GPS is nice. Location-based recommendations can lead you to some tasty restaurants. But one of the best perks of traveling with a smartphone is being able to ditch bulky guidebooks and clunky maps.
Flipping through your Fodor‘s while standing on a street corner is the surest way of looking like a gawky visitor. A handful of destination apps are emerging to replace trusty guidebooks, allowing you to be your befuddled, wandering self a little more discreetly. The apps have also introduced extra goodies that aren’t possible in the book format — nearby points of interest determined by GPS and map software and user-generated reviews and photos. Downloading apps also lets you access content without a wireless Internet connection, a handy feature if you have a pay-as-you-go data plan or find yourself in an area with bad network reception. Calling up articles is as quick as your phone’s processor chip will allow. Several guidebook companies, including Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, Frommer’s and Not For Tourists, have released apps for major destinations, such as New York and San Francisco. Smaller companies, such as Sutro Media, are also selling destination apps for smaller cities that larger book companies have yet to add. After trying several apps for Seattle, I found those by the traditional guidebook publishers to be as reliable as their books. They’ve simply transferred their editorial content to the mobile format. But do think twice about ditching guidebooks altogether if you plan to be touring all day long. A common complaint about smartphones as a traveling companion is that the battery runs out too quickly, especially when you’re tapping away at GPS, location-based software and the Web browser. My older model of HTC Droid phone was out of power by 2 p.m. on a recent trip to New York even after being fully charged for the day. Here’s a look at several destination apps:
Lonely Planet Seattle Overview: Lonely Planet has been the backpackers’ bible for decades, with witty and clear writing, exhaustive content and an approach that caters to those who are interested in learning about, not just visiting, a destination. Those qualities are retained in its apps. It contains neighborhood descriptions and lists of restaurants, landmarks, shops, hotels and entertainment venues. ($5.99). Pros: Well-written and edited. Tons of content you can’t find on others (history of city, institutions and local companies). Contains unique articles, such as walking tour, festival list, ski info, biking trails and recommendations on nearby excursions. Detailed descriptions of neighborhoods. Offline maps don’t require Internet connection. Text search function lets you find articles by typing “live music” or “Chinese restaurant.” Cons: Some content useless for domestic visitors, such as city government description and a reminder that English is the city’s dominant language. Inability to organize trips by neighborhoods. Restaurants, shops, landmarks and hotels can only be filtered by distance (and not by neighborhood, name or cuisine type). Distances in kilometers. Takeaway: Sets the standard for guidebook apps. Few can match its content and organization.
NFT Seattle City Guide (Not For Tourists) Overview: Not For Tourists markets itself as the primary guide for locals-only information. It contains the usual array of guidebook information — shops, restaurants, nightlife, landmarks, — but presents it in a tone that’s self-described as “punchy and honest.” Subcategories would appeal to those willing to venture beyond the tourists’ perimeter — community gardens, bowling alleys, farmers markets, light rail and streetcars. ($2.99)Pros: Unlike others, it specifies “top picks” of places and explains why. Pithy, brief reviews if you don’t want too much text. Lists Wi-Fi hotspots. Points of interests are filtered — and thus searchable — by neighborhood. I especially liked the list of neighborhood parking lots. True to its word, some entries — bars and restaurants, especially — aren’t found in other guidebooks.Cons: Much information isn’t any more unique than what’s found in other guidebooks written by local writers. Some reviews may be too clever (The Fireside Room, a bar, is “where Thurston Howell, III would hang if he weren’t stuck on that island.”). The maps need an Internet connection.Takeaway: A list-based guide app that could be an option if you like to travel like a local and prefer tart, short reviews.
Seattle Essential Guide (Sutro Media) Overview: Written by a local writer, it provides 15 categories of places to see and things to do (families, hidden gems, nightlife, outdoors, shopping, etc.). It covers the most popular sightseeing highlights and local icons, but stands out from the other apps with nearly 1,000 photos. Aimed at pre-trip sightseers, it doesn’t cover hotels, nightlife or special events. ($1.99). Pros: Well-written explanations of sites and tours. The “Hidden Gems” has places even locals may not know about, such as historic movie theaters and consignment boutiques. Detailed restaurant reviews. 1,000 photos clickable to get descriptions and maps. Ability to sort entries and photos by categories. Lists admission prices. Doesn’t overwhelm with unnecessary information. More than 50 free places and things to do.Cons: Inability to sort list entries by neighborhood. An Internet connection is needed for the map. Not as comprehensive as Lonely Planet, though it may not matter to those who want a touring guide, not history lessons. City centric and a bit short on surrounding sites for excursions. Takeaway: A fine choice if you need photos to decide where to go and what to do. Does the job without information overload. Good for foodies.
Seattle Way (MyCityWay) Overview: It’s not really a guidebook, but a collection of more than 50 apps of places and things to do, including Wi-Fi hotspots, hotels, restrooms, clubs and airports. It’s aimed at both tourists and locals. (Free)Pros: Some lists — kids’ attractions and restaurants — are quite comprehensive. Ability to sort restaurants by cuisine and location. Kids’ attractions are sortable by indoor or outdoor activities. Has local deals and coupons. Also contains live traffic feed, airport maps and flight information. Cons: Entries are simply listed with no recommendations or editorial comments. Listings aren’t always reliable (some non-restaurants appear under “Dining”). Needs an Internet connection for some data. Entries don’t contain a link to maps. Inability to sort list entries by neighborhood or quality. An Internet connection is needed for the map. Some categories are for locals and are useless for visitors, such as apartments, for sale, jobs. Takeaway: For a free app, it contains a lot of good useful content. Swami City Seattle, another free app, has similar lists.