”Where are we?”
“Somewhere in Montmartre.”
“I need a drink.”
“We can have a drink once I get the map working. It's just taking a few minutes to boot up.”
“While you stand there like a tech-addicted loon, I'm going to take action… Excusez-moi! Il y a un bar près d'ici?”
And so my self-inflicted challenge to navigate Paris using an iPhone begins, much to the chagrin of my travel companion. A multitude of apps, ebooks and integrated, virtual platform guides for travel, of the kind once imagined only in science fiction, is now available at the fingertips of the humble traveller. But do they work? And will they ever replace the guidebook? Travel-guide companies are investing heavily in their digital resources in order to make sure the tech-savvy traveller is catered for, but is this tech addiction just a foolhardy case of “have iPad, will travel”?
“It was a case of just realising that once these devices were available, people would want to use them,” explains Amy Schuman, former associate director of marketing for Frommer's, the travel-guide publishers, whose digital and print offering has just been sold to Google for an undisclosed sum. Its ebooks, available on iPad, iPhone, Android and Kindle, do more than just replicate the print format. Frommer's is developing audio functions, so you can take in the scenery rather than just burying your head in an ebook. A disembodied voice will spontaneously tell you about a point of interest as you happen to be near it, so you don't have to follow a prescribed route.
“It lends itself better to an independent traveller. It's made for those surprising moments you get when you travel,” Schuman says. The Frommer's ebooks have bright pictures and a bookmark function that's as easy to use as turning the corner of a page. Also, if you use them online, you can see the comments and highlights from other tourists. “If the bar you visit isn't serving cosmopolitans right now, but does a great alternative, travellers can make a note in real time so that others can make an informed decision about going there,” Schuman says.
Brice Gosnell, the vice-president and publisher of the Americas division at Lonely Planet, is working on developing apps that work with the “travel cycle”, which follows the key stages of taking a trip: inspiration, planning, the trip itself and “I'm back and I want to share my travel stories”. Then the cycle goes back to the top again.
“When travellers are actually in the place, that's when they want that on-the-go information,” Gosnell says. “At the destination, when they are at a point of interest, they like to look for other things around the area and do some sharing when they are there, so we're looking at leveraging those behaviours within the mobile space.”
Other useful online gadgets include Frommer's free Travel Tools app, which has a currency converter, time translator, tip calculator and flashlight (handy when camping, walking down country lanes at night, or searching in your handbag down a dark side street in Paris for your Crazy Horse tickets), and Vocre, available for free with adverts, or £1.99 without, on iPad and iPhone. Vocre allows an almost free-flowing conversation with people who speak another language. It comes in handy late in the evening, when I need to ask for a cork (“un bouchon”, which is also the word for a traffic jam).
But is this the end for guidebooks? The answer is not yet, partly because technology can let you down, as I discover in Paris. My 3G is intermittent at best, meaning that my map app won't show our location. The previous day, my phone helpfully showed me the 10 best places to go for brunch; now, it won't tell me whether I am getting closer or farther away from Les Bonnes Soeurs, a hot new brunch venue that serves chips with everything.
“I don't believe we're seeing a move en masse from print to digital yet, but in the future it's going to happen,” Gosnell says. “Right now, books are still the easiest way to get travel content. When you want information quickly you can dip in and out of the guidebook, you really are jumping around a lot, and the ebook devices have some navigation limitations.”
The other reason people aren't ditching the guides in favour of digital formats is travel guides are used in a different way to other books. “Where cannibalisation is happening on the ebook side is fiction. When do you read fiction? When you are sitting down and comfortable, not when you are on the move,” Gosnell says.
The third aspect is safety.Brandishing a shiny new piece of tech isn't always advisable abroad. “At the destination, some people have safety concerns and prefer to take their guidebook out,” Gosnell says. “The last hard travel destination I went to, I just took the guidebook because I couldn't get Wi-Fi - and because I would be a target.”
Strangely, in Paris I find I look like less of a tourist playing with my iPhone than I do fiddling about with the guidebook. Schuman agrees: “When I am a traveller I like to blend in and there's something wonderful about being able to see the sites without flagging up to people you're a tourist.” She believes that for the foreseeable future, guidebooks are here to stay. “There's sentimentality to having a guidebook,” Schuman says. “It's like a souvenir.”
“People say they like to keep those guidebooks on their shelves, because it's sort of like bragging” Gosnell agrees. “People visit them, and they say, “Oh my God! You've been to all these places!” and it sparks conversation.”
Later, on the Eurostar home, my audio guide to Paris, a £3.99 (about R50) app from a company called Pocket Guide, finally downloads on to my phone. The new wave of travel apps looks brilliant, but until I can get a piece of hardware that won't lose internet connection, suddenly run out of battery, cost me a small fortune in roaming fees, or just run really slowly, I'm keeping a tangible, bulky, dog-eared travel guide to hand, just in case.
THREE MORE GREAT TRAVEL APPS:
Collates boarding passes, cinema tickets, loyalty cards and more in one place on your Apple device. Free; apple.com/uk
Translate text from 65 languages on the move, by speaking into your device (17 languages) or typing. Translation is played back audibly. Free; play.google.com
Take a photo on your device, type in text and instantly turn it into a real postcard that is sent - in hard copy - to your chosen recipient. Free; touchnote.com/mobile - The Independent