Save Time, Money and Hassle with These Smartphone Apps

Need to make a last-minute hotel reservation? Find your way around an unfamiliar city? Keep track of a trip itinerary? There are hundreds of travel-oriented apps capable of doing things like these and more—often for free. But which really are worth loading onto your smartphone? Here’s a look at some of the ways smartphone apps can make your travel more enjoyable, affordable and efficient, plus the best apps to use for each…

Get directions and dodge ­traffic (and traffic tickets). There are numerous map apps that can help travelers navigate unfamiliar areas. The well-known Google Maps app is one worth having—no app provides more accurate driving and walking directions. ­Android, iOS or Windows. Free. (Google.com/mobile/maps)

Unlike most map apps, Maps.me lets you download maps to your digital device and use them offline. It’s a good way to avoid the potentially steep international cellular roaming fees sometimes incurred when a conventional map app is used abroad. Just download the Maps.me map of the area you’re visiting before leaving home or while at a Wi-Fi hot spot. Downloading maps also makes sense if you travel with a digital device that doesn’t offer cellular access. Android or iOS. Free. (Maps.me)

Waze supplies driving directions like a conventional map app does—but while other apps calculate the fastest route based on distances and speed limits, Waze also gathers real-time traffic data from Waze users and directs drivers around traffic tie-ups. Waze also warns drivers when police officers have been spotted on the road ahead. Android, iOS or Windows. Free. (Waze.com)

Organize your trip. What’s the address of the hotel? What time is your dinner reservation? What’s the confirmation number for your car-rental reservation? The TripIt app consolidates important trip details like these into an easy-to-understand master itinerary that you can access from your smartphone, even offline. Just forward trip-related confirmation e-mails to TripIt, and the app will automatically incorporate the pertinent details. (Trip details can be typed in when there is no confirmation e-mail.) TripIt also makes it simple to forward trip details to colleagues or loved ones. Android or iOS. Free unless you upgrade to TripIt Pro, which costs $49 a year and provides additional features such as flight-delay alerts and frequent-flier-mile tracking. (TripIt.com)

Carry a customized digital travel guidebook. The Stay.com app can act as a digital guidebook for more than 150 cities worldwide—without the hassle of lugging around a guidebook. It features insider tips from more than 1,000 local experts…it lets you ask your Facebook friends to suggest their own favorite places in cities you intend to visit, customizing your travel tips in a way that a traditional guidebook cannot…and it allows you to add destinations of particular appeal to you based on your own research. All of these sites then appear together on the app’s downloadable city maps. Android or iOS. Free. (Stay.com)

Avoid unfair rental-car damage charges. If a car-rental company spots a scratch or ding when you turn in your car, it might stick you with a bill of $500 or more—even if the damage was not your fault. The minor damage might have happened before you ever drove the car but gone unnoticed until you returned it. Some travelers try to avoid this problem by using a smartphone camera to document a rental car’s ­condition. But rental agencies often reject this evidence, arguing that a picture that purports to show a preexisting scuff actually might have been taken after the customer did the damage. And they won’t be convinced by the time and location information embedded in the photo showing when you snapped it—that information can be falsified.

An app called Record360 verifies the precise time and location where video of a rental car was shot in a way that cannot reasonably be questioned by the rental agency, making it much more difficult for the agency to hold you responsible for damage you didn’t do. The app can be used to record the condition of other rental property, too, including homes, hotel rooms and ski equipment. Or record the condition of your luggage before it is checked and when it’s retrieved from the baggage carousel so that you can prove that the airline is responsible for damage. iOS only. Free. (www.Record360.com)

Find Wi-Fi hot spots. The Boingo Wi-Finder app can direct you to millions of Wi-Fi hot spots all around the globe, including more than a million that ­Boingo users can access very quickly—no need to type in a user name and password—with Boingo’s ultra-streamlined login process. Boingo’s “Virtual Private Network” encryption dramatically reduces security risks. The Boingo app is free, but the service costs anywhere from $4.98 to $59 per month, depending on the plan selected. Remember to cancel Boingo when your trip is over to avoid recurring credit card charges. Android, iOS or Windows. (Boingo.com/retail)

Find a good hotel. Many apps provide reviews of hotels (as well as restaurants and tourist attractions) by previous guests. These reviews are not 100% reliable—positive reviews sometimes are written by people paid by the hotel…and negative reviews occasionally are written by owners of competing hotels. That said, most reviews are legitimate, and these apps often do provide a reasonable sense of a hotel’s quality. ­TripAdvisor is the most comprehensive of the hotel guest review apps, with more than 200 million total reviews. Android or iOS. Free. (TripAdvisor.com/apps)

Emergency help in 200+ countriesGet help in an emergency. You know how to summon help when you have an emergency in the US—just dial 911. But foreign countries have different emergency contact numbers. The Travel Safe app provides police…fire department…and ambulance emergency contact numbers for more than 200 foreign countries so that travelers can get the help they need as quickly as possible. It costs 99 cents for Android…$1.29 for iOS. (LKapps.com.au/travel-safe)

Get a ride. It can be difficult to find a taxi in many cities, and taxi rates can be steep. With the app-based Uber transportation network, you can use your smartphone to request a ride in more than 200 cities worldwide. Using a map on your smartphone screen, you then can track the driver that Uber designates as he/she comes to pick you up. (Uber says it conducts background checks on all of its drivers, but its screening process has been criticized by lawmakers in many state capitals and various foreign ­governments. Uber says that it is toughening up background checks and working to do more to improve passenger safety.)

Uber’s basic “UberX” service tends to be less expensive than conventional taxis—often 10% to 25% less—though savings vary greatly by city, speed of traffic and other factors. Exception: Uber can be more expensive than taxis—sometimes much more—during times of peak demand, when Uber increases rates. Watch for warnings on the Uber app that surge pricing is in effect when requesting a ride. You can choose from various payment methods, including credit card or PayPal. Android, iOS or Windows. The app is free. (Uber.com)

Get a deal on a hotel or rental car. There is no single best app for getting a great last-minute rate on a hotel room or rental car. Instead, check several different apps for the best offer, including Booking.com (Booking.com/apps)…Hotwire (Hotwire.com/app)…and Priceline (Priceline.com). All three apps are free for Android and iOS. The Priceline app is available for Windows as well.