’s Passbook. Free; viator.com.
T+L Tip: A database of 1,300-plus culinary outings makes Viator especially great for roving foodies.
Runners-up: Get Your Guide, Peek
Keep Track of Your Itinerary: Worldmate Gold
Competition among travel managers is fierce, but Worldmate Gold stands out for its attractive layout, accurate flight information, and unrivaled ability to manage complicated trips. The app is impressively autonomous: it organizes flights, hotel bookings, restaurant reservations, rentals, and more with little prompting, and scouts for better rates any time you upload a hotel reservation. $9.99; worldmate.com.
Runners-up: TripIt Pro, Tripcase
Rent a Pied-à-terre—or an Island: Airbnb
What started as a glorified couch-surfing tool has evolved into a game-changing network of ultrahip stays—roughly 600,000 of them, ranging from swank apartments in Buenos Aires to ski chalets in the Swiss Alps, many now available for instant booking. Free; airbnb.com.
T+L Tip: For last-minute escapes, look for the site’s new Weekend Getaways section, which collects listings in easy-to-reach destinations.
Runners-up: HomeAway, Tripping, Villas.com
Pay For Your Room When You Get There: Booking.com
Most hotel discount sites make you front cash (or at least a credit card number) to get a deal—not so with Booking.com, which often lets you lock in a price and pay when you arrive (or cancel without penalty). Your options include hotels, B&B’s, guesthouses, villas, and more, each with a score that factors in value, cleanliness, location, and comfort. Bonus: call the customer service hotline and you’ll be connected to attentive, helpful staffers—not endless voice-activated menus and recordings. Free; booking.com.
Stay in the Right Part of Town: Hipmunk
Hipmunk’s legendary “Agony Index” sorts airfares based on their pain points, but its hotel search flips the script, highlighting “Ecstasy,” a sweet spot that considers value, amenities, star rating, and user reviews. Refine the results by asking for hotels in a certain neighborhood or near a particular attraction. Don’t know which area lays claim to the best restaurants or nightlife? Consult Hipmunk’s “Heatmaps” for a quick, color-coded lay of the land. Free; hipmunk.com.
Book a Last-Minute Room: HotelTonight
If you need a place to stay right now, you won’t have time to comb through hundreds of options. HotelTonight cuts the clutter, with curated collections of “Hip,” “Solid,” or “Luxe” properties in North America, Central and South America, and Europe, and lets you book as late as 2 a.m. on the night you’re checking in. Stay for one night, or up to five—ideal for spontaneous layovers or getaways. Free; hoteltonight.com.
Earn a Free Stay Faster: Hotels.com
OTAs are in an arms race to create the best loyalty program for travelers, and Hotels.com is leading the pack. Its Welcome Rewards offers one free hotel night for every 10 booked through the service, plus exclusive deals and bonuses for simply writing reviews. But you don’t have to be a member to benefit from its database of 290,000 hotels worldwide and a no-frills, low-price guarantee. Free; hotels.com.
Name Your Price: Priceline
Nobody has been able to beat Priceline at its signature game: with Name Your Own Price, you can save up to 60 percent on hotel rooms, airfares, and even rental cars. Determine what you want to pay, enter your credit card details, and wait to see if your offer is accepted. Free; priceline.com.
T+L Tip: Express Deals—Priceline’s take on blind bookings—features the deepest discounts; use TheBiddingTraveler to figure out what’s behind the curtain.
See What Travelers Are Saying: TripAdvisor
The 150 million-plus reviews cover 4 million hotels, attractions, flights, and more. Best picks for each city can be downloaded as City Guides. Meanwhile, the site’s acquisition of LaFourchette, a European restaurant booking service, has recently opened the door for one-click dinner reservations. Free; tripadvisor.com.
T+L Tip: For advice on specific rooms to book, try Room77 (free; room77.com).
Don’t Overpay: Tingo
Use its search tool to make your room reservation, and the site will automatically get you a better rate at the same hotel, or notify you about upgrades, should either become available. The odds are in your favor: the average rebate comes out to $50 per night. Free; tingo.com.
T+L Tip: Want to see how low the rate can go? Submit your booking to BackBid, where comparable hotels bid to beat the price of your refundable booking.
Put It On Hold
Lock down a good price when you see it with Options Away (free; optionsaway.com), which reserves a specific fare for up to 21 days, for a charge of $4 to $45. Level Skies is similar, tacking on between $20 to $50 to guarantee your fare for up to a month. One caveat: the site conceals your full itinerary details until after you’ve booked.
Tell FlightFox what you’re looking for—a rock-bottom ticket to Europe; a round-the-world itinerary—and a team of travel experts will find it (from $49). They’ll even search for fares that help you affordably fulfill your annual loyalty status requirements.
