iPhone apps and travel

The man in the seat next to me cradles his phone in his hand, his index finger hovering over it as the plane taxis towards the terminal. It is like an itch he has been told not to scratch. The plane stops. The seat-belt sign goes off. He swipes the screen and the sleek rectangle starts to glow. Throughout the cabin a cacophony of ring tones heralds our arrival at Amsterdam Schiphol.

This chorus is a familiar sound landing at almost any airport in the world. With more than four billion subscriptions globally, mobile phones are literally everywhere. In this case - a dawn flight from Manchester packed with business people - many of them are so-called smart phones, bristling with apps to help their owners negotiate almost every facet of their lives.

For the first time, I am among their ranks. A few days ago, I bought an iPhone 4. My previous phone was a Nokia 1100, once dubbed “the AK-47 of the cell-phone world”. It is cheap, functional and rugged. The leap to the latest iPhone is huge. I’m getting to grips with it as I start a new job in The Hague, which will be my home for the next six months. The plan: to let the iPhone be my guide.

The train station at Schiphol airport is the first test. Standing on the concourse I stroke my phone in search of assistance. Since it opened in July 2008, Apple’s App store has surpassed 10 billion downloads. There are hundreds of thousands of apps in 20 categories. At the current count, the travel section lists 13,472 apps. It is a vast and bewildering selection. Glancing up for a moment, I notice a tourist information booth. Smiling staff, brightly coloured signs, no queues. I pocket my phone and head towards the entrance.

As well as writing down the train times and fares to The Hague, the woman behind the counter tells me about 9292ov Pro, an app for the Dutch transport system. On the train to The Hague, I download it and scan around for other useful apps.

Cutting-edge apps, ones that offer a tantalising glimpse of the future, tend to cater for city dwellers. Not just any city but “global cities”, such as London, New York, Tokyo and Paris. Amsterdam almost makes the cut but The Hague is nowhere to be seen. Augmented reality, networked urbanism and the environment as a series of links and connections to be filtered and curated by your friends through your smart phone are all well-established elements of cities of the future.

But the suburban of the present is far more prosaic. Staring out of the window at the green and fertile Dutch countryside flashing by, I stack up a few well-known and stalwart apps to find (perhaps show me is more appropriate) my way around my new home.

When I arrive in The Hague, I tap my hotel’s name into Google Maps for directions and set off, wheeling my suitcase through the cobbled streets. Even in the space of a brief walk I already notice the effect my iPhone has on my first experiences of the city. I spend a lot of time looking at its screen. Even when I know I am heading in the right direction and signs confirm as much, I feel compelled to check on my iPhone. It hankers after my attention. It demands consultation. Half an hour later I arrive at the Hotel Sebel.

After settling in, I go out in search of dinner without consulting my iPhone. I’ve already decided I do not want it to mediate all my first impressions of the city. After 20 minutes of aimless wandering, I cannot resist consulting the oracle. I found the hotel through TripAdvisor. It seems pretty good so I try this app for guidance on dinner. There’s a place nearby called Café 2005. There’s only one review, but when I look it up on Google Maps some other reviews come up. It gets four stars. I’m still looking at my iPhone when I realise I’m standing in front of the place. I peer through the window. It looks good. Jumbled furniture, relaxed crowd, cheap food. Inside I use the Google Translate app to translate the menu, but when I try to order in Dutch it turns out all the staff speak English.

Two weeks later, having settled into a new apartment, bought a bike and started work, all the apps have been useful. 9292ov Pro helped with planning a trip to the seaside at Scheveningen. Google Translate has helped decipher lists of ingredients and other fragments of foreign language. I have used Google Maps almost every day to find my way around. I have not used TripAdvisor as much as the others. E-mails and advice from friends has eclipsed it. A simple e-mail from a friend who went to university in the Netherlands carries much more weight than a thousand reviews:

“The best sandwich shop is Dingelmann near Noordeinde Palace,” he writes. “The best herring stall is near the Buitenhof.”

To feel like a local, there’s nothing quite like recommendations by people you know who live or used to live there. I’ve read about apps such as Foursquare and Gogobot, which profess to provide this social element but I haven’t had time to work out how to use them yet.

In truth, I am resisting letting the iPhone take over completely. Apps have many benefits, but what is lost from the way we experience travel? The guidebook with annotations scrawled in the margins. The ripped map circled with highlights. Such assorted detritus is not only the way I have got to know many places in the past, it is a memento of that process of discovery. It is a souvenir of the first encounter with a place. Until I find an app that can log my experience in a convenient form, I won’t rely on the iPhone as my only travel guide.

Published in The National on 1 April 2011.