iPhone: Travel apps picked by an iPhone expert

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Josh Clark is the author of Best iPhone Apps: The Guide for Discriminating Downloaders.

We recently asked him for some travel tips.

Which iPhone apps do you recommend highly for domestic travel?

TripIt (free). Hands down, this is my favorite travel app. [By the way, Budget Travel has been praising TripIt, too.] It's a companion app to tripit.com, which organizes all of your travel plans into tidy itineraries. After setting up a free account, you forward confirmation emails for all your bookings to TripIt, and the service plucks out the important info, automagically converting it into a structured itinerary complete with maps and local weather. The app syncs with your TripIt account, letting you consult the details anywhere, even mid-flight without an Internet connection.

HearPlanet ($5) is a travel audio guide. It lets you search for nearby landmarks and notable locations and then broadcasts audio commentary on those buildings and sights. Much comes from Wikipedia, and you can choose to read or listen to it. Some items feature human voices, but more obscure locations necessarily rely on text-to-speech robot voices. Still, the effect is like having a knowledgeable companion whispering in your ear as you explore a new place.

USA Today recently unveiled AutoPilot (free), which handles many flight-tracking features, plus gives you city-specific travel articles for flight destinations. As a new app, it's promising but "crashy", though certainly one to watch as new versions come out. At the low, low price of free, it's certainly worth trying.

What is "augmented reality"?

For iPhone 3GS owners, a new breed of "augmented reality" apps allow you to point your camera in any direction to see overlaid information on the video screen (similar to the imaginary line that TV stations add to the football field to help you understand the game). You point your camera toward a section of city block, and you'll see on your iPhone the live image of the street scene overlaid with "signs" that show what's nearby. These apps provide a promising way to find out what's around you. Cyclopedia, Wikitude World Browser, and Nearest Wiki all fall into this category. Finally, iPhone heavyweight Yelp (free, click on the "Monocle button" for its augmented reality feature) is invaluable for getting local advice about the best spots to visit.

What if you're traveling abroad? What are some exceptional apps for exploring new cities?

There are lots of other travel apps available, but many of them rely on the Internet to fetch their content (subway instructions, restaurant reviews, etc). So if you're buying apps for international travel, you have to be careful to check to see if the info is available offline as part of the app.

One set of apps available that don't need an Internet connection to work is the Lonely Planet city guides ($16 each). The famous guide book publisher has been especially inventive in adapting its print books into iPhone apps. The apps include GPS-enabled maps that you can use to find nearby recommended restaurants, shops, hotels, and the like.

Any advice for travelers using iPhones internationally?

The Achilles' heel of the iPhone and most smartphones is the forehead-slapping cost of using the Internet when you're abroad. AT&T; charges two cents per kilobyte outside the U.S. (a bit less in Canada). If you snap a photo with your iPhone and e-mail it to your Mom while traveling overseas, you'll pay about $20. If you don't watch out, you could end up like the woman who recently got a $5,000 bill from AT&T;. Also, most providers let you sign up for discounted voice and/or data plan, with rates discounted about 20 to 30 percent off international calls, with a modest monthly fee. It's worth asking about.

Otherwise, a bit of planning ahead saves the day. The OffMaps app ($3) lets you download maps ahead of time for any part of the world. The iPhone's GPS works just fine without a network connection, so OffMaps can show you exactly where you are on your downloaded map, even when you're offline. You can also sprinkle pins on the map to mark specific sights and landmarks, even Wikipedia articles about places you plan to visit. It's a must-have for international travel.

Another thing: It can be a nasty surprise to get off the plane and discover that you don't have phone service. If you're traveling somewhere that's not a major capital, be sure to call your phone company beforehand to check that your account has international roaming enabled to allow you to make and receive (brutally expensive) calls when you're in a pinch. Depending on when you signed up for your account, you may need to fax additional proof of identification first, so here, again, it pays to plan ahead.


Other iPhone app picks from Josh Clark are at Best iPhone Apps.


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