Whether you're leaving on a jet plane or picking up Mom at the airport, a flight tracker app is an essential tool for your iPhone. You can use it to keep tabs on your departure time, confirm when Mom is arriving, and even check her plane's position in the air. And if you're an airline geek right like me, you might even check it just for fun.
There are a handful of flight tracker apps available in the iTunes App Store, but up until now I wasn't sure which offered the best experience. So to find out, I downloaded six titles and tracked a sample flight on each one. Below you'll find what I consider to be the upsides and downsides of each app, plus my overall assessments and a screenshot. For a further peek at the maps for each title, check out this related slideshow.
Note: For this roundup, I chose only standalone Flight Tracker apps. I did not include more comprehensive trip planning titles that happen to include flight tracker functionality.
Can it track international flights? Yes, even when outside the United States.
What's good: FlightTrack offers a lot of information without saddling you with an overwhelming interface. For each flight, it not only lists the scheduled departure and arrival times (when the plane leaves from and arrives at the gate), but also when it will take off and land. Delay information is clearly marked, as well, and you view the aircraft type, departure gate, and scheduled flight time.
Once a flight is in the air, FlightTrack shows the airspeed, arrival gate, baggage claim number, and present altitude. And if that isn't enough, you can jot notes on a separate page, access a shortcut to the airline's phone number, and look up the local time and temperature of the departure and arrival cities.
The maps are gorgeous, and that's not an overstatement. You get a full satellite view with weather radar data and I really like that you can zoom way in and scroll around the map using your finger.
What's not: The satellite maps can take a long time to load depending on your connection, and you can't switch to a simpler format.
The final word: FlightTrack offers a clean, data-rich interface with the best maps of the bunch. Don't let the $4.99 price tag scare you off; FlightTrack is my top choice and well worth the money.
Neat bonus: You also can shake your iPhone to see a random flight.
Other versions available? A Pro version ($9.99) adds push notifications, weather, and TripIt integration. You'll need a subscription, though.
Price: 99 cents
Can it track international flights? Only flights originating or ending in the United States.
What's good: When searching on FlightView, the initial results include the scheduled departure and arrival times and any delay information. On the next page, you'll get gate and baggage information for your chosen flight, plus one-touch access to the airline's phone number and a place to take notes.
If weather is your concern, FlightView offers the most extensive options of any app. You can access temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and visibility for the departure and arrival cities, and the maps show weather radar data.
What's not:The interface is dull and the text may be too small for some users. Similarly, the maps are too simple and you can't zoom in for a closer look. I'd also like a few more flight details, such as altitude, airspeed, and aircraft type.
The final word: It lacks some information I prefer, and the maps are pretty boring, but its user-friendly interface and bargain price make it a satisfying alternative to the more expensive apps.
Neat bonus: You can forward flight info through an e-mail or text message and post it to Facebook. Also, you can access a delay map for major airports across the United States.
Other versions available? No
FlightWise Flight Tracker
Price: 99 cents
Can it track international flights: Yes, but functionality is limited.
What's good: If you're a pilot or aviation enthusiast or you own an airline, FlightWise's Flight Tracker is meant for you. Rather than keep tabs on delay and gate information, it tracks the actual take-off and touchdown times for current and past flights only. If you can accept that limitation, however, the information is clear and reliable. I also appreciate the helper prompts that guide you through the interface.
When you don't have a flight number, a nifty feature lets you search by aircraft type or by airport. And once you've selected a flight, you can see the airspeed, aircraft type, and altitude while the map details the actual flight path down to the smallest course change.
What's not: The maps are extremely minimalist and show only the outlines of land masses and unlabeled dots for cities. Though the app can search for any airline, the list of available airlines in the menu is very short. Also, international flight information is incomplete and the maps are often distorted.
The final word: The FightWise Flight Tracker interface isn't pretty, and its interface isn't always intuitive, but it works well if you use it within its design parameters. I wouldn't recommend it for the average traveler, though.
Neat bonus: You can track random flights near your location. Also, you can upload and view sample photos of various aircraft.
Other versions available? A free version offers the same features, but is ad-supported. A Pro version ($9.99) has more more search options, a graphical map that supports zooming and scrolling, and the ability to track two flights simultaneously.
Can it track international flights? Yes, but information is missing for some flights.
What's good: Outside of its plain maps, Flight Status offers the most attractive interface. I particularly like the colored flags (red for delays and green for early and on-time flights) that clearly indicate schedule changes. What's more, the flight details page shows the exact delay time in minutes, gate information and the expected baggage carousel claim number.
What's not: The maps, which are identical to those on the FlightView app, are unremarkable. Though they show weather radar data and the actual flight path, other details are lacking and you can't zoom in. Also, when searching by route, you can designate an airline only after getting search results.
The final word: I wanted more from the maps, but the colorful interface and detailed delay information is very useful. Given its price, it's a close second to FlightTrack.
Neat bonus: You can search for all flights to or from a specific airport and you can send flight information to a friend in an e-mail.
Other versions available? A Pro version ($8.99) includes TripIt integration.
Flight Tracker Live
Price: 99 cents
Can it track international flights? Yes, but only for flight schedules.
What's good: Flight Tracker Live shows the most important details, including scheduled departure and arrival times, actual departure and arrival times, and relevant gates. On the maps side, you can see the airspeed, altitude, and distance to the arrival city. Also, you can search by flight number or route and you can narrow the results by airline.
What's not: The interface is too spartan for my tastes and you don't get much information beyond the basics. The maps shown are equally bare-bones; instead of a flight path you see only the present position of the flight. Moreover, you can't zoom in and the maps won't show flights outside of U.S. airspace.
The final word: You get the essentials, but as a cheaper option it can't compare with FlightView.
Neat bonus: You can send flight information to a friend in an e-mail.
Other versions available? No
Can it track international flights: Yes, but maps won't show position of flights outside U.S. airspace.
What's good: The simple search interface allows you to search by flight number or route and you can broaden the results to show both non stop and connecting flights. I also like the clean interface on the flight details page and the one-touch access to weather forecasts, airport Web sites, and airline contact information. The airline logos are a nice touch and the colored flags (green for on-time flights are marked and yellow for delayed flights) conveniently denote a flight's status. And once you find your flight, you can send the results to a friend in an e-mail or text message.
The maps are skinned from the Google Maps so the interface should be familiar to most users. What's more, you can switch between the usual standard, satellite, or hybrid designs. Besides showing the plane's speed, altitude and remaining flight time, the maps also tell which city or town it is flying over at that moment. For example, when we tracked our sample flight, we could see it was over Morgantown, West Virginia at that exact moment.
What's not: Though you can look up the departure and arrival gates, the expected baggage carousel is missing and we didn't always see the airplane type. The map doesn't show the flight's actual path in the air.
The final word: Flight Update offers some graphical advantages on its rivals and a few unique elements found nowhere else. It's also a keeper.
Neat bonus: For some departures, you can look up alternate flights, the airplane's seating chart, and the next scheduled arrival at your gate.
Other versions available? A Pro version ($9.99) offers TripIt integration.
I tried two other apps, but I wasn't impressed by either one. Here's why.
Live Flight Tracker (free) offers a lot of details and a decent map, but it's ad-supported and you'll need to register to get full functionality. I tried to register, but I was quickly put off by the steps involved. When it asked for my occupation--I'm still baffled why it cares what I do for a living--it wouldn't accept "writer/editor" as a valid entry, even though it was one of the choices in the drop-down menu. Perhaps the developer is trying to say something.
Flight Tracker by Splash Data (99 cents) includes airline logos in search results, but you can search only by route and not by a specific flight number. When you find a flight, you get the essential information, but there's no option for maps.
What Flight Tracker apps do you use? Please tell me below.