Is the Apple Watch Good for Travel?
T+L’s news editor took the device on a three-week road test.
During nearly three weeks of testing the new Apple Watch in New York—including a memorable afternoon in Times Square—and throughout South Africa, I’ve had my highs (taking calls and ordering taxis from my wrist) and lows (dead batteries, hard restarts, and spinning wheels). I’ve emerged with a greater understanding of how the watch—which retails for between $349 for a sport model to $17,000 for one encased in gold—can be incorporated into both everyday life and travel.
Reasons to love the Apple Watch
Here’s what I love about the Apple Watch: it functions brilliantly as an appendage to your phone, delivering calls, texts, and email messages instantaneously. I found this most helpful on my birthday when friends and family from around the globe were trying to reach me. Normally I would have missed about half of these calls, my phone being buried in my purse or tucked into some corner of my apartment by my three-year-old daughter.
I am also now receiving important texts, including SMS calendar reminders, immediately. And I’m responding to them quickly, thanks to the watch’s near-perfect voice-recognition system. Another handy function: the “find my phone” ping, which is perfect for unearthing a missing iPhone from your daughter’s dress-up box.
But none of these things have anything, really, to do with travel, which is all about the apps.
The Lowdown on Travel Apps
Since the watch’s launch, travel companies have been cranking out wrist-sized versions of their standard apps. But in an effort to pare down bells and whistles for the smaller screen, some apps have rendered themselves pretty much useless: OpenTable, for example, which can’t make reservations, but only display your existing ones. Currency converter XE misses the mark as well. It displays current exchange rates, but doesn’t make calculations—not helpful for someone who is better with words than numbers.
Others apps should be more functional than they are. The itinerary manager TripIt, a go-to on my iPhone, only shows day-of travel information, which is of little use when you want to check on the next morning’s flight. I tried out several translators as well, including Speak & Translate and the IHG Translator. For both, you speak your phrase into the watch and receive a written translation. They performed proficiently, but to get another person to read the translation off my wrist was rather awkward and intimate. I’m holding out for the app that delivers audio translations. Until then, the iPhone is much easier to use.
A few apps knock it out of the park. Uber is addictively easy to use. Open it, click once, and a car is on its way. The ease and surreptitiousness of this process proved especially useful in Cape Town, where cabs are scarce and you don’t want to get caught in the wrong place after dark. I stopped even trying to look for cabs and just relied on Uber. (One note: the app only lets you order black cars, so when the fare is in U.S. dollars, it can get pricey.) DarkSky, as always, offered excellent hour-by-hour forecasts. I was the only person on my safari vehicle dressed warmly enough for the pre-dawn hours.
Location-based services present a huge opportunity for the Apple Watch. Foursquare, TripAdvisor, and Yelp all have great, functional apps that deliver curated lists of places nearby and will connect with Maps to direct you there. If you’re the type of traveler who is often without restaurant plans or needs to find a good, local bar (STAT!), these apps are incredibly useful. They’re simple, subtle, andx effective.
The Truth About Mapping
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for the Apple Watch is Apple Maps. At times it nailed my spoken requests, such as “Find me a nail salon” in Brooklyn (which I’m now regretting, thanks to the New York Times). But other times it flopped. I was trying to find a restaurant around the corner from me in Cape Town, but “Borage” somehow became the Garage pool hall in Seattle. (Estimated walking time: my entire life).
More frustratingly, the haptic ticks that were supposed to let me know when to turn left or right were also unreliable. At times, they were spot on, leaving me with the supremely satisfied feeling of knowing that no one on the street could tell that I had no idea where I was. I walked, in other words, like a local. But sometimes, I couldn’t even feel the ticks. Or worse, they led me away from my final destination—something you don’t want to happen in Johannesburg.
When you lose confidence with a map, you stop using it. I often ended up pulling up Google Maps on my phone.
What Lies Ahead
Some of the watch’s coolest functions can be elusive. I tried to use Passbook for my boarding passes, but I wasn’t given the option for my international flights. I did feel very slick pulling up the boarding passes for my internal legs on my wrist. But, much to the amusement of the passengers behind me, I had to take off the watch (and then fumble to re-enter my pin) to get it to actually fit under the scanner at the security check.
Starwood is working to allow you to open hotel doors with the watch, and Apple is rolling out Apple Pay, which should be easy to use on your wrist. But until all the supporting technology becomes ubiquitous, these functions are rather hit-or-miss.
A Distracted Traveler
But the main drawback, for me, was the constant urge to—and ease of—checking in on my watch. I would post a photo on Instagram, and as my Uber took me to the hotel, instead of looking out the window and taking in Cape Town, I would peek at my watch to see if anyone had liked my post. I found myself checking email while walking down the street, and, ridiculously, receiving a reminder of my son’s upcoming dentist appointment while on a sunset game drive in the middle of the South African bush. Dental hygiene is important. But, come on.
Should you buy it?
In spite of all these reservations, I still loved having the watch on my wrist as I traveled. Maybe it was the feeling of a safety net—the map, the nearby restaurant, the car service—that I could access at a moment’s notice. Maybe it was the ability to easily keep in touch with my family back home. Maybe it as the daily reminders that I had exceeded my (deliberately and absurdly low) goal for calories burned each day, my passive way of whitewashing my laziness. Or maybe it was simply that, for the first time in nearly a decade, I could finally tell the time from my wrist and made to all my appointments on schedule.
In the end, I would recommend the Apple Watch for travel, but I wouldn’t buy it specifically for that purpose. For that, we'll have to see what the next generation of travel apps has in store.