Destination Smartphone App vs. a Guidebook: What Do You Use on Your Travels?

by Chris on January 5, 2011

Do you still carry a guidebook when you travel? Increasingly, I’m relying on destination smartphone apps for on-the-ground guidance.

Philly Essential Guide iPhone app

My trip planning routine has changed in the past few years. I’ve always done the bulk of my research online ahead of time, then bought a country or city-specific guidebook to carry with me on the ground. But now I find that I’m often skipping the bulky Lonely Planet or Moon Guide in favor of a destination travel app on my iPhone.

I’m not talking about general travel apps, such as FlightTracker, currency converters or language programs. I’ve had those ever since I bought my first iPhone several years ago, and they’re a staple of my on-the-go toolbox.

I’m talking about city guidebooks, updated and reconfigured for smart phones. There are hundreds, many written by established travel writers looking to extend their brand, now available on iTunes for as little as the price of a latte. These mobile guidebooks contain features such as GPS location services, public transportation maps, and comments and suggestions from other users. They also have live links and phone numbers, so you can look up a website or make a phone call by touching your screen.

(Disclosure: I have written an iPhone/iPad guidebook app for Philadelphia, the Philly Essential Guide, through Sutro Media. It’s available on iTunes).

When I went to Berlin in October, for example, I came armed with both an Insight guidebook to the city in my purse and the Berlin Essential Guide on my phone. Time after time, I found myself referring to the app for walking directions, restaurant suggestions and even estimated cab fare. The blurbs for each sight weren’t as lengthy as you’d find in a guidebook, but I liked the snappy writing style and appreciated the photos that came with each entry. And it only cost $2.99. By the end of four days, my guidebook was gathering dust.

After that experience, I didn’t bother buying a guidebook for my recent holiday jaunt to Vancouver Island. For $1.99, I bought the Vancouver Island Essential Guide and had insider tips for Victoria and other tourist sites on my phone instantly. What I like about the app is that the author will likely update it within six months so when I go back to Vancouver Island in the summer, I’ll have the latest information.

Of course, there are times when a print guidebook is necessary. I just ordered a hard-to-find print guidebook to Easter Island for my trip Friday. It cost me $30, and I can already tell that it offers much more background than I need for such a quick trip. But I can’t imagine relying on phone snippets to describe something as complicated as the origin of the moais. And some of the best features of an iPhone app, such as the GPS directions, require your data plan to be turned on, which can get expensive when traveling outside the U.S. if you don’t have international coverage.

And just as the quality of guidebooks can vary within a publisher, based on the skills and knowledge of the assigned writer, destination travel apps can be more or less valuable, depending on who wrote it. Still, isn’t it better to spend $2.99 for a poor guidebook than $12? Plus you can delete the app if you don’t like it or update the latest version; I can’t be the only one who has out-of-date guidebooks taking up too much room on my bookshelf.

If you want to start experimenting with destination travel apps, Sutro Media has done a good job of reaching out to professional travel writers to develop products and content. But they aren’t the only game in town. The popular Not For Tourists guidebook company has a line of apps for most U.S. cities, as does  AOL  City Guides. Rick Steves has walking tours that you can download, and most major travel publishers such as Fodors or Lonely Planet also sell smart phone guides (often at a higher price).

Do you rely solely on print guidebooks for your travels? Or are you starting to use destination travel apps?

I’m still looking for reviewers for the latest version of my Philadelphia iPhone/iPad travel app. If interested in a free copy, email me at

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jen Miller January 5, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Depends. If I’m going somewhere for more than three days, guide book without a doubt. If it’s a quick stay OR I’ve already been to the place and want a refresher, I look for apps.

Example: I spend about a week every year in Tampa. Last year, I sent to St. Pete Beach instead. My first two stops after picking up my rental car were to a grocery store than an independent bookstore, where I bought the Tampa Bay guide they recommended.

In December, I went to Washington DC for a few days. I used to live in town and go back often, so I looked for an app to use. I didn’t find one, surprisingly, though I did tap into twitter feeds related to DC.

Full disclosure – I am a guide book author and tried an app but found it to be a bad financial deal for the author’s end. I don’t think people realize the work that goes into something like that, especially if they complain that they have to pay for it.


JoAnna January 7, 2011 at 9:28 am

I rely exclusively on guidebooks when I travel. I just got a smartphone and I’m starting to put some apps on it, but I could never use it abroad anyway because I don’t have international coverage.


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