The Power of Switching Off: Are Travel Apps Really Helping Us Travel?

In a world governed by big data, we’re examining the power of switching off and leaving our itinerary to chance. If the thought of a holiday without your phone sends you into a panic, this one’s for you.

Imagine travelling alone to a different continent without your phone or tablet. Even the thought of this logistical nightmare sends me into a shiver of panic. How would I book and check-in to my flights, find accommodation or know which train to catch? How would I find a beautiful place to dine without scrolling Instagram beforehand?

As technology has rapidly developed over the last decade, apps now hold monumental influence over the way we move around the world. It's hard to recall a time before Google, when we had to fend for ourselves and find our own way.

During a recent solo adventure across Europe, I was introduced to a host of travel apps that I didn't know existed. Apps for flights and airports, apps for accommodation, apps to track spending, exercise and travel paths complete with scrapbook-style mapping and photography. This was just the tip of the iceberg.

With every new influx of travel apps, market gaps are being filled in ways we didn't realise we needed. AtYourGate is a recent addition currently operating in nine North American airports where you can scroll through food and retail options to be delivered directly to your terminal seat - it's like an Uber Eats for the airport. App in the Air acts as a central platform for flight details, reservations and loyalty programs while offering real-world time estimates on check-in and baggage claim. It can even show you the flight statistics of nearby travellers and measure your luggage for overhead compartments.

Apps such as Zufall aim to take away the difficulty of deciding what to do once you land in a new destination, allowing users to add parameters and preferred activity types before shaking their phone for a fun new suggestion, while Detour connects users to immersive audio walking tours produced by journalists and film-makers. The Sickweather app claims to alert you to nearby zones of flu and sickness through the analysis of status updates from social media.

During my travels I found a few key apps invaluable. Google Maps and its My Maps feature allowed me to create and share maps, marking a personal hit list of cultural sights, cafés, hidden beaches and bars. The app provided a platform to pool tips from friends, articles and long-admired Instagram vistas and navigate my way when offline.

Since a groundbreaking update in October, Google Translate has been able to translate text in photographs, eliminating the need for clumsy codebreaking attempts at foreign menus and signage. TravelSpend allowed me to set budgets and follow spending across a range of categories, complete with currency conversion and easy to digest analytics, while Mindbody connected me with discounted entry offers and services for fitness, beauty and health across the globe.

With so many specialised apps to choose from, it's no surprise that our expectations are heightened as we chase travel opportunities like never before. We are exposed to new destinations, competitively reviewed accommodation, flight comparisons, and bespoke experiences, broadcasting our exploits across social media and comparing ourselves to others.

In reaching for the ultimate are we sacrificing the unexpected?

In Australia, like many western countries, solo travel is regarded as a "coming of age" necessity. It's a time and space in which to test boundaries and prove yourself, free from the confines of the everyday. For decades, anxiety-ridden parents have wiped back tears as their children board a flight into the unknown to return as adults. In this new digital age, it's hard to tell if they are still getting the full transformative experience.

I was enthralled with tales from older travellers of their previous trips to foreign lands sans phone. With only a paper map and guidebooks to navigate from, these travellers of the very recent yesteryear had to work through the language barriers, missed transport connections and review-less accommodation without technical support. Aerogramme letters were sent, often arriving after the sender had already moved on. Family and friends weren't just a Skype call away. There would not be WiFi at the next café. They may never get a contact for the friends they made along the journey.

Sometimes unforeseen challenges are the essence of "authentic" travel. In the pursuit of the most photographable rooftop bar, highest-rated hotel or the quickest train we could be missing out on the unexpected town, the chance meeting or the local experience that leads us on a new path. What stories will we have to return with? What experiences will test our resolve and renew our faith? Where is the freedom of not-knowing? And do we still want it?

With a sharp rise in digital detoxes, it seems that the answer is yes. A slew of new travel options has emerged in response to our oversaturation of digital media. Places as diverse as Mumbo Island in Malawi, Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp in Palmwag Namibia, Ultima Thule in Alaska and Tierra Patagonia in Torres del Paine, Chile are offering device-free alternatives for the technology-weary traveller. Other experiences push further in the search for personal growth with travel opportunities to run the 4 Deserts Ultramarathon Series across four 250km desert locations, to swim and tag sharks for vital data or to be dropped from a helicopter before navigating through the jungle. People are beginning to push back their phones in search of the true transformative travel experience. Even if only for a week or two.

There are benefits and downfalls to utilising technology on holiday. While apps can provide great ease in navigating new horizons and making informed decisions about everything from public attractions to public toilets, invariably things will still go wrong. Cancelled trains, doubled-booked stays and closed restaurants cannot yet be designed out - and nor should they be. It is these moments that test us, force us to rise outside of our comfort zones and leave us with memorable stories for years to come.

I recommend taking a break from the phone while travelling where you can, keeping a few basic apps and leaving the rest to chance. Try and make it back without the map, practice your Arabic without the translator or go a day or two without double-tapping. Live a little.

There is a certain magic in not knowing what lies ahead. We should hold onto it while we can.

Discover More
Eight Ways To Stay Safe As A Solo Traveller