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Smartphones, apps becoming top travel companions

Thick, heavy travel books used to be among the things many people would lug around on vacation, along with a stack of printouts for reservations, and maybe some local maps to help navigate the area.

And the directionally challenged might still get lost.

Now you can simply carry a smartphone, which replaces all that paper and runs interactive apps that are far more helpful than the old-fashioned travel aids. You can not only view a digital map of a city, but also see exactly where you are and what direction you're moving in. Other apps can pinpoint what restaurants or attractions are nearby and tap into the collective wisdom of the web to get good recommendations.

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Here are a few examples of apps that are tremendously useful to travel with and make the most of your time away from home:

Before you leave, check your flight status

Air Canada has a free app that allows travellers to review flight information and check if theirs is on time. A variety of other free and paid apps also collect flight times from the web and display it on your smartphone.

Turn off data roaming and go Wi-Fi

Paying for data away from home is astronomically expensive, so the best bet is to turn off the option in your phone and become acclimated with where to pick up a free Wi-Fi signal. Check out the listings or download the free app to find out where you might find one. They're virtually ubiquitous in big cities like New York and some destinations, like Toronto, have fee-based Wi-Fi networks that cover large stretches of the downtown core. Even in smaller cities, prominent coffee chains like Starbucks and Second Cup offer free wireless Internet at most of their stores.

Phones with a built-in GPS can also help you navigate a foreign city by showing your position on a map and updating your position as you move. The latest version of Google Maps for the Android platform can even give turn-by-turn directions without an active Internet connection, if the local map data is loaded in advance.

Same ol' travel guides just now a lot lighter

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Most of the popular travel-book companies like Frommer's, Lonely Planet and DK Eyewitness Travel have jumped on the app bandwagon and are repurposing their advice for smartphones. And there's a lot to like about the digital versions. While the books might cost around $20, the apps are typically priced around $5 or $6. They're far easier to carry around and also have the potential to be updated with new information by the publisher. And the better ones are also interactive, and take full advantage of a smartphone's capabilities. Many apps will use the GPS to direct you to landmarks or restaurants, or tell you what's nearby and make recommendations based on your location.

If you only have an e-reader, publishers are also producing ebook versions of their guides, which are often far cheaper than the print editions.

Who better to ask than locals?

Some still swear by the old guard of travel experts like Arthur or Pauline Frommer but many others are turning to locals online for advice about their favourite haunts and hometown experiences. TripAdvisor and Yelp are just a couple of examples of websites that have ported their wealth of travel advice into apps. Looking for the best breakfast near your hotel? Do a search, read some reviews, and decide whether you want to hit the best bet nearby or the best the city has to offer. And in either case, you can grab the address, view it on the map and easily find your way there. Yelp can also tell you where to go to get a haircut, a spa treatment, catch a movie or a religious service.

The future: augmented reality

You might feel a little self-conscious trying it in public, but there's a technology called augmented reality that takes a live video image on your smartphone and overlays local data, business listings and other useful information on the screen. By holding a smartphone in front of you and looking through the screen you can see pointers to what's around you and how far away you are from a destination. For example, an iPhone app called New York Nearest Subway displays virtual arrows on your iPhone screen pointing the direction to the nearest subway stations and how far away they are. Turn around and you can see where the nearest stations are in another direction. The app maker, Acrossair, has made similar apps for the transit systems in Barcelona, Chicago, London, Madrid, Paris, San Francisco, Tokyo and Washington.

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Google Goggles is another augmented reality app and although it's a little wonkier, it's still fun to use. Take a picture of a local landmark, or a piece of artwork in a museum, and Google will attempt to recognize it and give you more information about it. It doesn't always work but when it does, it's an impressive glimpse at what the future of the technology holds. You can also attempt to take a photo of text in a foreign language, for example a restaurant menu, and have it translated. Again, it's not perfect but it's definitely helpful when you're in a bind.

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