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By Patrick Neeman

I travel. A lot. About once a month, I try to get on an airplane somewhere. Anywhere. Last year, I spent 140 days outside of San Francisco. It’s not that I don’t like the city, but I get impatient.

I also travel light, so I use my iPhone as my primary device when I travel.

Strangely, most “top” mobile applications people think would be useful for traveling aren’t. I don’t want to book a hotel room, a flight, or a car — I’ve planned that already. I take care of that sitting on my laptop, because entering credit card information on a phone is something I never want to do.

I want mobile applications to fill a very specific need. I might have several applications on my phone like that. When you consider how much traveling costs, I think spending $25 for a few applications is worth the investment for a better trip.

The best applications are designed with the user experience in mind, by filling needs within the context of your trip. For example:

  • Is my flight delayed?
  • How much does it cost for a taxi to my hotel from the airport?
  • Where do I get something to eat that’s inexpensive, but recommended by locals?
  • How do I get to a neighborhood?
  • How do I call a taxi?
  • Where’s free WiFi if I’m out of the country?

These are immediate needs. You aren’t sitting in your hotel room browsing through the yellow pages; you’re standing on Columbus Avenue in North Beach.

Which restaurant do you go to, and how do you get a reservation? (Hint: the best restaurants aren’t on Columbus Avenue).

Here are my recommended iPhone apps for traveling within San Francisco, because it’s a great model for what works and what doesn’t.

flighttrack travel app

1. FlightTrack

There’s nothing worse than getting to the airport and your flight is delayed, like, three hours (read: average San Francisco International delay on a Friday evening in July).

To solve that, download FlightTrack. It’s an application (formerly free, but now starts at $4.99) where you can enter your flight information and get takeoff times, landing times, see the flight in transit, and get an idea of how often the flight is on time. You can hang out a little longer in the city by the bay, while your airplane finds its way from Philadelphia.

Why it rocks: It has everything you need in an application to track your flights. The interface is elegant, and you get push notifications when a flight is delayed, but only in the professional version.

Room for improvement: They need to find a revenue stream. I could point them in a few directions, like more travel services. In reality, there should be no professional version – they should just charge for it.

yelp mobile app

2. Yelp + OpenTable

There’s nothing worse than standing in a city, lost, and you don’t know where to grab a good steak or great Chinese. Greasy food makes me sick, so I prefer restaurants that have decent food.

Enter Yelp! + Open Table (I know, two apps). I use both together because I want to find out the semi-recommended restaurants in the area and see potential reservation times. Restaurants that have few available reservation times override Yelp reviews, because it shows they are busy.
opentable android app
Why they rock: Yelp is a good alternative to the current yellow pages and finds nearby places. Additionally, OpenTable is a stupid-simple reservation system. Registration is a tricky process on the phone, but signing up on OpenTable.com first makes reserving a table easier.

Room for improvement: Yelp’s reviews are overwhelming in some cities (San Francisco) and invisible in other cities (New Orleans). OpenTable is a proprietary system that doesn’t cover every restaurant and is really weak in places like New Orleans. I find I have to use both to find good restaurants. The user experience would be much better if these two companies joined forces.

instagram iphone app

3. Instagram

Screw checking in with every single social network from Foursquare to Facebook: I want to take photos once and send it everywhere.

Welcome Instagram, the little app company that could. The four employees at the wonderful little application make it possible for you to take photos, add some amazing filters, and upload (and check in) to Facebook, Foursquare, and Twitter. You can also geo-tag your photos, so you know exactly where you took them.

What’s more is that you can connect with and view photos from others, browsing pictures taken by the people who live in the city that you will be visiting.

Why it rocks: Carrying the application fills my need to document my trip in photos and check in socially and in style. The integration with social services and geo-tagging is user experience at its best.

Room for improvement: Not much, other than figure out how to make a living at it. If photos can be uploaded to Flickr, Picasa or Facebook Albums, that would be really cool. I would pay for this.

ubercap travel app

4. UberCab

UberCab has a pretty limited reach now; but once it gets to other cities, it’s going to kill the market. UberCab lets you call town cars in San Francisco, New York, and Seattle. You can see right on your phone where your car is and how many minutes until its arrival.

You can call your driver directly from your phone, and there’s no need to tip. The application charges your credit card without pulling out your wallet.

UberCab has been a wonderful addition to the San Francisco transportation scene. I had an epic cab ride (http://www.yelp.com/biz/yellow-cab-san-francisco-4) with Yellow Cab, and whenever I need to get somewhere on time and in style I take Yellow Cab.

Why it rocks: It provides feedback instantly and fills an immediate need – fast transportation.

Room for improvement: Signing up on the phone is impossible. Sign up on the site before your trip. Also, UberCab’s service is a bit pricey (the app is free though!).

icommute sf travel app

5. iCommute SF

For those who like to see the city through mass transit, the best option is iCommute SF. This application finds your location and shows you the closest bus stops, when the next bus is, and where it’s going. The service is scary accurate (using the NextBus system), and shows you the delays.

Why it rocks: It shows the expected times of the next bus and how to get to where your going. What more do you want?

Room for improvement: The Google Maps format for routes is absolutely useless. It would also be nice to see connected routes, and maybe routes that show you the best of the city.

When considering travel mobile apps, think about where you’re going and what you’ll need. For me, I like to try new foods and know what disasters I can avoid (flight delays, bad tourist traps, traffic, etc). What mobile apps are the most useful for is preventing in-the-moment panic by finding a quick solution to your travel gripes, which usually involve transportation, dining/nightlife, staying connected to others. Give these apps a whirl, you won’t be disappointed.

Got some of your own favorite travel apps? Please share below.

patrick neeman - usability counts

About the Author

Patrick Neeman is Director of User Experience at Jobvite, a social recruiting platform. He’s working on three pet projects: UX Drinking Game, Pick An Excuse and Perks Locator. You can find his blog on Usability Counts.