App, up and away

Where to eat, what to see, how to get to San Francisco? Lance Richardson lets mobile technology lead the way.

If there's one thing you can be sure to find in an international traveller's luggage these days, it's some variation of mobile computer, whether tablet, notebook or smartphone. Never has the flight attendant's request to "disable all electronic devices" seemed so universally applicable.

Furthermore, never have the electronic devices been so stuffed with utilities designed to take the inefficiency out of life.

"Travel offers huge opportunities for apps, with travellers looking to access a range of practical information while on the move," says the director of TNS Australia Travel and Leisure, Jo Farquhar. The global research consultancy recently carried out a study on digital technology use that found 53 per cent of Australians own a smartphone. Of those who use apps, 26 per cent employ apps relating to travel. The study also found only 7 per cent of people leave their phones at home when they go on domestic holidays.

Given this attachment to mobile convenience, it's worth contemplating how effectively we use the available tools. Apps have multiplied at an exponential rate but what's actually on offer and how well does it work? A strong case can be made against the intrusion of too much technology, which favours structure over serendipity. Nevertheless, a few well-executed apps can enhance the quality of a travel experience.

In order to find out which apps are worth keeping, I load up an iPhone and iPad with purchases from the iTunes store and board a plane to San Francisco, home to Silicon Valley and tech giants such as Apple, Google, Intel and Hewlett-Packard. This is a city of Californian sunshine, exhausting hills, flower power and beatnik poets. It's also, for several days, the testing ground for more than two-dozen mobile programs covering everything from Jean Paul Gaultier to the exact location of an emergency late-night taco.

Getting there

The possibilities for digital enhancement begin before you even board the plane - or buy your ticket, for that matter. Internet favourites now have free app equivalents, allowing you to book flights (Skyscanner) and hotels (Expedia) while you're waiting in line for coffee in the morning. These apps are comprehensive and elegant, though, in the case of international travel, spending thousands of dollars via a mobile phone should probably be reserved for emergency situations only.

More useful in pre-planning stages are two organisational tools, TripIt (free) and Packing Pro ($2.99). TripIt is invaluable for complex travel involving multiple items. Enrolling at the website allows the program to automatically scan your email inbox and import flight and hotel information, laying it out in a user-friendly itinerary. Furthermore, an annual subscription enables you to share trips with others and keep track of multiple frequent-flyer programs.

Packing Pro is one for the meticulous list maker, offering a "to do" feature alongside customisable luggage guides covering everything from essentials to medical supplies. I find the option to input individual item weight values more complicating than useful, though perhaps that's because Currency (free) tells me that the strong Australian dollar means I should travel light and make my list when I get to San Francisco.


Here to ensure I actually get there in the first place, TripTracker Pro (99ยข) is adept at monitoring flight times, notifying a user of delays and changes of airport gate. The advice on weather at the arrival destination is particularly handy - you need never arrive under or overdressed again. For good measure, I also download a couple of digital magazines via Zinio (free; magazine prices vary), in case the in-flight entertainment is lacking, and load up This American Life ($5.49). Long considered one of the best weekly radio programs in the world, this fascinating app archives episodes covering everything from Apple scandals to a San Francisco summer camp where the children only learn Hamlet death scenes. American culture never sounded so good.

Moving around

It can sometimes seem as though the airport is the most confusing part of a new city. San Francisco airport largely avoids this charge, offering a simple ring of terminals and a main hall.

Nevertheless, GateGuru (free) comes in handy anyway. As well as allowing you to track flights, see average check-in times and view airport maps at a glance, it provides a detailed database of airport facilities (though, frustratingly, Australian and New Zealand airports are largely absent).

In the case of an airport such as San Francisco's, where you may find yourself waiting for several hours, the food reviews are particularly welcome. Though airports are rarely known for their fine dining options, Ebisu, which is in the international terminal, is as good as user ratings suggest.

