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Summary:

I took two big trips in October — one fun one to Europe, and one Hurricane Sandy-induced road trip. Here are the digital tools I found most useful on the road — and the ones that were more of a hindrance.

In October, my husband and I took two big trips. One of them — a week in Berlin and Amsterdam following the Frankfurt Book Fair — was planned. The other — a 21-hour drive back to New York City when Hurricane Sandy canceled our flight home from a Florida wedding — was unplanned. Here are the apps I found most (and least) useful on these two very different journeys.

The fun Europe trip

The good:

myTaxi (iOS/Android/Windows, free)

I was amazed when our Airbnb host told us about myTaxi, which lets passengers hail a nearby cab, book it and track its approach on their phones. (There’s now a web booking option, too.) You can pay through a credit card linked to the app, or with cash or a credit card in the cab. And you can save your favorite drivers, make advance bookings and request cabs with certain features like credit card machines or hybrid cars. Unlike Uber, myTaxi works with regular city cab drivers so you just pay a regular cab fare. It’s basically street-hailing made easier. MyTaxi operates primarily in 30 cities worldwide, most of them in Germany, and just entered the U.S. for the first time with its launch in Washington, DC. I’m eagerly awaiting its arrival in New York, though considering the difficulties Uber has faced here, that could be a long time coming.

Tripit (iOS/Android/Blackberry/Windows/web, free for basic version)

I forwarded all our travel plans and email confirmations — hotel reservations, flight details, etc. — to Tripit. The app makes a custom itinerary for you and keeps all your stuff in one place.

Google Maps (on iOS 5) + data roaming

Apple released iOS 6 a couple weeks before I left for Europe, and as the terrible reviews of Apple Maps rolled in, I chose not to upgrade so that I’d be able to keep the Google Maps iPhone app on our trip. I was so glad I did. On our first few days in Europe, I was insistent that I wouldn’t shell out for an international data plan — I decided I’d stick to Wi-Fi and downloaded a few offline map apps. But the offline maps I tried were clunky and hard to use. So I paid for a small roaming package and from then on, wherever we walked, we used Google Maps to guide us. It worked perfectly and was a total lifesaver when we got lost after a visit to a coffee shop in Amsterdam.

TripAdvisor (iOS/Android/Nokia/Windows/web, free)

Using Trip Advisor for international travel seems roughly as cool as using a Rick Steves guide. I wondered if we were missing out by not using some cool local source —  and it’s true that all of the recommendations we got from local folks (like our Airbnb hosts in Frankfurt) were great. Yet TripAdvisor surpassed my expectations. Before we left, I tested its restaurant recommendations for my own neighborhood in Manhattan and they were, indeed, some of my favorite local places to eat, not total tourist traps. Abroad, TripAdvisor continued to serve us well and didn’t steer us to any duds. We also found that it had many, many more reviews than Yelp, at least in the cities we visited.

The bad:

Lonely Planet Berlin & Amsterdam Travel Guide apps (iOS, $3.99)

Despite our good experience with TripAdvisor, I was also looking for a more traditional guidebook experience — we weren’t in any city for very long and wanted to get a good basic overview so we could decide what to do. So I bought Lonely Planet app guides to Berlin and Amsterdam. At $3.99 each, they were cheaper than print guidebooks and, I figured, would give us the highlights.

They were better than nothing. Rather than taking a print guidebook and enhancing it through technology, though, the app guides were much more frustrating than a handful of paper would have been. I expected that the guides I bought would correspond with the most recent print editions. Instead, they were out of date, referring to museums that would re-open in 2010 and once or twice steering us to restaurants that no longer existed. The maps included with the apps were outrageously bad, and in general, none of the things that a digital guidebook can actually do better than a print book — reader reviews, up-to-the-minute (or at least up-to-the-year) updates, GPS integration, etc. — were included.

The unplanned road trip

The good:

Priceline Negotiator (iOS/Android)

This app came in handy when we needed to find motels outside Savannah, Ga. (after our first day of driving) and Washington, D.C. (after our second day of driving). We weren’t looking for fun boutique-y features in cool neighborhoods, just clean places right off the highway. Priceline has tons of user reviews and aggregated “guest scores” even for boring chain motels like that, so we knew we should choose the Comfort Suites in Richmond Hill, Ga. ($70) over the Travelodge ($30, “it was nasty roaches”) down the street. And you can book hotels directly through the app. Priceline Negotiator also recently added “tonight-only” hotel deals to compete with the Hotel Tonight app.

One limitation: We needed a one-way car rental from Tampa to New York, but the app doesn’t support one-way trips, so we had to book the car through Priceline’s website.

MotionX GPS Drive (iOS, $0.99)

By the time our unplanned road trip rolled around, I’d upgraded to iOS 6. I kept hearing that Apple Maps is not terrible for drivers, so it should have worked for the journey from Florida to New York. Yet while Apple Maps had a lovely interface and turn-by-turn directions, it kept giving us different — and longer — routes than Google Maps’ mobile site (I compared the sets of directions from the passenger seat). We would have just used Google Maps’ mobile site, but it kept getting glitchy and wouldn’t toggle between a map and text directions without requiring me to retype our destination each time. So we turned to MotionX GPS Drive, which is $0.99 and then costs an additional $2.99 per month (or $9.99 per year) for real-time live voice guidance.

MotionX GPS Drive got us safely back to a drenched Manhattan. I realized that over the past three days, the biggest problem I’d had was a few glitches on a fancy smartphone, and I felt grateful. There’s not an app for that. Instead, I texted money to the Red Cross.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock / Danny Smythe

  1. +1 for the reference to Have Spacesuit Will Travel, though I’m not a fan of the iPhone.

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  2. Check out Route4Me for multi-stop road trip planning.

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  3. Have you tried an app called Tagwhat? (www.tagwhat.com) Sounds like it would have been a nice alternative for the mobile tour guide you were looking for.

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  4. Another excellent – and free! – app is Waze. It’s accurate mapping with real time traffic, based on other “wazers” input. I use it all the time in my regular commute as it shows actual travel time for various routes home (highway vs local roads, for instance) as well as any “events” from police traps to accidents to just plain slow traffic on your chosen route.

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