Travel Report: the iPhone

24 Aug 2008 // places

So I've left this blog a little fallow because I've been been traveling in the East Coast the past month (due to visa restrictions, I had to stay within the confines of the United States). In this trip, I got to put my shiny new iPhone 3G through it's paces. I am glad to report that the iPhone has become my indispensable travel companion of choice, I am particularly glad since I waited in line for 5 hours to buy it (damn you AT&T and your activation-in-store policy).

One of the pleasures of living in a new city is letting the geography of a new city seep into your skin. From day to day, the repetition of a thousand inconsequential acts superimpose themselves into the pavement of the city in my mind's eye. It took me months to figure out the mazy streets of the old city in Brussels. Visiting there 4 years later, I found that the trace of the city was still there. And every time I visit the town I grew up in, my heart leaps a little as I recognize the streets that I wandered in when I was young.

That thrill occurs every time I walk through a new city. I love walking through a new city, letting my legs feel the layout of the streets, as my eyes wander over strange architecture and people doing people things. When I wander, I always use a map. Some people would say that this kills "spontaneity" but I've learnt that not every street is equally interesting. I once got lost for hours in an industrial zone in some mid-sized German town. Not very fun. Consequently, I always wander new cities with a copy of the Lonely Planet clutched in my hand, religiously orientating myself every few intersections. This is a tedious process: pulling out the book, finding the page of the right map, trying to cross-reference manifold tables to figure out where you are.

With the iPhone google map application, I can never get lost again. Pulling out the phone and switching on the map function, is as easy as looking at the sun. With a deft tap, I pull up my GPS location in beautifully rendered map. The finger-directed scrolling makes map reading a satisfyingly physical process. I never have to deal with my travel guide flapping in the wind again.

I am also one of those ridiculous eating-oriented tourists. A city is an organism, and its essential metabolism takes place in the bowels of its restaurants. Every city is unique in what it chooses to feed its population. If you have curious taste-buds then eating the food of a city is the ultimate way to understand its character. Still there are good restaurants and there a bad restaurants, even in cities known for its cuisine. When I travel, I meticulously plan it so that never eat a bad meal. This requires an inordinate amount of planning. Even in great eating cities, not all restaurants are great. You have to do some research to find the good and well-priced restaurants. It's a drawn out process where you have look up eating or travel guides to find a restaurant, look up the address, consult your maps, figure out your itinerary for the day, and carefully mark the address and the description on your Lonely Planet map.

With the Yelp! application, I can pull up an instant list of restaurants close to where I am standing, right now, and read off a list of well-reviewed restaurants. I just type the restaurant into the map application, and follow the map to it. I found great restaurants that even the friends I was staying with didn't know about.

Of course, I've succumbed to technology – I've gotten used to carrying an iPod and a camera everywhere I go. When you're traveling, this means that you have to carry adaptors and chargers for all the bits of electronic devices. But the beauty of the iPhone is that it has an iPod and a camera built in. There is only one charger that you need. When you are fumbling for a power point late at night in the dark in a hostel room, the powerpoint of one is a godsend.

The other constant worry that I've eliminated when I'm traveling is access to email and the internet. Email is vital to communicate with people that you're be visiting, and to book hostels and hotels. If you're a semi-spontaneous traveler like me, you book bus tickets from city to city. When I'd travel before, I had to make sure that I get to an internet cafe, or find reliable wi-fi, at least once every day, or two. This takes huge chunks of time out of my vacation. When you can check email, or browse the internet on your iPhone, you never have to step into a grungy internet cafe ever again.

Hell, you don't even have to write down the address of the hotel you're going to cause you booked the hotel online and the address is in that email, and you can just punch it into your map. You can check museum times on the fly.

But most importantly with the iPhone, I can tell people what a great time I'm having by updating my Facebook status about what a great time I'm having, anytime, anywhere in the world.