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Traveling with Paper Maps, Scraps and without Apps

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Can the myriad travel apps available at our fingertips always compensate for what we might lose? Amber answers, “No,” and gives us all something to think about

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I stand at a pay phone and drop in a couple coins. I’m calling a hostel on the recommendation of a fellow traveler. I dial the number scribbled on a scrap of paper and make my reservation. I heave on my backpack and head to the train station. Because I didn’t check the timetables, I have to wait an hour for the train. When I arrive at my destination, I hunt for a map with a big red dot that will tell me: “You are here.” I want to plot my way to the hostel, but the scrap of paper has sunk to the bottom of my bag and gotten lost amidst other bits and scraps. Anyway, the street I need isn’t on the map. I ask for directions. I get lost in the foreign streets. I ask for more directions until I arrive, exhausted.

The above scene — me, nearly ten years ago — has already become archaic. Pay phones? Scraps of paper? Maps with big red dots? Almost every minor detail of traveling has been replaced by electronic devices that boast a super-human efficiency in basically everything. A hostel reservation is made in a flash after consulting reviews ahead of time; timetables are online or have their own apps; as for maps, there are so many electronic options. The paragraph becomes: I take the train, walk to the hostel, check in, then start to explore the city.

The thousands of travel apps available can lend a hand to travelers in a myriad situations. They include but aren’t limited to: packing lists, maps, travel itineraries, updated flight information, airport maps, postcard creation and delivery, city guides, historical tours, language help, hotel recommendations and the answer to the burning question, “Where should we eat?”

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Many of these apps save time and worry, organizing the details of a trip that are often chaotic. As a friend and frequent business traveler was telling me recently, there’s an app that informs him about delays of connecting flights before they are announced over the airport loudspeaker. Apps save the weary traveler valuable time that is better spent enjoying a well-deserved vacation or, as in the case of my friend, they attempt to diminish the hassles of travel.

As for me, I am an app bystander. I am amazed at their variety but continue to clutch at a stubborn nostalgia for scraps of paper. I will use the computer as much as I need to prepare for a trip — making reservations, researching some sights that interest me — but once I’m there it’s only for emails, Skype, blog posts (if the trip is long), and maps. Traveling allows me the indulgence of disconnection, which is something I never take for granted. And here I mean more than the disconnection from electronics, but that wonderful experience of being thrown into a place that forces me to test the limits of myself; to disconnect from the ordinary and step, hands free, into the extraordinary. ( I should post-script this paragraph with the fact that I don’t have a cell phone. I know, pretty strange.)

My bystander penchant encourages me to often wonder if the advantage of apps compensates for what we lose. (Isn’t that always the question with technology?) An aimless search for a hostel that lasts hours is not a pleasant way to spend time, but it is an interesting way to begin a relationship with a new city. It’s a toss up.

One thing I greatly admire about travel apps is their element of choice.

What do you think?

* Top photo property of The Travel Belles ©

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About the author

Amber Ruth Paulen has been living in Italy for five years. She travels
whenever possible and is currently working on a fiction manuscript.
Her writing has appeared in The American in Italia, The Millions and
Why Go Italy. She can also be found blogging about books, writing and
Italy at "Descripted Lines".

This article has 7 comments

  1. Kathryn Schipper

    I do use some apps, but I find I get tired of spending every moment staring at my smartphone instead of the sights I came to see. Also, a lot of tech writers who get excited about apps forget the high cost of data overseas. Spending too much time looking at online maps and guidebooks can really cost you.

  2. Margo Millure

    I agree with Kathryn. I’ve also noticed that sometimes, especially when time is limited, I don’t take the time to get oriented, knowing that I can (hopefully) depend on being navigated from one destination to the next.. As far as apps that I really like, TripIt has been very useful – you can share itineraries and also forward email confirmations and it automatically puts everything in an organized itinerary.

  3. Amber Paulen

    I wonder if some of my aversion is being completely swamped with options. I have a frequent business traveler friend who swears by TripIt. He can’t even remember traveling without it! He also uses about twenty other apps for his trips and I see why, as he has to keep so much to keep organized. I bet one day I’ll be using more than just Skype and Google maps.

  4. Michelle

    I agree with Kathryn, until roaming data rates come down using my apps outside of my home country just isn’t realistic at the moment. So I to go with the combo of preparing before I go with all my technology and then enjoying being unplugged for the day while out and about. When back at my accommodation I then can check out things I need to look up and send emails etc.

    I have thought about getting set up with a prepaid travelsim card as a cost effective way to stay connected, but as you said the time spent disconnected is a good feeling, and I enjoy it and it gives me balance in my tech ruled world.

  5. Katy

    I also like some apps and find them useful, especially simple things like maps, but unless you’re traveling simply for business, it should be about getting off your smartphone and out into the world!

  6. Tim Hunt

    I find this post interesting; caught my attention while blog hopping so I hope you guys don’t mind if I chime in. I also have a penchant for traveling, but I don’t heavily rely on apps as well because as what Kathryn have mentioned they can be a bit of a distraction. However, like everybody in here I also use travel apps. Just last month I downloaded 25 things to do in Amsterdam just to have an idea about the places of interest there and of course, I use google maps as well just so I don’t get lost in a foreign country.

  7. Bobbi Lerman

    Interesting post…and with so much technology at our fingertips to advise, suggest on any and every topic it can be hard to resist especially if you are traveling solo.

    That said, the best thing about traveling without relying on apps is the best places I have found have happened because I didn’t worry about getting lost, or having a specific place to eat, drink or simply hang out.

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