On the road again: Five free iOS apps to make your next trip less bumpy
Heading out of town over the holiday weekend? Get these apps first.
By Chuck La Tournous
If you’re planning on hitting the road this Labor Day Weekend, don’t plan on being alone. AAA estimates you’ll be sharing the asphalt with more than 35.5 million other drivers looking for summer’s last hurrah.
But luckily, you’re an iPhone user, which means you have an advantage over those other road warriors—so long as you (er, let’s make that your passengers) make use of some of our favorite iPhone apps for cruising down the highway.
And did we mention they’re free?
Whoever said getting there is half the fun never spent a hot summer day in bumper-to-bumper traffic 12 miles behind a fender bender. Sure, there are other apps that provide turn-by-turn directions—including the one that came with your phone. But for up-to-the-minute, crowd-sourced, reliable information on what lies ahead (and how to get around it), Waze is the app we rely on. Waze is now owned by Google, and powers Google Maps traffic alerts. But it’s even better as a standalone app.
Information is provided by other “Wazers” both passively (though measuring speed, for instance) and actively (reporting traffic jams, road closures, accidents, police activity, etc.) The result is a near real-time look at traffic along your route, and the things that slow it down. Waze lets you know how much time a traffic jam may cost you and will even re-route you if it thinks it can save you time. On several instances during a recent road trip, Waze took us off a congested highway and suggested a detour to bypass accidents, saving us as much as 40 minutes each time.
The community-based nature of Waze means you can share comments with other users to get more details on a road hazard or speed trap. If you like, you can send an alert to someone within the app to let them track your progress. And to make you think twice about using your phone while driving, Waze gives a warning about using certain features, making the user attest that they’re a passenger before continuing. (Yes, you can lie—but please don’t.)
You’ve got to respect an app that does one thing and does it well. Other navigation apps have started to include gas station finders, but none does it elegantly—and accurately—as GasBuddy. Simply hit the big “Find Gas Near Me” button and GasBuddy returns a list of places to get gas near you. (You were expecting something different?) But instead of just a list of stations with prices and distances, you can view locations on a map view that helps you select stations along your route, so you don’t inadvertently chase locations out of your way—or even worse, stations that you’ve already passed. Tapping on a station gives you more information, including the option to get directions.
Along interstate highways, gas prices can vary wildly—I saw ranges of $0.40 a gallon or more on a recent trip through Maryland and Virginia. GasBuddy makes it easy to find the bargains among the… well, not-bargains. (Hint: If you can’t get your gas in New Jersey, try to hold out for Maryland.)
GasBuddy is another crowdsourced app, and if you’re so inclined, you can verify or correct the prices at the stations you visit. In my experience, GasBuddy’s prices have been 100-percent accurate, even when I was skeptical of a $2.19 oasis in a sea of $2.49 pumps.
Your car is not the only thing that needs fueling up on a long road trip. And whether you’re looking for the comforting familiarity of your favorite fast food joint or trying to avoid another, Where To? can guide you to a place the whole family can agree on before hunger compels you to settle for a place where you can “eat here and get gas.”
But food’s not the only thing Where To will help you find. From grocery stores to entertainment venues to emergency services, Where To’s breadth of services is impressive. Select what you’re looking for from a series of icons laid out in a circle, and you’ll get a list of sub categories to help narrow your search. Tap a selection and you’ll see a map—GasBuddy style—showing nearby options. Pinch to zoom in or out to narrow or expand your search area, then tap on a pin to get more information, including star ratings and reviews.
Best Western (or the hotel of your choice)
The vagaries of road travel make it hard to be sure of where you’ll be ready to bed down for the night. My family has found that Best Western offers enough locations and consistent enough accommodations to make it our hotel of choice for most long road trips. Even better: They’ve got a great mobile app.
The app shows you hotels near you or the city you specify, with rates clearly shown without having to dig. You can check availability, find out about amenities, information about the area and—of course—get directions. You can book right within the app and even pay with points if you have enough. Impressively (or perhaps bravely), the app also provides TripAdvisor Traveler Ratings for each location—the good the bad and the ugly.
Being able to drive until you start to feel tired without being committed to reaching a preset destination has been a wonderful experience. For my family, the Best Western app has changed the way we travel. But if you’d rather go with a catch-all hotel app, Hotel Tonight can’t be beat. This app specializes in finding last-minute hotel deals for same-day check-ins, but you can expand your search for up to seven days out. The app does location-based searches by default, so you’ll immediately be able to see what’s available nearby. You can also check out photos, guest ratings, and info compiled by Hotel Tonight’s research team, then complete your booking from within the app.
It’s an old standby for sure, but in a strange location full of unfamiliar eateries, hearing what others have to say can be very reassuring. Yelp reviewers can be blustery, self-important, and even agenda-laden, but collectively they usually can be relied on to let you know whether a place is worth your time—or to be avoided. In addition to directions, you can usually get a menu, a phone number, and occasionally a discount offer.
While technically not an app, Siri is worth mentioning for how much she lets you do without actually touching your phone—a big no-no while driving.
With your iPhone connected to a power source in your car, you can say “Hey, Siri” to activate voice commands. From there, the breadth of things you can control is pretty remarkable. Place a call, ask for directions, send a text, play music—even open one of the apps above. All without taking your hands off the wheel.
But after a long road trip, my favorite command is this: “Siri, take me home.”
Have a great app that we missed? Let us know in the comments.