Travel advice: how smart phones can help you travel
With data roaming prices beginning to drop significantly, your smart phone can be an invaluable travelling tool.
A couple of weeks ago, completely confused by a tourist map of the Piazza Duomo in Milan, and needing to find a particular museum before it closed, I did something I had never done before. I took a deep breath and switched on the data roaming button on my iPhone so that I could check exactly where I was on Google Maps.
Until recently, the cost of doing this was prohibitive. Under my last contract, I was charged £1 per Mb downloaded, and since it's extremely hard to gauge the extent of data being used by a particular application, it was simply not a sensible thing to do.
However, prices for data roaming have started to drop significantly. When I arrived in Italy, I got a text from Vodafone offering me 25Mb a day for a flat charge of £2 (less than 10 per cent of the cost under my previous contract). This seemed a much more realistic charge. In fact, had it not been for a problem downloading my emails (see below), I think it would have actually saved me money overall.
Certainly, for me, the smart phone became, overnight, an essential tool for travelling. Below I list the key functions I used in Milan, and on a subsequent trip to the Loire last week. Most are free to download, though there may be charges for versions with more features.
Excellent for orientation, and finding sights, hotels and restaurants. One touch tells you where you are; key in another location and you can use it for route finding, whether on foot or in the car. It will also tell you roughly how long it will take you to get there.
If you can find free wireless access – many hotels now offer this – this is the best way to make phone calls from your hotel room. There is no charge for the connection (and you can use the video facility if you want to see your correspondent), but it will only work if the person you want to ring has Skype on his or her computer or phone. It can mean significant savings on the cost of phoning home. Theoretically, it also works on 3G, but the quality is patchy.
This 69p app provides a texting service that works through an internet connection. As long as your correspondents have the same app, you can send any number of texts without being charged for them individually, and while using very little data. My phone contract charges 11p for each text from another EU country to Britain. By sending 19 texts by WhatsApp rather than by the standard system I can save the entire cost of a day's £2 data charge.
Apps for museums and sights
While they are by no means universal yet, more and more sights and museums are developing their own apps, which you can use as an audio or visual guide as you go around. Often they can be downloaded on site, but it is worth searching the App Store before you travel. For example, I was visiting Clos Lucé in Amboise – the château where Leonardo da Vinci died. It has its own free app – not terribly sophisticated, but giving useful background information. There was also one available from the Amboise tourist board, though in French only.
On an iPhone 4, the quality of the camera is such that, for many people, it effectively ends the need to travel with a separate camera. I use mine only for work purposes, but I still seem to come up with some reasonable results. The picture of the Rodin Museum in Paris (second picture above) was taken on my phone.The new iPhone 4, launched this week, has an even higher quality camera.
This is the best app I know for checking the latest forecast and, in some locations, it also allows you to download the latest rain radar images, so you can see if a shower is passing over or on its way, or if the rain has set in. The app gives forecasts for the next week but, as with any forecast, is really only reliable for the next day or two. It costs £2.49.
I didn't need this in France or Italy, because everything is priced in euros, which, for most practical purposes, are now of equivalent value to the pound. But this app is a useful way to get a quick conversion when shopping abroad using an unfamiliar currency. It also works offline, so if you update it before you travel, it will still provide quite a recent exchange rate.
Here I got caught out, and it cost me. I receive more than 100 emails every day, many with unnecessarily large attachments. The mail software on an iPhone doesn't allow you to skip messages over a certain size. So once you open the app, you can't control or monitor the process. It will simply download every unread message and attachment it finds on your mail server.
On this occasion, it meant that in one go, I went over my daily limit of 25Mb. And instead of simply making a further £2 charge for the next 25Mb, Vodafone takes advantage by charging £1 for every extra Mb downloaded above the first 25Mb. As a result, I was charged an extra £4 (see above) and, at that point, I switched off the data-roaming function. The warning text from Vodafone that I was approaching my limit and facing extra charges came too late.
I gather that with BlackBerrys work much more efficiently when downloading emails. It's time that Apple and the phone companies sorted this issue out.
If you are nervous about how much of your data allowance you are using up while travelling, the easiest thing to do on an iPhone is to reset the usage monitor (see Settings: General) and check it from time to time during the day.