When it comes to getting away from the airport and into the city, places such as New York and London offer dedicated transit maps that are all but invaluable. iBART (free) covers the Bay Area Rapid Transit system but unless you intend to move off the San Francisco peninsula into Oakland, a more useful app is Routesy Pro ($5.49), which combines the BART system with the Muni light rail. So many transit options can create confusion but Routesy detects your location to offer the closest station and accurate wait predictions. Speaking of which, perhaps the most valuable app of them all detects your location to offer it all: Iwant To Find ($0.99) is a one-stop shop for everything from the nearest ATM and bowling alley to places of worship. Throw in Wi-Fi Finder (free), covering more than 650,000 locations across 144 countries, and you'll never be lost again - or broke when you return to Australia and that excessive data-roaming bill.

Culture fix

It sometimes seems like Lonely Planet (free, then $6.49 for each guide) has become synonymous with international travel, so its foray into the digital realm is to be expected. Like many of the guides made from paper, the San Francisco app guide is filled with genuinely useful information, though the translation to touchscreen means it's often buried in multiple layers of navigation. Furthermore, neighbourhoods are introduced with commendable flair - in The Castro, a legendary gay neighbourhood, "the weight of a thousand secrets lifted like the morning fog" during the liberated 1970s - but the app is stretched across such a vast canvas that specific details can be thin and static. Pair it, if possible, with a more site-specific app, such as Chinatown ($1.99). Five minutes with Laura Del Rosso's creation tells me that the best dim sum can be found at the Hang Ah Tea Room and that the Bank of America on Grant Avenue props up the Gold Mountain Sagely Monastery, which offers meditation classes.

Another option is to take an app that organises the city's culture thematically: in San Francisco, SF Arts Guide (free) provides up-to-date information on theatre, film, dance, literature, nightlife and "more for less". A "today's events" function lets you plug directly into the city's bustling scene. Whether writers sparring in a poetry marathon is your thing, or a dance production of Don Quixote, this app offers a cross-section of it all. I end up at a retrospective in the Museum of Modern Art, where a quote introduces the zany designs of Buckminster Fuller: "The San Francisco Bay area attracts dreamers, progressives, nonconformists and inventors." No kidding.

Feed me

San Francisco is renowned for its restaurant scene and apps covering food have been around since the very start of the smartphone revolution. Though you can carefully plan a menu before even leaving the hotel room, one app that effectively engages with the fun and spontaneity of travel is Urbanspoon (free), with its spinning dials like an old-fashioned slot machine. When I load it up I'm in the Mission District, a thriving neighbourhood of taquerias, hipster bars, South American bakeries and a curated aura of industrial decay.

One shake of the phone and the dials go berserk, landing on the nearby Velvet Cantina, which 89 per cent of 49 voters "like".

One pitcher of margaritas later, I understand why and Urbanspoon migrates to the pile of apps worth keeping for future use.

Sometimes a dining fad gains such traction that it demands acknowledgement from a traveller. This is the case with gourmet food trucks in North America at present, appearing everywhere from New York to Vancouver and changing locations daily.

Usually a customer must follow an individual truck on Twitter or check its website for details but TruxMap (free) claims to compile locations onto a Google map for easy reference.

My experience in San Francisco is hit and miss: the JapaCurry truck is right by Golden Gate Park, as predicted, while Senor Sisig, in Chinatown, is missing in action.

Nevertheless, my backup plan is Ask a Nomad (free), a useful app that allows a user to ask or answer questions in a passionate community of active travellers. Three days before arriving in San Francisco, I asked for tips on the best coffee in the city; "Kyle" directs me to the Steps of Rome, right around the corner from Chinatown in the Italian neighbourhood of North Beach.

Though I find the coffee shop closed, my nomad has nevertheless given me invaluable advice. I wander further, past trattorias and men sipping espresso, until I stumble on Caffe Trieste, with mosaic tables and Ennio Morricone western music blaring from a jukebox. The girl in front of me asks for a mind-bendingly complicated order and the barista snaps: "You want a flat white. The Australians drink it."

Apps may have gotten me here in the most inefficient way possible but as I settle down with my "Australian drink", there's no question it was worth the effort.

The writer travelled courtesy of San Francisco Travel and United Airlines.