Apple's iPhone 3G could be the next great tool for travelers, but it's got a long way to go to get there. I've got some travel experience and some technology experience -- I've been a columnist for Frommers.com for seven years and the Lead Analyst for Mobile Devices at PC Magazine for four. And though I've joined the chorus celebrating the iPhone's new mobile software store, a lot of the travel applications in there are useless. I did find a few that could help, though.
First of all, why the iPhone rather than another mobile phone? There's a ton of sites to surf, numbers to dial, and applications to download for any phone that can help it assist you when you're in an unfamiliar place. You can check out my 2007 story, "Put These Free Travelers' Services On Your Speed Dial" for several of them. But the iPhone has captured the national imagination recently, especially because of its App Store, an easy way to tap into the supposed wisdom of thousands of third-party application developers.
The iPhone's App Store lets you easily browse and buy dozens of travel related applications for the phone. But most of them are useless. There are a whole lot of Yellow Pages front ends, various portals to the consumer-review site Yelp and Google Maps mashups. I did, however, find a few that might be useful to travelers.
(We at Frommer's are proud to be the only actual travel guide book with an iPhone version; our New York, Paris, London, and San Francisco guides sell for $9.99 each.)
Two free iPhone applications help you find restaurants on the run. Yelp, a major user-review site, has a sleek iPhone app which lets you search for anything in its database and read reviews. Yes, you could do that on Yelp's website too, but the app is faster and easier.
UrbanSpoon is even better, because it aggregates professional reviews of restaurants and lets you search by neighborhood, cuisine or price.
Most other local search apps on the iPhone, so far, are pretty worthless. Platial is a potential Yelp competitor, but has too small a community. The TripAdvisor app is hideously poorly designed. A bunch of other apps, such as Munch, just either regurgitate yellow-pages data, mash together your GPS location with things like Flickr photo libraries, or repurpose Yelp reviews. They're more examples of "look, I can do this!" than anything useful.
As someone who likes to wander aimlessly through cities, I'm excited for the application PathTracker, which uses the iPhone's GPS to record a graphical map of everywhere you've been throughout the day. It's a very cool idea, except for one problem: according to its own creator, it doesn't work properly yet. Keep an eye out for it.
You'd think a currency calculator would be a no-brainer for a gadget like the iPhone, but nobody's yet come through with a good one. The apps on offer either don't auto-update exchange rates, or don't let you convert arbitrary prices. I'd suggest just setting a Web bookmark for OANDA (www.oanda.com) instead.
There's an entire subcategory of subway maps for various cities for the iPhone. None of them are anywhere near as good as the free website HopStop.com (www.hopstop.com), which gives public transit directions using subways, buses and commuter trains and works well on an iPhone. Similarly, the application TravelTracker costs $29.95. It does what the website Tripit.com does, except Tripit is free.
Fortunately, you don't need to buy extra applications for the iPhone to be a trusty travel tool. The iPhone's web browser and built-in Maps application let you figure out where you are, and then hit the full Web to see what's nearby, using sites like Frommers.com, HopStop.com and TripAdvisor. If you're traveling abroad, though, make sure to either turn off cellular data in favor of Wi-Fi (which you can do under Settings/General/Data Roaming) to avoid high fees, or get AT&T's international global iPhone data plan and make sure you don't go over the limits, by checking Settings/General/Usage at least once a day.
The iPhone is still young. Hopefully, some great travel applications will appear for this nifty little handheld computer. I'd love to see a full line of location-aware guidebooks, for instance. Until then, though, you have the Web at your fingertips, and that's a great tool for any traveler.
Keep an eye on my reviews at PC Magazine (www.pcmag.com) if you're interested in more about the iPhone.