Travel iPhone Apps for the Frugal (London Edition)

Travel iPhone Apps for the Frugal (London Edition)

Traveling can be expensive.  While I’m feeling less of a tourist in the UK, having been here for about five months now, I’m well aware of the limitations of being in a different country while relying on technology to get around efficiently and cheaply.
I do love the convenience of my iPhone and the many apps I have installed, but if you use an iPhone (or any other smart phone) and rely on a data network in your own country (for me the United States), you become quickly aware of how reliant that device is on data access once it’s stripped away from you.  This makes using the device a challenge when you’re outside your network trying to find your way around or discovering interesting things to do.
I don’t plan on giving up my US based iPhone any time soon, so most of my days in the UK are spent on free wifi access points or rationing my 20MB of international roaming data (which I do quite successfully most months).  This isn’t the US though, free wifi can be difficult to find, and trying to load up the built-in Maps app will eat your roaming data very quickly.
I recently spent a day in London.  I considered it a touristy day, basically roaming one part of London and taking photos along the way.  The goal of the day was to spend as little money as possible, which I thought would be a fantastic challenge for a city as expensive as London.  I may blog about the entire experience some other time, but for this post I wanted to focus simply on the technology.
Features that make a good travel app include offline access with full use of the phone’s GPS, and an easy to use interface.  Not everybody may require offline access, but it’s good to consider, especially if you plan on using underground transport, or areas where you think there may be no wireless signals present.  I’m focusing on a few apps I downloaded for London, but I hope to take what I learned there to discover different apps for visits to other cities in the future.  A good way to test how an application will work offline is to try it out in airplane mode first.
Travel Guides
I still like to take a paper travel guide with me, but I like to keep them small.  This is because I prefer to plan trips out before I go and don’t like carrying giant travel tomes.  I’ve also been burned on GPS signal in big cities before, tall buildings can interfere with getting an accurate reading on your device.  If you rely too much on the technology it could get you lost.  I prefer the Fodor’s ’25 Best’ Series if I can find it for any city I visit.  It’s thin, it only contains a few highlights of the best attractions, and it has maps both inside the covers and a bigger fold out map (oh and it’s also cheap).  Having a nice and easy to use paper based map is still a good idea, even when you are traveling with a device that has a digital map.
I relied on my paper map the first time I was in London back in August, though this time I seemed to want to forget I even had it… even when I needed it.  I think it is easier and faster to pull out the iPhone than it is to mess with a map, which is why I try to plan on having both on hand.
I admit I didn’t use my iPhone much for travel guides during the trip, I did look at a few before though.  Here’s a few I found that I did like:
Free & Budget London – $1.99
If I liked one travel app the most it was this one.  I’m thrifty, what can I say?  It was the most expensive of all the apps I purchased, but I think it was worth it.  The interface is really nice and there are some unique tips and ideas for exploring London on the cheap.  I also liked that there was an average price for restaurant options.  The app works nicely offline, but you do need access to a network to view places on the map.  The distance option does work with the GPS and the phone offline, so it’s possible to get nearby options on the fly.
London Map and Walking Tours – Free
This application has a nice interface for walking tours.  Even if you’re not into doing an entire walking tour it could be useful for finding places nearby to go.  It also has a map that can be used offline.  There is a full version of this app for $4.99 that includes the same tours but with GPS navigation and turn-by-turn tour routes turned on.  The map and tours are loaded into the application and work offline.
London Highlights – Free
The London Highlights application is a lite version of the Way2GoGuides.  It has an easy to use interface with audio, area maps, and a host of other useful information.  There are a few other more detailed mini-guides that can be downloaded for $4.99, but the free application seems more than suitable for ideas and travel information on local attractions.
If offline access isn’t necessary for you then there’s a couple of honorable mentions.
Time Out London – Free
For a free app there’s a lot going on here.  It’s packed full of information, events, and fun things to do with a nice interface.  It doesn’t work offline, but because there’s a lot of real time information on events in here you can be sure there’s less stale or outdated entries.  If I have one complaint about this app it is the nagging Smirnoff screen at the beginning asking if I’m of drinking age.
Spoonfed – Free
Like the Time Out London app, it will keep you up to date on live events and happenings.  It also needs a network connection to run so no offline access here either. 
Maps
Offline city maps are a wonderful thing to have on your phone, but it can be frustrating to find the best one.  There are so many options to choose from.
