How has the iPhone Changed Travel?

With so much anticipation about the next generation of iPhone due for release this summer I decided to take a look at how the current crop have changed travel. The past year or so has brought us push email, faster browsing and more applications, along with the drop in price and choice of operators I eventually joined the iPhone bandwagon. Now that I’ve had a good chance to get to grips with it, despite a few teething problems, the iPhone looks to be living up to its expectations.

Instantly find locations of your friends

This is a huge one for me and I’m sure it has been for many others who travel in groups, too. A quick example of its potential use – last year my friend had a stag weekend in Prague. There were about 15 of us travelling and we’d constantly go off separately or in smaller groups. Getting back together was a nightmare. Sure, we could call each other, but even then you can only really give the names of the roads you’re on and since nobody knew the area it was quite difficult, not to mention the huge phone bill incurred from doing that.

Google’s web application, Google Latitude, aimed to change all of that. Switch it on and you can see the exact location of your friends, provided they too have the app. That means that next time you split up in a group of friends you can easily relocate them. With being Google powered and having GPS, you should be able to use the app anywhere, you can also use the navigation for routes and directions.

Track route progress in real-time

I first used Google Maps on my mobile phone when I had a job interview for which I naturally hadn’t planned the journey ahead. I sat on a bus with the map open – carefully scrolling each time I passed a road, so that I could keep track of exactly where I was. I know that a lot of other mobile devices can now track your position in real-time, but it’s good that the new iPhone has taken this feature onboard.

With a variety of Sat Nav apps now available, from TomTom to Google, you can find your way around the UK, and Western Europe pretty easily with your phone. With apps like TomTom using GPS this should hopefully keep the costs down by being roaming-charge free, though Google Maps does still incur data charges.

Suggested amenities and facilities close to your current location

This one has the potential to radically change my holidays. I remember being in New York a few years back and after catching a music gig at Webster Hall, wandering around Greenwich Village looking for something to eat. Now, let’s face it, Manhattan’s just about the easiest place to find food in the world. You can’t walk down a street without seeing somewhere you want to eat. But we really fancied Japanese and somehow managed to walk in a direction with no results. Amazing considering just how many Japanese restaurants are around there. With an iPhone it’s  already there, you open the map, it instantly finds your location and all the amenities around you. Better still, each location is already armed with a phone number, meaning you can immediately call to making bookings and reservations.

It pretty much means you don’t need to worry too much about planning ahead and memorising travel guides. You can simply remember the odd name or two of places you want to visit and then look for what’s closest to you on your iPhone. Or even just browse on the fly and see where you end up. A lot of the time you can get lucky and find yourself strolling into a plethora of bars and restaurants, New York as such probably isn’t the best example of its use. But for smaller destinations, this will dramatically alter the way you plan (or more accurately – don’t plan) your day. There are some great apps to help with your plans, you can pre-book restaurants with the Top Table app or find a somewhere off the cuff with the Urban Spoon app.

Why travellers mayn’t embrace it:

I tried this feature out in a small town near Valencia and it just wouldn’t load. There was no 3G signal, and therefore the Internet runs particularly slow anyway, but maps simply wouldn’t show. It kind of made the feature redundant, since it can only be of any value when you’re in a place that has a decent strength 3G signal or a Wi-Fi connection. That pretty much destroys the point for me. Whilst it’s still nice to have in a big city, it’s the smaller places where it could really come in handy.

MobileMe photo galleries with push technology

This service is basically your own personal server space which holds all your contact data, email, calendar information and photo galleries. The idea is that you can access this information from any computer or iPhone and it all syncs together. For example, if you make a lunch date with someone while you’re out, you can add it to your calendar on the iPhone. This then instantly syncs with your Me account and makes the appropriate changes.

So how is this useful for travelling? The big thing for me are the photo galleries that push alerts to all your friends and family who also use an iPhone with a Me account. Say for example you’re spending a few months in Japan and you want to share some of the photos you’ve been taking with your friends and family. You can upload them directly from your phone to your Me account and this then pushes alerts to all your friends and family. So if your Mum is at her computer, she’ll receive a notification that you’ve added photos and go and see them, just seconds after you’ve uploaded them. It also pushes to other iPhones, so one of your friends could be out somewhere and still check your photos. You might already be able to send picture messages with current phones, but this addition of full sized photos, in galleries that push alerts to both computers and iPhones changes everything.

I think I’d find it most useful for organising after-event photos. I’m sure like me, most of you have been to a great event or party and the next day end up desperately trying to get in touch with everyone to see their photos. Naturally they end up spread across Picasa , Flickr and Facebook accounts and it’s difficult to get to see every single one. If you all have iPhones and Me accounts, you can be virtually anywhere in the world and browse each other’s photo galleries on the move along with being notified as they get added.

What barriers are there for travellers?

  • You’ll have to pay an annual subscription fee. I don’t really think it’s entirely fair to charge for what’s essentially a push email service. The gallery feature is something I’m excited about, but probably not enough to want to pay £59 a year for the privilege.
  • The best feature requires your friends and family to also have iPhones and a MobileMe account. Similar to the social app Loopt, it doesn’t seem so enticing to pay for this service and not really be able to use the best bits unless all of your friends and family have accounts.

If you have a Google account you can now access many of these facilities for free on any smart phone, though this isn’t a negative of the phone, more of having to pay for the service. You can also access Facebook, either through the app or Safari, where photos, stories and updates can easily be shared for free. MobileMe has its benefits, but there are so many ways through the iPhone that you can enjoy very similar services for free, which has to be a good thing.

