On my recent vacation to Europe, I traveled without folded maps, paper guidebooks and journals, or physical backup copies of my passport, rail pass and other critical documents.
Instead, I relied only on my smartphone – even though it was disconnected from cellular voice and data service for the full ten days.
Think of it as the international tourist equivalent of going commando.
Yet it worked insanely well. So much so, that I doubt I’d vacation in Europe again any other way. This ten-day French experiment wasn’t just an example of Extreme Nerd Tourism, it actually made my journey easier: less weight to put in luggage, less volume to tuck into a daypack, and less crap to organize in a hotel room. (While simultaneously acknowledging there was also so much more to lose if one particular device went missing.)
I did this on an HTC Android Droid Incredible 2, but it could work equally well on an equivalent iPhone or other operating systems’ smartphone.
What to consider should you also want to pull off this adventurous analog-to-digital switch – without turning into an overconfident moron? Here are the key elements I discovered while en route:
1) Emergency documents. The free version of the Dropbox app allowed me to have backups of my critical travel docs without having to carry photocopied duplicates. At home, I scanned the main pages of credentials that I couldn’t easily replace, such as my passport, France Rail Pass and (my inner 12-year-old admits) Disneyland Paris tickets, saving them in PDF format. By “favoriting” the docs I’d uploaded from my laptop in the smartphone Dropbox app I forced the easily viewed PDFs to download onto the phone and be available offline. (Of course, I carried the originals of the passport and rail pass with me — Homeland Security and French train conductors have no sense of digital flexibility — so this was a moneybelt-and-suspenders move, just in case I had to replace anything I lost.)
2) Guidebooks. Instead of paper guidebooks, I purchased Kindle editions of Rick Steves’ France and Lonely Planet France and, before leaving, downloaded them into Amazon’s Kindle app for Android.
Yes, I gave up the ability to serendipitously flip through a multiple-hundred page paper copy. But that was a benefit for planning before I left. While on the trip, I just wanted a quick way to reference the sights, restaurants and maps that were relevant based on where I was at the moment – and there was nothing more convenient than whipping out a phone and rapidly thumb-scrolling and clicking to what I needed. I had originally packed my second-generation Kindle and a Kindle Fire specifically for the guidebooks and never used either. I preferred the smartphone due to form-factor convenience (and no, a bright-shiny iPad would not have changed my mind; it’s still too large).
Still, my unsolicited advice to Rick Steves and Lonely Planet? Make it easier to navigate guidebooks via hyperlink without having to always return to the table of contents, and make the maps easy and legible to zoom on a small screen. Oh, and Dorling Kindersley? That wonderfully colorful two-pound DK Eyewitness Travel France book stayed at home because you appear to be about a decade behind in the eBook race.
3) Travel journal. When on vacation, I like to keep a journal of what I see and experience to help cement it in long-term memory. I had always favored the lined-pages-and-closing-elastic variety until this trip, when I realized my handwriting sucks on bouncing trains.
I use Evernote frequently for work and writing research (thanks to a brilliant suggestion a year ago by fellow GeekWire columnist Monica Guzman) and found that Evernote will happily store my bad typing locally until I can sync and correct. What I give up in handwritten charm I make up for in legibility – plus I was able to incorporate photos and audio notes (such as the ringing of Notre Dame’s new bells) that I might only describe on paper.
4) Money, language, navigation and quiet. I experienced unexpected appiness when I went digital for traditional travel tools. There were stalwarts I’d used before – Oanda’s Currency Converter to do the Euro-to-US$ math, Google Translate to quickly get over language barriers without a phrase book (if I didn’t have a WiFi connectivity barrier preventing it – a major Translate drawback in all but the newest version).
Navigation tools that worked beautifully offline and on included DB Navigator, Deutsche Bahn’s European train schedule guide, which allows favoriting itineraries for later disconnected use; the Fogden’s Paris Metro app for determining the best subway route offline; the official RATP app for Paris mass transit maps. While promising, the Charles de Gaulle airport official My Airport app for real-time flight and airport updates only worked if I was connected, so the ability to work offline rapidly became a gating criteria for any useful travel app.
To supplement the text guidebooks, I used the Rick Steves Audio Europe app to choose and download general informational podcasts and walking tours of Paris to use while offline (all free), and TripAdvisor’s Paris app (one it provides for many major cities) which worked pretty well offline.
Finally, since hotel rooms are notoriously uneven when it comes to noise, the free White Noise Lite was a more comfortable alternative to ear plugs. Download a preferred masking noise (I particularly like Small Waterfall), flip the phone over before sleep to expose the speaker, and I now never need to carry my expensive (and heavier) Brookstone white noise generator again.
5) Connectivity and power. Before boarding the flight out of the U.S., I put my phone in Airplane Mode and kept it there, only turning on WiFi when connectivity was possible, to avoid Verizon Wireless’s usurious data and voice charges (and I didn’t want to hassle a new SIM card). To my surprise, I had virtually no trouble finding easily accessible – and free – WiFi hotspots throughout France.
The small hotel in Amboise in the Loire Valley had it, as did the even tinier hotel on the island former-monastery of Mont-St-Michel (in which the size of the bed defined the size of the room). In Paris, the hotel and public parks (such as the one behind Notre Dame cathedral) had free, city-sponsored WiFi. All allowed me to check email, use Skype and update apps. (Tip: If you have an Android device, enable Google Location Services. Even without cell service, it will ensure your phone’s clock shows the correct time for your location.)
However, ubiquitous Wifi was not the case on France’s rail system, even on the high-speed TGV trains. But the train stations had WiFi.
The other Achilles heel of going smartphone – battery life – was well served by the plentiful power outlets on the same trains for re-charging. I had to bring only one charger since the power needs of my smartphone and digital camera were the same; it paid to check the voltage and amp requirements before I left to avoid cord clutter. And bring a spare country-specific power adapter plug. There’s at least one extra now available on the Paris Montparnasse-Rennes run for another traveler due to my inadvertent contribution.
I will admit this approach is not for everyone, or every destination. Going smartphone requires first-world infrastructure that you are more likely to find in France than in, say, the French Southern Territories. And I freely acknowledge that my backup plan had a backup plan (as this trip occurred over my wife’s birthday, and I, too, am not moronic enough to endanger that for an experiment): for one thing, I brought a physical copy of Rick Steves France 2013. I never opened it, and wound up selling it to Paris’ wonderful English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company for three Euros after schlepping it for ten days.
The fact that this won’t work everywhere helps explain why Arthur Frommer recently bought back the rights to his guidebooks from Google so they could again be provided on paper. There’s also a matter of comfort level: having something physical, for many, satisfies both a practical and emotional need, something I didn’t feel I had to have as an increasingly experienced European traveler.
Will I do it again? Absolutely. The freedom, lack of hassle and the ability to access everything quickly trumped any concern about relying on one device that required renewable power and occasional connectivity. After all, if part of the joy of travel is to experience life like a local, what local do you know who walks around with a paper guidebook, journal and ear plugs?
Previously by Frank Catalano: The Geek’s Guide to Air Travel
Frank Catalano (@FrankCatalano) is a strategist, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech. He admits Rick Steves is a former client and that he owned a first edition of Europe Through the Back Door in typewriter-font typesetting from the 1980s when it originally was published, though he does ignore some of Rick’s advice and uses hotel loyalty program points for stays when possible.