Your Search, Your Way
Geneo (free) asks travelers questions about their travel preferences, and uses the information to deliver customized search results. Google Flight Search, meanwhile, puts a series of killer moves on an otherwise traditional engine: it lets you sort by carrier alliances (for amassing miles) and returns results in less than one second. Seriously.
Know Your Flight Status: Flight+
Automatic notifications for delays and gate changes? Check. Maps and weather updates for airports around the globe? Check. Live flight boards for thousands of routes? Check. This flight-tracking app is as comprehensive as they come. $3.99; flight-plus.com.
T+L Tip: Not on iOS? All the above details are available via a trio of multi-platform apps:FlightAware (free; Android, iOS, Windows Phone), GateGuru (free; Android, iOS, Windows Phone), and Flightboard ($3.99; Android, iOS).
Find an Airport Oasis: LoungeBuddy
If you need a shower, unlimited Wi-Fi, or a work space during your layover, this app lets you know what free and pay-as-you-go lounges are available in more than 500 airports worldwide. Users can sort results by access credentials, price, and specific amenities. (Our favorite: free cocktails.) Free; loungebuddy.com.
Stay Entertained: Amazon Instant Video
The superstore’s Netflix-like service, free for anyone with a subscription to Amazon Prime, will keep you busy on long hauls. Just make sure to download your movies and TV showsbefore you leave, as streaming is unavailable abroad. Free; amazon.com.
T+L Tip: Use Amazon Instant Video in tandem with the Kindle app (free; Android, iOS) for the most robust entertainment system under one (digital) roof.
Skip the Car-Rental Counter: Relay Rides
Like an Airbnb for wheels, this service lets you rent privately owned vehicles, often more affordably than traditional rentals (insurance is equally fair-priced). Cars are available at 300 airports and most major U.S. cities (except New York City, notably); if you’re lucky, you might find fun options, such as a new Fiat 500 or a vintage Mercedes-Benz. Free;relayrides.com.
Navigate the Roads: Google Maps
Google Maps has become the best navigation app around, allowing you to pull up addresses with voice commands and turn-by-turn directions with a single tap. Real-time traffic info and lane guidance assist drivers; straphangers can see the last train departure of the day. Biking? Google Maps can offer routes that won’t be too steep. There’s not much this smart app can’t do. Free; google.com/maps.
T+L Tip: Try downloading content for offline reference by using the voice command “Okay, Maps.”
Runners-up: Here, Navigon
Keep Tabs on Friends and Family: Life 360
Sharing your exact location in real time may sound creepy, but trust us: it can really come in handy, especially when traveling with a group. You can split up and reconvene with friends, keep tabs on your kids, or let your hosts know when to expect you. Only those you’ve designated can see where you are on a map, and you can turn off location tracking at any time. Free; life360.com.
Master the Local Trains: Transit App
Our new favorite way to decode local transit options offers comprehensive subway, train, and bus directions in 65-plus cities throughout North America and Europe. Why we like it? Accurate walking times, automatic detection of your current location, and timetables that help you decide when to leave in order to catch the next bus or train. Free;thetransitapp.com.
Don’t Get Caught in the Rain: The Weather Channel
Thanks to a recent redesign, this app is easier than ever to navigate: current weather is at your fingertips, along with hourly and 10-day forecasts and motion-based radar maps. Pollen indexes and airport conditions are handy extras for iPhone users. Free;weather.com.
Runners-up: Accuweather, Yahoo Weather
Best Apps and Websites for Travelers: T Mobile
T-Mobile now includes unlimited data roaming in more than 120 countries as part of its Simple Choice plans. Also included: free SMS messages and phone calls for just 20 cents per minute. AT&T and Verizon Wireless also have good deals, with add-on data plans that start at $30 for 120MB—more than enough to cover your basic needs.
Best Apps and Websites for Travelers: Onavo Count
Most phones now have built-in trackers that monitor your roaming usage, but you can also use third-party apps such as My Data Manager (free) and Onavo Count (free) to get notifications. In some cases, it can even shut off your data as soon as you hit certain limits, giving you maximum peace of mind.
If you have a local SIM card, download Ringo (free; ringo.co) to save on international phone calls. It uses local networks to deliver clear sound without any audio delays, and rates are as low as 0.003 cents per minute, 25 percent cheaper than its closest competitors. Don’t have an unlocked phone? Buy one abroad for as little as $15.
Stay Connected On the Go: Boingo Wi-Finder
Get a monthly subscription to more than a million hot spots around the world, and you’ll never have to pay for pricey in-room Wi-Fi again. The app detects the nearest Boingo-compatible networks—and helps you connect to them securely. From $7.95 a month; Android, iOS.
T+L Tip: This summer, American Express began offering free Boingo access to its Platinum cardholders (enroll at amex.boingo.com).
Get Your Culture Fix: Eventseeker
Plenty of guides tell you which museums and attractions you should put on your bucket list; this app pinpoints specific exhibitions, concerts, food festivals, and shows that are worth your while. Free; eventseeker.com.