Data usage included in tariff

I always worried about using the Internet too much on my old phone (Sony Eriksson W810i). Sometimes I used it to check football scores, other times I’d use it to check train times or get some help from Google Maps. You always felt under pressure though, as it’s never clear how much data is being used and how much you’re spending. I’m sure they’ll be some small print from the network operator saying there’s a penalty for excessive use, but for everyday searches and reading you won’t have to worry, as included in most tariffs is unlimited data use.

This takes a big weight off my shoulders when I’m visiting a new city. When I went to Brighton for the first time a couple of years ago and I’d forgotten to look up where the street was to meet my friends. I used Google Maps to navigate, but ended up with about £10 added to my bill at the end of the month. These sort of charges are finally becoming a thing of the past.

Though the iPhone tariffs are a little on the pricey side there have been considerable improvements post the O2 exclusivity. With operators fighting for business you can generally get the phone for free on a two year contract or at a much more reduced cost then before on an 18 month deal.

Booking online

It’s true that you can check the Internet on most modern phones, but I think the iPhone 3G takes a big step towards making it all easier. For example, how many people can honestly say they’ve booked a flight directly through a website on their phone? Not many I’d bet since it’s pretty fiddly, often quite slow and not all sites have mobile-friendly versions. Better yet, of those small number of people who did book something online with their phone, how many worried about the poor integration of security and wondered whether their details were even encrypted at all?

The iPhone eases those fears and makes the whole process much easier. The Safari browser shows the padlock symbol for secure sites and you can see site certificates for them easily enough. Also, because of the large screen real estate that comes with an iPhone, it isn’t necessary to view the mobile versions of sites. You’re always seeing exactly what you would on your computer and it’s easy to scroll and zoom in with the “pinch” feature of the phone. Which makes browsing perfectly usable.

Some of the more forward thinking airlines, such as BA, have recently launched new apps that allow you the check-in and download your virtual boarding pass which saves time at the airport and the Star Alliance airlines such as Swiss and Lufthansa have added a nice easy booking system into there apps. The booking sections on these apps are quick and easy to use, as they are designed for the phone opposed to shrunken websites.

For the first time, I feel like I could actually book a flight without feeling like it will take me an hour to navigate, time-out half way through the transaction and leave my card details exposed.

What isn’t so great about browsing on an iPhone?

It still is a major hamper to not be able to view Flash on an iPhone. Admittedly, Flash is less common now, with more sites using alternatives such as html5, and annoys me profusely when I’m browsing, but that isn’t really an excuse for not allowing users to view those pages.

Traffic alerts

While no standard application is planned from Apple, third parties are expected to provide traffic alerts to your phone. If you’re driving, you probably use the radio to find out.

iChat integration

Despite rumours and greasy fingerprints that looked like a front-facing camera, video calling is currently not available on the iPhone. It’s not entirely travel-related, but video calls are still nice if you haven’t seen someone for a long time. Say you’re on a gap year and you’ve decided to work a season skiing in Verbier. After a couple of months of not seeing your friends and family, that’s exactly when video-chat comes in handy. I was surprised that this feature wasn’t included, but I’m sure it’s pinned for a future release.

Since Apple have already circulated iChat on their Macs to significant success, I don’t think it would be too difficult to downsize the software for iPhone use. The biggest hurdle would probably be to create a PC version of iChat, which as far as I’m aware doesn’t currently exist.

Quality of the iPhone Camera

If Apple are going to really promote great features such as MobileMe’s photo gallery integration, they’re going to struggle selling it to people on the basis of this camera. I’ve never bothered with cameras on phones. After all, if you want quality photos, you need a stand-alone digital camera anyway. It’s more the fact that now that it’s so easy to share photos on your travels, it seems such a waste to be using an average camera.

It’s not that the camera is particularly bad. It just hasn’t been touched at all since the first generation iPhone. This means there’s still no flash and the resolution is quite low compared to most new phones. That pretty much reduces you to only being able to take photos and record video in well-lit areas.. It would have been nice to at least have a camera in line with most other modern mobile phone. It would be unfair to demand a phone camera that does what a Fuji Finepix F30 can manage in low-light, but surely an upgrade from last year’s isn’t too big an ask.

I must point out the iPhone 4G is due for release this summer and the rumoured improvements include a new camera, faster OS and better battery than the current crop of 3G and 3Gs phones.

Summary of travelling with an iPhone

Overall my gripes aren’t with the iPhone itself, but with the applications, the networks and the general availability of the associated technologies. For people here in the UK who don’t travel or go on holiday much, you’ll be able to maximise your use of the iPhone without having to overspend. However those who plan on using the iPhone when visiting other countries will have to prepare to spend more than they’d like to use it. Travellers are constantly leaving their native country, which means data costs of abroad phone use remain one of the biggest factors which needs to be combated. This isn’t really Apple’s problem, but it is a barrier which networks will have to overcome if they really want people to embrace the technology that is becoming available.

The iPhone 3Gs now offers enough features to physically change the way you travel. I can safely and easily book a flight through a site, I can plot routes to anywhere and follow in real-time, I can locate where my friends are at any moment, I can quickly obtain the nearest shops, bars and hotels around my location and even have the option to call directly to make a booking at any of those places without having to search for the numbers manually, I can take photos on the move and add them to my gallery – pushing them through to all my friends and family at the same time.

Yet getting these features aren’t as broad as Apple have suggested and all have their drawbacks, which at least means there’s room for future improvements. As it currently stands it’s still a fair distance in front of its closest rivals and it can potentially alter how you organise travelling in a positive way. I’m not sure which will come next – whether the world networks will start talking to each other and work out a cheaper way for us to use mobiles abroad, or whether enough free Wi-Fi spots will crop up for it not to matter, but until then prepare to have to spend to get the most out of the iPhone.

Useful Links

iPhone homepage

iPhone Apps

MobileMe