Are mobile travel apps a bit crap?

Guest post from Content Strategist Tamsin Bishton-Hemingray. She thinks travel apps are pretty crap. Do you?

Welcome the very excellent Tamsin Bishton-Hemingray - previously Head of Content at iCrossing and all round super-experienced web content person. I can't recommend her highly enough if you're looking for help with content or content strategy.

I've been badgering her to write me something for Travelblather... and now, here it is!


This summer I spent a wonderful week inter-railing around Italy with my family. We spent 36 hours in Venice, a couple of days in Rome and a couple on the coast in the Cinque Terra national park. As well as being a fantastic holiday, it also gave me the opportunity to try out a travel app on my HTC Android phone, which being a content geek was quite exciting to me. I was really disappointed by the experience. This blog post explains why, and why I think that travel publishers have got to work a lot harder on their apps before they are going to put good, old-fashioned guidebooks out of business.

Planning the trip
Planning this holiday required some forethought. There were a lot of things that we wanted to do and see in Venice and Rome, and only limited time to do and see them all in. We sorted out our accommodation online ahead of time using a combination of TripAdvisor recommendations for Venice and Rome, and a superbly useful B&B website which uses a searchable Google map to help you find a B&B exactly where you want one – in my case the tiny village of Manarola.

Then we turned our thoughts to planning our holiday activities. Despite both being web-savvy types, we headed straight to the book shop – because in our experience online travel content of this kind is still poorly lacking.

Guidebooks, ebooks, maps or apps?
We went to the lovely Waterstones in Brighton and sat down in the travel section to work out what we needed. My husband had youthful brand loyalties to Lonely Planet while I had fond memories of a week in Paris when I was 18 with the Rough Guide as my companion - so we knew we wanted a guide book. But should we buy one each for Venice and Rome, or just buy one for the whole of Italy?

As we browsed the bookshelves we also searched the Android Marketplace for apps. These were much cheaper than the printed guidebooks.  But we wanted to balance cost with having enough detail to help us get the best out of our holiday.

And then there were maps. We definitely needed a good map of Venice, and one of Rome.

In the end we bought the following:
Rome Compass (Lonely Planet app) – 49p
The Rough Guide to Italy (10th edition, March 2011) - £15.99
Pocket Rough Guide to Venice (Including large map) written and researched by Jonathan Buckley - £7.99

We were relying on the app to be our map in Rome, and the pull-out large scale map in the Venice guidebook to help us there.

How good were our guides?

App: Lonely Planet Rome Compass
I downloaded this app for 49p while we were still browsing in Waterstones because it was published by Lonely Planet. In fact, it was the only relevant app that I could find on the Android Marketplace from a publisher I trusted.  I was surprised how important this issue of trust was. My phone is an important tool – and I felt nervous about downloading an app from a publisher  I didn’t know. I felt even more nervous about giving my credit card details to them. So I rejected unknown publishers immediately.

I was excited by the Rome app because the blurb said you could use your phone’s camera function to display an “augmented reality” map giving you directions to the places you wanted to go to in Rome, a bit like a SatNav display from your phone. As I fired it up in Waterstones, I realised that, durrr, I was going to have to wait until I was in Rome itself to see how this actually worked from a usability point of view! There was also static content in short guidebook-style sections – Eat, Drink, Sleep etc. But the content in here wasn’t very detailed and didn’t provide indications of things like price range – something that was a critical factor for us. We were holidaying on a budget.  And it was also clunky to search for things and there didn’t seem to be a way to search by location or type of restaurant without using the map function.

So before I even got to Rome I was feeling a bit nervous about using this app.

Once there, things got worse. I had been receiving regular text messages from my provider (Vodafone) about my data usage reminding me that I had a “passport” and so would pay a fixed fee for a certain amount of data usage – but then an astronomical amount per MB once I passed my limit. It meant that I got worried about using data services on my phone. And without data services, the app was next to useless. On the couple of occasions I turned it on, it was so slow to load that my husband had already found what we needed to know in our print edition Rough Guide To Italy.

After our first afternoon of failing to find our way around with the app, I switched it off. We got a great map from the reception of our B&B – complete with the receptionist’s recommendations on how to get to the major sites, and we used the Rough Guide for everything else.

In short, the app was crap. This was partly because it was so hard to search for stuff, and partly because with roaming costs for mobiles still so high, I was just too worried about my mobile bill to use it.

Lonely Planet need to give users a clear indication of the amount of data the app is likely to use. They also need to add content and make it much more easy to search and bookmark for future reference. For me one of the advantages of a digital guidebook should be that I can carry around lots and lots of information without having to carry around a weighty book. Having less detail than the print version just doesn’t make sense.

Rough Guide to Italy
This rocked in comparison to the app. Easy to find stuff (just use the index), quick to flick through, simple to bookmark (just fold the corner), fun to browse in more detail on train journeys (no batteries or mobile signal required), jam-packed with reliable and important detail, it absolutely trounced the app. We used it for Venice, Rome and Cinque Terre and also had fun reading up about the parts of Italy that we just glanced fleetingly through the window of our train. Yes it was 30 times more expensive than the app, but it was worth every penny.

But – as with my previous experiences of Rough Guides – the small maps included alongside the fantastic detail were consistently pretty useless and often completely wrong. We would have got lost many times if we had relied on them. So it wasn’t completely perfect.

Pocket Rough Guide to Venice
We bought this because of the pull out map, and because we were worried the Rough Guide To Italy wouldn’t have enough detail. Actually, we could have lived without it. And the pull out map was a little bit inaccurate when it came to locating recommended cafes and gelateria. The best map we found to Venice was (like the one used in Rome) the one that was provided to us by our fabulous B&B; it was clear, easy to understand, accurate and free. We brought one home with us to use next time we visit Venice.

So what?
As a content geek, I’ve been reading for years now about how mobile phones are becoming our favourite way to access content of all types. I was really excited about the idea of an app that would fuse Google Maps data and guidebook content into a new format right there in the palm of my hand. But practicalities got in the way. There are a few people who will take their phones on holiday with them and not worry about the cost of use. But there are a lot more people like me who really worry about that expenditure. I might just take the risk if the content in the app was more detailed, more up to date and easier to access. But it wasn’t.  There was less detail than the guidebook. And on top of that, you just can’t flick through an app the way you can flick through a book. These are both critical flaws in my opinion.

For me, the bottom line is that the new medium isn’t enough. The content and the experience have to be top notch too. Based on the Compass experience, I think travel apps still have a way to go.

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