Tackle the world one page at a time
I AMnot kind to guidebooks. I will scribble notes all over the pages and, if my luggage is getting heavy, rip out useless chapters and discard them in the hotel bin.
It is hardly tearing telephone directories in two but it takes a certain strength of will to treat books this way.
In our weight-conscious age — and nobody is more weightconscious than an airline — guidebooks can feel like an unnecessarily heavy luxury. Sales of printed guides have dropped while those for smartphone and tablet apps have risen. Lonely Planet says sales of its City Guide apps have increased by 25 per cent over an 18-month period.
Why lug around a South-East Asia on a Shoestring brick in your backpack when you can slip it digitally into your pocket? Apps also cater for niche markets so if you want, say, an architecture tour of Rio de Janeiro or a guide to the state museums of Montreal, you can download the details. Such apps can also be rapidly refreshed with the latest information instead of waiting for the next print edition and, as an incidental bonus, can direct you to the nearest loo or cafe en route to your destination.
There are drawbacks to travel technology, however. While whole books can be downloaded to a phone before you leave home, their most clever functions, such as GPS mapping, can be used overseas only if you are prepared for stiff roaming charges. Apps are also very platform dependent and what you buy for one device will rarely work on another. BlackBerry choices are not particularly juicy.
Many travel apps come free, apart from the e-book versions of the established paper guides. Some have no visible means of support. Take Art Guides, a series of fine-arts scene round-ups for two dozen cities that cost nothing to download and carry no advertising. You do, however, get what you pay for. They are fine for a generalist but even a cursory glance at, say, the Melbourne app reveals slightly wobbly content that could irritate aficionados.
Intellectual weight can be lost when physical weight is an issue. Too many cultural apps are skimpy with actual information and even then you have to navigate diaphanous layers of stylish uselessness to get to the point. They are not an open book.
A good search facility is also essential on a travel app and too many fail that test (depending on which platform you are using). What you get out of a travel app is only as good as what went in, with many museum and gallery apps the product of their marketing departments rather than of curatorial knowledge.
It is true that some terrific travel tools exist — from translators and cab fare estimators to online itinerary planners such as Planner or Tripomatic — and less depth can be fine for brief business trips.
Apps can even be poetic: Blank Ways, by young designer and cyclist Tom Loois (tomloois.com), records streets where you’d never venture when route-planning, reminding you what you may be missing in a city on those roads less travelled.
And if the huge choice is still not enough, it is relatively easy to create your own with AppMakr (appmakr.com).
Ultimately, though, format is everything. A phone screen can be too small to browse and the iPad is unwieldy for street use. A Kindle may be just right size-wise but is primitive functionally. And any size is useless if you are trying to charge (electrically) up a remote mountainside.
While the best guidebook apps allow a certain amount of highlighting and annotating, for now I will stick to paper. Just as long as I am allowed to treat it mean, slather it in Post-It notes and draw a red felt-tip A-to-B line across a city map. Not recommended, however, on your average iPhone screen. Robert Bevan’s Cultural Tourist column regularly appears in T&I.