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How to Identify Flights Overhead and Ships at Sea for Free Using Your Smartphone

If you’re going to stay home, you could at least travel in your mind.

Look up. See any planes? If you want to know about the jets you spot, you don’t have to squint through binoculars to decipher the paint on the tail. Your phone can tell you the airline, the type of plane, where it’s going, when it took off, its altitude—even if it’s running late.

For laymen, a few apps will do the trick. All of them skim information from air traffic control systems to give you an accurate report of what’s in the clouds at this very second.

For airplane nerds, most apps have paid versions that eliminate ads and enable more sophisticated features, such as animations of flights using aerial images. But the free versions get you what we describe here. If all you want to do is satisfy your curiosity about what’s happening over your head, you don’t need to shell out extra. 

Since the apps are free, you can install as many as you want and keep only the ones you like best.

For aircraft

FlightAware Flight Tracker (App Store, Google Play)

This one has been online since 2005; the app version debuted in 2009. You can always find active flights on the FlightAware website under Flight Tracking, but the mobile app localizes the search from the start, making it much easier to point out aircraft flying above you. Finding nearby flights is even easier when you tap the menu icon at the bottom; that shows you a list of flights that are currently overhead within a prescribed range.

When you open the app with geotracking enabled and click the location triangle icon, a map appears showing where you are. Pinch and zoom in to narrow down your scan to your neighborhood, and tap on a plane or helicopter to learn about that aircraft, where it took off, and where it’s heading. For busy cities, the default display, which traces flight paths, can at times look like a bowl of noodle soup, but you can disable Flight Tracks in the layers section to clean that up.

Flightradar24 Flight Tracker (App StoreGoogle Play)

Flightradar24 ranks perennially among the most downloaded of flight-spotting apps. When you tap a plane on Flightradar24, the flight route appears as a subtle line (pictured above). Tap the aircraft avatar and you’ll be shown fuller information for that flight. Upgrading ($35/year) also buys you the ability to watch a realistic 3D animation of an aircraft flying over an accurate terrain.

If you create a free account under Follow, you can choose to track one flight at a time, and an ongoing notification window will appear on your phone’s screen during the course of its journey, which is handy for keeping tabs on a loved one’s flight progress without having to keep the app open.

Some information of interest to power users—such as the age of the aircraft and its vertical speed—is hidden behind a gold lock icon unless you pay to upgrade. But the free information will be plenty for most people.

Plane Finder (App StoreGoogle Play)

Around since 2009, this app is simple to use and easy to understand. Although there’s a website version, just like the others, you’ll navigate and sort data faster using your phone. One appealing design feature: including the logo of the airline for commercial flights en route so you don’t have to tap on flights you’re not interested in. That feature is thoughtful, because once you tap a few flights, you’ll have to sit through an ad to continue unless you pay to upgrade. 

On Plane Finder, upgrading ($4 a month or $20 a year) unlocks the ability to track multiple flights at once, watch a 3D animation of the flight, and quickly sort between aircraft types.

The Flight Tracker (Flight Tracker +) (App Store, Google Play)

The Flight Tracker aims to simplify the visual results enough to please an everyday user who simply wants to track the flights of friends and family, so it focuses on commercial flights, not cargo or military ones.

If you know the flight you’re looking for, you don’t have to locate it on the map, either. Just tap the button with the airplane and the plus sign to search by flight code, cities, and date, and tap Airports Flight Board to even see the live departures-and-arrivals board from the airport of your choosing. You can also see all the current flights from one particularly airline on one page, which isn’t always flattering for the airlines. A subscription ($50 a year) removes the ads.

For all the apps, if you tap a plane and an airline name isn’t available, that might be because the flight is privately operated or it’s for cargo of some kind.

Technically, iPhone users don’t even need to download an app. They can simply ask Siri, “What planes are above me right now?” and you’ll be directed to websites that will tell you—websites that are operated by the same outfits that run these apps. So you might as well use these graphically compelling apps, especially since they’re free.

For boats and ships

When you’re done craning your neck and inspecting the clouds, turn your eyes to the sea. You can also use your phone to I.D. vessels on the water.

One of the leaders in this category, MarineTraffic—Ship Tracking, sells a full-featured, more-ships-than-you-need, obsessives-approved app at the App Store and Google Play ($10 a year). But as a novice, you’ll probably be satisfied with the free Ship Finder Lite app (App Store). 

Ship Finder Lite works just like the plane-spotting apps. If you see a vessel you want to know about, tap it on your screen. The app serves an ad upon every fifth tap, and with all the pleasure craft, tankers, cargo ships, and tugs in the water, using Ship Finder Lite can get pretty chaotic. If you want to dispense with the ads or if you just want to use the app to pinpoint the current whereabouts of ships you already know the names of, you’ll have to pay $5 to upgrade to Ship Finder, minus the “lite.”

Some people couldn’t care less about fishing boats and are only interested in finding cruise ships. In that case, CruiseMapper (pictured below) is the choice. The website version offers plenty of features (like an archive of deck plans) that have little to do with tracking, but the mobile version (App StoreGoogle Play) is satisfying in its simplicity, as it tracks the movements of cruise and passenger ships alike. You can also ask the map to show you the current weather hotspots for wind, temperature, and waves.

You can search for a specific ship on CruiseMapper. To locate it right now, tap Map Position in the green band along the bottom of its information page.

If a ship is not amid an active journey, it might appear as a dot at port. But when the vessel is under sail, its icon takes the shape of a boatlike arrowhead (apps like MarineTraffic are more specific about when ships are under way). Tap on a ferry, and you’ll see a messy zigzag tracing its recent runs across the map.

There are more apps on the market that perform these services, but these are the simplest and the most widely adopted at the moment.

Try to keep your chin up as you explore. A virtual voyage is lots of fun—but sailing into Barcelona for real with a cocktail in your hand is much better. You’ll be back out there traveling again in no time.