A Review of Apps and Maps

We downloaded several apps for our Very Spatial Road Trip that were recommended by friends, online reviews, and VerySpatial podcasts. Since she was acting as navigator, Barbara insisted on stopping at AAA and picking up a stack of paper maps for back up.  We found that there is no better crucible for  road testing a travel app than a lengthy trip into the unknown under sometimes stressful and time imperative conditions. We felt like the explorers in Dava Sobel‘s book “Longitude” who were sent to sea with new technologies that we hoped would live up to their claims. It wasn’t until after our trip that we heard more honest opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of the apps we packed.  A friend, who is a global traveler, told us that it is good travel etiquette to leave our own input on any crowd-sourced apps as our “payment” for using it and to “pass it on” to other travelers. In that spirit, we have written a review of the apps that we used on our road trip from WV to CA.



*A disclaimer:  These reviews are based on our own experiences and no scientific method was used.  This means that many times we used trial and error to figure out how they worked and there might be an element of user error at play. 

Google Maps:  Google Maps was the tool we used the most often on the trip and got to know it very well. This means that after several days of thinking that it was the BEST THING EVER; we started to get irked that it wasn’t sentient.  We found that it had the most accurate and quickest turn by turn directions of any of the map apps on any of our apps with maps. Many times we would use other crowd-sourced apps, like Yelp, to get a name and address and then use Google Maps to get directions. The downside being that we had to cut and paste locations in a smart phone, until we worked out a system of using one iPhone for some apps and the other for navigation.  Something that became very frustrating at long distances was the fact that Google Maps would only give directions up until a certain point and then at that point unroll a section of directions that hadn’t been listed earlier. An example of this on our trip is when we drove through Pheonix and it unlocked the “secret” directions and then rerouted when we didn’t react quick enough to the change. Other people have commented that this irritated them as well. Another problem, that effects many other apps too, was that long stretches of our trip had limited or no internet access on rural roads in less populated areas, the very places you often need good directions.  These were the times when we had to do it old school and rely on our own spatial literacy and paper maps to figure out where we were.  Overall, Google Maps was one of the best app tools we “packed” for the trip.

Hotels.com:  Hotels.com acts as a type of online concierge that finds deals once you register. It goes through travel sites such as Expedia , which we didn’t realize until a hotel clarified how the process works. The bill is payed in full with Hotels.com, who books rooms through the other travel sites, and is not payed to the hotel itself. One of the nice things about this is that a hotel doesn’t put the standard large hold on your funds, because they have been payed already.  It was the app we used to make most of our hotel reservations because the prices were the best for the places we wanted to spend the night, and the reviews were fairly accurate.  We were able to consistently pay between $75 – $150 for hotels, except for Las Vegas.  Many times check-in clerks commented on how low the rates were and that they were lower than the company rate they were given. We really tested the app, when we had to reroute due to elevation issues. We called their help desk and they were able to cancel all our bookings, rebook other hotels on our new route, and get back most of our hotel payments.   We had made a non-refundable reservation with a resort hotel at $9,000 feet for July 4th, which Barbara cancelled before learning that Hotels.com could have tried to negotiate for a refund. Overall, our experiences with Hotels.com turned out to be more than just a place to book rooms and acted like a de facto travel agency.  According to Salary.com, travel agent is a dying profession, but after using Hotels.com, it is easy to understand why it would have been a good idea to talk with one before starting the road trip.

Yelp:  Yelp was a crowd-sourced app for reviews of local restaurants, hotels, and attractions. It made us more adventurous and willing to try local places that we would normally not know about or pass up based on how the structure looked outside. We found some literally world-class places to eat based on the reviews. The two that stand out are Frank’s favorite, Annie Gunn’s in St. Louis and Barb’s favorite, North End Cafe in Louiseville. Yelp users must skew a little younger or better off than us, some of the places were at the higher end of our price range or hipper than we are, however were never disappointed with the quality of the food, hotel, or attraction we visited.  It’s important to read the reviews themselves because they can clarify lower ratings that might actually not be a problem, such as a hotel that got low reviews for having train noises at night. To us, that was an added bonus and not something that bothered us like many of the reviewers. Sometimes, we would use Yelp in conjunction with other crowd-sourced apps , like TripAdvisor or UrbanSpoon in order to get more context to make a decision. Overall, Yelp was awesome and invaluable for giving us some of our most memorable trip memories.

Twitter: As Frank would often point out to Barbara, “Wow! Look at that it’s amazing. Did you see it? NO – because you were playing with the magic box”. Twitter was an app that Barbara used a lot on the trip and it was good for keeping a running travelogue of thoughts and pictures that captured the moment – with geolocation tags.  Unfortunately, as George Takai so aptly pointed out in one of his comics, you can’t look at the fireworks while trying to Tweet about the fireworks. Twitter was also useful for finding out local knowledge about current events, such a when we saw smoke on a mountain in an area known for wildfires. Jacob Mundt, GIS Coordinator for Weld County Colorado was able to reassuringly tweet, “When I smell smoke I search Twitter for ‘fire’ and the name of the town/county. It’s actually usually faster than any media outlet”.  This was sometimes difficult if there was only a small road sign on long stretches of open road.  Overall, Twitter was an app that we ended up using a lot more than we thought instead of just acting as a supplement to blogging and Facebooking.

iPhone camera:  Like Google Maps, the iPhone Camera was The Best Thing Ever at the start of the trip. We brought a digital SLR but for quick pictures and videoing the trip, the iPhone camera was great until we started to push it to the edge of its capacity.  Many times this was because beautiful scenery and memorable events don’t space themselves out so that it’s possible to change from one app to another in time to snap a picture. Other times it was because using the touch functions just took too long. It was great to have a built in camera and convenient to be able to edit and quickly upload them to Facebook, Twitter, or email on the same device. Given the funds, the next long distance trip we took would involve a camera system like the one on the Google Streetview car, but lacking those resources a good quality point and shoot camera would fill the gap between digital SLR and SmartPhone camera.

Gas Buddy: Gas Buddy is an app that finds the best gas prices in a given area. On the surface this is a great idea because prices can vary within the same location. It worked best in areas that we were familiar with or were spending more time visiting.  It is something we are going to continue using at home to keep track of fluctuating prices. However, we didn’t use it as much on the road because gas prices weren’t different enough to warrant going out of the way and losing time or getting lost. Overall, we had anticipated using the Gas Buddy app a lot but didn’t. Part of this was because gas stops often coincided with needs for bathroom breaks or a chance to get out and stretch our legs.

Hotel Tonight: Hotel Tonight is a hotel app that finds luxury hotels at more than half off, when hotels start trying to fill beds for the night. It is only available in certain cities such as Las Vegas, St. Louis, Scottsdale, and several of the other cities we were passing through. We were excited to try it out and stay at a place that would normally be out of our price range. However, we found that even at half off most luxury hotels are still out of our price range, especially on July 4th weekend. How far off?  The Bellagio was several hundred dollars over our price range.  Reading the descriptions was fun and for a special event such as a honeymoon,  romantic getaway, or vacation where you are spending more time at a hotel, we might have splurged.

Waze:  We highly anticipated using Waze since it was discussed on VerySpatial. One of Barbara’s bosses raved about how useful it was during trips. His delight at discovering crowd-sourcing or as he described it,  “… at first I thought the app was cartoony and then I started to see all this information pop up and all these Wazers giving you information and I was one of them! I could tell what was coming up before I even saw it occur”, was a great description of how neo-geography works. However, we didn’t really get to use it because we weren’t in locations were there were many Wazers or anyone else. It was also difficult to use multiple navigation apps at once and Google Maps was more important during our trip. Overall, we didn’t get to test out Waze to see how it worked.

Red Cross First Aid:  We downloaded the Red Cross First Aid app, in case of emergencies, but thankfully never had to use it as a reference.  In many situations we couldn’t have used it due to lack of internet access and would have to use the First Aid book we packed or used a road side call box for help.   Barbara did complete the First Aid training quizzes on the app in preparation for the trip, which were the most used component of the app.

The Talk Apps:

There is an art or a knack to using talk apps that Barbara and Frank don’t have in their skill set.  While some people can use Google Talk or Siri like the AI Jarvis in Iron Man, never having to lift a finger to make calls, send texts, emails, get directions, or do Internet searches, Barbara and Frank developed a more antagonistic relationship with their talk apps during the trip. While Google Talk worked slightly better than Siri because it’s results were a little closer to the mark in the way that the sun is closer to Earth – pretty damn far off. Even after trying to talk like a computer using if, then type statements and then trying to think like a computer to formulate types of questions, it never quite worked out the seamless way it does on the commercials. We probably should have practiced using the talk apps before we started our trip.


Moble apps and geospatial apps didn’t just make our trip better, they made it possible. If we hadn’t been able to use the apps to change our plans and readjust our route, we would have not had the time or money to continue our trip. When we had Internet access, having the apps made us feel safer because they provided resources that we had no other way of getting on the road. While there is no replacement for local knowledge, which provided the best information, mobile apps were a consistent tool we used on our Very Spatial Road Trip to the ESRI User’s Conference.


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