Android on vacation: apps to take on the road with you

Apps focused on specific cities or a few functions hit the mark better than all-in-ones.

In the real world, navigation apps, cultural guides and the like have always failed me on the road. Restaurant guides are out of date; subway, plane or train schedulers seem designed with routing errors and a total failure to connect to anything that could book a ticket. Even map applications – at least the kind on earlier-generation smartphones -- tend to give directions that are just wrong enough to get you lost or make you late. That has now changed. Navigation, information and communications on my Android phone got me and a number of offspring efficiently in and out of Washington D.C. for a weeklong visit with family and made the touristing much simpler. They got me into town, tickets to overcrowded attractions and helped pick out the most interesting museum, monument or event during ad hoc "what should we do now" stops on various overcrowded sidewalks. (All listed here are either free or are the free versions of paid apps; in addition to being a geek, I'm cheap.) Oddly, the apps that looked like they would be the best tended to be the biggest disappointments; the simplest ones I thought I might use once turned out to be staples. Google's Navigation is the biggie. We used it for directions from New England to D.C. and around town. Navigating and communicating on the same phone is problematic, though; someone always seemed to call as we were approaching a critical intersection so the map blanked out in favor of the call. It also kept up its habit of odd routing decisions, often trying to send us over secondary and tertiary highways every time I asked for the shortest/quickest route from wherever we were to the suburban Virginia address that would be our home base. Setting the route at the beginning of a long trip and following it through to the end would have saved us almost an hour, but it kept losing the route when we'd stop for a stretch or a meal, emailing or phoning or using other apps while we were at it. Half the time navigating back to Navigate pulled up the original route; the other half the time we had to recreate it, with random results. Much more useful were narrowly focused apps, like DC Metro Rails, which gave effective directions to the nearest train, routes and updates on how long it would take the train to arrive. Museums DC (there are also versions for NY, Boston and Chicago) gives good lists of museums to visit, complete with reviews and summaries from Yelp, Wikipedia and other online sources. Pick one, click on the address and it navigates you there. It's great if you're deciding which of all a city's museums you want to visit. It's not as great if you're already on the Mall in D.C., surrounded by a dozen Smithsonia, which are surrounded by a couple of dozen secondary national museums, all of which are free, most of which are worth visiting. What you need for ad hoc changes of plan – like the day you found out at 3 p.m. you would have had to get in line at the Holocaust Museum at 7:30 or 8 to be sure of getting tickets for that day, which are handed out free starting at 10 a.m. to lines that literally stretch 360 degrees around the block – is something narrower and more maplike. Places is the most useful I've found. It combines mapping, search, and pre-defined searches rather than making you type your goal every time, as with Google Maps. It comes with canned queries for all the nearest coffee shops, ATMs, Gas Stations and restaurants, but you can plug in whatever term you want. Plug in "monuments" and it will show you how to get to the WWII memorial and how to loop around the Lincoln and Vietnam on the way to the parking lot where your ride is waiting. On the way out of town, navigating through the endless Virginia suburbs packed with gas stations, high-end condos, high-end McMansion developments and high-end office buildings but precious few stores that might sell Dramamine for the car-sick daughter threatening to share her suffering (and lunch) with everyone else the whole way home. Two blocks away from the high-end grocery emporium hidden inside a high-end office building with valet parking out front and grocery parking through the hidden entrance to an underground garage, it was impossible to imagine there was a combination organic-food, yoga, natural cosmetic and pharmaceutical store anywhere in the neighborhood. Places pointed it out and navigated us there. Far more clever apps turned out to be disappointments:

  • RainAlarm offered to warn us when it was going to rain, and show tv-news-ish weather maps to prove it. We turned out only to need that information once a day; it was easier to get elsewhere.
  • PointInside offered maps and GPS guidance inside large, confusing buildings, which means all of them within D.C., but was also extraneous. Even in a big crowd the problem indoors is far more often losing each other, not our way through the building.
  • MyCarLocator was a great idea, but also unnecessary in that case. There were so few parking options in D.C. it wasn't hard to remember where you parked. I'm leaving it installed, though, for mall parking lots, outdoor concerts and any other situation when there is lots of parking but no clear landmarks to help remember where it is.
  • Intercom looked cool, but wasn't useful. It lets users of Bluetooth-equipped phones talk via Bluetooth radio as they would with walkie talkies. Phoning or texting was easier.
  • GPS Essentials looked really cool. With waypoints, a compass, automatic camera, map, speed, location and altitude charts, a special map and visual guide to the GPS satellites to which you're connected, it's the all-in-one GPS travel app. We never needed such comprehensive information. All we wanted were real-time maps and text showing the next turnoff. Anything else was distracting.
  • Here I Am 2 looked like a great way to find each other when we were separated by letting us text or email our location to one another. Using it required contacting the other party first, which made it easier to solve where-are-you issues that way rather than by using the app.

What was unexpectedly great?

  • MeAnderthal – a free app from the Smithsonian that takes your picture, then morphs you into a Neanderthal. It's not true that I looked the same both ways, no matter what the kids said.
  • Lightsword Free – which buzzes up a lightsaber and makes whirry noises when you wave the phone around. Very entertaining for the young or immature who are bored while standing in line.
  • Ditto Tazer Free, which shows a picture of a Taser on the screen and puts on a huge light-and-sound show for such a small app when you push the On button to "tase" your victim with electricity noises and flashing lights from the camera's flash. Very satisfying the first time. Very annoying the two hundredth. Burns out your batteries quickly, too, so you have to keep it out of small hands while standing in line.

All three are completely pointless but still invaluable. When you're looking for entertainment for yourself or someone expecting entertainment from you, it's surprising how brilliant a fake lightsaber is, or how much discussion can go into what kind of caveman dad must have been.

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