Mobile Apps Are Handy in a Vacation Crisis

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My family vacation in Florida last week was heaven, but the travel was hell. From dealing with air carrier woes to an extreme traffic jam in Orlando, we had more than our share of issues. When problems cropped up, we turned to a few basic iPhone apps in the clutch. The apps we used were enormously helpful in some cases. In others, not so much. Here's two things I learned about using the iPhone in a travel pinch.

App schmap: In a crisis a live travel agent beats a travel app every time

While driving between our home base in Punta Gorda, Florida and Orlando we received word that our air carrier, Direct Air, had suddenly ceased operations. That left us stranded, along with thousands of other vacationers in Florida, at the height of spring break season.

We had to act fast. But it wasn't an Orbitz or Expedia app we fired up. It was the contacts list and phone dialer.

Orbitz and other travel apps aren't well equipped to respond when there's a booking stampede under way. Even in normal times comparison shopping using these apps can be time consuming. But with prices jumping and flights selling out literally minute by minute, we didn't have time to fool around.

Instead we called our travel agent, who took our call immediately and quickly found several flight options. Unlike a travel app, she could put several seats on hold for us while we figured out the best option. It was the best $30 commission fee we ever spent.

Within minutes we had received the itinerary and confirmation numbers by way of the email app on the iPhone. I then downloaded the airline app intending to check in using the iPhone and use it to display the boarding passes at the gate -- but it didn't work. Apparently there was some sort of system glitch on the back end. Fortunately, we had access to a printer where we were staying.

There are times when a smart phone GPS app is no substitute for a good map

With our reservations sewed up, we continued on to Orlando. When we left SeaWorld, however, we faced another travel headache. INRIX, the free traffic monitoring app we had downloaded to my wife's iPhone, gave us the heads up about a colossal traffic jam directly ahead of us on Interstate 4. Traffic looked to be at a dead stop for at least 10 miles. We had minutes to act.

What was the best route around this mess? Unfortunately, we didn't have a full-blown GPS app on board. The Maps application that comes with the iPhone, based on Google Maps, offered no alternative routes. What I wanted was a big, red "Reroute Me" button. (Shopping note: Find an app that does dynamic rerouting). Once we chose an exit our app would recalculate the route, but not before. We had to act first.

But where were we?

What we needed was a big picture view of our 100 mile trip, but we had no fold-out paper map of the state in our rental car, and the iPhone screen was too small to give us a readable zoom-out, state-wide view of the situation. I wanted to reach for an old fashioned road atlas, but my Rand McNally travel book was sitting in the back seat of our car in an airport parking lot 1,500 miles away.

Using a smart phone GPS app can be a bit like traveling with tunnel vision. It's easy to follow the directions between point A and point B on that little screen without having any idea of where you have travelled or how you arrived at your destination.

(Which reminds me of a story. Not long ago a neighbor of mine arranged to meet some friends at a ski area in New Hampshire. His friends arrived after seven hours of driving -- 3-4 hours later than the trip should have taken to complete. When he asked them where they'd been, the driver said, "I don't know. We just kept following the GPS.")

In the end we made an educated guess about which exit to take. At first the app insisted on putting us back on Interstate 4. But eventually it acquiesced and recalculated a new route to our destination. Two hours later we finally arrived back at our destination.

This story, "Mobile Apps Are Handy in a Vacation Crisis" was originally published by Computerworld.

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