FlightRadar24 showing real-time flight information

Software Reviews: travellers' aids

Whether you're travelling for the holidays or have family flying in, here are some apps to aid air travel and the uncertainty of new places.



Free or £2.99 on Android, iOS

Fun as Flightradar24 is, if you actually want to log and track your own flights, receive alerts when delays are posted and so on, you're probably after more than a radar-like scanner. Add the ability to look up airport maps, which gate you will arrive at, and even the weather at your destination, and you want something more focused.

There are a lot of apps in this area, the problem is that most of the free ones are either specific to a single airline or airport, and some of the pay-for ones are too US-centric. Part of the problem is where they can get data from – in the US there is an FAA feed, but outside the US they use data from the airlines. This obviously requires some effort and/or cost, and budget or charter companies often do not publish this data.

Fortunately there are some good paid apps with pretty good world-wide coverage and free trial versions, one of the best being Mobiata's FlightTrack. Its free version is fine for flight queries but you will need the £2.99 paid version to access maps, sync flights to your diary, find alternative flights, and so on.

It is a bit annoying that its arrival and departure board feature requires a separate purchase, but it is only another £2.50 and anyway, most users will not need it – FlightTrack Pro does pretty much all you need. Note that, like most of the apps in this area, it requires a network connection to look up flights, download airport information and so on, and it doesn't appear to cache data for offline use. So don't wait until you are in the air before looking this stuff up!



OsmAnd Maps & Navigation 

Free or £4.99 on Android

If you are headed for unfamiliar territory you will want a map. Pretty much any smartphone will come with a mapping app built in and will cache maps too, so if you look up your destination before setting off, you won't have to download the map again at roaming data prices.

However, actual navigation usually needs an Internet connection, as does going outside the map area that you cached. The solution to poor or expensive mobile coverage is a satnav app, where the maps are stored on the phone and navigation is handled there as well. The major satnav brands all offer app versions of their software at a price; there are free apps too, but typically they are cut-down trial versions.

OsmAnd is one of the few that is both full-function and free, mostly – subscribing removes the download limit of 10 maps and adds content from Wikipedia. It uses open-source data from the OpenStreetMap project and offers turn-by-turn directions with voice guidance, points of interest (PoI), and auto-rerouting. You can type in an address, choose a local PoI or enter latitude and longitude. It worked well as a disconnected satnav, even calculating walking routes along footpaths.

Any navigation app will keep the GPS turned on while it is running, and depending on how efficient your phone is this can eat up the battery pretty fast. The other is that OsmAnd's maps for larger countries are offered in chunks, typically by province or region. This is more economical on storage, but means you need to work out ahead of time which maps to download – there is a world basemap, but this does not support navigation.

On an iPhone, instead try Navmii's Navfree. Also available for Android, it uses the same OSM maps and is free (with ads) for a single map. It can pull up Google Streetview images, as you can with Google Maps, and can navigate from a Google search or your address book. The downside is that Navfree maps can only be downloaded for entire countries, so that's 800MB for Germany, say, even if all you need is Berlin.



Wi-Fi Finder 

Free with ads on Android, iOS

If you are travelling abroad and want to minimise your roaming data costs, JiWire's Wi-Fi Finder is a good start, not least because it stores its location list on the phone so, once it is installed and updated, it works without an Internet connection.

It uses GPS to work out where it is and can either display all the local hotspots it knows about or you can set it to show only the free (or pay-for) ones. You can also search other locations and save any notable hotspots that it finds there or filter by provider if you have an account with a particular one. You can only filter for one provider at a time though.

There are also a few omissions. A notable one is FON Wireless (fon.com), the social Wi-Fi company which also partners with broadband suppliers worldwide, such as BT, France's SFR and Deutsche Telekom. If you are a BT customer and have FON sharing active on your Wi-Fi, try installing the FON app for your Android or iPhone.

Also worth a look is Wifi Analyzer for Android – its signal strength maps are fun but useful too, as they show which signals are strongest and which suffer from interference. You can even see when multiple basestations broadcast the same network name, which can sometimes explain connection problems.

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