Five favourite travel apps of 2011
From left: Broadcastr, Evernote Food and Best Of…
The Apple and Android online stores have pages and pages of creative travel apps, making it overwhelming to figure out which ones are worth your time.
From easy-to-use hotel booking tools to smart ways to book a private car, here are my five
favourite free apps that launched this year:
Evernote, the note-taking app with 10 million users, recently launched a food-specific spin-off called Evernote Food, to help people "capture, share and re-live" their favourite meals. This app is especially useful for travellers given that meals take pride of place in many people's vacation memories.
Say you visit Milan and stumble into an excellent restaurant like Trattoria Masuelli. Use the app to snap a photo of your risotto (or of the menu); write a note about the tastiness of the Carnaroli rice in the dish (or about the chandeliers on the ceiling); and add to your note the restaurant’s name, location and contact details by searching for the information in the app's database. Then, whenever a friend wants a recommendation of where to eat in Milan, you can search on the words "Milan" or “risotto", find your note and share the information with them easily. Any text in your photos is also searchable, such as the words on a menu that has been photographed. You can also share your notes via Twitter or Facebook.
It took a long time, but Expedia, the site that sells more hotel rooms than any other online travel agency, finally created a hotel booking app this year. The wait was worth it, because the app is a well designed, efficient way to find and reserve a night's stay on the fly. No wonder Expedia Hotels quickly became the most downloaded travel app in dozens of countries. As of today, it's also the only app that has been customised for the iPad and Android tablets.
The "Best Of…" app find recommendations of the best places to drink, eat and sample culture in more than 10,000 spots in 32 US cities. The app was created by owners of New York's Village Voice newspaper, and an independent, youth-oriented edge is noticeable in the reviews. The app also stands out for having "best of" picks that are primarily chosen by professional reviewers, unlike the restaurant and bar recommendations found on user-generated apps like Yelp, Urban Spoon and Zagat.
Cab-related apps have exploded in popularity this year. But when it comes to booking private cars -- a task that's particularly relevant for travellers heading to airports -- Uber is the most intuitive and helpful app available. Currently covering only a half dozen US cities (NYC, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco/Palo Alto, Seattle, Washington DC), plus Paris, the app should grow quickly next year because it recently won more than $30 million in funding to expand.
Audio guides have long provided helpful narration of the artwork in museums. New app Broadcastr aspires to do something similar: provide audio guides for walking around outdoors at a destination. The app "crowd-sources" audio stories about the landmarks in popular tourist areas of major cities. Anyone can leave an audio note about an attraction and pin it on an online map that's shared for playback via web or smartphone.
Imagine you've downloaded the app, and you're playing music on your smartphone while you stroll down a street in London's West End theatre district. As you pass a major landmark, your phone may switch off your music and turn on an audio recording of a person describing a landmark you're passing. The recorded material might be from a celebrity, such as comedian Ricky Gervais, or it might be from an ordinary person. To make sure you hear only relevant information, you can set the app's filters to only share audio about your favourite topics, such as food or architecture. Broadcastr also curates audio clips to make sure they're worthy of the general listeners' time. A big drawback to the app is that there are only 14,000 audio recordings so far, mostly in New York City, San Francisco and London. But the app -- and the concept behind it -- is promising.
Sean O'Neill is the travel tech columnist for BBC Travel