09 November 2010

Traveler From The Future

I recently spent a lot of time traveling, both as a tourist and as part of my job (in my line of work, there isn't really a clear line between the two). The more I travel the more I discover that, thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet and the advanced capabilities of smartphones, traveling hasn't changed this much since Columbus set sail (ok, maybe since those Wright kids got bored with just biking around their backyard).

Preparing For Liftoff
It starts off even before I embark on my adventure, while organizing all my plans. I use a great (free) service called TripIt which easily aggregates all my travel information (flights, hotels, rentals, etc...) and lets me access them from one spot both on the web and my phone. Adding all of my information is a cinch, I just forward all those flight confirmation e-mails (and such) to TripIt and they take it from there (they even have a Gmail plugin that does that automatically if you want). Using the TripIt app on the iPhone lets me easily check my flight status and gate changes, right before my flight. Very useful.

Getting Online
In my day to day life I rely on the Internet quite a bit (anybody say addiction?) but once I land in a foreign country it becomes my lifeline to learning about my surroundings, making my way around, connecting to people who have experience in the new wilderness I've been flung into, and sharing and documenting my experiences.

Once I land in a new country my first order of business is getting online (how else am I supposed to checkin on Foursquare at the airport?). Cellular roaming costs are a biiiiatch, so I would stay far away from that, but I've had different experiences with getting online in different countries. The best being in London, just walking in to a T-mobile store and £5 later I had a working cellphone with unlimited bandwidth for the month. In other countries the experience was less seamless (especially depending on the people's competence in English) but after some running around I always manage to get a local SIM (in Europe you usually want to ask for a "pay as you go" SIM with a data plan, but they don't always understand the "data plan" part). The prices vary but they usually have deals where you can get more than enough bandwidth for pretty cheap.

What I usually do is try to find some offline map apps for my iPhone before I leave home so that I at least have a map at my fingertips when I land and have yet to setup a reliable Internet connection. There are many different apps for this depending on where you're going, a quick Google from home will do the trick to find reviews about the best ones for your destination.

Then the Fun Begins
Being constantly connected with a smartphone while abroad used to be a fantasy (those are the kinds of the things I fantasize about :) but now it's a necessity.
It affects many aspects of my travels:
  • Getting around - whether it's how to get to a conference venue, finding out where the hell I am, or locating the nearest subway station or nearest McDonald's (a man's gotta eat). Google maps is the killer app for this on the iPhone and Android. If you're in a major city like New York it will even show you public transportation times as part of the walking directions it gives you.
  • What sights to see - when in tourist mode you don't really know what to see and where to go when planning a trip in a new city. I discovered that there are TONS of great iPhone apps for doing just that - many of them free. The best experience I had was with mTrip (specifically their app for London but they have guides for other cities). Although it's not free ($6, which is less than any travel book you'd buy) it gives you both offline information about tons of different places to see in your city of choice plus an awesome automatic day planner. What you do is tell it where you want to start your trip (your hotel for example), what kind of things you want to see (sight seeing, shopping, churches...), and how many days you have, and it automatically sets up your schedule for the entire trip. You can then manually edit your schedule (add/remove spots, rearrange stuff...) and it gives you transportation instructions from each spot to the next. It's like your own personal travel guide, the easiest way I could think of to getting to know a new city.
  • Connecting with people - whether it's asking for tips and recommendations from friends or getting help with something when stuck, always being connected to your Twitter and Facebook friends is something that we will increasingly be relying on. I got great recommendations for restaurants and cool exhibits while in Amsterdam and even got a few people searching for me in real time for what settings I need in my iPhone in order to connect to the Vodafone network in Amsterdam (it's kinda hard to search when you don't have Internet :).
  • Sharing and documenting - the reason people take cameras on trips with them is to both document the experience for themselves and to share with others. I find that by using services like GoWalla and Foursquare I can do both in real time. Ok ok, so GoWalla wont replace my camera entirely, but it's a great way for me to be able to look back and see exactly where I was at what time (and I get information about the place while checking in). And all my friends/followers can see where I am and share their experiences from that place. Invaluable (plus my mom keeps tabs on me this way).

My usual attire
Now I can hear all you naysayers saying "can't you disconnect from e-mails", "I go on vacation to get away from being connected",...

I think that attitude will disappear in the future as we cease to perceive e-mail and IM as work (actually future generations will probably only use Facebook, but that's another post) and the Internet becomes an even bigger, integral part of our lives.

Nobody forces me to answer emails or IMs while on vacation, even if I am connected, and it's up to me when to reply and at what length. It's like turning off the phone while you're away. Feel free to do it, but when you need the phone you turn it on.

What's Next
The two improvements that need to come next stem from the two biggest problems I had when travelling like this:
  • Battery life
  • Getting online

During my day to day I'm usually 1 hour away from a power outlet at worst. Most of the time I can plug my iPhone in and not have to worry about its abysmally short battery life (all smartphones currently suffer from this problem). However, while traveling I'll be away from power for at least 8 hours at a time, sometimes it can get up to almost double that. And these are not normal days where I use the iPhone occasionally (is once every 10 minutes considered occasionally?), while traveling I'll be using the phone every few minutes at times: to look at the map, open a travel guide, checkin to a location, take a picture, god forbid even upload a picture... All these things suck the battery like Snoop Dog’s toilet when the cops come.

Battery life needs to improve significantly so that we get to a point where we can do all of these things without having to worry about them killing the battery. Just like the good old days when your Nokia phone used to hold up for a week between charges.

The second road bump in my experiences (aside from losing my luggage, but who cares about that), is getting online in a new country. This needs to become entirely seamless at some point in the future so that you land, turn on your phone, and are connected (without the ridiculous roaming charges). Once demand increases, phone companies will need to realize that their services are a commodity, and as such we expect them to be readily available at our beck and call.

Until that happens, this will remain a luxury only for hardcore geeks.

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