Earlier this year in Istanbul, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a man who spins gold thread at the Grand Bazaar. His noisy workshop is tucked into a courtyard off one of the bazaar’s main “streets,” past a few jewelry kiosks and before a reasonably clean but squat-style toilet. Huge fan belts crisscross the room and antique machines creak and spin spools of thread in metallic and bright colors; the spinner (a former footballer, I later learned) works the room like a conductor. Seeing me and my baby peeking in, he ushered us in to have a closer look and took our photo looking around in awe. I had no need for thread (gold or otherwise) and had a slight fear one of us could lose an eye if we hung around the Ottoman-esque machines too long, but it was a treat to find. Dim light made for poor photos, so I was thrilled to find this video of the machine in action on guidebook extraordinaire Rick Steves’ Facebook page.
After living in Istanbul for more than two years as an expat, it took me a while to appreciate the Grand Bazaar as more than a horrible tourist trap. The key to finding the magic in the Grand Bazaar is discovering the nooks and crannies most visitors miss in their hunt for “authentic” souvenirs (likely made in China) and inexpensive fez hats (forget about the irony that the fez was banned here as a means of modernizing and secularizing the country when it became a republic). If you look hard, you’ll still find real artisans, centuries-old family businesses and relics from former empires. If you want to find this guy, leave me a comment and I’ll try to leave a bread trail to him.
It was with a heavy heart that I read the news last week that Frommer’s guidebooks will cease to be printed. The guidebooks were purchased by Google last summer, and as of this year, the entire future list of titles will not be released. With the takeover of digital apps, social media, and user-generated content, we knew this was coming, but it still feels like the end of an era. It’s become fashionable for any traveler (especially for writers, including our own bloggers) to be dismissive of the printed guidebook, claiming they get all their tips “from locals on the road” or via social networks, possibly demurring to an occasional read of Lonely Planet. Let’s dispense with the tired traveler vs. tourist argument; we can all benefit from practical info for navigating a new place, and no matter how “local” you go, there’s nothing wrong with visiting the museums and attractions for which a destination is known. Even as an active member of the “new media,” I mourn the death of guidebooks like that of a friend.
The greatest gift of the digital age to the traveler is online trip planning. I’d never want to go back to the days of travel agents and phone reservations. I’ve spent hours on the Internet booking flights, reading hotel reviews and soliciting advice and recommendations from friends, but guidebooks have always been the heart of my pre-travel ritual. Each year, after we had narrowed down the destinations to a few (often places where American Airlines and Marriott coincided, back in the days where work travel generated a fair amount of status, miles and points for free vacations), my husband and I would spend a few hours at a bookstore, poring over the guidebooks for points of interest, relative costs of travel and local events that might happen during our travel dates. Back when I worked at Conde Nast Traveler magazine, my desk was next to the research department, making me feel like a kid in a candy store. Shelf after shelf of guidebooks, atlases and travelogues gave me a keen eye for what features are the most useful in a printed travel companion.In addition to having the most current information, I look for an efficient presentation (while I love travel photography, I don’t care for it in my guidebooks, taking up valuable real estate and showing me things I hope to see myself) with detailed maps, a short phrasebook and menu guide, as well as a point of view in a guidebook. I had always made fun of Rick Steves and his fanny-packed followers, but in Portugal, I discovered his “back door style” is really quite helpful for navigating crowded tourist attractions and distilling fun facts about a museum’s history (look elsewhere for nightlife advice, though). My respect for Mr. Steves solidified with his book “Travel As A Political Act,” particularly due to his advocacy for travel to Muslim countries and the importance of getting a passport. Time Out city guides offer a surprising depth of cultural sidebars in addition to nightlife listings. Occasionally, you might be lucky to stumble upon an indie series like the gorgeously-designed Love Guides to India or Herb Lester‘s guides to the “usual and unusual” in Europe and the U.S., but these were often only discovered once you reached your destination. Lonely Planet was usually a given, having the widest range of places and most annual updates, but my heart belonged to Arthur Frommer.
