App of the Week: Four Apps to Ease Your Summer Airline Travel

App: FlightTrack Platforms: iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Palm Web site: Cost: $3.99 (Pro for $9.99)

App: FlightBoard Platforms: iPhone, Android Web site: Cost: $3.99

App: Skyscanner Platforms: iPhone (Web site available as well) Web site: Cost: Free

App: Hipmunk Platforms: iPhone (Web site available as well) Web site: Cost: Free

I haven't been on an airplane in about 15 years. Crazy, right? Some of this was due to a fear of flying. Some was just the fact that I was growing a business and chose vacations closer to home -- much closer, as in my backyard. Well, my streak is soon going to end. I've been invited to a wedding at the end of the summer in Cancun and I'll be re-earning my wings.

Since many people choose to travel over the summer and a lot of them fly, I thought this might be a good time to discuss a few apps designed to help make your trip to and from the airport a bit easier. And, hey, if it helps me in the process, all the better!

First up is FlightTrack by Mobiata, a company that makes a number of travel apps of which this is far and away the best. I purchased this app last year to help me deliver friends to and from the airport easily and I've come to love it. FlightTrack is a real-time flight tracking software that provides incredibly detailed and accurate flight information for any flight, anywhere.

Track a flight with details down to seat configuration, real-time mapping with weather radar to show potential areas of turbulence or delay, set push alerts or set a repeating flight if you travel on the same route for business often. Spend an extra five bucks and import flight information from itinerary services, view terminal maps of airports and check the weather reports from across the globe.

The mapping technology alone is worth the cost. I've found it to be amazingly accurate even to the point where I can guess which plane is most likely the flight I'm tracking while it is landing. The details -- how fast the plane is traveling, how far it has gone and how far it has left (time and distance), the plane's altitude -- are not only interesting but really helpful. In short, it is a must-have if you travel a lot or help others get to and from the airport.

While we're talking about Mobiata, another four-dollar app from them that is extremely helpful when trying to make a flight is FlightBoard. Just tap the airport button in the app, and a real-time list of arrivals and departures complete with airline, flight number, destination or origination, gate number and arrival or departure time appears, looking a lot like an old-school airport ticker.

Tap any flight and get a list of sharing options including e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and SMS. Even better, tap the FlightTrack icon and switch over to that app to use its functionality for any flight.

Before you board, however, you need to purchase tickets and that means finding the best fare possible. There are an endless number of Web sites that can help you with that process, but two really easy-to-use Web sites that also have companion apps are Skyscanner and Hipmunk.

Skyscanner has the best app interface for searching. It quickly checks your location and gives you airport options. It utilizes the iPhone technology well and is the quickest search. Once you've found the flight you like, just tap it and there are a bunch of options for booking a given flight. It's fast and it's damn easy.

Hipmunk's no-nonsense approach on its Web site (my favorite place to go when I want to quickly search for fares) is reflected in the layout of the app, but it is somewhat less intuitive than Skyscanner and has fewer overall options. Still, the elegant grid layout of potential flights along with their own "agony" metric (it ranks flights by combining price, duration and number of stops) makes it a great helper app.

It should be noted that in every search, while I found plenty of listings for flights with reasonable rates, when I checked the actual airline Web site, fares were nearly always cheaper. Veteran travelers already know this, but it doesn't mean apps to help sort through the mess of booking aren't handy all the same.

Like virtually every industry, there is no single app that covers all aspects of travel perfectly. I tend to believe that the apps that focus in on specific needs often provide the best options, and this is certainly true in the case of these helpful flight apps. When you are traveling this summer and you are using these apps to help you book flights and manage the hassle of travel, remember that I was the one that helped you and feel free to send some frequent flier miles my direction.

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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke