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12 simple ways to boost your travel experience with smartphones, tablets

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Modern travel can be plenty painful. Lengthy lines. Unspecific delays. Rude people. “Overbooked” flights. Mechanical issues and technical difficulties. Smartphones, tablets and mobile applications cannot solve all of these problems, but they sure can help — in more ways than you may know or understand.

During the past years, I’ve traveled frequently and, to be honest, I’m a terrible traveler. I’m impatient, I’m set in my routine and I hate surprises. The following slides detail the smartphone and tablet tips and tricks, along with the travel apps, I use to smooth the process and enhance my time away from home.

I love my tablet, and my main use for it is reading ebooks and digital magazine. A good ereader app really comes in handy while traveling. Gone are the days of filling a backpack or purse with bulky books and crumpled magazines. Amazon’s Kindle ebook app is available for most major platforms, and it’s compatible with phones and tablets. If you’re not an Amazon user, a quick search for “ebooks” in your app store will turn up a variety of alternatives, including some that offer endless free books. You can also download all of your favorite magazines via Apple’s Newsstand or Google Play Magazines, among other third-party options.

If you own a relatively new smartphone or cellular-enabled tablet, chances are it has portable hotspot features. You may pay a bit extra per month for this functionality, but if you travel frequently, your phone’s hotspot can be invaluable. Layover in Houston and you don’t want to use the potentially insecure free airport Wi-Fi? Hotel charging $9.95 or more a day for a wireless connection that will likely prove to be spotty and unreliable? Just fire up your personal hotspot and skip all the hassle—and the risk.

Whether you’re wandering around on foot, traveling on the train, braving the bus or exploring in your rental car, a good navigation app is a must for frequent travelers. I rely mostly on Google Maps because (at least in my experience) it offers detailed and fairly reliable walking and public transit directions in addition to turn-by-turn driving navigation. I also appreciate how Google Maps syncs with my Google account so I don’t have to enter addresses I searched for in Chrome. Microsoft’s Bing app also has maps features, and it’s available for multiple platforms. Nokia’s HERE Maps is another cross-platform option. And Apple Maps is the default iOS maps app.

The TripIt Travel Organizer is my single favorite travel application. TripIt is a Web-based service in addition to a mobile app that collects travel-itinerary information you forward and organizes it into easy-to-navigate travel listings in your app. If your train or flight is delayed, TripIt notifies you. (I use official mobile apps from airlines and TripIt always notifies me of delays, connection info and gate changes before the official apps.) TripIt also stores all of your travel-related loyalty account info, so you can view it in one place. The basic TripIt app is free, but the most valuable features are part of the TripIt Pro subscription, which costs $50 a year.

When you think of foursquare, you probably don’t think of travel apps. But the location-based social network is perfect for keeping an online log of the various places you visit. You can use the desktop interface to check your “history” after you return from a trip, so it’s easy to find the name of that great Mexican place with the monster margaritas, as well as the date you were there. The foursquare “Explore” feature is a great way to find just about anything while traveling, and the tips listed at venues can help determine a restaurant’s specialty dish or learn other insider information on venues. The app also tells you if any foursquare connections are nearby.

There are plenty of options when it comes to cloud-based music services today, and the one that’s best for you largely depends on your platform and whether or not you’ve already invested in a specific service. Apple’s iTunes/iCloud service, Google Play Music and Amazon Cloud Player are some of the more popular options. (Both Play and Cloud Player are cross-platform.) Using these services means you don’t have to download music to your phone or tablet, so you can conserve storage. (Some services let you download the songs you want to use offline.) I also recommend picking up a portable Bluetooth speaker for use in your hotel room or while in the shower.

Most major airlines have their own official mobile apps. The functionality of each varies, but most are still worth a download. Many of the airline apps let you book travel, make changes, check in and then use phone- or tablet-based boarding passes. Amtrak’s official app offers similar functionality, including digital tickets. Whenever I travel to a new city and I plan to use public transit, I search for similar apps for buses and trains. In my home city of Boston, I frequently use the MBTA mTicket app, which lets me quickly buy and use virtual commuter-rail tickets, so I never have to wait in line.

A solid cloud-storage service is a must for the frequent traveler. Dropbox, Box and Google Drive are some of the most popular options, and all can be accessed using a variety of different devices. Each service offers free storage, and you can expand your space by paying for a monthly or yearly upgrade. The free space should be enough for the average traveler, but the more content you store in the cloud, the more you can access while traveling. Cloud services are also a great way to share content or media with people who aren’t traveling with you; just upload your photos and images, for example, and give your kids access at home.

Like airlines, many hotel chains and upscale hotels have official mobile apps that let you book stays, find information about hotels and locations and even check in. I use the Marriott mobile app frequently, and it has helped me skip long check-in lines on multiple occasions. Search your app store for official hotel apps before you travel. I also suggest downloading the LodgeNet app, which lets you use your phone as in-room remote control for your TV so you don’t have to touch that filthy remote.

Most hotel chains and nicer hotels these days have TVs with HDMI ports. That means you can connect your compatible phone or tablet (or other mobile device) to your hotel TV and stream media to the set. If your device has a HDMI-out port, just connect it to the TV and find the appropriate input setting. If you use an iOS device or a device with just a micro-USB port, you have to purchase an adaptor in addition to an HDMI cord. But just think of the money you’ll save by skipping those pricey in-room movies. (Not all devices connect seamlessly via HDMI, so make sure your device is compatible before buying a cord or adaptor.)

All popular mobile platforms have great clock and alarm features, and if you don’t use them already while at home, you should familiarize yourself with your phone’s clock so you don’t have to rely on the random one next to your hotel bed. I’m fond of my BlackBerry’s alarm clock, which offers lots of settings to let me customize the look and feel, including a Sleep Mode that dims the clock’s white display to a soothing, soft red color. Your camera’s flash also makes a great flashlight in dark hotel rooms and can help avoid the occasional stubbed toe. The latest iOS software gives you quick access to a flashlight via Control Center, and lots of similar apps exist for the other major platforms.

In addition to loading my tablet up with books and magazine before travel, I always download at least two movies. All major mobile platforms make it relatively simple to purchase or rent movies. Sure, you can just watch in the in-flight satellite TV on the back of the seat in front of you, or the movie on that tiny overhead display. But wouldn’t you rather pick the film or TV show you want to watch—and be able to pause it during the inevitable bathroom break? You can also stream any media you don’t watch during travel when you get to your hotel, assuming you follow my previous advice and get yourself an HDMI cord.

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