Don't Line Up at the Airport: Use an App

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Photographer: Bethany Clarke/Getty Images

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Photographer: Bethany Clarke/Getty Images

Of all the complaining about airlines on Twitter—and there's plenty—perhaps none is so impassioned as the cry for help that comes when a passenger is stuck on hold, waiting for a reservation agent to field a desperate plea for rebooking. But there's no reason to endure maddening hold music. Thanks to technology, there's simply no reason to wait on the line—or in line—in 2013.

Much of the credit for this goes to the advent of smartphones and a constellation of apps that solve almost any travel conundrum. But the airlines, too, deserve a small slice of the credit, for back-end innovations that often times fix your problems automatically without the intervention of an overtaxed gate agent or call center cog.

The one line that technology can't help you skip? The TSA's, though the agency is starting to make navigating its processes smoother with the popular PreCheck program that lets frequent fliers access special security lanes after completing a lengthy application process.

With this summer's travel season already shaping up to be a doozy—this week featured a one-day Lufthansa strike and plentiful delays that may be the result of FAA furloughs—you'll want to arrive at the airport fully armed with these apps to avoid as many hassles as possible. FlightTrack Pro ($9.99; iOS, Android) is the gold standard for flight tracking, and this app can often tell you what's really going on before the airline announces changes. Ditto FlightAware (free; iOS, Android), which offers similar up-to-the-second tracking capabilities. Gary Leff, Condé Nast Traveler's expert for frequent flier award travel, also recommends FlightStats.com and Expertflyer.com, two data-rich websites that can help you figure out which alternate routes might better suit your circumstances. "I don't ever rely on the airline agents I'm working with on the phone or at the counter to re-route me during irregular operations," Leff says. "I will usually find options that they don't, sometimes because I'm just more motivated to get where I'm going than they realize."

Airline-specific apps are also critical these days. If you miss a connection or the carrier cancels your flight, you might be automatically rebooked—and that information will be added to your reservation, which you can most easily check with an airline-specific app. United, for example, pushes notifications of changes directly to users of its app (free; iOS, Android). Many airlines also offer mobile check-in and mobile boarding passes through their brand-specific apps, so you can go directly to security as soon as you arrive at the airport.

If you don't want to download an airline's app, at the very least you should sign up for email or text alerts when booking, whether that's on an airline's site or on the site of an online travel agency like Expedia. That way, if something does change, the airline can contact you with gate changes, rebooking information, or other updates. This information is also often available with third-party apps that you might already have on your phone, like Kayak's MyTrips (free; iOS, Android) or TripIt (free; iOS, Android).

When you're seriously delayed, GateGuru (free; iOS, Android) is an ideal companion for the hours you'll be stranded at the airport, as it offers lounge reviews, food recommendations, and other crowd-sourced information about airports around the world. (No more waiting at an information desk.) If you'd rather not spend all that time in the terminal—or your delay stretches overnight—HotelTonight (free; iOS, Android) is a fantastic, simple way to find, well, a discounted hotel room for the same night. (No more waiting to make a last-minute reservation.)

As for how to get to that hotel, Leff is a fan of Uber (free; iOS, Android), a car service app that connects users with drivers in select cities. Uber has impressed him with quick, efficient service—even though rides booked through the app often end up costing much more than a comparable ride in a cab. At least you won't have to wait in line.

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