It's March in Saigon and I’m staring up at a huge portrait of Ho Chi Minh—the fourth of the morning—when I realize I know almost nothing about him. But I don’t reach for my guidebook. Instead I pull out my iPhone, tap on an app called Air Sharing, and within seconds I’m scrolling through dozens of Wikipedia pages, photos, and PDFs I’d saved for precisely this moment. Like that, I’m an Uncle Ho expert.
In the short year since the opening of the Apple App Store, iPhone applications have already begun to transform travel. No, I’m not talking about More Cowbell. I’m talking about location-aware apps, shareware apps, and just plain good idea apps. Want the best pho in Saigon? Just ask Google Mobile. Looking for the coolest attractions nearby? HearPlanet will find them—then read their Wikipedia entries out loud. And that’s just the beginning. According to tech analyst Ben Bajarin of Creative Strategies, which counsels corporations like Microsoft and Philips on future technology, GPS-enabled apps will be fully personalized within the next 18 months. Imagine landing in Buenos Aires only to have an app sort through your most played songs, then search out upcoming concerts you might like. So with more than 2,000 travel apps and dozens being added every week, where do you begin? With the 20 best, of course.
1. Next Flight
Got bumped? Leaving early? Next Flight tracks scheduled departures from more than 4,200 airports and 1,100 airlines. It sounds overwhelming, but you can filter by carrier. $2.99
Urbanspoon is the gold standard in the U.S., London, Melbourne, and Sydney: Shake your phone, watch the dials spin like an old-school slot machine, and up comes the best guide to local restaurants yet. Free
Like having a tour guide in your pocket, HearPlanet tells you what attractions are nearby and then plays the Wikipedia description aloud. $5.99
4. Air Sharing
Don’t waste time (and money) downloading docs abroad. Air Sharing lets you save HTML Web pages, PDFs, text files, you name it, for off-line perusal anytime, anywhere. $4.99
Finally, a practical use for Twitter. With Tweetie you can send vacation pics and witty comments from afar faster and more easily than with any other app. $2.99