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Apps That Get You There: Travel Helpers, Both New and Improved

Back in the day, hitting the road would mean hitching up your horse, or filling up the car. Today, making sure your smart phone or tablet is adequately juiced is as crucial a pre-trip step. Especially if you have one of the following apps one your device:

Waze: The purgatory of traffic jams is avoided, or at least lessened, by this app, which uses crowd sourcing to warn motorists of bottlenecks up ahead. Updated in real time by what’s claimed to be the largest such community on the web, drivers help their fellow motorists by simply keeping the app passively open as they tootle along (so the app can mark when slowdowns occur); or actively warn their fellow Waze users about road hazards, accidents, speed traps and other traffic gotchas. The app is free.

White Noise: Hotels are noisy. That’s just a sad fact of life. Even those boasting thick walls and polite clientele may have squeaky elevators, halls that echo when a rolling suitcase is dragged in at 1am or connecting doors that let sounds seep from room to room. So though this app isn’t billed as a travel tool per say, it can be a real sleepsaver. It comes with a huge number of soothing sounds from different types of water noises (rain storms, waves, streams) to the such zen modern-life sounds as the hum of an air conditioner. 

Hotel Tonight: Heading out for just one night? You’ll likely save big-time (up to 70%) by waiting until 9am on the morning of your trip and booking then. That’s when the hotelier’s going to be getting nervous about empty rooms and willing to bargain hard. On a recent trip to San Diego, I got the super-hip Lafayette Hotel, Pool Club and Bungalows for just $65 a night, a savings of $45 off the prices listed everywhere else.

Best Parking: Just what it sounds like, this app tells users where they’ll be able to find the most affordable parking garages in 100 cities and at 115 airports across North America. It will even budget a week’s worth of parking for you, so you can better budget your overall vacation costs.

City Maps 2 Go: With this app there’s no more accidentally racking up data charges while trying to get from point A to point B. Like other mapping apps, it shows you where you are in the area you’re visiting, but it works off-line, which can mean a significant savings, especially if you’re traveling abroad.

Gas Buddy: Like Waze, this one’s run by volunteers but they’re not spotting traffic jams, they’re keying in which gas stations offer the most affordable gas. And since the cost can vary by 10 to 20 cents a gallon in certain areas, gassing up in the right place can be a real money saver. To make sure volunteers stay vigilant, the app and website now has a daily giveaway of $100 of free gas money (1 person wins every day).

Word Lens: Don’t understand a sign? Just aim your lens and click and you’ll get an instant, off-line translation. That’s helpful whether you’re baffled by road directions or aren’t sure whether the sign in front of you is a warning or an invitation.

Star Walk and Leaf Snap: Sad but true, when we city slickers get out into the country, interpreting what we’re seeing can be a challenge. Aim the first app at the night sky and it will tell you what constellation you’re seeing, as well as help you track satellites and show you the night sky from days past so you can compare. The second app—created by researchers at Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution—helps users decode nature. You snap the leaf, or seed or piece of bark and it tells you what you’re seeing and a bit about that bit of flora. Sounds simple, but the result is both satisfying and vacation enhancing.