Going To The Museum? There’s An App For That!

museum
British Museum

Museums have a lot to compete with these days. With so much information available for free online, many people who are less than enthusiastic about going to museums may think there’s nothing new to be learned by peering into glass cases full of ancient artifacts.

But museums are fighting back. Museum apps are available for most major and many lesser-known museums. Generally they give a walk-through of the galleries and what’s on display, such as MoMA’s app, while others offer closeup views of famous artworks you can’t get in real life, like the Louvre’s app that helps you push through the crowds around the Mona Lisa.

Often museums create special apps for major shows, such as the British Museum’s app for their exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum. This app has interactive maps and timelines, detailed studies of more than 250 objects and heaps of information about the excavations.

As an incurable museum junkie raising a Mini Me museum junkie, I’m of two minds about museum apps. On the one hand, they’re great for enhancing a visit with all those flashy gadgets that kids love so much. It’s yet another way of beating museum fatigue while actually learning something.

On the other hand, it’s a grand distraction. A good museum can spark the imagination without needing extra technology. Take the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, my vote for the coolest museum in the world. The display cases are jam-packed with everything from Melanesian war clubs to witches trapped inside bottles. The lights are turned low and the guards hand out flashlights so you can peer inside the cases and spot hidden treasures amid the jumble. Beneath the cases are drawers that pull out to reveal Indonesian cut-out puppets and scarab beetles from Ancient Egypt. My son and I love creeping around this place, pretending to be explorers and always discovering something we never noticed before even though we’ve been there countless times.

This is the kind of museum that kids pester their parents to visit. Does the Pitt-Rivers have an app? Maybe it does. I didn’t check because it doesn’t need one. Take note, museum directors: be cool and they will come.

An App For Apps Makes Travel Easier, Maybe Too Easy

Apps
Joe Lanman/Flickr

In the world of travel apps, we’ve seen geo-based, crowd-sourced and sharing technology that has opened up a lot of possibilities for travelers. We can automatically create a travel log with one, find a hotel on the fly with another and map our way through unknown lands with ease. The result? A home screen full of apps that demand to be sorted, modified and updated to be useful. But now, in a new generation that leverages a bit of artificial intelligence, app developers have a plan to make that easier. Gaining a mind of its own, your smartphone can do much more than we ask of it.

Tempo is a calendar app that uses learning algorithms to figure out what information you’re looking for, if not anticipate your needs. It’s a first generation of artificial intelligence applied to smartphones that considers all information sources available to present relevant information.

“After you grant Tempo access to your email and calendars, the app searches for all the tidbits of schedule-related information you have stored in your accounts, gathering it together and presenting it cleanly inside individual calendar events,” notes a Wired article.Going to a meeting across town? Given authorization, Tempo will take that calendar note to “meet client for lunch” and add access to recent email, relevant documents for the meeting, provide parking information at the location, information about the restaurant and check you in on Facebook or Foursquare, automatically.

Right now, we would need to open multiple apps to make that happen. In the future, we may just be along for the ride.

Hotel Tonight: Testing The Last-Minute Hotel Booking Service In New York City

Hotel Tonight logoI just finished renovating my one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, an experience that has driven many a New Yorker to drink, or even better, to a hotel room. With my husband and me both working from home, a toddler at heel and not many friends with “extra” room for us to crash, we were forced to decamp while our apartment was without a kitchen or bathroom. Looking for options, I first turned to Airbnb, my preferred source of accommodations now that I travel with a baby, and while it’s recently been ruled semi-illegal in NYC, there are still plenty of listings. Most neighborhood options were either sketchy (I’d rather not share a bathroom with “several” other bedrooms, even if it was featured in a film) or comically overpriced (though cheers to the creative thinker who includes their own Netflix account as an amenity). Searching the major booking engines for hotels yielded either insulting (uh, Brooklyn is still part of NYC) or downright offensive ($400 for a La Quinta in the middle of nowhere?!) offerings, so I turned to what would become my new obsession: hotel hopping with Hotel Tonight.

