By Ross Arbes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 16, 2010; F01
"All I really needed was my iPhone and my passport."
That's what the narrator in a TV commercial for the Apple iPhone and its apps says about his trip to Spain.
Interesting, I thought when I first saw it. I'd just spent several months researching travel apps as a business development intern for the Travel Channel. A virtual tourist, I sat in a cubicle and played with all sorts of smartphone software: apps for language translation, apps for finding public transportation, apps for tracking flight delays and even apps that supposedly repel mosquitoes.
So when I heard the claim in that ad, I decided to put the tagline to the test.
On a recent cloudless Tuesday morning, I headed out on a three-day road trip to Pittsburgh armed with nothing but my iPhone and my wallet. In the spirit of the ad, I packed no change of clothes, no guidebooks and no directions. I hadn't made reservations, and I hadn't done any planning. I picked Pittsburgh because I thought that the Steel City, not your typical tourist destination, would pose a good challenge for the many apps that claim to be universal.
Before I left, I established some basic rules for the trip. I would use only the iPhone's apps; the Internet browser, where all questions could easily be Googled, would be off-limits. And under no circumstances would I visit tourist offices or benefit from brochures, maps or advice from locals. Like the noble outdoorsman venturing into the forest to try out his knife and compass, I headed into the urban jungle of Pittsburgh on a mission to test the limits of the iPhone and its array of travel-related apps.
After three days of living on apps alone, I was surprised to find that the iPhone's claim isn't completely bogus. In fact, in some ways, travel with the iPhone was better than travel with a guidebook.
For one thing, the apps offer flexibility and spontaneity. Instead of laboriously researching hotels in guidebooks and online, I easily chose and booked mine on the fly. Upon arriving in downtown Pittsburgh, I consulted a tourist information app called Pennsylvania ($1.99) to get a general sense of the city's various districts. Intrigued by the descriptions of a couple of neighborhoods, I drove around and quickly settled on the university area, which is filled with parks, historic buildings, restaurants and bars.
I parked the car, checked out a variety of lodging locator, rating and pricing apps, such as HotelsByMe (free), Kayak (free), InnTouch (free) and HostelHero (free), and finally used Priceline Negotiator (free) to bid on a three-star hotel. My bid was accepted, and I got a room for $52, almost 75 percent off the listed price of $190. I happened to be parked right outside the hotel at the time, so I simply walked in and claimed my room.
In addition to hotels, apps can find and provide reviews of almost anything a traveler could want or need. To choose restaurants, I used Travel Channel Go (free), Urbanspoon (free) and Local Picks by TripAdvisor (free). Urbanspoon is an especially intuitive app that incorporates user-generated ratings as well as local newspaper and blog reviews. Looking for dinner in the South Side neighborhood, I browsed restaurants on Urbanspoon and happened upon Fat Head's Saloon. Eighty-five percent of Urbanspoon users liked Fat Head's, and one blog, Demandy.com, described it as a "must-see on anyone's Pittsburgh visit."
Inspired by a local newspaper review, I ordered a delicious (but heavy) pirogi-filled overstuffed sandwich and managed to eat it without spilling sauce on my shirt. If I had gotten stains on it, I could have used iWant (free) to locate a nearby laundromat or used the Target or Walmart apps (both free) to find stores to buy a change of clothes.
I used apps to find nearby ATMs, public toilets, restaurants, the cheapest gas stations and even speed traps. At one point, I used an app to check the safety of an area. I'd parked in north Pittsburgh on what appeared to be a sketchy block. Wondering whether it was imprudent to leave the car there, I checked Am I Safe? (99 cents), which characterized the area as "unsafe." But the statistics actually reflected a low theft rate, so I left my car. It was still there when I went back eight hours later.
The iPhone also functioned as an interactive tour guide. One evening, after enjoying a sunset view of the city from the top of nearby Mount Washington, I rode the Monongahela funicular down to the bottom. Curious about the funicular's history, I opened up Hear Planet Lite (free), an app that "geotags" (geographically pinpoints) all Wikipedia and Wikitravel articles. Hear Planet Lite listed all the sights closest to me at the time, and after I clicked on "MonongahelaIncline," what sounded like a robot read me a Wikipedia article. Although the voice was a monotone and read every word of the Wikipedia entry, including some interminably long links, it was a worthwhile listen. I learned that the funicular is the oldest continuously operating one in the United States, originally built by German immigrants who modeled it after ones in their homeland.
Finally, the iPhone was a great resource for sharing my experience with others. On a drive through some especially beautiful backwoods roads in Pennsylvania, I recorded my route, my speed and my elevation using Everytrail (free). When I stopped to take photos of dilapidated farms amid cow-filled green pastures, Everytrail geotagged the photos and incorporated them into my route. Afterward, I posted the trip on my Facebook profile, so my family and friends could "play" a kind of video narrative of the experience. I also used SodaSnap (free) to send digital postcards with the photos I had taken. And I sent a personalized snail-mail postcard through Postcard Star (free). For $1, I had a postcard of me standing in front of the Pittsburgh baseball stadium mailed to a friend who's a Pirates fan.
Despite those positive experiences, there were frustrations, too. Enough that I'd have a tough time choosing between a guidebook and the iPhone if I could take only one on a trip. I found the limited scope of various apps annoying. While certain apps found sights and others listed parking and others rated restaurants, it was hard to assemble all the information into a cohesive plan. Because of the apps' specificity, I found myself having to go back and forth between apps over and over again, and while on the go, I was often forced to retrace my steps. Also, the apps do a great job of locating nearby attractions, but few specify the ones worth seeking out.
Furthermore, the apps weren't always dependable. I walked past three ATMs before arriving at the one that ATM Hunter (free) claimed was the closest. Likewise, Sit or Squat (free), a bathroom locator, first directed me to a Starbucks that looked to have been closed for several years before it led me to one that was open.
Finally, I found that an overreliance on the iPhone had subtle negative effects on the travel experience. At times during the trip, I was so engulfed in iPhone apps that I felt as though I was missing out on the sights, and especially the people, around me. But aren't they the whole point of travel?
Bottom line: I don't see the iPhone in its current state as a replacement for guidebooks, though it's definitely a valuable travel tool and supplement. As for the thought that all you need for a trip is your iPhone: Well, at the very least take along a toothbrush.
Arbes is a freelance writer in Washington.