Frommer’s guides were never the hippest or most inventive, but I liked their no-nonsense and concise layout, stable of local writers and the personality that shown through the pages with “Overrated” tags and honest advice. I loved the history behind the Frommer’s brand, imagining how Arthur’s original “Europe on $5 a Day” changed the way Americans travel and opened up a world of travel daydreaming and practical trip planning. Writer Doug Mack recently published his own book, “Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day” using Frommer’s 1963 book as his only guide. Vintage guidebooks are priceless slices of the past, whether it’s a reissued Victorian guide, or a handbook for your trip to the USSR (the later is now one of my prized possessions). In 50 years, what will people learn about how we traveled to Asia from Facebook photo albums and TripAdvisor reviews?
Destination and books chosen, I relished my New York commute armed with guidebooks before the trip. While I hated to ever brandish a guidebook while traveling, I didn’t mind being seen with it on the subway, where people might see me and think, “There’s a girl who’s going places! Literally, to Chile!” I imagined a stranger might strike up a conversation, offering their tips for their aunt’s restaurant in Santiago or their best friend’s guesthouse in Valparaiso (I was evidently envisioning a live version of Twitter). Even now that I do float travel questions over social media, I first try to research via a custom Google search that limits results to my trusted sources, ranging from travel writer friends’ blogs to big media like New York Times’ travel section and, of course, Frommers.com.
During a trip, I’d carry a book in my purse during the day, but I only removed it for surreptitious glimpses of a map if seriously lost. While in a museum, I might allow myself the luxury of reading the book in full public view. In the evenings, I might peruse the book before dinner, not for restaurant recommendations, but for hints on what neighborhoods and streets might yield the most options. My husband has always loathed making reservations, even in our own city, preferring to rely on instinct, menu/curb appeal and highest density of locals. At the end of the night, I liked going back to read more about the places we’d seen, learning about the backstories of a city, and understanding the cultural importance of the names we saw on statues.
Once I moved abroad to Istanbul in 2010 and constantly clutched a smartphone, my guidebook usage slowed, but I never fully gave it up. English books were expensive and travel plans were made much more freely (weekend in Budapest on Friday? Why not, when it’s a two-hour flight?), but I still tried to cobble together some basic info before going to a new country – stuff like: how much to tip, the best way to get to the airport and the going cost of a bottle of local wine. Basically, stuff that could be found in a guidebook. In many eastern European countries, I found the excellent (and free) In Your Pocket guides, produced by expats and natives, with tips on everything from happy hours to hidden Soviet murals. The guides are available in various digital forms, but I always preferred to find a paper copy, easy to roll up in a purse and read cover-to-cover like a magazine. I experimented with various Kindle books and documents and apps to collect the many links and tips I found before a trip, but found a lot of limitations: poor maps, advice from inexperienced travelers, lack of context and real “meaty” content. Especially when I was stuck with a lack of Wi-Fi, a dead battery or a setting where it would be unwise to flash any form of technology, I’d yearn for an old-fashioned book.
After I return home, I can’t say exactly what happens to my guidebooks. I don’t revisit places often, so I tend to pass on books to other travelers, leave them in airplane seat pockets, or recycle them when I have to purge books. I always liked the idea of keeping them on my bookshelf, a visual reminder of where we’d been, like passport stamps in your living room, but my shelf space can’t keep up with my wanderlust. Many travelers like a printed book so they can make notes and annotations in the margins, but I consider a book a sacred space to be left pristine, though my books are accessorized with receipts, ticket stubs and bar napkins. I keep these artifacts in duty-free bags and hotel envelopes, possibly for a scrapbook I will never make, or for future generations to marvel at the fact that we once paid for hotel Wi-Fi.
Now that we’ve reached the end of an era, what’s to come in the next? Now that anyone with an Internet connection can tap into a local network, or crowdsource restaurant recommendations, is Mr. Frommer and his ilk destined to become a relic of travel, like steamer trunks and airplane ashtrays? I’d say that until apps and social media can overcome the limitations of user-generated content, there’s a niche for printed guidebooks, but the choice of print over digital is more visceral. We need guidebooks as long as there are people who love browsing in bookstores, who appreciate a beautiful map, and who don’t give a damn about being a traveler or a tourist, as long as they are going somewhere.
I’ve just come home from a whirlwind week in D.C. and L.A. Both trips were wonderful. In D.C. I had energizing meetings at National Geographic Traveler and hosted an exhilarating onstage conversation with the amazing Alexandra Fuller, author of (among other books) Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, an extraordinarily evocative and moving memoir of growing up in Rhodesia. In L.A. I gave a talk about Gadling at the Los Angeles Times Travel Show and shared memorable moments with Arthur Frommer, Rick Steves, Andrew McCarthy, and the Times’ terrific travel editor, Catharine Hamm, among many other notables of the travel world. I got back to the Bay Area just in time to emcee the February event in the wonderful new Weekday Wanderlust travel reading series in San Francisco, and then to teach a wanderful travel writing workshop at Book Passage in Corte Madera.
