Essential Travel Apps to Download for North American Trips

Jessie Beck

One of my favorite parts of living in San Francisco is that we get first exposure to a lot of apps and new app features. While the apps that you might use to explore or navigate a destination don’t often reach international markets quickly (or at all), they will often spread out into other North American cities once they’ve found success in Silicon Valley.

For travelers, that means there’s an overwhelming amount of app technology to help you eat, drive, sleep, and explore your way across North America. So which ones should you use? After testing apps and surveying other tech-centric travelers, below is a helpful list of the most essential travel apps to download for North American trips.

Table of Contents

Get Around: Apps for Driving, Taking Public Transit, & Flying

Whether you’re driving or trying to navigate North America’s (less than awesome) public transit, below are some apps that will help you figure out the best route, when to leave, and — yup! — even where to park.

Public Transit: Moovit & NextBus

Moovit

I love that Google Maps has a public transportation option, but it still doesn’t always have the most accurate departure times. However, apps like Moovit and NextBus pick up the slack. Both work in various different North American cities and give real time updates on train/bus departure times.

Taxis: Uber & Lyft

Lyft

Just in case you weren’t familiar with these two car hailing app behemoths, Lyft and Uber can help you hail a car to get a quick and affordable ride in any of the cities where they operate.

While Uber works in dozens of global markets, including Mexico and Canada,  Lyft is only available in the U.S. Both have very similar services, like the ride-sharing Lyft Line / Uber Pool, but Lyft tends to be (or be perceived as) the friendlier of the two.

Airlines: Hopper

Hopper

While Hopper isn’t exclusively a North America only app, it’s helpful for finding and comparing flights to, from, and within North America. Use Hopper to search for flights, get recommendations on whether you should wait for a better price or buy now, and track flights that might drop in price later on.

Airport Security Line Wait Times: MiFlight

miflight

Wondering how long the security line at JFK is? MiFlight might be able to help. This app’s purpose is to show real time updates on wait times at airports. Although I love the concept of this app (and haven’t run into issues the three times I used it), I’m not fully convinced of its accuracy, as it relies on other flyers to record their wait times and report out to others.

Navigation: Google Maps vs. Waze

Waze

I rely on Google Maps for directions anywhere, especially since I like being able to toggle between walking, driving, and biking directions (Waze is a car only navigation app). However, my car-owning-and-driving friends swear by Google-owned app, Waze.

Both Google Maps and Waze are step by step navigation apps but Waze has a social network aspect that allows drivers to report accidents, police sitings, and more. Waze also has a feature that lets you search for the cheapest gas nearby and one that lets you choose a celebrity voice to give directions.

Bus & Train Tickets: WanderU

WanderU

On those rare routes where taking a bus or train is more comfortable, affordable, or practical than driving or flying (e.g. between major Californian cities, or driving up and down the eastern seaboard between Montreal, Boston, New York, Baltimore, Philly, and D.C.), WanderU can help you find the best bus or train route. It does not search airline routes.

Rental Cars: Turo

Turo

Turo is yet another app-child of the sharing economy. Just as you might rent someone’s house in Airbnb, you can rent someone’s car on Turo. In some cities (San Francisco included) it can be cheaper than renting from traditional services in city centers and there’s usually a discount for renting on a weekly or monthly basis. With Turo, you’re also more likely to get a pickup point that’s nearby, rather than trekking out to an airport.

If you’re considering using the app, just make sure to register a few weeks in advance of your trip. Like any car sharing app (like Zipcar), Turo still needs to run and approve your driver’s license.

All that said, I’ve found that renting from companies at the airports is still usually the best deal.

Parking Apps: Parking Panda & Spot Hero

parking panda

Do you want to end the struggle of driving around in circles looking for a parking spot in urban areas, and spend more time enjoying your trip? There’s an app for that — several, in fact.

Parking Panda and Spot Hero are apps that map out (paid) parking lots and garages near your current location. Both work in multiple major cities and include prices so you can quickly find the cheaper option. Parking Panda also has exclusive deals with some lots and allows you to pay for your parking in the app.

Eat: Apps for Finding Places to Eat or Make Reservations

When it comes to finding food anywhere in North America (Mexico and Canada included), Eater is my go-to guide for foodie favorites. They don’t have an app, so I usually sweat through the less-than-optimal mobile experience (hey, it’s a tricky responsive design situation, I get it). As far as apps go, below are some essentials:

Where to Eat: Foursquare & Yelp

Foursquare

Chances are, you probably already know and use Yelp or Foursquare. Both list out places to eat, drink, or explore near your location, along with photos and user reviews. Since both are used by locals and travelers (unlike TripAdvisor), users tend to view them as having a less tourist-only swath of options.

The biggest difference, in my opinion, is that Yelp users seem to have slightly different tastes than Foursquare users when it comes to food. To find your tribe, try looking up your favorite restaurant on both and see where it was better reviewed.

Also, a little known Yelp feature: You can search by emoji, which is really helpful if you don’t speak the language or are dealing with a bilingual situation (bonjour-hello, Montreal).

