The iPhone is decidedly not a Spanish invention. Unlimited instant mobile connectivity is perhaps not essential in a country that traditionally takes a three-hour nap in the middle of the workday. Over the past few years, though, mobile developers have released numerous smart-phone apps for travelers: apps that can help you navigate any subway; GPS-equipped restaurant guides; directions to hospitals with 24-hour emergency rooms. Using your smart phone for travel is like having a very intelligent tour guide in your pocket at all times.
I wanted to find out how advanced smart-phone travel really was. So I booked a flight to Madrid—using the Wanderlust app, one of the few that lets you buy your plane ticket without being redirected to a website—and resolved to surrender my will to my iPhone. I’d use it to take pictures, to translate unfamiliar phrases, to wake me up in the morning. For three days, I would not tour, drink, or dine anywhere unless an app brought me there. This might seem risky, but I wasn’t worried, as my phone is both smarter and more attractive than I am.
Arriving in Madrid, I made my way toward the Plaza de Santa Ana, a lively central square filled with literary monuments, outdoor cafés, and, late at night, enterprising vagrants who will sell you cans of beer for one euro apiece. Using an app from booking.com, I had secured a room at the ME Madrid Reina Victoria, a grand early-20th-century building retrofitted into ultramodernity that anchors the plaza’s west end. The desk clerk greeted me with a disconcertingly cheerful grin and informed me that he had absolutely no record of my reservation.
Although he eventually found it—thanks to an app called TripIt, which had stored all of my travel data and confirmation numbers—this was my first indication that many travel apps are still in their beta phase. A tapas-finder app called De Tapas por Madrid often gave excellent recommendations, yet tended to omit crucial contextual details, such as “Does a tapas bar prominently advertise Long Island iced tea in its window?” and “Are the menus laminated, and in English?” And while the mTrip mobile travel app provided step-by-step directions to the Museo de Historia, which is dedicated to Madrid’s urban history, it failed to mention that the museum was closed for renovations until March.
Perhaps most exciting are the many dedicated “augmented reality” (AR) apps, which promise to enhance your experience by sending you relevant information as you travel through a city. These apps use your phone’s GPS signal to determine your physical location. Like RoboCop on a vacation, you hold up your phone as if you’re taking a photograph and information appears on your screen as you walk: historical facts about nearby landmarks; the location of the nearest ATM; your proximity to other people who are also using augmented-reality apps.
Their day is definitely coming, but it’s not here yet. The AR apps that I tested proved difficult to use and ultimately not all that helpful. Case in point: I was excited to use the Cyclopedia app, which displays relevant Wikipedia entries as you walk through a city. I was less excited to learn that there are proportionally nowhere near as many geo-tagged Wikipedia articles about real-world places as there are about, say, Star Wars characters. Walking down the Paseo del Prado, the Cyclopedia app was showing me entries for landmarks several miles away. Either the data set for Madrid was limited or Cyclopedia’s ability to access that data was limited; either way, it made the app less useful.
Once you adjust your expectations, however, travel apps can still enhance your trip. Its occasional failing notwithstanding, I ultimately found the mTrip Madrid guidebook to be a great mobile guide to the city. The company makes them for 17 cities worldwide; they let you create an itinerary based on length of stay and hotel location or travel interests and design an on-the-fly tour that leads you to nearby restaurants and attractions.