I’m not complaining. I’m grateful beyond words for these opportunities — but now that they’re over, I realize that I’m also exhausted beyond words. (And yes, I know I probably shouldn’t have stayed up until closing time at the rooftop bar of the Standard Hotel in L.A. – but that was research!) And when I survey the Kilimanjaro of emails that need my slogging-up-the-scree responses and the queue of articles lined up like planes at O’Hare awaiting the fuel of my words for take-off – well, if the state of my metaphors is any metaphor for the state of my mind, I’m in big trouble.
At a moment like this, I know just what I need to do: take some deep breaths and transport myself back to an adventure I took three decades ago in northern Pakistan — specifically, to one afternoon on a stretch of the wild, gritty, avalanche-threatened, pothole-punctured Karakoram Highway between Hunza and Gulmit, not far from the Chinese border.
My tour group had been bumping by van along the Karakoram for a few hours when we came to a road-closing avalanche about 15 minutes from Gulmit. Our guide set out to walk to Gulmit to get another van to pick us up, and told us to wait in the van.
We waited, and waited.After a while, waiting for another avalanche or rock slide to sweep us into oblivion seemed pretty silly, so I decided to set out on foot for Gulmit, too. There wasn’t much chance of making a wrong turn — the next intersection was four hours away.
And so I walked, as alone as I have ever been, into an awesomely uncompromising landscape: a rocky, gray-brown world of sere, monumental mountains, boulders looming by the side of the road, and — whenever I stopped to listen — absolute, ear-ringing silence.
As I walked, my footsteps feebly scrunch-scrunch-scrunching into the implacable air, I imagined the traders, missionaries and adventurers who had wandered that same trail before me, and wondered what dreams and doubts had filled their heads.
I thought too about the companionable people back in the van and about the warm food that awaited at the Silk Route Lodge, but most of all I thought about nature and time, about how my life was like one grain of sand on the slopes of one of those mountains.
Scrunch. Scrunch. Scrunch. I imagined straying off the path and scrambling crazily up a scree-slippery peak; I tried to absorb the silence; I strained a handful of pebbles through my fingers.
Scrunch. Scrunch. Scrunch. I considered the clouds, a scraggly tree, a boulder twice as big as me.
Scrunch. Scrunch. Scrunch. I listened to my own breath coming in and going out; I listened to the pounding of my frail and all-too-human heart.
In one sense, nothing much happened: Eventually I reached the warm waiting room at the Silk Route Lodge, and the others arrived by van a half-hour later.
But in another sense, everything had changed: I had seen the strangeness of the world, the rawness and beauty and sheerness of it; the age of the Earth; and our essential solitude — how we are born and die alone. I had seen the smallness of man and the largeness of the human spirit that dares to create and to love.
I had realized just what a precious gift life is, as are the people with whom we share it; and I knew that one day in the future, when life seemed about to avalanche out of control, I would stop and say: “Savor the world one step at a time, just like you did on the Karakoram Highway.”
Rick Steves doesn’t want you to go to Orlando. For more than thirty years, Steves has been trying to sell Americans on leaving the country in his work as a tour guide, author and host of the PBS Series “Rick Steves’ Europe.” These days, Steves thinks that it’s more important than ever for Americans to travel overseas, both to broaden their own horizons and to serve as citizen diplomats who can help overcome stereotypes about America.
Steves, 57, still spends nearly four months each year researching his guidebooks on the ground in Europe, and says he’s not likely to retire anytime soon. His highly successful brand grew out of a love of travel that he inherited from his parents but evolved from his own wanderings after he graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in European History and Business.
After graduation, he returned to the university’s Experimental College to teach a class on budget travel in Europe, and in 1979, he self published the first edition of his now famous “Europe Through the Back Door” series. By the early ’80s, he was leading small minibus tours in Europe. Combining his two passions, he opened a piano teaching studio that gradually morphed into his travel business in Edmonds, Washington, his hometown.
