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Crutch or timesaver? Navigating the world of mobile travel apps

Crutch or timesaver? Navigating the world of mobile travel apps

Posting in Cities

Applications and social media services for exploring unknown places can be a boon for travelers -- but only if they enable real discovery.

In an essay published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in January, Robert Huesca argued that constantly checking Facebook or other social media networks can degrade the experience of studying abroad and reduce students' ability to immerse themselves in a new culture.

The same danger exists for any traveler who uses travel apps designed for mobile devices and integrated with social media networks. The idea is great: use the hive mind formed by your friends and family to navigate new places and find the best eateries, hotels, tours and beaches.

But what if your trip to Malta ends up being an exact replica of your Aunt Jane's? That might be fine, but isn't something lost? Where's spontaneity? The satisfaction of discovering a place on your own? Those are things your social network and cell phone can't help you dig up.

"Sometimes when I travel, I turn on the phone when I shouldn't," admits travel writer Greg Melville. "I wasn't guilty of that before I had a smartphone."

On the other hand, mobile travel apps -- whether they're integrated with social networks or not -- can be trip-savers. Melville appreciates the utility many provide. "I look at them not as a tether to home but as tools for enhancing your experience abroad," he says.

Joe Diaz, co-founder of travel magazine Afar, agrees. For him, a well-executed travel app is one that connects travelers with locals for insights that go beyond a list of places to see or bars to check out. That is how Afar's own travel app is designed -- it uses tales from its readers to offer insider reports. Similar apps that link with social networks to offer insights include Gogobot (iOS or Android) and Jetpac (iOS only).

But beware of focusing too heavily on what friends and family recommend and ignoring your unique travel instincts.

Given the wide variety of options, Diaz suggests using travel apps focused on a specific aspect of your trip. If you want to go hiking, for example, EveryTrail (Android or iOS) lets you download trail descriptions to your phone and integrates photos and reviews from other users. Interested in navigating among California vineyards? Sample Wine Spectator's guide (iOS) to Napa Valley wineries.

Perhaps the most practical apps are those that simply make the travel part of traveling easier. World Lens (Android or iOS) translates signs in real time, using a mobile device's camera function (English, German, Italian, French and Spanish are covered). The Google Translate app will translate words using your voice, handwriting or signs and includes offline language packages for when you're not online. And Google's Indoor Maps offers floorplans of an astounding 10,000 locations, including many airports around the world.

More than one billion of us were tourists in 2012, a new record. And research shows Millennials will keep the tourism industry hopping well into the future -- a future in which we'll have thousands more travel apps to choose from.

As the Internet of Things blooms and embedded sensors emerge everywhere, traveling will be truly transformed by our mobile devices. They'll act as pocket concierges, directing and advising us as we stroll through foreign cities.

But hopefully, the sensibility behind Eat With Me will proliferate in that future age of machine-generated travel information. This Australia-based social networking service connects foodie strangers over dinner parties and makes for the perfect travel app that has nothing to do, really, with electronics.

Image: Katerha/Flickr

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure