Appy trails: Testing mobile travel apps

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The problem with most app reviews is that they're often written by tech geeks who may not know what it's like to be a human. And the problem with the hundred or so travel apps I reviewed is that they're often designed for those same geeks instead of for busy families and professionals who don't have hours to spend with gadgets.

This class of travel apps I'm referring to focuses on the bare-bones mechanics of travel - hotel and restaurant listings, flight info, maps, translators and limited tours of specific places. Fine, but what's great about smart phones is that they're, well, smart, and should do some thinking for you. This wasn't the case with the majority of travel apps I tested, particularly ones with the word "trip" in the name - TripTracker, TripCase, TripIt, TripCast. Most required lots of input - adding hotel booking codes, mileage numbers, itinerary confirmation numbers - and returned limited results. They were often cumbersome, relied on a Wi-Fi connection and necessitated a devout concentration that's hard to give when you're mobile.

Instead, I sought out unique apps - both free and paid, available at the iTunes store or on the Web - that require the least input and perform the simplest tasks. I also highlighted ones that alert travelers to things like when the sun sets, where to find clean bathrooms and, of course, how to shake hands with the opposite sex in Azerbaijan.


WORLD CUSTOMS & CULTURES

Hooked in Motion's World Customs & Cultures app is a handy database of 165 countries' valuable cultural information, like how to greet women in Egypt or the importance of using your right hand when eating or giving money in Burkina Faso. Each country has a flag icon and a drop-down list of nine customs, including greetings, communication style, gestures and taboos.

WHAT WORKS The app is simple, relatively comprehensive and fully downloadable to your device, so the info is available on airplanes, even when Wi-Fi isn't. The data is reviewed and refreshed monthly.

WHAT DOESN'T Not all countries are included, and some countries' cultures differ within national boundaries, which is not addressed. Some information is obvious ("Giving someone the middle finger in Aruba is a major insult") and some of the customs are not completely accurate ("The Swiss will forgive you for being up to 30 minutes late to a dinner party." More like 10 minutes, if you're lucky.)

COMPATIBLE WITH iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch

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COST Free; $2.99 upgrade includes foreign phrases


SIT OR SQUAT

The name says it all. This app, sponsored by Charmin toilet paper, is a database of more than 95,000 bathrooms from Brazil to Turkmenistan, many with photos, user-written descriptions and a five-star rating system. A diagnosis of each toilet tells you whether to sit or squat, though it's unclear what the criteria are. Probably better not to ask.

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WHAT WORKS The app identifies your current location and displays a map with color-coded icons indicating if toilets are open at the time of search. A filter lets you search for baby-changing tables. An "Add a Toilet" button allows users to list new toilets they find. The info can be downloaded to your device, so it's available offline.

WHAT DOESN'T The app crashes a lot, which is annoying. Because of the user-generated feedback, the listings are not comprehensive. The newsfeed section doesn't work, either.

COMPATIBLE WITH iPhone, BlackBerry and iPod Touch

COST Free


HAPPY HOURS

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Log on, find the closest happy hour and drink cheaply. This app is stocked with more than 32,000 happy-hour listings nationwide, which appear to be updated regularly. The location finder seeks out results as varied as "30% off sushi after midnight" to "half-priced draft beer from 5-8 p.m."

WHAT WORKS You can search happy hours anywhere, and filter results by types of cuisine, bar and restaurant features (for example, bottle service, fireplace, free Wi-Fi, water view). Or hone your results with buzz phrases (artsy, hidden gem, people watching). There also are most-liked, distance and editor-picks tabs, so users can sort results to their liking.

WHAT DOESN'T When you turn your device to the side, the app reveals a map of the happy hours closest to you, but when you click on one of the icons for info, it automatically reverts to vertical mode. Graphics are outdated.

COMPATIBLE WITH iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch

COST Free

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GATE GURU

Like Yelp for airports, offering user-written information, maps, photos and ratings on airport facilities such as restaurants, spas, airline clubs, duty-free shops, ATMs and more. There are overview maps of each airport, and more detailed maps of individual terminals.

WHAT WORKS You can search exclusively in your terminal - or expand to the whole airport for a better restaurant or shop. The five-star rating system allows you to quickly determine which vendors rank highest among users. There are sponsored coupons for many airport services, like free pretzels at Auntie Anne's or 20 percent off at electronics stores. Four separate tabs let you filter your search by Food, Shop, Services or All.

WHAT DOESN'T Gate Guru works in only 85 American and Canadian airports and doesn't yet include heavily trafficked airports in Europe and Asia. The High Flyers Club (login required) is supposed to help you connect with friends and other users at your chosen airport, but individual user information isn't viewable, just usernames and how many points they've acquired; that's not very helpful and provides no accountability for the user-generated ratings system.

COMPATIBLE WITH iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch

COST Free


WI-FI FINDER

Log on and let the device tell you about all the public Wi-Fi spots in your area. Can be downloaded to your phone, making it easy to use free Wi-Fi when you want to download e-mail overseas (you'll save a bundle).

WHAT WORKS The downloadable database is available offline, especially helpful for iPod Touch users. Options include filtering by Venue Type, Free Wi-Fi and Pay Wi-Fi.

WHAT DOESN'T The information doesn't give passwords, so you'll still have to buy a coffee at that Starbucks or ask the librarian for the password. When downloading offline, you have to know the ZIP code because the map is no longer available.

COMPATIBLE WITH iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch

COST Free


WHERE

Where finds your location and tells you what's around you. There are dozens of apps that do what this one does (Yelp, Around Me and Goby to name a few), but Where does it best - which explains its 3 million users.

WHAT WORKS The flipside screen is a brilliant and customizable timesaver that shows you local gas prices (from cheapest to most expensive), weather, traffic and news info all on one neatly designed page. The Traffic icon on the main screen is updated frequently.

WHAT DOESN'T The less-handy main screen needs to be streamlined. It has too many icons offering duplicate data like events, restaurants, places and Yellow Pages. The coffee section lists corporate chains (Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks) but omits the nice fair-trade coffee spot on the corner. The coupons section is too random and includes everything from McDonald's to West Elm.

COMPATIBLE WITH iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, BlackBerry, Android, Windows Phone 7 and Palm

COST Free


ROADSIDE AMERICA

This under-the-radar app is one of my favorites. It's a companion to the Roadside America website, but offers so much more for the driver who appreciates offbeat roadside attractions, like the cement Sphinx in Bayport or the world's largest clock in Jersey City.

WHAT WORKS The Near Me button works like it does on most apps, except this one delivers offbeat roadside information you won't find elsewhere. The list of themes is a fun way for kids to search for sights and include categories like odd buildings, ghost towns, muffler men and pet cemeteries. The app's "Interruptus" is a fake ringtone you can set to call yourself and excuse you from tedious museum tours and Chatty Cathys. The best feature is the sunset alert, which messages you so you can plan your remaining daylight hours accordingly and/or pull over to admire a sunset.

WHAT DOESN'T The system crashes a lot, and there's no way to be audibly alerted when you're driving by an attraction. There's also no way to download info to your device in case you're out of cell range. There is a map, but it's hard to find. Suggested places to watch the sunset would be a nice addition to the sunset feature.

COMPATIBLE WITH iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad

COST $2.99 for a region; upgrade to whole country is $5.99


YAHOO SKETCH-A-SEARCH

Simple wins again with Yahoo's Y-Sketch app that lets you draw a circle on a map and see what restaurants are around you.

WHAT WORKS No typing or keywords necessary. The filters allow you to narrow searches by types of cuisine (Afghan, healthy, breakfast), ambience (romantic, family, quiet) and star rankings for quality of food, though criteria are ambiguous.

WHAT DOESN'T This app would be especially helpful for grocery stores, post offices, drugstores, etc., but only restaurants are available.

COMPATIBLE WITH iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad

COST Free

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