Even though we'd prefer otherwise, not everyone carries Frommer's guidebooks with them everywhere they go. But that's okay: you still have a powerful travel information tool with you right now.
Your cell phone can find you a burrito, check the length of airport security lines, give you walking directions in a strange city or help you dial up a taxi in the middle of nowhere. All of these services are free, and none of them require anything more than text messaging -- which everyone can do on their phones without any additional plans or programs.
Even if you're terrified of texting, you can call free numbers to unwind confusion on any street corner in the USA. Dial or text one of these numbers, and you'll never get lost again.
Need a burrito in Bangor? Or a drug store in Des Moines? Dialing 1-800-GOOG-411 lets you search Google's yellow pages listings by voice. Tell Google where you are -- give them a street intersection -- and a business name or category you're looking for, and they'll start reading you options. The computerized voice reading out the results can be hard to understand, but you can say "text message" to have details sent to you by text.
Microsoft's Live Search at 1-800-CALL-411 asks for a neighborhood name rather than a street intersection. That's either less or more convenient, depending on how you think. But I found Microsoft's answers to be easier to understand than Google's.
If you just need someone or something's phone number and you have the name, try 1-800-FREE-411. These guys don't do the sort of neighborhood-based searches Google and Microsoft specialize in, but the answers are spoken in an unusually clear voice, and you can talk to a human operator if chatting with the computer doesn't work out.
Just need to get away? Calling DIR-ECT-IONS (tel. 347-328-4667) will give you directions between any two addresses or intersections you read out. The free service will send the directions to your phone as a text message. In New York City, 888-2HOPSTOP (tel. 212/246-7786) will send you a text message with subway directions between any two addresses that you speak out loud. For Hopstop, unlike the other services I'm listing, you have to sign up on their Web site first at www.hopstop.com. It's free.
If you don't want to drive or walk yourself, 1-800-TAXICAB connects you to a local taxi company in literally hundreds of cities nationwide. The service works better with mid-sized cities than very large ones, as you may get a taxi company based in a different part of town from where you're waiting.
Texting for Knowledge
I generally like to text for my info rather than call. Texting avoids the "what did you say?" problem that you get when using a cell phone in a noisy area, and leaves a printed message on your phone that you can always refer to later. Many people nowadays have text messaging plans; if you don't, remember that texts can cost between 5 and 15 cents each to send or receive.
If you text "mexican near 28 e 28 st ny ny" to GOOGL (466-46), you'll get the burrito joints near my office. That syntax -- a category, "near" an address with a city and state -- taps into Google's local search database and finds you whatever you want, near whatever you want. It's a lifesaver.
When you set out on any trip, sign up for your airline's SMS text alerts on their Web site. They'll send you your flight information a few hours in advance, along with any changes that might happen. Then, as you set out for the airport, text 4INFO (446-36) for their awesome airport-related services. Texting "delay" and an airport code, such as "delay jfk," tells you whether flights at your airport are generally delayed. Texting "wait" and your airport code gives you the wait times at security checkpoints in various terminals -- though remember, that doesn't include the wait at the ticket counter if you're going that route. Finally, texting an airline name and flight number, for instance "united 808" tells you whether your plane's on time.
Hopstop's subway navigator works via SMS, too. Texting HSTOP (478-67) with two addresses in New York City will get you subway/bus directions in return. It even works with popular landmarks; for instance, texting "150 e houston to met" will send you from 150 E. Houston Street to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
If your cell phone supports "mobile Web," you can get some more in-depth services. Mobile Web goes by various names -- Power Vision, T-Zones, mMode or V CAST. If those sound familiar to you, here are a few sites that can help you away from home.
Google will tell you whether there's a burrito near you, but Yelp and Zagat will tell you how good that burrito is. Yelp (for phones, at mobile.yelp.com) lets you search for a category of business near an intersection in a bunch of major US cities, and then browse user-written reviews on the businesses you find.
Zagat (at zagat.mobi on phone browsers) goes even further. For free, you can get restaurant listings from the well-respected Zagat guides. That's good because the more scattershot search sites don't distinguish between a decent restaurant and a fast-food joint, and Zagat generally leaves out the fast-food places and mall food courts. $5/month or $25/year gets you Zagat's ratings and reviews, too.
Hopstop, Google and Yahoo! all have mobile Web site versions, too, at m.google.com, mobile.yahoo.com and hopstop.com/pda. All three offer richer, better experiences than you'd get through SMS. Yahoo!'s local search at mobile.yahoo.com includes ratings for businesses, and Hopstop's PDA version lets you get directions for Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, DC as well as the New York metro area.
To get even brighter and more interesting travel help, you can download programs to some phones, like the full Web browser Opera Mini, the powerful Yahoo! Go local search application and a bunch of different GPS-type applications. Maybe we'll get to those in a future column, but if you're curious, check out the reviews from PC Magazine to peek into how your cell phone can really sing.
Do you know of a great phone-based service for travelers? Share ideas with other Frommers.com travelers our Phones & Gadgets Message Boards.