Travel Tech Review: Half-Baked Apps

A smartphone is your No. 1 go-to travel gadget.
Photo credit: Jordan McQueen via Unsplash.

When our family took a trip to Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, this spring, I was overjoyed. Not only were we escaping the worst Midwest winter in decades, but we were going to see my favoritest niece get married, we were going horseback riding on the beach … and I had a writing assignment. It was a writing assignment for this blog, but still.

My assignment was to test the free American versions of some popular non-American travel apps in one of America’s most app-friendly cities.

The folks at Tnooz do a great job of covering travel apps worldwide, so I had my choice of scores of great travel apps … only I didn’t, really. See, I have an Android phone, and a traveler with an Android phone is pretty much like a traveler with typhoid, only with less battery life.

The three-score and five travel apps I had for review quickly shrank to around five. I chose three to review: Spotted by Locals, City Maps 2Go, and Unlike City Guides.

I had big hopes for Spotted by Locals and Unlike City Guides. Both promise an ur-alt approach to the typical city guide, something that’s been missing from online travel-guide apps for almost as long as there have been online travel-guide apps.

Let’s face it: Most online travel guides (even my current favorite, the North Korea Travel app) are not tech-driven, revolutionary reinventions of the print travel guide. Quite the contrary; they aren’t dramatically different from printed guides in terms of what they do and how they go about doing it. The online guide can be a little more locally relevant, and spice up the star-listing paradigm with some maps and photos, but not all of them even go to that length.

Spotted by Locals promises the local lowdown on major destinations, since any destination is better with a local by your side. The problems were not with that model but its execution. Think of Spotted by Locals as a chicken that takes forever to lay an egg, and when it does, lays the smallest egg in the coop. The app took forever to load, and when it finally did load, it delivered a morsel of free content too small to be useful in any way. I get that apps are businesses, and their business revolves around me paying them for their app, but the app business is like the frozen-pizza business: The business model that works gives away a big enough bite so people can know how everything tastes, without giving up the entire pie.

With Spotted by Locals unwilling to give it up during my time out and about in San Francisco, I moved on to Unlike City Guides.

Unlike gives up some content for free, and some very good content, but not much of it was relevant to precisely where I was (the ungodly crowded Fisherman’s Wharf), and very little of that was relevant to who I was — namely, a family traveler not looking to eat, drink and be merry. Don’t get me wrong: I like eating and drinking, and I’m married. But that’s not all I like to do, and I was hoping for more from Unlike than bar-and-restaurant reviews. I briefly contemplated paying for the full Unlike guide, but not seeing a warm San Francisco night of debauchery in my future, decided to pass. Your opinion is welcome to vary.

Even though I don’t have an iPhone, I have an iPad, and I downloaded CityMaps2Go for the iPad. And now, more than a month removed from my trip, I’m not sure why.

City Maps 2Go (now branded under the Ulmon name) is a fine map program. Its POI and GPS capabilities work great, it’s colorful, it’s accurate … but so are Apple Maps. Testing it around the San Francisco/San Jose area, CityMaps2Go consistently performed great … but so did Apple Maps. There’s not any useful functionality I could find in CityMaps2Go that wasn’t in Apple or Google maps.

So given all that, why keep CityMaps2Go around? Good question. The best answer I can give you is that if you got a GPS or a navigation-enabled smartphone and threw out your atlas, and miss the ol’ Rand McNally, CityMaps2Go is a perfect substitute. Otherwise, save the space.

The good news with all these apps is that there’s stuff here. There’s potential. If you’re headed to Europe without kids, I can unequivocally recommend the Unlike guides. If you ante up I think you’ll find lots to like in Spotted by Locals. And City Maps 2Go flat-out works. But in the U.S., these are the equivalent of the Maserati Ghibli. They need a little more time in the oven.



Author: Kit Kiefer

As content engineer for Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, I have one of the world's great jobs. Not only do I get to write about travel, but I get to edit the work of fantastically talented contributors from around the world. Plus I get all the maple syrup I can drink.