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Mobile apps are a fantastic travel tool for families, but with more than 500,000 Apple and Android apps on the market it’s hard to know which ones are worth your time.
The following apps can fine-tune your family holiday in small but profound ways, from helping you track down a bathroom in an unfamiliar neighbourhood to identifying a quirky attraction that deserves a detour.
As parents, we know you need suggestions that have proven themselves in the day-to-day trenches of parenthood. So this round-up favours apps that have been frequently downloaded and are well rated by other users, as a gauge of mass opinion about how good they are.
Pack the Bag
Pack the Bag is a free iPad/iPhone app that helps you make a foolproof packing list by reminding you of commonly forgotten items, such as a night-light or a sun hat. Once you have your list, use the app to tick off things as you pack them, or e-mail the list to other family members. Unlike similar apps, Pack the Bag allows you to re-sort items in a sequence that’s intuitive to how you think, such as alphabetically or by family member, and to re-use groups of items in future lists. (Works offline. No Android version.)
Ah, the never-ending dilemma: where to find a bathroom on short notice in an unfamiliar place. Thankfully, ToiletFinder, a free app for iPad/iPhone and Android smartphones, directs you to the nearest public bathroom, with 60,000 user-generated reviews of facilities around the world, with especially good coverage in Paris, London and the United States. If you have specific needs, such as a changing table, use the search tool to comb the area for public restrooms that qualify. Unlike the better-publicised app SitorSquat, ToiletFinder doesn’t require you to sign in with your Facebook account. (The basic version of the app, which has global coverage and requires a data connection, is free. Other versions, which work offline and cover specific cities, sell for $0.99.)
When driving in an unfamiliar part of the United States or Canada, Roadside America is the best app for discovering quirky attractions nearby. The app for iPad/iPhone ($3) allows you to search for attractions close to your location. To narrow your choices of landmarks, choose from among 70 themes, such as “dinosaurs” and “haunted”. The app recently told us about the Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, which features one-of-a-kind, hand-built vehicles, including an aeroplane built by a 17 year old. Data connection is required, and the app only includes your choice of one of seven regions; you have to pay $3 more for full coverage of North America. (An Android version of the app is in the works.)
The next time you visit a destination without a clue where to find food for your picky children, Foodspotting may be a lifesaver. The app, free for iPad/iPhone and Android smartphones, pinpoints nearby eateries in major cities worldwide, from San Francisco to Sao Paolo, and you can browse by proximity, neighbourhood, price or opening times. In a standout touch, Foodspotting crowd sources advice on the specific dishes served by restaurants, rather than generic commentary on the establishment as a whole, usually providing actual pictures of the dishes taken by other users. This spring, the app underwent a major update that incorporated star ratings from mammoth user-review site Yelp and added full menus for many, though not all, of its listed restaurants. (Needs a data connection.)
Stack the States
Using a quiz-show format, Stack the States is an app for iPad/iPhone ($0.99) that rewards players who correctly answer questions about the 50 US states, such as the names of capital cities. When a player correctly answers a question, they can move an animated image of the state to a stack. The player with the largest stack of states at the end wins. The app is aimed at children age 4 and older, and can be played individually or against challengers. Shout out to parents: the game has some music that can be annoying when repeated, so you may want to ask your kids to play the games on silent. (A bare bones version of the app is free, but the $0.99 edition makes the game worthwhile. No Android version.)
Disney World Wait Times
Downloading an app like Disney World Wait Times is a patience-saving, no-brainer for families visiting Florida’s Walt Disney World Resort. The app for iPad/iPhone and Android lets you see queuing times at the Magic Kingdom’s rides, based on reports from other users. There are other wait time apps on the market, but this unofficial one stands out for being free, providing detailed maps and continuously updating its estimates of the distance between you and various attractions as you walk around. Is the app necessary, given the plentiful signs and maps at Disney parks? Well, probably not. Is it a helpful tool to make a trip go smoother? Absolutely. A version of the app without ads is priced at $0.99. (Needs a data connection to work.)
The Weather Channel
In May, the Weather Channel, the popular cable station, gave its forecast app its heaviest makeover since 2009. New features make the app superior to the typical smartphone’s built-in weather widget. The app covers the basics, such as the current temperature and the day's forecast for locations worldwide. But thanks to the update, you can get a quicker, more intuitive grasp of the forecast thanks to new visual images that reflect the conditions of your whereabouts, such as a placid scene for a clear day. In another nice touch, you can now track the outlooks for multiple locations and then swipe between the relevant forecasts quickly. The app comes in a free, regular version for iPad/iPhone and Android smartphones. High flyers looking for live radar tracking and text alerts for severe weather warnings will need the Max version, priced at $4. (Note, if you’re travelling outside of the US, you may want to try region-specific weather apps from other companies for their geographic expertise.)
Sean O'Neill is the tech travel columnist for BBC Travel