Hotel Tonight is a mobile-only app service that provides daily hotel deals for one (or sometimes a few) night only with sometimes stellar discounts, but only available starting at noon for the same day (sometimes for multiple nights). It’s ideal if you are, say, out and about and decide you’d rather sleep at a hotel rather than home, or like playing it fast and loose with your vacation bookings. Prior to my “staycation” week of hotel hopping, I had used it only once for a last-minute hotel room in Boston, discovering a hotel I’d never heard of, at a price far lower than anything else available. I liked its well-curated stock of hotels, sleek interface, to-the-point reviews and especially the fact that you get to “trace” a hotel bed to confirm your room purchase, an odd kind of satisfaction akin to a scratch-off lottery ticket.The first day I excitedly logged in at exactly noon, using the Wi-Fi from outside my local library with suitcases at the ready to head to my home for the night. I did some cross-referencing with individual hotel sites and booking engines, finally settling on the new-ish Hotel BPM in Sunset Park. Though it’s less than five miles from my apartment and I consider myself to be a fairly intrepid New York explorer, it’s not an area I’m familiar with or would think of for a hotel. Even my car service driver was bemused and curious about the location, just off the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and quite handy to Costco, if, say, you wanted to bring your own extra-large package of toilet paper. I was pleasantly surprised with the room, a spiffy green-and-white design with some hi-tech touches like a smart TV that can connect to Hulu and Netflix. The DJ/music theme was sort of lost on me, as well as its connection to the neighborhood.

The immediate area of the Hotel BPM can feel a bit desolate and industrial if you walk the wrong way, but my toddler enjoyed a nearby playground with the questionable feature of being located right under an elevated highway. Though I imagine the front desk could have given me tips, I followed a friend’s recommendation to the nearby Kofte Piyaz, where I had some of the best Turkish food I’ve found outside Istanbul. Walking back past many Mexican and Spanish delis and diners, I had to wonder what would drive a tourist out here, other than low room rates? The hotel’s website is very “rah rah, Brooklyn!” which feels a bit disingenuous when you discover the beautiful “Brownstone Brooklyn” or trendy Williamsburg is nowhere in sight, and our borough’s famed bridge wouldn’t even be visible from the roof (if I could get on it, not sure they have granted access to the public yet). The hotel hosts happy hour downstairs on weekends, but on my Tuesday stay, you were on your own if you wanted a drink.

On day two, we went down to breakfast, where I had the interesting experience of understanding all of the hotel staff’s conversations (including local references), but none of the (mostly foreign) guests’. We didn’t know where we’d spend the night or even the few hours between hotels and checkout time coincided with Hotel Tonight’s rollout of daily offers. I hesitated a minute too long and missed out on the Nu Hotel (well located by Smith Street, although next to the county jail) and decided to gamble on waiting to book anything until 3 p.m. check-in time, when rates sometimes go down further while hotels still have empty inventory. We hauled our suitcases and child to the excellent Green Fig coffee shop, where my husband spent a few hours on conference calls and I repeatedly checked for rooms, and we both gorged on Italian sandwiches made on buttery garlic bread. Waiting didn’t help with prices, but we booked the Super 8 Park Slope and hopped on the subway to Union Street.

The “Park Slope” in the hotel’s name is technically correct (maybe Gowanus is more apt), but a bit of a misnomer as Prospect Park is a good mile away. I’d still recommend the hotel for location, being an easy walk from newly hip 5th Avenue, getting-cooler 4th Avenue, and right on almost-there 3rd Avenue. There’s a pretty stellar dive bar across the street and a few cute, bordering on hipster, restaurants a block away. Rooms are small but fairly nice for a Super 8 (hotel is brand new), with slow but free Wi-Fi (you can pay a few bucks per day for high speed, that’s how they get you). In retrospect, it was probably our favorite of the Hotel Tonight stays – a solid option if you want to save some money and hang out in a residential area with lots of nightlife.

On day three, I willfully ignored the sign informing me that breakfast was only to be eaten in the sad breakfast room, and took a yogurt and a poor excuse for a croissant back to my room and sleeping baby. Checkout was an unusually early 11 a.m., but we managed to stall for an hour before heading for Wi-Fi with suitcases and all to a series of 4th Avenue coffee shops. I was stymied again by the Nu Hotel with an $80 jump-in room rate, but decided on a lower price for the Union Hotel a few blocks away. I had walked by the Union the night before and was intrigued by its minimalist logo and optimistic website renderings.

