The iPhone has transformed driving. Cell phones always let us talk while driving, but now we can bring huge music collections, a library of audiobooks, movies, and all sorts of streaming data. And there is a whole category of travel apps designed to make your trips easier, from letting you know where to find the cheapest nearby gas to helping you find a good restaurant off an upcoming exit, from getting you to a rest stop just when you need a bathroom to keeping you awake on long drives. Here are our top picks for the travel apps you'll want to bring along on your next trip.
When driving through an area you're not familiar with, it can be hard to figure out where to eat, find gas, or how to select a hotel. IExit (US$1.99) aims to solve that problem. It uses the iPhone's built-in GPS to determine your location and then shows you a list of all kinds of amenities--from food to hotels, gas stations to supermarkets, drug stores to car repair/maintenance providers--nearby. While it doesn't offer gas prices, it does have an offline mode that allows devices without GPS (the iPod touch and non-3G iPad) to work. An excellent travel companion.
SmartFuel (Free for 30 days; $14.99 for 24 month subscription) doesn't have as many features as iExit, but it's main functionality--finding the lowest-priced gas near you--is top notch. Again using the iPhone's GPS (all but one of these apps do), it finds nearby gas stations, but adds the twist of listing their prices, allowing you to get the best deal. Its listings are comprehensive and its prices accurate. While you'll need to pay for a subscription after the first 30 days, you'll save much more than $0.62/month two-year subscription.
3. Fuel Finder
Fuel Finder provides the same functionality as SmartFuel, but adds an On Fumes feature that not only finds the closest gas with one touch, but also provides phone numbers for an extensive list of roadside assistance and other service providers. Fuel Finder (US$2.99) doesn't have quite the number of listings that SmartFuel does, and it has occasional price errors, but it doesn't require a subscription, which will appeal to some.
RoadAhead is similar to iExit in that it provides information about what's available off nearby exits, from gas stations to fast food restaurants, from hotels to rest stops. It has a few bugs--including occasional crashes and difficulty in acquiring a GPS signal--but for a free app, RoadAhead is pretty appealing.
5. Rest Area
Unlike apps that help you find what's off the highway, Rest Area helps you find places to stop while on the highway. It uses GPS to determine your location and show you all the nearby rest areas, service centers, and welcome areas. Each rest area listing includes information about the amenities available there. Rest Area's functionality is pretty specific, but for a free app, it does what it sets out to do pretty well.
Like the other gas price apps on this list, GasBuddy plots gas stations near you on a map and provides their gas prices so you can get the best deal. It also provides information about the amenities available at each station. While it doesn't list all the stations that other apps do, and has the occasional price error, it is free.
The last gas prices app on this list. This $2.99 app (you have to buy the app at that price every year in order to keep using it) sports comprehensive station listings and accurate prices, but has a raw, cluttered interface that makes it hard to use compared to its competitors.
10. Rest Area Finder
The last app on the list that helps you find nearby rest areas on highways. While its listing of rest areas and their amenities is pretty extensive, this free app suffers from an unclear interface (there's no way to tell what the color coding of each rest area indicates without deducing it yourself) and an inability filter its search results.
11. Anti Sleep Pilot
A great idea that unfortunately doesn't work well enough to merit a recommendation yet. This $19.99 app assess your fatigue level, regularly tests it, and recommends breaks based on it to keep your awake and alert while driving. If it worked completely, it would be a top pick, but because it doesn't fully work when running in the background or when the iPhone is locked, it's not quite ready to travel with you.
12. Anti Drowse
Unlike Anti Sleep Pilot, Anti Drowse (free) isn't likely to be a good travel companion. Instead of assessing your fatigue level, it just blares startling noises at you on a given interval. Given that it can't run in the background and can't update the length of your trip after you start driving, it's best to skip this one.