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TRAVEL TECH THURSDAY: In search of travel apps

Second of two parts

When it comes to travel apps, getting there may be half the fun, but navigating an unfamiliar destination is the other half, and a smartly stocked smartphone can make a big difference.

iPhone 4S

In the first part of this series, we looked at smartphone apps designed to help get you where you’re going, around town or around the world. But there’s a whole range of apps designed to make things better once you get where you’re going, whether it’s finding your way around, sorting out lodging and entertainment options, or helping with dinner plans and a lot more.

1. Google Maps
Somewhere out in the vast digital soup of cyberspace, there may be a better app for navigating a place than Google Maps, but I haven’t seen it yet. Locate specific addresses, get directions from Here to There, or just orient yourself.

It has three crucial advantages, being a) universally available to any smartphone, b)being familiar to millions of computer users who already have it loaded into their desktop, laptop or tablet computers, and best of all, c) being free.

2. Around The Way
There are lots of useful apps for tracking down places to eat, places to stay and places to chill. But if you want to make a point of patronizing black-owned businesses in your destination, you may want to tap this one first.

Give Around The Way your location and it seeks out and identifies black-owned businesses in nine categories:

  1. ATM/Bank
  2. Auto
  3. Bakery/Cafe
  4. Beauty/Barber
  5. Club/Lounge
  6. Laundry/Cleaners
  7. Lodging
  8. Restaurant
  9. Shopping

There’s a steadily growing movement, both online and off, to encourage the start, spread and growth of black entrepreneurship. If you’re part of that movement, or would like to be, Around The Way can help you put your dollars where they can do some real good. Available for iPhone and Android.

3. Taxi Finder
If you’re not renting a car, using public transit or walking everywhere, you will at some point need a cab. You can go “old school” and try hailing one on the street, or you can take control of the process from start to stop with Taxi Finder.

Once GPS tells it where you are, Taxi Finder promises to locate a taxi services for your area, show you how highly their customers rate them (or not), estimate the fare to your destination and let you call the company directly from your iPhone for pick-up. It also will help you calculate fares to points of interest in the city you’re visiting.

NOTE:Taxi Finder to work with 40 cities in North America. Similar taxi apps exist for major cities around the world. To find them, just do a Web search with the name of the city and “taxi apps.”

1. Urbanspoon
Yelp has become the Google-slash-TripAdvisor of restaurant review apps, and rightly so. For something a little different — and a little more fun to use — I went with Urbanspoon. This is the one to try when you’re hungry, but you’re not sure what you’re hungry for.

All you have to do is shake your iPhone and Urbanspoon goes into slot machine mode with three spinning digital “wheels,” one each for neighborhoods, a type of cuisine and price range. When its three digital “wheels” come to a stop, it picks a restaurant for you based on that random combination of choices.

Don’t like the choice? Keep shakin’, baby. What happens in Urbanspoon, stays in Urbanspoon…until you sit down to eat. Once this app has nominated an eatery, you can always check it out on…

2. Yelp
Urbanspoon may help you make a choice of restaurant, but it doesn’t rate its choices for you. But no worries. Yelp’s vast community of online diners will take care of that for you, virtually anywhere you travel in North America and 18 European countries and Singapore.

Wish they had some folks Yelping in Beijing and Shanghai. They might have saved me from some bowls of warm dishwater disguised as hot-and-sour soup.

The other great thing about Yelp: Like Google Maps, it’s virtually universal. In fact, I’ve yet to find a digital device you can’t use it on.

If you’re traveling internationally, especially in a part of the world where you not only don’t speak the language but can’t even read the signs, you need a translator app. I started out experimenting with three of them — SayHi, Translator and iTranslate.

That, of course, was before I discovered Google Translate, which I already use on my desktop and laptop computers.

All do basically the same things. You choose the language you wish to speak and the one into which your need your speech translated. After that, just speak into your phone. The translator not only plays back what you said, in the language that you need, but displays it in written form — most handy in countries where the local language is not written in Latin characters.

All are pretty easy to use and if combined with some online study, can actually be useful in teaching yourself a language.

Of the four, Google Translate offers 64 translatable languages, followed by Translator’s 53, SayHi’s 42 and iTranslate’s 33. But numbers aren’t everything, especially if the translator app doesn’t offer the language you need in the part of the world you’re visiting. Location, location, location.

Also, the digital voice on each varies in quality, sometimes greatly, which is why I’m playing with all four of them. The one that offers the best selection of languages plus the best voice quality will be my primary translator, and I may keep a second as a backup.

TRAVEL TECH THURSDAY: In search of travel apps (Part 1)
Learn globally, read locally
TRAVEL GEAR: Back that thing up!
TRAVEL TECH: Dual-SIM cell phones
TRAVEL TECH: Blackberry travel apps

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