The Hotel Tonight description had warned me it was “basic,” but I still burst into laughter when I couldn’t even open the door to our tiny room without hitting the bed. New York might be infamous for small hotel rooms, but if you saw this in a movie, you’d think it was over-the-top cliche. With maybe a foot-wide swath between bed and doors, the room would necessitate coordination of exits of multiple people. Still, points to the Union Hotel for a good location with a bevy of food and bar options, breakfast vouchers for a local diner and a sleek decor (with a bathroom very similar to my own in progress a few miles south).

The next day, we checked out and headed back to the Two Moon Cafe (go for the big backyard and Wi-Fi, stay for the rosemary-and-sea-salt shortbread), our favorite from the previous day, and killed time before our contractors cleared out. Returning home to a semi-finished apartment with no sinks or hot water, my fingers itched to check what Hotel Tonight might offer up. A few days hotel hopping in my own city had given me a different perspective on a place I already know well, some good advice for friends visiting in the future and some much needed hot showers. Every day at noon I think about checking for hotel offers like Pavlov’s dog, and depending on the destination, I might try for an all on-the-fly trip, booking rooms every night or two. It’s just a hi-tech version of walking into a hotel and asking for a room for the night, with a lot less legwork, and without that nifty hotel bed to trace.

Three Airport Travel Apps That Work, Save Time, Make Flying Fun

Jane Starz/Flickr

Airport travel apps for smart phones and tablets are must-have items for some air travelers, much like that phone itself. But it is easy to get over-apped and have three different sources texting the fact that we have landed, that the flight is running late or that it is time to check in. Choosing the best ones can be more difficult than using them. Here are some tested, but not necessarily popular, airport apps that can save time and make flying fun.

Seat Alerts – Airplane Seat Monitoring and Alerting By ExpertFlyer.com is a must-have for anyone who has ever booked the last seat on a flight or been stuck in the middle with no way out. Monitoring flight information the user inputs, Seat Alerts sounds off if/when aisle or window seats open up on that flight. The free version gets one seat alert at a time. Multiple alerts are available for purchase. Seat maps also include recently updated SeatGuru seat ratings. Seats may not open up, but it’s worth trying.

Airports by TravelNerd By NerdWallet
Airports puts all the information on the 70 most popular airports in one easy-to-use app. Other apps have basic terminal maps and real-time flight tracking but this one adds much more detail and has information on ground transportation, airport parking options (with coupons), Wi-Fi availability and pricing, airport restaurant, shop and lounge hours and locations along with an Offline mode that works without a signal.My TSA By Transportation Security Administration
This airport travel app might have been one that app freaks took a look at before and dismissed as useless, like the Terrorist Threat Level app. Updated recently though, this one has TSA PreCheck information in the dashboard so a tap on the icon shows what checkpoints and airlines are serviced. Users can also check approximate wait times at TSA security checkpoints, search an extensive list of items that will (and won’t) make it through the checkpoint and have the ability to provide immediate feedback to TSA concerning their checkpoint experience.

Once out of the airport, getting around is easy too when armed with the right travel apps, as we see in this video:

Travel Apps to Get You Where You're Going

Geoguessr: The Internet’s Newest Educational Time Waster

Geoguessr
Where does this look like to you? I guessed central Mexico based on the Spanish signs and the mixture of dry soil and lush plants. Actually it’s Brazil. The next view I looked at showed the characteristic onion domes of a Russian Orthodox Church. I guessed Russia and was correct.

This is an addictive new online game called Geoguessr. It gives you random Google Street View images and you have to click on a world map to guess where they are. You’re awarded points based on how close you are.

It’s surprisingly addictive. My young son, already a fan of Google Maps and MarineTraffic.com, is becoming obsessed with it. So am I. The best way to wrack up points is to explore a little. Start heading down a foreign street, studying traffic signs, plants, and passersby. They’ll all give you clues as to where you are.

It’s also really difficult. I’ve mistaken Korean writing for Chinese, the Australian Outback for Nevada and New Zealand for Hawaii. No matter how well traveled you are, this game will trip you up and make you want to play again. So if your boss has stepped out of the office for a drink, click on Geoguessr and spend some time learning a bit about how the world looks.