Lauren Goode

Going on Vacation? Ditch the Paper Guidebook and Try These Apps.

The restless mind only rests when the body is in transit — that’s what I tell myself when my feet are feeling particularly itchy.

Fortunately, the summer travel season is upon us, and vacation isn’t too far away. So, over the past week, I tested a couple of iPad apps for travel. To be clear, these apps aren’t geared toward finding deals on flights or hotels, but are digital guides that offer written and visual information about various destinations.

The first one I tested is Stuck on Earth, a free, iPad-only app from photo blog Stuck in Customs that takes a different approach to travel planning, with crowdsourced photos and suggestions based on your personality type. I compared this app to one of the new day-by-day apps from the trusted travel authority Frommer’s. The Frommer’s guides, which range in price from $10 to $15, are available for iPad and iPhone. With the HTML version, coming out shortly, users will be able to access travel info from any Web browser or use on an Android device.

There are many more travel apps in the App Store beyond these, including Lonely Planet’s $6 to $10 apps for iPhone and Android, offering seven country guides and 83 city guide apps for iOS. And if you’re taking a more social approach to your travel planning, Gogobot combines trip recommendations from friends with Instagram-like photo filters to create postcards.

Stuck on Earth featured some inspiring, exotic photos, but after testing it, I found it was better for brainstorming trip ideas than it was for firm planning. The Frommer’s guide was more comprehensive, and is the one I’m more likely to use on a trip. However, Frommer’s and Inkling, its publishing partner, have put out only seven digital guides to date, spanning just a few states and a handful of countries.

First I tried Stuck on Earth. That app uses a narrator named “Karen,” whose suggestive tone might raise some eyebrows in a public place. “Well, hello there,” Karen said, her voice dripping like syrup on the iPad. She then asked me which personality type I am: Daydreamer, Explorer or Photographer; or a combination of the three.

From there, the Stuck on Earth app guided me to a main page divided into sections: One featured a world map and a local map; another was dedicated to My Saved Trips and Top Lists of destinations, selected for me by a Stuck on Earth curator.

I created a few folders for My Saved Trips: One was for France, one for Barcelona, and one for India. (A girl can daydream, right?) Then I went to the world map, where “pins” in the form of photo albums appeared in locations around the world. It was easy to get lost in the app’s photo albums. When I saw a photo of a monument, street fair or cafe that looked interesting, I added it to one of my trips; I could also share it via email, Facebook and Twitter.

All of the photos in Stuck on Earth are first posted to Flickr by users who are visiting or have visited that location. You might think this would mean that some photos are shoddy, but I found many of the images to be beautiful and unique. The creator of Stuck on Earth, Trey Ratcliff, says that the photos are chosen from a pool of 25 million photos on Flickr, and the app’s curators pick and choose which ones will be added to the albums. If I wanted to upload my photos to the app, I would have to join the Stuck on Earth community on Flickr and send them there first.

As much as I liked it, it’s not likely that I’d use Stuck on Earth as my main travel app. While the long photo captions are interesting and, in some instances, even include great personal anecdotes from the photographer, they didn’t offer enough information to really plan a trip. Also, the app is iPad-only, and I might not want to carry my iPad everywhere while traveling.

While testing Frommer’s iPad apps, I decided to focus on France. I downloaded the day-by-day guide for iPad for $9.99; Frommer’s also has guides for Alaska, California, Costa Rica, Great Britain, Japan and Spain.

The app has a whopping 18 chapters. Thumbing through the digital pages required a combination of swiping up and down and left to right, but it’s all pretty intuitive. The chapters offer both one-week and two-week tours, and itineraries for day trips, with static maps. There are photo slideshows, too.

A helpful spotlight tool searches for key phrases — like “red wine.” My favorite part of the Frommer’s guide was the ability to highlight content and make notes.

I browsed through a two-day tour of Paris, and explored the best tours for outdoor activity and dining. When I pressed my finger on the text for the Musée du Louvre, I had the option to highlight it, which would add it to my personal notebook, or to leave a public note for other app users to see. After a couple days into my virtual tour, I had left a few public notes (“So romantic!” near the Eiffel Tower), highlighted the Loire as a cycling route, and remarked in my notebook that I loved the Salers beefsteak at Le Baillage. Since the app is so new, I didn’t see any public notes from others yet.

The Frommer’s France app comes with voice dictation for language translation, though this feature is buried within the app. When I touched words or phrases in the glossary, I could hear the proper pronunciation of “Le plein, s’il vous plait?” (this translates to “Fill the gas tank, please?” in English).

The last chapter also included a ton of information about different types of accommodations, currency exchange, ATM locations, etiquette and customs, pharmacies, hospitals and other fast facts.

With international travel, there’s always the possibility that you might not have cellular service or an Internet connection on your mobile device, depending on your carrier and whether you’ve opted into international service. To test how these apps worked without service, I put my devices into airplane mode.

When I opened Stuck on Earth, Karen immediately told me that I didn’t have an Internet connection, but that I could look at my saved trips. She also thanked me for not turning off her voice. Using Frommer’s on the iPad in airplane mode, I was still able to see the full guide, maps and notes, as well as links to other content within the guide.

Frommer’s also offers the same apps for iPhone — which is great if you don’t want to lug your iPad around — but the apps currently don’t sync between iPad and iPhone. So if you’ve created a day’s itinerary on your iPad app, the iPhone version won’t show all of your notes. Inkling CEO Matt MacInnis says that a solution for this is coming soon.

If you’d rather just carry your smartphone while traveling, you may want to make all of your notes within the Frommer’s iPhone app from the start.

Fortunately, Frommer’s and Inkling are planning on introducing more app titles this summer. If you’re planning on traveling to one of those destinations, I’d recommend checking out the app.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus