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.

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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Restaurant guides are out of date; subway, plane or train schedulers seem designed with routing errors and a total failure to connect to anything that could book a ticket.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.

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