From maps to apps

Throw away that dog-eared accordion-like map. Forget those inch-thick city guides that are out of date before they're printed.

They're no match for a smartphone or tablet loaded with a few well-chosen travel apps.

But with hundreds of thousands of apps clamouring for your attention, where to begin?

We spoke to tech experts and frequent flyers to pull together five sets of must-have apps for the traveller.

Note that many apps need internet access to perform their magic. If you're heading overseas, don't use the roaming service of your Aussie carrier: it will cost you hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

Pick up a prepaid SIM card from a local mobile phone store in whatever country you're visiting and you'll avoid an expensive post-trip shock.

Travel planning

There are some amazing smartphone apps that ease your travel headaches before you step on the plane.

A standout is TripIt (; for iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone), which software engineer Liam Rasmussen describes as “the PA I never had”.


Forward emails with flight and hotel confirmations, car hire, even restaurant bookings and concert tickets to your TripIt account and the app transforms them into a single super-organised itinerary.

Rasmussen pays $50 a year for the more powerful TripIt Pro which tracks his frequent flyer points and alerts him to delayed flights via SMS.

“I've been sitting in the airport and received a text message saying my flight is delayed, even before the airport's own monitors have been updated.”

Les Posen, a clinical psychologist who specialises in fear of flying, is a fan of the free iPhone apps offered by an increasing number of airports, including Sydney and Melbourne.

“The app advises the check-in desk and departure gate for your flight and you get an alert when a flight begins boarding or has landed,” Posen says.

Posen also finds the airport maps – marked with the location of lounges, shops and public toilets – are handy for making your way around these modern labyrinths.

Hit the ground running

With mapping software built into every smartphone, plus a GPS chip that pinpoints your location on the grid, you're one step ahead of fold-up maps.

The next step? Grab a guide to the city's public transport network. Most are free and will get you from A to B with the confidence of a local.

If you prefer a more leisurely pace, search for apps that guide you through a walking tour of the city.

But be wary of apps that claim to be free yet contain only the briefest of information unless you pay for the full version.

There are city guides a'plenty, of course, including the highly regarded Lonely Planet series.

“I often favour the official apps for any given city or country,” says Angus Kidman, editor of the technology blog Lifehacker Australia.

“If the official tourist information board has produced something, it will invariably be free.”

Eat, drink and be merry

“There's a fantastic variety of apps for deciding where to eat and drink when you're overseas,” says the food blogger Zina Zhang.

“If you're visiting Singapore, Hungrygowhere (iPhone, Android) lets you search for restaurants by dish, cuisine and price.

“Travellers to the US should download OpenTable (iPhone, Android) for a fast, convenient way to reserve a table at your favourite restaurant.”

Sydney businesswoman Valerie Khoo is another fan of OpenTable.

“It helps you find restaurants based on availability, location, the number of people, cuisine, price and so on. I've discovered many new restaurants in the US with OpenTable.”

OpenTable's British edition is called TopTable (iPhone, Android).

Daniel Clark, director of online luggage retailer RushFaster, rates great food as “the most important thing when travelling”.

“Life is short and there's no time for second-rate food, and especially not food sickness when you're on the road.”

FoodSpotting (iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone) is like a restaurant guide meets pop-photography app Instagram.

“You search for a particular dish and then get photos of what it looks like at different restaurants, so you can find the best version of any dish in any city,” Clark says.

Other popular apps based on user ratings and reviews are Yelp and UrbanSpoon.


App developer Chris Neugebauer relies on the homegrown BeanHunter (iPhone, Android) to find the best coffee in most Australian cities.

“It uses your phone's GPS chip to work out your location and show a list of the nearest cafes to you, along with reviews and photos submitted by other BeanHunter users,” Neugebauer says.

“Being able to quickly get the opinions of other coffee lovers is really valuable, although it's less useful outside of Australia.”

If you're headed to London, New York, LA or San Francisco try the Best Coffee series of apps (iPhone, Android).

Speak the language

The new wave of apps is even conquering the language barrier.

iTranslate (iPhone, Android) provides voice translation between over 50 languages.

“This is without a doubt the best translation app on the market,” says Lukas Picton, senior consultant with the PR firm Text 100, although he warns: “I wouldn't rely on it for a really important conversation.”

If you're just seeking to pick up basic words and phrases in a foreign tongue, don't overlook the hundreds of free language-learning podcasts available through iTunes.