Friday, 7 March 2014

Travel apps

How many times have you installed an app on your smartphone, particularly for travel, only to uninstall it just as quickly after finding it disappointingly unresponsive and totally unable to accomplish what you'd hoped it could? On the other and, it's a great feeling when you do manage to find a good one.

We increasingly rely on our mobile devices when we're travelling these days - and why shouldn't we, when it makes our lives so much easier? I've certainly had enough of puzzling over paper maps and struggling to ask locals for directions in an unknown language to last me a lifetime.

Two travel apps I'd been keen to try since reading fairly positive things about them on tech and travel sites were Uber and Hotel Tonight, and they've both passed my do-I-want-to-uninstall-this test with flying colours. Here are my thoughts on both, and why they may be useful on your next trip.

Uber is essentially a taxi replacement service - you can call a private driver (or in some cases, an actual taxi) to your location from your phone, to get to wherever you need to go. There are numerous advantages to using this over a regular taxi or other 'town car' service:

  • For most major cities there are heaps of Uber drivers and they usually arrive within minutes - you can even track their progress via the app, which also sends you an SMS with the ETA.
  • You can get a fare quote before you request the ride, which is usually fairly accurate
  • The cheapest 'UBERx' service is usually comparable to or slightly cheaper than a regular taxi, however if you want to splash out you can also order a 'black car', which is more like a limo
  • All the payment is done through the app and you don't have to tip, so no worries if you don't have cash on you
Of course if you've just landed in a foreign country and don't have a local simcard, it can be a wee bit annoying having to either find wifi or buy a data package, and also use SMS in order to confirm your mobile number with your account. However, it's still a lot less of a gamble than hopping into any random taxi and not knowing how much you might end up paying - why I usually stick to public transport if possible. 
We used Uber multiple times in LA and also once in Boston, and it's been pretty good. Once you request a ride, Uber shows you a photo of your driver so you can recognise them when they pull up. However, it really is a super odd feeling getting out at your destination without forking over any cash - almost as if you didn't pay at all, except that your credit card has been charged automatically. 
Another thing I like about the app is being able to see all the little Uber drivers moving around on the map when you're thinking about requesting a ride - it's so cute! 

Overall, I'd recommend Uber to anyone who likes to know how much a taxi ride might cost before taking one, and doesn't enjoy waiting around on the street to flag one down. We sure could've used Uber that time we were stranded in London after the last tube had gone and we ended up on a rather unpleasant night bus ride!

Hotel Tonight lets you access last minute discount pricing for same day hotel bookings, but that's where the similarities to sites like Wotif and other existing services ends. What I really like about it:
  • It's beautifully designed and super responsive
  • It's intuitive, you can have your first booking done within minutes of installing the app
  • The limited choices actually makes it easy to navigate - instead of having way too many choices like on Expedia,, Orbitz,, etc, there are a limited number of properties in each town, and you can only book from the same day onward, so it's impossible to spend ages agonising over the choices
  • It gives you all the key information you want to know about the facilities without overloading you with random facts you don't really care about (i.e. like whether it has a hairdryer or not - what hotel room doesn't?)
  • I really like the way the content is written - see below
There are a million hotel booking sites out there, but Hotel Tonight has won out by concentrating on doing one thing very, very well. Of course, if you don't have the flexibility to be booking somewhere on the day you need to stay there, it's not going to work. But otherwise? It's perfect. We used it in New York and got a fantastic rate for a very nice hotel in Brooklyn that I'm sure we would otherwise have paid a lot more for. Definitely recommended, especially if your travel plans are flexible.

One last travel tip - if you haven't discovered Google Hotel Finder and Google Flights, give it a go - it's a lot faster and less cluttered than most travel booking sites, and lets you sort by all sorts of criteria that's unavailable on most sites. I'm not sure if it's completely exhaustive, but it at least gives you a pretty good gauge of what''s available at what prices.

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