Apps for travelers dreaming of their next trip
By Stephanie Rosenbloom
While travel is fraught amid the rise of the omicron variant, people are still dreaming of their next getaway. There are even new apps to make trips easier to plan and enjoy. A number of them were introduced (and some old favorites were updated) back when travel was at a standstill. Wondering which to try? Here is a selection with thoughtful solutions — how to turn award points into a hotel suite, join a ranger for a national park hike, hear the history of the place you’re driving through, see the latest COVID-19 travel protocols — to help you tap and swipe your way to what will hopefully be a new year of adventures.
National Park Service
From Acadia to Zion, at long last there’s a single official park service app for America’s more than 400 national parks. Created by National Park Service staff, the app puts practical information — such as fees, hours, directions, webcams, where to find food and restrooms, park news and events (walking tours, talks, volunteer opportunities) — at your fingertips. Search for parks near you, or search for them by name, state, activity (like horse trekking, caving, dog sledding) or topic (African American heritage, climate change, volcanoes). According to the app, a visit to Alaska is in order if you want to go dog sledding through national parks and preserves, although if horse trekking is more your speed, there are dozens of national sites from which to choose. Download park details for offline use on mountain trails and other spots where you don’t have cell service, and keep a running list of the parks you’ve visited. Cost: free.
HearHere — Road Trip Companion
When contemplating a road trip, any number of images might come to mind — and Kevin Costner probably isn’t one of them. That may be about to change. The actor and director is a co-founder of HearHere, an app that uses your location and interests to play audio snippets (some narrated by Costner) about the history, culture and natural wonders of the places you’re driving through. There are morsels about the things you see (like landmarks) and the things you don’t, like the people who walked the land before you. The app, which rolled out in 2020, more recently announced an expansion, blossoming from road trip stories set on the West Coast to more than 8,700 stories across the United States, including details about the early history of Portland, Maine; the burning of Washington by British troops in 1814; and the first racially integrated housing in Philadelphia. Available only on iOS. Cost: free for the first five stories; after that, $29.99 for 30-day unlimited access; $35.99 for a one-year unlimited subscription; $69.99 for three years.
Bublup is a cloud storage service where you can save and organize all sorts of content (photos, videos, documents, links, PDFs) in eye-pleasing folders and, if you like, share them with others. For example, say you’re planning a trip to Vermont. With a few taps, you can create a vacation folder and choose from the app’s templates to add a packing checklist and a note about things you want to do. You can easily forward flight or car rental confirmation emails, import inspirational photos and videos, and add links to travel articles and potential bed-and-breakfasts. One of the things that makes the app (and desktop version) delightful for visual planners is that you can choose the colors of your folders or even use your own photos on the front of them and as background images inside. Each type of content you add to a folder (be it a link or photo) appears in its own tidy box, which makes scrolling through information less like work and more like, well, vacation. To get started, try Bublup’s “vacation planning” template, which has handy folders for flight information, food and beverages, location, lodging options and must-see sights, which you can then customize. Tap “invite” to enable fellow travelers to view or collaborate on your trip planning by adding and editing content. For more ways to use the app for vacation planning, check out Bublup’s blog. Cost: free for three gigabytes of storage; more storage and features from $2.99 to $9.99 a month or, if paid yearly, from $27.60 to $94.80. Pricing details: Bublup.com/premium-features.
The Points Guy
The Points Guy website, known for demystifying the ever-changing world of loyalty points and airline miles, has an eponymous app to help you earn, use and keep an eye on your hard-won travel awards. A points wallet allows you to enter your airline and hotel loyalty program information, receive notifications about using your miles and points before they expire, and see just how close you are to scoring a trip. There’s also a place to enter your credit card information and track bonus offers, as well as see how you might spend to earn more points. Tap the “award explorer” icon to learn about redeeming points and miles, and search for estimated award trip prices. A news feed puts the latest travel developments about airlines and airports, deals, destinations and COVID-19 requirements in your pocket. Available only on iOS. Cost: free.
Una Travel: Smart Trip Planner
Currently in public beta, this app asks about your travel style — like the sorts of places you prefer to stay (Beach hotels? Green hotels?) and the cuisines that make your mouth water (Mexican? Italian?) — before offering itineraries and recommendations of things to do. The app’s creators have emphasized responsible travel by including plenty of outdoor activities like hiking, cycling, camping, visits to parks and landmarks, and meals at restaurants with al fresco seating. And you can plan and collaborate on that camping or cycling trip with friends and family, too. Cost: free.
Welcome: A Smart City Guide
Founded by creators of Cameo, a mobile video app that was acquired by Vimeo in 2014, Welcome has come out of beta and is aiming to help users swiftly discover places to go and things to do. Follow travel publications, travel experts and friends. The app will provide recommendations based not only on your preferences but also on real-time considerations such as the time of day, weather and holidays. (Note: You have to enter your phone number to sign in to Welcome.) Available only on iOS. Cost: free.
Some nascent travel apps don’t have many reviews on Apple’s App Store and Google Play, but since they are free to download, you can give them a try before deciding whether they deserve a place on your smartphone. For instance, if you’re itching to go somewhere and want a bit of direction, Elude App suggests destinations based on your responses to questions like “Crave or hard pass?” (with accompanying photos of food such as a charcuterie plate, sushi rolls and dragonfruit) and “Try it or skip?” (with photos and descriptions of activities like “learning to cook like a boss,” “attempting to salsa like a local” and “shhh…visiting a quiet architectural spot”). You can then search for itineraries by entering your total trip budget and the city from which you’re departing. Available for iOS only. Cost: free.
And others …
Of course, nowadays there’s so much evolving travel information, it’s not easy to keep up with the latest rules about where you can go and when. Wandry: Travel Planner aims to help by gathering details from different government portals and putting them in one place. Find out where you are and aren’t allowed to roam, and see requirements for COVID-19 tests, vaccinations and quarantines. Cost: free.
You may also want to revisit familiar apps like Hopper, Skyscanner, TripIt, and Tripadvisor, which have updates, including COVID-19-related requirements and health information. App in the Air, where users book and keep track of their trips and loyalty programs, introduced a digital “health passport,” which was recently updated so you can add both a PCR test and a vaccination certificate before traveling. Cost: free; memberships with additional features like flight status updates are available from $9.99 a year to $49.99 for a lifetime membership.
Meanwhile, on the ground, an update to the free Google Maps app may be useful for getting around outdoors. Its bike and scooter share information has been expanded to more than 300 cities worldwide. Consult the app to find stations around you and, in places like New York and Barcelona, see how many bikes are currently available. If you’re among the many people these days exploring closer to home, an update to Trivago, which helps travelers score deals on accommodations, may be of interest. The free app introduced Trivago Weekend, a new way to discover nearby experiences and trips. Just set your current city or town and then tap the “weekend” icon to peruse places to stay and getaway ideas for 2022 that don’t necessarily require a boarding pass.