USA Today: Amber waves of grain and purple mountains are great, but long road trips along U.S. interstate highways inevitably leave you hankering for junk food, safe rest stops and familiar hotel brands.
Several GPS-based apps have hit the market, aiming to make the expansive terra of American highways a little less incognita. Using the phone's GPS, they know where you are on the highway and tell you what's coming up in real time as you drive through exits. You can pre-select some favorites to get alerts (say, Holiday Inn hotels or Five Guys Burgers).
Some, like the I-95 Exit Guide, specialize in only one major highway. There are apps just for finding rest stops. I tested three of the more general highway apps — iExit, RoadNinja and Road Tip — on a 30-mile stretch of I-66 near Washington, D.C., and found their mission intriguing, though their execution still leaves a lot to be desired.
Plenty of popular "help-me-find-spots-near-me" apps exist, but they point to places in front of, behind and left and right of you. The highway apps, on the other hand, are wooing users who literally are looking farther down the road.
Many travelers are familiar with the experience of finding a decent Italian restaurant on Yelp or Urbanspoon, only to find that they just missed the exit to get to the restaurant. There are more than a handful of highway travelers who crave a particular dish (say, tacos), but settle for a nearby McDonald's burger — only to find a Taco Bell three exits farther along. These highway guide apps exist to solve such problems.
While the apps mostly worked as they were intended, their shortcomings were quickly obvious. Nearly all entries are shops and restaurants that are part of large national chains, which is fine for some but not for curious and intrepid travelers looking for local favorites. Near an exit at a busy Washington suburb known for many good ethnic restaurants, the apps gave me a tiresome list of only McDonald's, Denny's, Fuddruckers and the like.
Their content was limited in other ways. Although RoadNinja claims to show attractions, it missed some key ones — Civil War battlefields and water parks — along the way. IExit and RoadNinja promise coupons and deals, but I didn't find any in the 30-mile test.
Despite such shortcomings, I am still likely to use them on trips, particularly iExit. They are certainly better than highway road signs, well intentioned though they may be, that are infrequent and limited in scope. And that alone is a good start.
Here's a closer look:
Overview: Highway guide app that shows up to 50 closest exits. $1.99 and available for Android and iPhone.
Pros: Select favorites and receive alerts. Content is more comprehensive than the other two. Shows nearby deals/coupons, if available. One-tap calling. Has comprehensive categories not found in competitors, including type of gas (unleaded vs. biofuel) and independent hotels.
Cons: Exit-by-exit content not available unless you're on the highway. Sometimes fails to recognize that you're on the highway. Few deals or coupons available. Doesn't change directions (you can only see exits in front of you).
Takeaway: Best of group.
Overview: Highway guide app affiliated with Foursquare. Has over 30,000 exits and shows places of interest within 3 miles of upcoming exits. Free and available for iPhone.
Pros: Offers promotions and coupons, if available. Works even when not on the highway. Has user reviews (though number is small and many aren't useful). One-click calling. Allows search of exits behind you or just passed.
Cons: Content is more limited than others. Despite Foursquare affiliation, no promotions and deals found on trial in busy D.C. suburb. Fewer categories of places than others.
Takeaway: Not as good as iExit, but it's free.
Overview: Minimal highway guide app for finding just gas, food and lodging. Filter results by exits or by type of service. $2.99 and $4.99 yearly subscription required after three months. Available for iPhone.
Pros: Ability to filter by favorites. May appeal to minimalists who just want simple lists of three important categories.
Cons: Slow to recognize GPS location. Even slower — or often won't work at all — if you're not moving or not on the highway. Needs more content. Doesn't change directions (you can only see exits in front of you). No link to phone number or address. Requires yearly subscription.
Takeaway: Not worth the price.