Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Analog vs. Digital Travel Resources

We just got back from a trip overseas and I think it's instructive to look at what travel resources were most handy:


Lonely Planet Japan - this is your typical, old school, travel guide. As much as I like to trim weight when I travel, I keep bringing one of these along, and they keep turning out to be our most used resource. The guide regularly helped us figure out what to see, where to eat, what customs to follow and served as our translator. The guide's not perfect, but it consistently got relied upon and delivered. Throughout the trip it would be stuffed with different pieces of paper which served as bookmarks for instant on and easy access. And most importantly, it didn't run out of batteries, or lose signal once.

What we can't eat card - this 3x5 inch sheet of paper, given to us by a concierge in Kyoto, turned out to be one of our most useful resources. On it, it explains in English and Japanese what foods we can't eat (meat is out, but fish is OK, for example). While the Lonely Planet guidebook has a bunch of different phrases that could help us communicate these facts, being able to hand over a card that explicitly states what we can and can't eat turned out to be super clear. I'm very much tempted to make one of these cards anytime I head to a foreign country. It made life that much easier, and I can't believe I've traveled so many years without learning this hack.

TripAdvisor Tokyo App and TripAdvisor Kyoto App - on the digital side of things, these City Guide apps really delivered. They download their content to the device, so they operate without a network. While not quite as useful as the old school travel guide, these were definitely handy in filling in the gaps and giving us a second resource to turn to. The fact that they are free make them a no-brainer, though I'd gladly pay a few bucks to have access to them.

Nice To Have - because we have T-mobile, we received free 3G data access while in Japan. 3G turns out to be terribly slow, but it's still usable. And there's nothing like being able to drop arbitrary questions into Google (What's Dash? or Japanese why wear surgical mask) and get answers. Even if the answers come back slowly.

Silva Metro Compass - this chunky keychain style compass is a definite winner. For getting oriented in a new city, especially after appearing out of a subway station, it can't be beat. My phone has a compass app on it, but this actual compass is much faster to use.

Google Maps - like in general, having access to Google Maps, even over a slow 3G connection, is a winner. In many cases, it was frustrating to use (better to rely on the free map that the concierge has given you), but for those few times it saved the day, it was worth having.

Downright Useless

Yelp - Alas, yelp worked a little too well in some respects. It functioned properly, but all the restaurant recommendations were in Japanese script. Which is perfect if you're Japanese, but not so useful if you can't read the language.

Google Translate App - I had very high hopes for this app. In the States, it works amazingly well. Snap a photo of some Japanese script, and it tells you what the English is. I diligently downloaded Japanese as an offline language, preparing myself for the fact that I'd probably have little to no data connectivity. Unfortunately, the image scanning capability appears to happen on Google's server (which makes sense, it's tricky stuff!), which means that attempting to translate by photo ends up with the system just churning. With our humble 3G connection, it was a no-go. Another tricky aspect: Japanese is often written vertically, which the translate-by-image capability doesn't appear to handle. The Google Translate app is nothing short of magic, but in this scenario it was a dud. If we had been heading off to a country where I could have simply keyed in text, I bet the offline handling would have worked beautifully. Lesson learned: don't assume Google Translate will work in all scenarios.

Lonely Plant Japan - eBook - I was psyched to find out that our library had a digital edition of the paper guidebook that we were planning to use. I downloaded the eBook ahead of time and practiced navigating its pages. Finally, I'd get a head-to-head comparison between a digital and non-digital guidebook. If all went as planned, I could finally dispense with the bulky, heavy guidebook and start going digital. In reality, I didn't use the eBook version of the guide once. That's right, not a single time. When it came to ease of access, I so preferred the paper version that the digital version remained unused the whole trip. Sure, had I neglected to bring a paper version, I probably would have survived on the digital version. But there was absolutely no comparison between the two: paper won out in every way.

Looking back at this list it's pretty clear: analog is still winning. Even when I had almost full time access to a 3G Network and WiFi, I still vastly preferred the paper guidebook and keychain compass over Google Maps and an eBook version of the guide. That's not to say that I didn't rely on technology: at the end of each day, I was more than glad to review photos and document my thoughts on my clunky old laptop. But when walking the streets of a new city in a foreign land, I simply couldn't or didn't want to depend on apps alone.

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