These days, you aren't with it unless you have a "smart" phone. Whether or not it makes phone calls easily and at a low cost seems less important than what kind of pictures it takes, how well it Twitters, and how many different "apps" (applications, to the luddites among you) you can stuff into it. And it may come as no surprise that many of the most popular apps apply to travel, and that many of them are "free" to the user.
Priceline just announced its compilation of the 10 most popular free travel apps for the industry-leading iPhone (some of which are also available in other phone systems):
1. Google Earth displays Google's maps and satellite photos, and provides for a range of search options and links.
2. Priceline Hotel Negotiator provides small-screen access to Priceline's "name your price" opaque hotel buying system as well as to its list of hotels available at disclosed prices.
3. Southwest Airlines puts you online for its "Ding" special deal alert system; you can also book reservations and do most of the other airline business you can do through the regular online site.
4. Yelp is one of the most comprehensive available compilations of restaurant reviews and information—and you can become a critic, yourself.
5. Urbanspoon is another restaurant review and locator source.
6. Kayak is probably the leading online "aggregator" site for compiling and comparing airfares, hotel rats, and car-rental rates from dozens of different suppliers and online agencies.
7. Open Table is still another foodie resource—this one finds reservations for you at nearby restaurants, plus directions to get there.
8. GateGuru provides menu and specific location information for airport restaurants around the country.
9. Travelocity is one of the three mega-online-agencies, with broad airfare, hotel, and rental car searches; rival Expedia just announced a similar new app.
10. Restaurant finder—obviously, iPhone users are obsessed with finding the "right" places to eat while they're on the road.
Although the most popular, these sites are only the very small tip of a very large iceberg of travel apps—the Apple Travel Store and the website Apptism list thousands of them. Many are operated by individual suppliers, including airlines and hotel chains; many provide local visitor guides and maps; many cover restaurants and shopping. In fact, the main difficulty with a listing site such as the Apple store or Apptism is in culling exactly what you want out of such a huge universe.
Although iPhone seems to be leading the app pack, many of the outfits that provide iPhone apps also provide equivalent apps for other phone and PDA systems. Yelp, for example, also mounts apps for BlackBerry, Palm Pre, and Android, as well as what appears to be a generic "mobile" application. The options, however, are much more limited. Verizon, for example, shows only handfuls of travel apps for BlackBerry, Palm Pre, and Android, although more are in the pipeline.
Obviously, no matter how high the tech, a two-by-three inch (or so) screen and tiny keyboard can't duplicate the full functionality of an Internet site with widescreen monitor and full-size keyboard. But a smart phone is certainly easier to schlep around than even the lightest and smallest notebook computer, you can use it almost anywhere, and—surprise—it even makes phone calls.
One caution to iPhone 3G users. Depending on which generation of software you have, you might have a problem unlocking your phone so that you can use local SIM cards—and installing local SIM cards in your GSM phone can cut the costs of both incoming and outgoing calls far below the rates charged by U.S.-based wireless companies. At present, at least two outfits—iPhoneUnlocking and UnlocktheiPhone—claim software able to unlock 3G, 3Gs 3.2, and previous iPhone software, but I haven't tested either.
Clearly, travel apps—for all major phone and PDA systems—is a dynamic marketplace, with additions every day. If you don't see what you'd like right now, keep looking—chances are you'll see something "real soon now."
What are your favorite travel apps for your phone? What apps would you like to see developed in the future? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!
(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.)