Smartphones and their apps make vacations easier and cheaper. It seems that every destination and the stops along the way offer opportunities to use a smartphone.
My favorite apps become more valuable during family trips: calendars, weather reports, maps, alarms and dining guides. The apps work together, too. By including addresses, the calendar offers links to weather and maps.
Complementing my frequently used apps are those from airlines, shuttle buses, car rental companies and hotels. They are familiar to business travelers, but I was unaware of how many apps help other travelers.
Before taking trips, update the apps that you might need. Within the apps, update addresses, payment information and other data that might be required to use the apps. Although iOS includes Apple Pay and a Wallet app, many apps that connect to payment methods do not use the default Apple or Android data. I change the default credit card, too, based on business travel or family travel.
If you have a home phone and cell phone, update app contact information to default to your cell phone. When we travel, our credit card companies call or email when a transaction is more than $500. Fraud protection also calls when purchases occur in multiple states on the same day. I have had a credit card “skimmed” at an interstate plaza. That leads to another bit of advice: Use credit card data for smartphone apps, not debit card numbers.
I recommend also installing a receipt or expense tracking app, or at least keeping track in a note-taking app on your smartphone. Many places no longer offer receipts. I understand the benefits of cashless and paperless, but it feels like I’m at RadioShack each time I’m asked for an email address for my receipt. For any business traveler, Neat Premium for $10 a month works well. Shoeboxed is another highly rated alternative.
Getting there might be half the fun, but only if you don’t get lost. For some trips, Apple Maps works best and, for others, the Google Maps app offers better information. Apple Maps failed us in Washington, D.C., and Google Maps offered the most complicated path possible to Lake Erie. Test mapping if you’re going to be in an unfamiliar city. I avoid Waze, which was guiding me away from major routes, but that means you are also away from convenient rest stops and familiar break locations that children might require.
Discounts on gas and refreshments add up on the road. I use KeyRing to store all those plastic discount cards from gas stations, restaurants, convenience stores and other retailers. Some stations discount gas by five cents a gallon or more with those cards, but you never know which stations are along a route. Convenience store cards offer discounted and free drinks, which we have redeemed during daylong drives across states.
A friend told me about parking apps, which I soon moved to my first screen of apps. I had not considered it until this summer, but parking lots in many major cities accept reservations and payments via smartphone apps. SpotHero, which also owns ParkingPanda, offers discount rates for parking if you reserve a spot in advance. The discount in Washington, D.C., saved us $50 over a weekend.
For places with parking meters, the app Meter Feeder works great. It includes a visual timer and audio alerts to warn when time is about to expire. Parking tickets in many cities cost far more than full-day garage parking. I now use Meter Feeder locally, too, so I can pay for time as I need instead of trying to guess how long we might be parked. The app stores information about our vehicles and payment methods.
After we arrive at a destination, there are more apps to use.
We use apps for zoos, state parks, national parks and museums. We also use nature guide apps to help teach our daughters about plants and wildlife. The apps don’t replace printed guides or laminated cards for bird-watching and plant identification, but they are more convenient when you have young children.
Some communities have apps, especially tourist locations. These apps resemble the printed visitor guides available at rest stops and visitor centers. They include maps, calendars and coupons for local attractions. It was a regional app that led me to a trolley tour of Washington, with an automatic discount. If a place attracts tourists, there is probably an app for the region.
Without a doubt, the most impressive apps are from Disney. Our daughters have reached the theme park age this year, which tests their patience and mine. Apps for the major parks include options to reserve spaces in line, making the apps essential for any parent of young children. Locating characters offers its own magic since our girls still find the characters more impressive than any rides in a park. It is a big change from flipping through wet and tattered park guides to find out when a show is on stage or where the nearest restrooms are hidden.
Everywhere we go, we take pictures and short videos with our smartphones. Installing the Google Photos app on our iPhones made sharing those pictures easier and better than Apple’s iCloud and Photos combination. Google Photos automatically uploads pictures to Google and, unlike Apple’s cloud service, there’s no limit to the number of images stored. Google’s artificial intelligence tags the people in photos and creates slide shows based on dates and locations. The shared slide shows include music and special effects.
One final suggestion for vacation smartphone use: Buy a water-resistant case. These cases cost $80 or more, but they withstand the splashes of log rides and damp mornings at the beach. With smartphones now essential travel companions, you want to protect all that data.
Like most parents, we still lug about a lot of items that a smartphone cannot replace, especially water bottles, snacks and wipes. I also enjoy camera photography, so I have a backpack with my camera, lenses, filters, memory cards and extra batteries. Slipping the smartphone and single bird guide into the backpack beats the way we used to travel.
Smartphones have changed how we work; they are also changing our vacations.