Today, his company employs 80 people and thousands of his devotees swear by his guidebooks and tours. Steves is also an outspoken advocate for drug policy reform, (he’s a co-sponsor of Initiative 502, which will legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in Washington State if victorious in the upcoming election) and thinks that Americans need to take more time off, even though he admits that he works all the time. We talked to him about Iran, unrest in the Middle East, his passion for Europe, and the importance of travel as a political act.
As we speak, there are protests all around the Muslim World over a film that denigrates Islam. Just as Americans don’t understand them, they can’t understand that this film doesn’t represent us, right?
It’s so clear. That’s why I’m on a mission. If I’m going to be able to contribute anything, it’s enabling and inspiring Americans to travel so that makes it tougher for other governments to demonize us, and it makes it harder for our government to demonize them. When you travel, it works both ways.
After someone has met an American in person, it might be a little easier for him or her to put a ridiculous video they saw on YouTube in context?
They’ll have a better understanding of who we are and they’ll be less likely to think our whole country is blaspheming their prophet. Christians have a little more of a sense of humor with these things but I believe we have to respect people’s sensitivities and cut them a little slack. It’s much, much deeper than them being angry about a video though. They don’t want their culture to be hijacked by aggressive Western values.
A woman in Iran came up to me and said, ‘We’re united, we’re strong and we just don’t want our little girls to be raised like Brittney Spears.”
This woman is scared to death that we’ll take over their country – to protect Israel or get access to their oil or whatever – and then we’d impose on them our values. If we all traveled, they’d have more understanding of us and we’d have more understanding of them.
Was there any backlash for visiting Iran, a country that many Americans still regard as an enemy?
I thought I would get more but of all the edgy projects I’ve done it’s been one of the most positively received. We worked hard to do it without an agenda. There’s a small element in our country that says, ‘when you humanize them, you make our enemy more likeable, therefore you are evil.’ But I can’t consider the objections of people like that.
Do you think that you’ve have contributed to informing Americans that Iranians don’t hate America?
I feel it’s been one of the most productive things I’ve done. I’m just one person though and we’re just one small production company. I feel like we were ahead of the curve – our timing was right. The State Department gave me the Citizen Diplomat of the Year Award after that and I got a Lutheran Activist of the Year Award too. The show aired in every market in the U.S. many times, so for me that was very exciting.
If I produced a show on Iran and only people who are progressive and want to understand Iranians and appreciate their culture watched it, I wouldn’t have accomplished much. I wanted to produce a show that people who were predisposed to be angry with Iran and not want to better understand the people who put Ahmadinejad in power would watch so they would understand that it’s a more complicated reality than what they’d learned watching the Hostage Crisis on Nightline with Ted Koppel.
Three years later, though, there’s still a lot of sabre rattling and talk of bombing Iran. But once you’ve traveled to a country and made friends with people there, it’s a lot harder to talk about dropping bombs on them isn’t it?
Of course it is. A lot of Americans are angry at Libya for killing our Ambassador. Well, Libya didn’t kill our Ambassador – a bunch of loose cannons did. A traveler has a more sophisticated understanding of these things. It saddens me to see angry and destructive rhetoric coming out of Iran, and there are times when I consider that and think, ‘well, why did I help those people?’ But I know that Iranian people are in a difficult situation and they’re generally good people and there are complicated forces at work there that might make less sophisticated Americans think of them as our enemy.
I just thought that if more people would travel there, that would be really constructive. Unfortunately, not many Americans will travel there, but I can give them the vicarious travel experience.
Can you recommend Iran to Americans?
It’s like traveling in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They want tourism – it brings in money. They think it helps people understand them better, but they don’t want people running around unescorted, so in order to get a visa you have to have a guide and your hotels arranged.
Given that, it’s wide open for tourism and it’s not that dicey. A lot of Europeans really enjoy going there; it’s a wonderful destination, as far as the culture, the food and the people go.
What’s the best payoff about visiting Iran?
If you’ve been to Iran, then every time you see it on TV, you know what’s not in the frame of the camera. It’s very easy from the news broadcaster’s point of view to zoom in on the intense stuff. If it bleeds, it leads, and if they’re shaking their fists at us on TV, it seems like the whole country is shaking their fists at us.
You’ve written in the past about trying to understand the grievances of terrorists and other evildoers. Some regard that as treason, right?