Make a Reservation: Resy & Opentable

Resy

Do you want to make a dinner reservation at a restaurant? Or browse openings for tonight? Use Resy or Opentable. Actually, I use both since some restaurants will let you make a reservation through Opentable and Resy, while some will only be available on one or the other.

One cool feature about Resy, though, is that you can ask to get a notification when and if a last minute availability opens up at a booked-up spot you’ve had your eye on.

Home-Cooked Meals: Feastly & EatWith

Although neither service has an app yet, both of these companies are unique enough to warrant highlighting. For a home-cooked dining experience, look no further than Feastly and EatWith. Through either platform, you can book a dinner with a local cook (amateur or professional) — often hosted in their home. Think of it like an adventurous dinner party, where you don’t really know anyone but you come away full of food and conversation.

I’ve always had a lovely time with Feastly (eating in their San Francisco headquarters is definitely a treat) but EatWith operates in more cities both in and outside of North America. Feastly has options just within the U.S. for the time being.

Explore: Discover Things to Do in North America

You’ve arrived, and you’ve been fed. Now, did you know your phone could help you find stuff to do too?

Audio Walking Tours: Detour

Detour app

This relatively new app, Detour, is an immersive audio walking tour app that lets users have a guided walking tour — without a real life guide. Currently, they have tours available in San Francisco, LA, New York, Chicago, and Austin (as well as a few international cities) but, as a growing startup, they should continue to expand their options.

Go for a Hike: National Parks by REI & All Trails

REI app

If you’re looking for hiking recommendations in national parks, the National Parks app by REI is pretty great. User friendly, it gives you all the essential information you’d need to know when trying to find a hike nearby (is it good for the kids? How long is it? Where is it? What are the closest parks to me anyway?).

However — and I find this to be the case with a lot of hiking/trail resources — they don’t do a good job of navigating you to the trailhead. I use Google Maps to fill that gap.

Similar to National Parks by REI, All Trails helps you find hiking and biking trails near you (though Strava is better for mountain and road bike routes). Not as user friendly as the REI app, it does include results from city and state parks as well as national parks.

Tours & Experiences: Viator & Peek

Viator

If you’re looking to book an activity like a helicopter tour, kayak rental, or foodie-walking tour of a city, Peek and Viator can help you browse your options and book… all in one platform. Both offer different options — like some of the other app pairs on this list — but Viator is more established (re: more options) and has multi-day tour options as well as half, or one-day activities.

Airbnb Experiences

airbnb app

Though not a separate app, Airbnb recently added the option to book local experiences in addition to homes within their app (and website). For a fun, quirky, or out of the box travel experience, I know it’s going to become my new go-to.

Events: Eventbrite

Eventbrite

Eventbrite isn’t just for booking events, shows, and concerts — you can also explore fun things to do in their app. This app does a wonderful job of highlighting things to do near you, and includes a wide variety of categories to choose from. Depending on the city, you can sometimes grab museum tickets from their app as well.

Sleep: Book Camping Spots, Hotels, & Vacation Rentals

Although you may have booked up all your places to stay well in advance, accommodation apps are essential for anyone who travels spontaneously and leaves bookings up to the last minute.

Camping: Reserve America

Reserve America

Reserve America, the U.S. National Park Service’s campground booking engine, has never been great (that’s why they created HipCamp, right?) but the app is surprisingly decent. At the very least, the app is better than the website, letting you search campgrounds on a map and book on the same platform.

As for a Canadian or Mexican equivalent, I’d love to hear from you about that in the comments; I’m still looking.

Vacation & Home Rentals: Airbnb & VRBO

VRBO

Airbnb is an obvious inclusion on this list, as it’s quickly become many travelers’ favorite accommodation booking platform for vacation rentals, affordable rooms for rent, or even legit mom and pop B&Bs.

VRBO is next up on the list as a great Airbnb alternative for vacation rentals. I’ve also found that it sometimes has more options if you’re booking a house for a large crew.

Last Minute Hotels: HotelTonight

hotel tonight

HotelTonight lets you book last minute hotel reservations (less than a week out) at a discount. Although the search engine isn’t as comprehensive as Kayak or Hotels.com, it is the best way to find a deal on hotels and snag a room right as you roll into town.

Hostels: HostelWorld

Hostelworld

North America — or, the U.S. at least — isn’t exactly known for having a ton of hostel options. But there are some. HI USA, for example, has family-friendly hostels located in spots where there are no other accommodation options (like Point Reyes, CA). To search hostel options near you, HostelWorld’s app is perfect for searches on the go.

All the Hotels: Kayak

Kayak

Kayak works for searches both in and out of North America. If you’d rather see all your options for hotels, B&Bs, and hostels, Kayak is a truly comprehensive app for accommodation searches.

TL;DR

I may pack light with my suitcase, but I always travel heavy with the apps. If you’re looking for travel apps to download for North American trips, you’ve got a bunch of great ones to choose from.