With so many travel apps available on the market, consumers may feel justifiably overwhelmed. Which travel apps are most popular? Which are most reliable? And which of them are travelers most likely to actually use? The best free travel apps for 2014 are all of these: popular (for crowd-sourced data collection apps), reliable, and easy to use. I know I have a few travel apps that are just sitting there looking cute on my cell phone, but which I’ve only played with at home and never used for their intended function. This past week I led and moderated a session called “Best Travel Apps to Plan Your Best Trip Ever” at the Los Angeles Travel & Adventure Show. These are the best free travel apps for 2014 that I recommended, plus a couple extra that didn’t make my final presentation edit.
Skyscanner — Skyscanner is a search engine for travel. Originally only for flights, it has just recently branched out to hotels and car rentals. But its flight search engine is the strongest, and it is very accurate, and very good. The app is used for booking travel on the go. Basically, this is a free flight comparison app. It is so easy! You type in where you are going from and to and when (departure and arrival, in other words), and how many passengers. Skyscanner then searches for the best fit flight for your needs. Free. Android and iOS.
Various airline apps — Needless to say, once you’ve bought your ticket, you should go to the respective airline app (if you’re on your phone or tablet) and tweak your seat if you like. Going to the airline’s sites before purchasing air fare suspiciously correlates with prices being raised on the previously searched flights’ tickets.
Hotel Tonight — This best free travel app for 2014 is super for its intended use: booking last-minute hotel rooms. Those big sites like Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline, Kayak, etc provide the whole package, but you’ve heard of them. Hotel Tonight has daily deals that go live every day at noon. Click on a hotel and see a list of amenities and a user-generated “why we like it” section. Because this for for that very day, you get much steeper discounts than the other hotel-finding apps and websites. Free. Android and iOS.
AirBnB — Okay, this app is not for everyone – especially luxury resort travelers. But for those traveling on a budget, it’s been a great new(ish) player in the lodging website and app arena. It connects travelers with hosts who will rent out their available bedrooms and couches for a little money. Both host and guest are carefully vetted. Hosts have a section to help manage inquiries from people who want to rent their bedroom, or apartment, or house, or just a sofa bed. Travelers have a a section with descriptions and large photos and reviews from previous guests. There are currently over 450,000 listings in over 34,000 cities. Free. Android and iOS.
GasBuddy — Gas prices can vary by 20 cents or more and that can affect your vacation budget. GasBuddy is crowd sourced; users are excited to help their “buddies” find the cheapest gas nearest wherever they are at the time. Because of fluctuations in the price of gas, GasBuddy is only as good as its updates, but users are enticed to note changes in gas prizes by daily prize of $100 of gas to a user. It’s been found to be really accurate as a result — who wouldn’t want to win $100 of gas? Free. Android and iOS.
Waze — Waze is a GPS navigation app that gives live traffic information. This is a user-generated informational app, and almost addicting. Other users help give tips and advice in real time regarding detours and short cuts, and report fender benders so that you can alter your commute or road trip mid-route. It’s so satisfying to know you’ve avoided being stuck in traffic while traveling. You can get alerts about speed traps too — during road trip vacations, those long empty-seeming stretches of highway can be mighty tempting. The app offers full voice guided navigation to your destination. Useful for commuting as well as traveling by car in a new city or to a travel destination. Free. Android and iOS.
Best Parking — Save money, time and gas with this app. City parking can be a challenge; even when I’m not away, in Los Angeles I have gotten a couple of parking tickets for parking where I thought I was allowed to but apparently (and resentfully) wasn’t. Best Parking is a parking search engine to help you find the cheapest parking garages in cities you’re visiting. You select a city or an airport and get rates based on calculated total rates, not by the hour. Modify your travel dates to recalculate rates. 100 cities and 115 airports in the United States. Free. Android and iOS.
iHandy Translator — There are a bunch of translator apps online for a multiple of languages, so why recommend one when there are so many? What I love about iHandy Translator is that it is very fast and easy to use on the go, and (for iPhones with Siri, and other phones with voice recognition capabilities) has speech to text/text to speech functionality. In other words, users of this best free travel app for 2014 can type a phrase in English, say, and have Siri “say” it aloud in any one of the other 52 destination languages available. That’s right, 52 languages. From Afrikaans to Yiddish, you’re likely to find the local language of your travel destination here. Free. Android and iOS.
Word Lens — You know about Shazaam, right? That’s the music app in which you hold your phone near a music source and it identifies what song or piece of music’s playing. Word Lens is similar to this and a QR reader. In this case, you hold your phone up to a printed word, such as a road sign or restaurant’s menu, and it translates it to the language you wish to read it in. It works best with big, well-lit signs and menus right now, but it’s a pretty new travel app and the next iteration will likely be fine-tuned. Current languages available for visual translation are English, German, French, Spanish and Italian — not a lot of languages yet, but as I said, this is a relatively new travel app. Free. Android and iOS.
Urbanspoon — I still love Urbanspoon, I’ve recommended it the past few years, and it continues to be one of my favorite apps. You’ve probably heard of Urbanspoon yourself, as it is very popular. There are now over 800,000 restaurants total; to use it, search by what’s closest to you, cuisine type, price, what’s currently open. Shake your phone to get a new result. You can create your own “My Urbanspoon” profile and share your own reviews, photos of the restaurants and meals there (in fact, this photo capability is why I dropped FoodSpotting form my recommended list of best free travel apps for 2014, it’s redundant). For restaurants closest to you, you need to turn your location tracking on. Free. Android and iOS.
TruxMap — Food trucks are so fun and popular these days, and Truxmap tells you where they are in real time. Since food trucks are mobile, tracking them is a lot easier with this app. It uses Google Maps with pinned locations, and the green pins indicate which food trucks are currently open, as well as providing a list of which food trucks will be open the next day. So it might say Portland Oregon: 15 food trucks open now, 4 food trucks opening later today, 9 are scheduled for tomorrow. It even pulls the twitter accounts of food trucks that have them. TruxMap is only available in major cities in the US at this time; as this is where food trucks are most popular. Free. Android and iOS.
Now, I know there are a lot of worthy apps that have a small cost attached to them. For this list of best free travel apps of 2014, I wanted to highlight only apps that are top-notch yet don’t cost a penny. That way, if you download them and decide that you prefer an alternative, you haven’t wasted a dollar. Which are your favorite free travel apps? I’m always eager to download some more apps that simplify or enrich travel.