If your big motivation is national security and your approach is ‘shoot first, ask questions later, it’s my way or the highway,’ and unilateralism and exceptionalism and all that stuff, (not understanding the enemy) is the worst thing you could do for national security.
I really think it’s a pragmatic thing to try to understand what motivates people. That’s not justifying or excusing what they did, that’s just trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again. There are a billion Muslims in the world and a billion Christians. One thousand angry Muslims have breeched our consulates. OK, let’s figure that out, but it doesn’t mean we have to lose hope and all go crazy.
What other countries that we don’t have diplomatic relations with would you like to visit? Perhaps North Korea?
No, I don’t want to go to North Korea. My personal challenge would be to go to Palestine. I floated the idea of trying to do a show where we give Americans a better understanding of the roots of the Palestinian situation, but I think it would be even more of a challenge than doing the Iran show.
I think many Americans actually don’t want to learn more about the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian problem because it might threaten their deep-seeded feelings and beliefs about it. I think it would be very complicated to do a show that gives people a better empathy for the struggles of the Palestinian people without pissing off a lot of people at the same time.
I wrote an article proposing that the best thing we could do for Israel’s national security is to give Palestine more dignity and fairness and people were really, really upset with that. I’m sympathetic to the situation Israel is in, but if we could help Palestine, we’d be giving Israel more security. It seems so obvious. But people just don’t want to go there. It would be a fun challenge to try making a ‘let’s humanize Palestine’ TV documentary though and I think I probably will in the next few years.
Your name is synonymous with Europe, but it seems as though you also want to turn people on to other destinations around the globe?
My favorite country is India but I’ve decided that my beat is Europe. I see Europe as the wading pool for world exploration for Americans. If I can just help inspire and equip Americans to go to Portugal rather than Orlando again, to Morocco rather than Vegas again, to go to Turkey and suck on a hookah, and come home with a broader perspective, that’s a huge accomplishment. And that’s my mission.
Europe is a gateway to the rest of the world for Americans?
Right, then it’s, ‘let’s go to Thailand or Sri Lanka.’ Europe is the (first) big challenge. It’s amazing how many Americans are afraid to go to France because they don’t like us, or Portugal because it’s dirty, or Spain, because there are gypsies. Then you get there and realize, ‘hey, I had a great time and it didn’t cost that much and the world’s a big place, let’s go to Colombia.’
Our country is becoming less and less European and these days being called “Eurocentric” is a real insult. Is there anything wrong with being a Europhile?
I am proudly a Europhile and think anyone who is “anti-European” is driven by ethnocentrism and fear and naivety. You certainly don’t need to embrace European ideas or lifestyle, but to be anti-European is like being anti-culture or anti-broccoli.
I’ve heard you say that you like Bulgaria. What are some other under-the-radar spots you recommend in Europe?
I love Eastern Turkey, or anywhere in Turkey. Americans go to Istanbul, but they only see 5 percent of the city. Just take a bus to a far fringe of the city and spend a half-day wandering around.
I was just in Hamburg, Germany, and there are no Americans there. It’s really fun to go to cities that aren’t exotic but that Americans aren’t that interested in.
We were in the Greek isles this summer and there are lots of Americans in Santorini but essentially none in Syros, Samos, Patmos, Kos, and a host of other terrific Greek islands. How do we all end up in the same places, is it our guidebooks?
To me, Greece is the most touristed but least explored country. In Greece, some islands are touristy and they have lots of Europeans and multi-language menus and fun, fruity drinks and discos and others are pretty rustic and have just enough commerce to get you a Greek salad and some calamari, and the few tourists around at night are hanging out playing backgammon with the locals.
That really is a very rewarding slice of an otherwise touristy country. It’s not that tough – almost anywhere as a traveler – to make a left turn instead of going right as the guidebooks tell you and have a real experience.
So how do you encourage your readers to take your advice but also do their own thing?
In the introductory chapter to my guidebook “Europe Through the Back Door,” where I share my 40 favorite discoveries, I make the point that these are examples – don’t just march to these places, but let these places inspire you to find your own.
Having said that, Americans like to be spoon-fed, so that’s why a lot of people take the book and go exactly where I recommend, and that’s not all bad. But I always weave into my writing encouragement for people to go on their own cultural scavenger hunt. I’m not going to tell you to turn left at the fountain.
Travelers are gravitating away from guidebooks and toward user generated travel advice from Trip Advisor and a host of other sites. Has this dynamic changed the travel industry?
