In my Scientific American column this month, I wrote about the irrationality of the Transportation Security Administration's rules that govern air travel. I travel a heck of a lot as the host of a PBS science show, so trust me: every one of these absurdist rituals drives me nuts.
Fortunately, technology also helps me remain sane—before, during and after each flight. Here are the phone apps, for iPhone or Android, that no traveler should be without:
Kayak is a beautiful, fast app for searching flights on all airlines. It doesn't sell tickets, just helps you find out what flights are available. The time filter lets you drag a slider to narrow down the hours of takeoff or landing that you'd consider.
SeatGuru. This great app shows you the essentials—whether or not your flight will offer wi-fi and power outlets—and also tells you every single detail about every single seat on the plane. Won't recline? No window? Exit row? Legroom? Now you'll know.
Tripit. Tripit.com is a free service that builds a tidy itinerary for you. Each time you buy a plane ticket, hotel booking or car reservation, you forward the confirmation to Tripit's e-mail address. Like magic, the site parses the contents of that confirmation note and auto-enters the travel info on your calendar (phone and computer). And if you also have the Tripit phone app (or FlightTrack Pro, described below), your flight is auto-entered there, too.
Airline check-in apps. Almost every airline offers a phone app that lets you check in for your flight up to a day in advance. Use it—checking in from home, or on your way to the airport, means you don't really have to be at the airport 45 minutes or two hours (or whatever) before the flight.
The great-looking Delta app is the best of the lot. When you open the app, it already shows the flight you're about to take. It's much smarter than most airline kiosks, which make you manually enter your flight information before printing out your boarding pass. And it remembers your frequent flyer number and password between uses, unlike similar apps, such as United's.
On Delta's app, you tap the flight, tap "Check In," and presto: it displays your "boarding pass" in the form of a big black-and-white QR bar code, which you place onto a scanner at the TSA checkpoint. On that same screen it displays your gate number, seat number, seating zone—you can even see where you stand in the waiting list for free first class upgrades.
FlightTrack Pro. For each flight, this app's tidy screens shows not just the departure and arrival times, but also the terminals, gates, flight maps, aircraft type, speed and altitude, weather radar and so on. It knows more—and knows it sooner—than the actual airlines do.
The Pro version (a one-time $10 cost) offers "push" alerts when anything changes. That is, your phone buzzes and wakes up and shows on screen the details of your flight's delay or gate change.
So there you have it: Five apps for the modern sky warrior. Don't leave ground without them.