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Online Traveler: Lack of iPad apps hampers planning

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - As a new iPad owner, many of my iPad fantasies involved using the device for entertainment while traveling.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - As a new iPad owner, many of my iPad fantasies involved using the device for entertainment while traveling.

I could see the iPad on an airplane tray table, feeding me movies, books, and music. I imagined the iPad in Rome, offering tidbits of Vatican history as I sipped espresso. Downloaded games would keep boredom at bay while I waited at the Miami airport. In Las Vegas, it could suggest where to eat during a convention.

But I hadn't thought much about using the iPad as a travel-planning tool until I sat down to book a vacation to Italy. Instead of using a laptop to buy tickets, I decided to try doing it on the iPad. My goal was to find the cheapest tickets from Tampa or Orlando, Fla., to Rome, for September, and also to look at hotel options, car rentals, and a guidebook. I decided to download some apps to try, all free except for the guidebook.

I could have done my booking and searching without downloading apps, by connecting directly to travel websites using the iPad's Internet connection. But while some websites look virtually identical on the iPad and a conventional computer screen, other sites don't display as well on the iPad. Naturally, apps designed specifically for the device format better, are easier to use, and take advantage of certain features.

Unfortunately, at the time I was planning my trip, many of the big travel sites, such as Expedia and Travelocity, had not yet developed apps specifically for the iPad. As a substitute, I tried using iPhone apps for those sites.

The results were disappointing. Using iPhone apps for Expedia and Travelocity did not display the content at full-screen size, and magnifying it resulted in slightly fuzzy text. Navigating to screens where I could enter my destination, search for airfares, and buy tickets was confusing. At one point, the Expedia app offered a phone number for assistance; when I called, I was told to book the trip through the website.

In contrast, an app for Kayak specifically created for the iPad was a joy to use, easy to view, and intuitive. As with most flight-booking websites, I was immediately directed to supply airport names, dates, and other basic choices. Other details that popped up in boxes on the screen included a map, hotel prices, my search history, and "Hot searches from Tampa" with other trips being looked at in my area. I eventually booked a $714 one-stop round-trip to Rome on Delta.

Many hotel apps - Hilton, HotelsNearMe, HotelPal, HotelsByMe - created for the iPhone work fine on the iPad. They're excellent for on-the-go travelers who want to book a room that night. All have a cool function that asks whether to use the current iPad location to find hotel rooms nearby; they instantly display price and whether there are vacancies on helpful maps. Hotel reservations are also possible; again, the interactive map features are wonderful.

Almost all the car-rental apps I tried were excellent, too, even though they were apps for the iPhone, not the iPad. The Hertz, Budget, and iPhone apps were are all easy to search with and use, displaying photos of cars and prices in both euros and dollars.

At the time I researched my trip, there was little content designed for iPads by traditional travel guidebook publishers. But I did look at a version of Lonely Planet's 1000 Ultimate Experiences created for the iPad. The 1000 book is not a regular destination guide; it's a compendium of places and things for travelers to see and do. While some online comments have criticized it for being light on content, I found it to be a fun, gorgeous, and inspiring application.

The iPad version also has advantages over a bound book, offering Web links and videos. Swiping and flicking through the virtual playing-card deck of locations, I found several Italy-related activities, including a Vespa ride through Rome. Lonely Planet plans to release entire guidebooks for download on the iPad, and I hope there will be a dedicated destination guide for Italy before I leave so I can use it on my iPad, on the plane.

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