If you’re a restaurant or a hotel it’s dramatic. They’re brutalized by the power of sites like Trip Advisor. As a guidebook writer, I’m not threatened by this stuff. There are more than enough people out there who want information designed by a real traveler that has no agenda.
Internet sites that gather and share other peoples’ experiences are a real power though; there are a lot of people that design their whole trip around Trip Advisor. I had never visited Trip Advisor until about three months ago. It’s an impressive pile of information but I’ve been sifting through reader feedback for twenty years, so, while some of it is excellent and really helpful, I know how worthless most of it can be.
What’s your travel schedule like?
For the last twenty years I’ve been in a simple, clear rut. I spend four months in Europe – April and May in the Mediterranean, and then I go home in June. Then I go back for July and August north of the Alps. For 25 years, I was a tour guide but for the last ten years or so, I haven’t been leading tours. I dedicate my time to researching guidebooks and producing TV shows. This year I went to Leipzig, Wittenberg, Erfurt, and Hamburg for the first time and revisited lots of other places I’ve been writing about for decades. I spend two-thirds of my time researching guidebooks and one-third producing TV shows.
For me, the challenge is, do I want to find new frontiers for tourism or do I want to make sure that the places where most of the travelers go are well covered? It’s a tough call, because I’d like to go to the Ukraine, I’d like to go to Eastern Europe or do more in Northern Europe.
I can write a great self-guided tour for Paris or Florence or Vienna, and piles of people will use that. Or I can work really hard to get great information on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim’s trail across Northern Spain, but almost no one will use it. So I’m in a quandary. I’m supposed to be Mr. Back Door, going to places that are less popular, but where I can contribute the most is in places like Rome, Munich or Salzburg.
Are you too American to want to live in Europe full time, but too European to be content in the U.S. all year?
I would only live in the U.S.A. I really feel at home here. I am much more American than European even though I enjoy my work/mission of sharing a European perspective with Americans.
I understand that your son, Andy, is following in your footsteps with his own travel company?
While we took him to Europe every year of his life, I didn’t think he was destined to get into tour guiding and travel teaching. Travel didn’t seem to turn him on. But after he graduated from Notre Dame, he started his own tour business designing wonderful €200 three-day weekends for young Americans studying abroad. Now, through his company, Weekend Student Adventures, Andy’s taking hundreds of students on great tours in Europe’s top six cities.
He’s 25, promotes his business by giving free talks to universities anywhere he can and his tours are filled mostly with adventurous young women. He loves his work – just like me when I was that age. So the answer is yes. He’s over there now as I speak and I am really proud of him.
Where do you travel strictly for pleasure?
I like my work so much I don’t really need a vacation. I love to travel. I can work for 50 12-hour days in a row in Europe, and come home feeling younger and more energized than when I left.
What do you find most gratifying about your job?
I’m like a lifelong student. I love to learn. I have a European history degree. I like to connect good people with good entrepreneurs, and mom and pop kind of places in Europe. To help little businesses in Europe that deserve to thrive. I like to challenge Americans to get out of their comfort zones.
I wrote a book, “Travel as a Political Act.” I have enjoyed a huge new dimension to my work since 9/11. I think the role of a travel writer is to be the medieval jester. To get out there and find out what’s going on outside the castle, and come home and tell people what it’s all about. If I can inspire and equip people to do that, that’ll help America fit more comfortably on this ever-smaller planet.
My first guidebook, “Europe Through the Back Door” is in its 32nd year now, and I’m doing essentially the same thing I did way back then. And I’m thankful I’m not burning out. With so many great workmates to collaborate with and so much new technology to amplify our teaching, it’s more fun than ever. As long as I’m physically able to do this, I can’t stop.
Nearly two years ago, I bought my first smartphone: the T-Mobile Android MyTouch*. I’m only occasionally jealous of my iPhone-carrying friends, as I find few travel guide apps for Android. Even after a move to Istanbul, I still use and rely upon it daily; Android‘s interface is fast and easy-to-use, and seamless use of Google applications like Gmail and Google Maps is part of the reason I bought it in the first place. Living in a foreign country means English-language books and magazines are expensive and hard-to-find, and like many travelers, I don’t want to carry bulky books around when I’m on the road. This leaves a perfect opportunity for mobile developers to provide real travel guide content and not just travel-booking apps, especially apps produced by reliable media sources with professional editorial. These days, every guidebook and travel magazine publisher is coming out with apps for the iPhone and now iPad, supplying users with content and directions on the go, but there are hardly any for Android.
