Get This App: Hipmunk

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To be honest, travel apps that let you research flights and hotel accommodations are a dime a dozen on mobile app stores. And most of them won’t cost you a dime to download and play around with, so why do I tell people to just skip all that hassle by downloading the Hipmunk Hotel & Flight Search app in the first place? Because the app—a mobile version of the Web-based Hipmunk travel search service—takes a lot of the pain out of looking up departures and hotel arrangements on your phone or tablet.

And that makes perfect sense for a company that sorts its flight results using something called an “agony index”—basically a ranking system that takes things like flight duration, layovers, and price into account. Whether you search for a flight or a place to stay, Hipmunk’s mobile app looks to minimize the amount of data you have to enter while giving you plenty of easy-to-access options for filtering your results. And the experience is the same no matter which platform you use: Hipmunk’s mobile app only arrived on the Android platform last year, but it boasts all the functionality of its iOS counterpart.

Searching for a flight on Hipmunk requires you to tap in your departure location—a list of options updates dynamically as you type, saving you keystrokes. Pick your travel dates from a pop-up calendar, tap on the kind of ticket you want (coach, business, or first class), and select how many people are flying; from there, Hipmunk produces a page of search results.

Hipmunk offers an eye-catching glance of when flights are leaving and arriving as well as how much they'll cost me and whether I can expect a layover. The app will even alert me when there’s a potential conflict with a previously scheduled event and a flight I want to book.

But not just any old list of results—Hipmunk shows off the flights it’s found in a colorful Gantt chart that shows you the flight duration, the airline, and any layovers along the way. (If the flight has on-board wireless available, Hipmunk displays a little Wi-Fi logo, too.) Tapping on any of the bars brings up more flight information. Filtering results is as easy as using the sliders to adjust the times you want to fly—ruling out red-eyes, for example.

Hotel searches are just as straightforward. By default, the app is prepared to look for hotels in your current location—one of the many ways Hipmunk tailors its app for mobile users—but you can type in a different city if you prefer. Set the dates of your stay, the number of guests, and how many rooms you’re booking, and you get a set of results. This time, however, hotel results appear on map with dots pinpointing the location of the hotels. The dots are color-coded—green for inexpensive hotels, blue for midrange places, and red for the higher-priced options. You can filter out the price categories you don’t want to see. And, as you pan and zoom around the map, your hotel options update automatically.

The colored dots on the map for Hipmunk hotel results let me see the price range for my potential lodgings. Heatmaps let me see if my hotel is located near things I want to do—nightlife, in this instance.

Perhaps the most interesting filter in Hipmunk’s hotel search is its use of “heatmaps.” You can put an overlay on the map showing how close your hotel is to food, sights, shopping, nightlife, or what the app euphemistically calls “vice.” (That’s bars, casinos, and other establishments catering to adults.) You can also use the heatmap to show how walkable the area around your hotel is. The heatmaps aren’t terribly detailed—I usually turn to just the price information and included TripAdvisor reviews to make my booking decisions—but they do provide a decent at-a-glance look at whether your hotel is adjacent to where the action is or located out in the sticks.

Integrated calendar data in Hipmunk shows me where scheduled events are relative to hotels I may choose to stay at.

There’s another Hipmunk feature that’s far more useful—its integration with the calendar on your built-in device. All you have to do is turn on a switch to import your iCal, Google Calendar, or Microsoft Outlook data, which then appears in your flight and search results. That way, you can see if the flight you’re selecting interferes with a previously scheduled event. The integration of calendars into hotel search results is particularly useful: Hipmunk can display where you have events scheduled in relation to where you might be staying.

The other thing that makes the Hipmunk app so worthwhile is that it never loses sight of the fact you’re using it on a mobile device. Personally, I hate having to tap in purchase information with my iPhone’s on-screen keyboard. Hipmunk respects my preferences: When it’s time to book my flight, for example, the app produces a URL and a code that I can use when I’m back at my computer and its full-sized keyboard. (You can also finish booking by going to Orbitz on your mobile device, if that’s what you’d prefer.)

A lot of apps try to squeeze every feature they can think of onto your phone or tablet. Hipmunk’s succeeds by only giving you what you need and making it darn simple to access it.

Developer: Hipmunk
Platforms: iPhone, iPad, Android
Price: Free

This story, "Get This App: Hipmunk" was originally published by TechHive.

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