Smart Maps – London $0.99
I settled for this map because of the offline access and the price.  It uses OpenStreetMap as the base map, which I noticed a number of these mapping applications do.  What you need to know about OpenStreetMap is the data is non-commercial, open, and user-generated (anybody can use it for free).  It will only be as good as the data the users have added to the map (and of course how the app developer implements that data).  Though knowing this I noticed a lot of mapping applications using OpenStreetMap are charging a lot more for their apps, some in the $4.99 range, but others, like this one, a few dollars.  It’s good to look at the features, and it’s also good to know what you’re going to want from an offline city map.  For me use of the GPS was important.  Where this map failed for me was finding a nearby tube station.  The stations are marked but they’re not labeled, so I had no idea which one I was looking at.  It looks as if an update to this map does have some tube stations marked and search-able so this may no longer be an issue here.  The icons for tube stations and bus stops are similar so it’s not as easy to use as Google Maps, but this is still a good map though.  The GPS works ok, the search feature does bring up some nearby places of interest, and an update to the map allows you to bookmark landmarks (which I’ve already started adding a few for my next trip to London).  The people who make the Smart Maps do make a few for other cities.
With all that being said, I noticed that the Walking Tours map I mentioned earlier does have the tube stations more clearly marked and uses the same OpenStreetMap base map.  The Mini A-Z maps ($9.99) are very popular in the UK, but I personally do not like how they look and the apps are basically expensive scans of their print maps.  Before committing to a map try to look at the screenshots to see if you can get any a sense of how the information is organized and labeled.  For a good map I don’t think $4.99 is too much to pay if you think you’re going to use the features, but cheaper is always better.  I did use the offline map a lot to get my bearings, they are incredibly helpful.
Transportation
I love riding on the London Tube!  I didn’t bother downloading any bus apps for London because I prefer the Tube and walking, but there’s a bazillion different transport apps for London alone.  I’ve also searched apps like this for Chicago so I know any large city will have many options for you to choose from.
Tube Map – Free
Like with city map applications, transport applications can vary.  The one I settled with was Tube Map because it was free.  It does a nice job getting you from station to station if you know where you’re at and where you intend to go.  It does not use GPS though.  There is a naggy screen when you open the app to register but you can skip that and the app works fine offline.  The only thing that will not work offline with any of these apps is the tube status feature, which needs a data network to connect.  For a free app though, this one is good.
London Tube – $0.99
I haven’t tested this one out for London, but I have a similar app by the same developers for Chicago.  I do find the interface a bit finicky to get around and you have to pay more for points of interest so it’s no good if you want to search nearby locations.  I also have full access to the AT&T network in the US, so I’m not so much concerned with offline access there.  I’ve given my Chicago app another look though and I do find the interface frustrating enough that I’m willing to skip the London version of this application.
London Tube Deluxe – $0.99
While I still have yet to test it in London, I’ve decided to upgrade from my previously mentioned free Tube app to London Tube Deluxe.  The reviews are good and it was updated very recently with new features.  I like the interface, you can select a station from the map by tapping twice on the screen, and there is a locate feature that uses the GPS.  My next London trip won’t require a ride on the Tube, but I’ll try to remember to turn on the app to test the GPS offline while I’m in the city.
Looking through the options and the reviews, $0.99 seems to be the most you want to spend on a transport application.  The free map works just fine, especially if you don’t need to rely on a GPS location for finding the nearest station, but if you want a few more features then you can find it for not much more.
WiFi Hotspots
A big “must do” when I plan on going anywhere is to get a handle on where the wifi hotspots are, or rather, the free wifi hotspots.  WiFi is a little easier to find in the US, but not impossible to find in the UK. 
WiFiZone@UK – Free
Most of the wifi locations here include the commercial services like The Cloud and BT Openzone, these are not free wifi hotspots and there is no filter to really determine if any are free.  The app claims it works with no internet connection, but it oddly does not work in airplane mode.  If you need a hotspot quick and don’t mind paying for access this one will work throughout the UK.
Free WiFi London – Free
This is a simple app that works offline.  I used it twice in London, once brought me to a location that was closed (it’s possible to mark locations closed when you’re online, which I did), and another time brought me to a fabulous little cafe that I wished I had eaten lunch in instead of the typical chain cafe I did end up in.  It’s not fancy, but it works with no internet connection and with the GPS.  My success rate is still only 50% with it, but it’s a free app and it might help you find free wifi so it’s worth the download.
Travel requires some planning and traveling with technology requires a lot of patience and research.  The apps themselves can be of varying quality and expense.  What I’ve learned with this trip to London is that finding the best applications might also take some time.  I’m not against paying money for a good app, but if you look at a decent map application alone you’ll see some pretty astonishing prices.  I think once I was out and about during the day I realized what features were more essential than others.  The other unfortunate thing about downloading apps, particularly iPhone apps, is that there is no refund if you decide you don’t like it after all.  My recommendation is to start with free or cheaper apps, there are some good ones out there and there are some bad ones too.  If it’s free you’re out nothing, and if it’s cheap you’re out a little… and who knows, maybe with some advice from you that mediocre free or cheap app could improve in time for your next trip.