Runners-up: Fantrotter, Museums of the World
Ditch the Tour Guide: Field Trip
Google’s latest discovery tool finds under-the-radar spots that align with your interests, from restaurants to landmarks. The recommendations—amassed from hundreds of sources including Cool Hunting, Zagat, and Atlas Obscura—appear as push notifications; tell the app what you’re passionate about for tailored suggestions. Free; fieldtripper.com.
T+L Tip: Score up to 50 percent off at local restaurants and stores thanks to integrated deals from Scoutmob.
Find the Nearest Anything: Yelp
Despite some outdated listings, Yelp is still the fastest way to pinpoint the nearest ATM, pizzeria, market, or coffee shop in more than 25 countries from Austria to New Zealand. And now, thanks to the acquisition of Seat Me, users can make restaurant reservations straight from the site or app. Free; yelp.com.
Access Maps Internationally: Maplets
From subway maps to ski trails or bike routes, this nifty app offers 10,000 PDF-style maps that store locally on your phone (meaning no Wi-Fi or GPS is required). $2.99;mobilemaplets.com.
Runner-up: City Maps 2Go
Get a Ride Anywhere: Uber
The pioneering e-hail car service is now available in more than 35 countries and in cities large and small. Instantly order a taxi, black car, or SUV, and pay with a credit card online. Then watch your driver’s GPS position in real time while you wait. Free; uber.com.
Understand the Locals: Google Translate
No translation service is perfect, but Google’s comes close. Type or speak a phrase into your phone, and the app will deliver a translation. It’s compatible with a whopping 81 languages (including those that are character-based), and downloadable packs are available for offline use (on Android only). Free; translate.google.com.
Runners-up: Jibbigo, iTranslate
Leave the Right Tip: Tipping Tips
Few things confuse travelers as much as tipping—and with good reason. This cheat sheet demystifies the practice, with gratuity suggestions for bellmen, housekeeping staff, waiters, and taxi drivers in more than 108 countries and regions around the world. Also included: gratuity guides for cruise ships and calculators that help you split the check up to eight ways. $0.99; itunes.com.
Runner-up: Global Tipping Guide
Find a Doctor Abroad: mPassport
All of the 6,700-plus vetted doctors on this global, searchable database are guaranteed to speak English, reducing the stress of getting sick while on the road. It’s free with an HTH Travel Insurance policy, or $34.95 for an annual subscription—better safe than sorry. Free;mpassport.com.
Stay in Touch: Skype
How does Skype consistently beat its many rivals? Availability on all major platforms, compatibility with regular phone numbers, and seamless integration with a wide array of devices, from phones and tablets to laptops and SmartTV’s. Free; skype.com.
Runners-up: FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Rebtel
Text Your Friends for Free: WhatsApp
Use your Wi-Fi connection (rather than data roaming) to send unlimited texts, images, audio messages, and videos to WhatsApp users worldwide. The service is free for your first year, and $0.99 annually thereafter. Free; whatsapp.com.
Listen to Anything, Anywhere: Spotify
You can stream anything from the 20 million–plus song catalogue for free, but we love Spotify’s premium service, which lets you download high-quality tracks for offline entertainment—without the pesky ads. $9.99 per month; spotify.com.
T+L Tip: Use Shazam (free; shazam.com) to identify songs you discover abroad—K-pop, anyone?—then add them to Spotify playlists.
Share Your Travel Snaps: Instagram
With more than 200 million users, Instagram has become a ubiquitous tool for editing and sharing photos and short videos on the fly. A new feature: Instagram Direct lets you send photos and clips to a limited audience of your choosing, rather than posting to your public feed. Free; instagram.com.
Manage Your Pics: Flickr
Consider it your one-stop shop for photos: recently upgraded to be faster and more streamlined, Flickr is the best tool for touching up, storing, and broadcasting snapshots from your travels. It never compresses images and offers a terabyte of cloud space—more than any other source. Plus, entire galleries can easily be shared once uploaded to the site.Free; flickr.com.
Runner-up: Carousel +
Back up your photos to Google+, and you’ll automatically get Stories. Google’s take on the digital travelogue combines images, videos, and mapping info to bring your vacation to life, even making note of sites you visited on your trip. Free; via Google+.
Simply hit the “create” button, and Qwiki will find your best photos and videos, geo-tag them, and stitch them into a short film. Add a personal touch with captions and music, swap photos as you see fit, and share away. Free; qwiki.com.
How to share multiple images without overloading your Instagram feed? Use PicFrame. It has endlessly adjustable frames and high-resolution photo storage, and lets you make a composite shot of up to nine images. $0.99.
If the layouts in T+L’s pages inspire you, try making your own with Moldiv. The app’s templates include faux magazine covers and slick montages; get creative with headlines and captions in 250- plus fonts. Free; Android, iOS.