So what’s available for mobile travelers from the top travel book and print sources? Better hope you’re running Apple OS…Guidebooks:
Fodor’s: Happy 75th Birthday Mr. Fodor, but we wish you had more than just five city guides for purchase (in London, New York, Paris, Rome, and San Francisco) and only for Apple.
Frommer’s: iPhone guides are available for ten major cities in the US, Europe and Asia, but nada for Android.
Lonely Planet: iPhone users are spoiled for choice: dozens of city guides, language phrasebooks, audio walking tours, and eBooks optimized for the iPad. Android users in 32 countries including the US are in luck: there’s a free Trippy app to organize itinerary items, as well as 25 “augmented reality” Compass city guides and 14 phrasebooks. NOTE: This article originally mentioned that the Compass guides were unavailable in the Android Market store, but they should work for most US users. I happen to be in a country where paid apps are not available and not shown in the Market.
LUXE City Guides: 20 cheeky city guides work for a variety of mobile phones, including iPhone and Blackberry, but none are compatible with my Android. Bonus: the apps come with free regular updates and maps that the paper guides don’t have.
Rick Steves: If you are headed to Europe, you can get audio guides for many big attractions and historic walks for iPhone, plus maps for the iPad. You can also download the audio files free for your computer, and props to Rick for mentioning that Android apps are at least in development.
Rough Guides: Here’s a new one: the Rough Guides app works for many phones but NOT the iPhone OR Android! It’s not as slick as some of the other guides (it’s a Java app) and you will use data to use it on the road, but it provides lots of info for many cities in Europe. You can also find a Rough Guides photo app on iTunes to view pictures from around the world with Google Maps and captions from Rough Guides.
Time Out: City travelers and residents might want to look at the apps from Time Out for 5 European cities and Buenos Aires, with Manchester and New York on the way. More cities are available for free on iTunes, search for Time Out on iTunes to see what’s available. iPhone only.
Wallpaper* City Guides: 10 of the design mag’s 80 city guides are for sale for iPhone for Europe, Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles.
Conde Nast Traveler: It makes sense for magazines to embrace the iPad, and CNT has free Apple apps specifically for Italy, cruises, and their annual Gold List of hotels and resorts. Blackberry users can download an etiquette guide, but Android users are snubbed.
National Geographic: As befitting any explorer, Nat Geo has a world atlas, national parks maps, and games featuring their amazing photography, all for iPhone. A special interactive edition of National Geographic Traveler is for sale on the iPad; you can also read it on your computer. Androids can download a quiz game and various wallpapers; and all mobile users can access a mobile-friendly version of their website at natgeomobile.com.
Outside: Adventure travelers can purchase and read full issues on the iPad, but no subscription option yet.
Travel + Leisure: The other big travel glossy also has an iPad app for special issues. Four issues have been released so far with one available now on iTunes (romantic getaways) but future editions will follow to be read on the app. Just in time for spring break and summer, they’ve also released a Travel + Leisure Family app with advice and articles specifically geared towards travel and families. The apps are both free but you’ll need an iPad – these are designed for tablets, not phones. You can also read full issues of T+L and their foodie cousin Food & Wine on Barnes & Noble’s NOOK Color ereader; you can save per issue if you subscribe to the e-reader version.
USA Today Travel: Most major newspapers have mobile readers for all types of phones, but USA Today is the only one with their own travel-specific app. AutoPilot combines an array of cool travel booking capabilities and information with articles and blog post from the newspaper. Only iPhone users can enjoy free.
Two of our favorite magazines, Budget Travel and Afar, have no mobile apps yet but great online communities to tap into their extensive knowledge.
All in all, other than Lonely Planet’s Compass guides, a pretty weak showing for Android travelers. While iPhone has been around longer as a mobile platform that Android, they’ve lost the market share of users to the little green robot. As Android is available on a variety of phone manufacturers and providers, expect that number to continue to grow, along with the variety and depth of content for mobile and tablet users. Will the developers ever catch up or will travelers have to choose?
*Android has not endorsed this or paid me anything to write about them. But to show I’m not biased – Apple, feel free to send me a sample phone and I’ll test out the apps!