Best route-planner apps for public transport

There’s less of the unknown when it comes to planning public transport journeys using apps than other satnav systems – after all, once you’re on a train it will rarely end up in a different place to that advertised.

But there are still some major differences in the way apps approach journey planning, and there are also some great companion apps that can make life simpler.

Your choice of phone OS will have an impact here, as right now Apple Maps can’t handle public transport directions natively. Instead it points you to third-party apps if you attempt to plan a route.

Some will kick you out of Apple Maps for their own interfaces, but a few integrate reasonably well – the Public Transport app, for example. If that’s too much of a hassle, Google Maps is ready and willing, and Nokia Transport – as you’d expect – has plenty of public transport options.

Google Maps (free)

Searching and planning a route in Google Maps works just like in other modes, but tapping the public transport option gives a list of results incorporating bus, underground, train, tram and foot – or any combination of those.

You can set the route to use the fewest transfers or minimise the walking distance, and results come with expected route times and easy-to-understand symbols to show the journey breakdown at a glance.

Here, your OS comes into play. What Google Maps for iOS can’t do is flit effortlessly between the types of journey. The mapped route is simply a line that heads to the first transit location, then straight to the next, and so on. Walking the bits in between, Google Maps is every bit as dumb as it is for general walking trips.

On Android things are much better, since each leg of your journey can be accessed in the appropriate way: slide into Street View for the walking part, then zoom out to a wider map for a bus journey, for example.

Google Maps

If all you want is a list of the steps to take on your journey, both versions of Google Maps are probably all you’ll ever need. But if more help is needed along the way, it seems Android owners win again.

Nokia Transport (free on Windows Phone 8)

Windows Phone 8 owners get the polished interface of Nokia Transport (now Here Transit), which presents its multi-transport results in a wonderful graph view that shows each suggested trip length broken down into the individual legs. It neatly combines walking stages, colour-coded Tube stages and bus stages with the bus number, so you needn’t even leave that journey screen for straightforward trips.

If you do need more information, Nokia Transport gives it, shifting to a set of instructions similar to Google Maps for Android, in which you can select a leg and jump straight to the appropriate in-map navigation.

Bus and Tube legs include the direction of travel and the stops you’ll pass along the way, and the walking stages give turn-by-turn instructions as you’d expect. It’s the jewel of Nokia’s many core apps.

The rest

Other apps perform similar functions with less polish. The free Public Transport for iOS can basically do everything Google Maps does when it comes to journey planning, only with an interface that’s a mix of bad WordArt and a boxy web form.

It can open routes straight into Apple Maps but it’s inconsistent in its behaviour: Tube journeys open as straight lines between stops, as you’d expect, but tapping a walking stage brings no response at all. There are no live Tube or train updates, but you can track your own journey (on Bing Maps, bizarrely) if you wish.

Find out more

Read on to find out the best satnav for driving, satnav for cycling and satnav for walking

Various Tube status apps can also handle multiple modes of transport, most notably Tube Deluxe (69p on iOS). Tapping on the various stages in a planned journey will open Apple Maps, from where you’ll have to request walking instructions manually for the in-between parts. Still, it does a job, and it offers live Tube train updates (until you get underground).

For overland train updates it’s hard to fault the National Rail Enquiries app (free on iOS and Android), which offers live departure boards as well as detailed journey planning.

And for the bus we’d recommend Bus Checker (from £1.99), which comes in London or UK versions. Live updates are available for all the nearby bus stops in list or map view, and we like the bus stop signs that tell you which numbers stop at each.

The stop alerts are especially handy – no more dozing all the way to the bus depot after a night out.

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