Mark Kirby - mobile, cloud, voice and IoT

Using mobile apps for a better trip

I’ve just got back from a 2 week trip to North America, taking in Seattle, Vancouver and Portland. This is the first time I’ve really let loose with mobile apps on a trip, abandoning worries about data charges and using a range of iPhone apps. There is no doubt the trip was all the better for having these apps, and I thought I’d discuss how exactly they aided me and highlight the most useful ones.

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I’ll go through each aspect of the trip mobile apps helped me with in turn, and then highlight specific apps, some apps span a few of these. I’m using an iPhone, 1st Gen (so no GPS nor compass).

Local transport

By far the best feature I was able to access on mobile was to figure out the local transport systems in the various cities.

How I used to navigate local transport

I used to find local transport a nightmare - I had no idea where any buses were going apart from the final destination, wouldn’t know which one to catch, which side of the road, where to get off - it was basically impossible. I’d either find one bus and use that, walking the rest of the way, or pay the extra for taxis, or even walk everywhere taking massive amounts of time and exhausting myself.

Apps I used on this trip

I downloaded a local bus app for each city - Seattle Metro for Seattle and PDX Bus for Portland. However, both these had awkward interfaces and simply didn’t make navigating the buses any easier.

Seattle Metro screenshot

Seattle Metro screenshot

Google Maps (installed by default on the iPhone) on the hand was a revelation, simple to understand and use, and it wasn’t even a dedicated bus app - it simply integrated perfectly with the other features of finding out where you were and where to go.

How Google Maps public transport feature works

You simply type in where you are, where you want to go and request a route by public transport. If you don’t know where you are you can use GPS or in our case triangulation, which is can pretty much locate you to within a small range in a large city.

Google Maps screenshot

Google Maps screenshot

You then select the time you want to leave, and the app will walk you through the steps needed to reach the destination - how to get to the bus stop, what bus to catch, where to get off and how to reach your intended destination.

Benefits - saving time and money

This app enables you to take advantage of the same cheap transport benefits locals have (and in some cases gives you an advantage over locals). Before I would never have attempted to navigate the bus systems in a strange city, and if I did, I am sure I would have wasted a lot of time getting on the wrong bus or failing to take the fastest routes. You also save the money you may have had to spend on taxis.

There were places we simply could not have gone without this app, such as Kurt Cobains old house in the Lake Washington area of Seattle - there’s just one bus, every half hour, from a random location 10mins walk from our hotel. With Google Maps we got there within 30 mins of deciding to go, had a look, went for a quick walk somewhere else, used triangulation to roughly figure out where we were and got the next bus downtown.

Problems encountered

The app isn’t perfect, we did find some issues.

On Labor day (bank holiday Monday in the UK) the buses run on the Sunday schedules, but Google Maps didn’t know this, hence all the bus times were incorrect all day long. Once we figured out the problem we just used the app to locate bus stops and then read the times on the bus stop. In one case there were no times, so I used another app Seattle Metro, to grab the latest times from the bus company.

Although it lists the nearest bus, if you miss it, it assumes you will want to wait for the next bus rather than walk somewhere else. There is no way of searching out alternative bus stops. At one point we found ourselves in a rough part of town having to wait 20 mins for the next bus. I didn’t want to run alternative searches on my phone. In the end we just walked down the road, and I kept checking for alternative buses as we moved along using the triangulation. Essentially we had to physically move to manipulate the data - a cumbersome input device for sure!

Finding things to do and see

There a number of apps dedicated to travel - locating bars and restaurants and finding stuff to do in the day. Some of these aren’t powered by the most trustworthy sources, so I tend to stick to guide books like Time Out, Lonely Planet and Rough Guides and do a quick sweep of websites before leaving.

This year I was able to put the Lonely Planet guides on my phone by downloading PDF’s of sections I was interested in from their website and putting them on the iPhone using the air sharing app. Unfortunately it was almost unusable as the pdf’s take ages to scroll, always go back to the first page when you exit the app off and aren’t that easy to read on the small device.

Much better was Lonely Planets Travel Guides app which lets you download city guides for around £10 each. Overpriced certainly, and not the most usable, but still hands down the best option. Lighter and less touristy than getting out a book each time, and much better than the PDF’s. The main issue with the app was that the only way to view bars and restaurant was either using a near me feature which listed ones close to you at a given moment in time, or by accessing the map and clicking on random dots to see what was there. Another major flaw is resetting the app every time you load it. Not perfect by any means, but a good effort - I look forward to improved versions of this in future.

Lonely Planet guides screenshot

Lonely Planet guides screenshot

Other features

I printed all my essential docs as pdfs and put them on the air sharing app. This meant I could quickly check numbers and times without carrying round lots of paper or checking my mail each time.

Being able to access Facebook in the park led me to arrange a meeting with an old friend who was only available that night, there is no doubt we would have otherwise missed each other as I had no time that day to go to an internet cafe (in fact, I didn’t even see any internet cafes).

Web access at anytime allowed me to check opening times for places, ensuring I didn’t go to the trouble of heading all the way to a gallery in Fremont which was closed.

Google Maps helped me to locate hard to find bars and cafe’s, the Seattle and Portland [Cocktail Compass][7] even told me which bars near me had happy hour on, and how long they had left!

Final thought

Apps like these don’t just add convenience to a holiday, or satisfy the urge to check your email every 5 mins (not something I actually did), they can actually change your entire trip. We saw and did far more on this trip than any other, traveling faster and cheaper than before on public transport, feeling less tired from walking around everywhere and knowing where and when to visit places. One could say this takes some of the fun out of traveling - the getting lost and finding your way. Personally, I feel getting lost is not something I (and especially not my girlfriend) actually finds as fun as it seems when it happens. It generally leads to wandering around desolate rough parts of towns, worried and stressed.

Whatever your view, there can be no doubt travel is being changed by mobile devices, and we are only at the beginning. Augmented reality here we come!

Image courtesy of FallenPegasus - http://www.flickr.com/photos/fallenpegasus/ / CC BY-NC 2.0

[7]: http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewSoftware?id=313899511&mt=8

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