Planning a trip to the Golden State? There's an app for that. Several, in fact.
While mobile apps have long aided travelers with features like maps, hotel ratings, and restaurant reviews, more destinations across the state are now launching their own free, all-in-one virtual guides. Location-exclusive apps provide a way to easily search popular attractions, major events, and dining establishments, then add them directly to a saved itinerary. They also offer a glimpse of the destination through the lens of those who know it best.
“What’s near and dear to our hearts is creating experiences, creating memories around a visit,” says Frank Filice, the director of brand marketing for Sonoma County Tourism. “We wanted an app that was … solely centered on the county and what makes us stand out—a trusted source for all types of information.”
In May Sonoma County became the latest California destination to get an official app. Within it, users can browse a collection of curated trip ideas based on their interests, from essential wineries to establishments focused on culinary sustainability. Visitors can then choose their favorite stops from the tour or add them all to their itinerary with a single tap.
Using additional functions like geo-messaging, these apps can also provide local news alerts and relevant travel tips. This came in handy during the summer months in Sonoma County, when tourism officials used the new app to offer water safety reminders as the Russian River and popular beaches reached peak crowds.
Each destination has its own set of helpful in-app tools, from turn-by-turn directions based on local landmarks to links where you can easily make restaurant reservations or book accommodations. The robust mobile features mean visitors can not only customize their trip, but also how they go about planning it.
Planning Is Part of the Fun
Destination apps offer functions for every type of traveler, from meticulous planners to those who like to fly by the seat of their pants.
With some, such as Visit Big Bear Lake and the California Welcome Center - Yucca Valley, you can score last-minute deals on tours, gifts, and dining. Others, like See Monterey, provide access to webcams to check out crowds (and views) at popular spots like Cannery Row. You can also log in from a desktop computer to add experiences, then have that fully formed itinerary in your pocket while you’re on the road.
There are even interactive ways to get to know the destination you’re visiting. The Discover Los Angeles app starts with a simple question: “What would you rather do? Swipe right to explore iconic horror movie locations; swipe left to hit Hollywood’s quirkiest museums.” Adding each item to your travel “passport” is like a game—one you’ll always win, as each answer helps curate your personalized map to the city.
Filling a Niche
You may already have a plan in mind, but destination apps can also help lead you to more immersive experiences. Cultural enthusiasts headed to Greater Palm Springs likely have an itinerary jam-packed with museums and architecture tours. The tourism-focused artsGPS app, however, dives deeper with a self-guided tour and maps of outdoor public art installations across the region’s nine cities.
To help navigate the Southern California mountains, Visit Big Bear offers in-app trail descriptions and maps. You can search routes for hiking, mountain biking, off-roading, and road biking, as well as check difficulty levels and parking details before you head out.
Some destinations also have their own dedicated transit apps, like Visit Anaheim’s A-Way WeGo. In addition to providing bus and shuttle routes, it allows users to request a free, on-demand ride aboard one of the electric vehicles that transports visitors to popular landmarks around downtown Anaheim. Truckee’s TART Connect program offers similar transit service during the winter months.
The Future of Travel Planning
As technology becomes more sophisticated, so do destination apps. “Your experience on a webpage and a website can only take you so far,” Felice says. “Mobile phones are the one true device we’ll have on us at all times.”
Sonoma County Tourism is already looking ahead to future updates, with potential features that range from smart parking tools to itinerary- and photo-sharing. With the next rollout, visitors will be able to receive notifications from nearby businesses about promotions like happy-hour deals.
Also on the horizon is a way to win rewards and badges by completing "streaks" for everything from hiking to bar-hopping. Along the Central Coast, Discover Buellton has already integrated a similar challenge feature inspired by Sideways, which takes visitors around town to filming locations seen in the 2004 movie starring Paul Giamatti.
While every app takes its own approach to showcasing all a destination has to offer, they each strive to deliver a highly customized experience for every visitor—all conveniently accessible, right at their fingertips. Here’s a list of Golden State destinations with official apps, listed north to south: