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

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.

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

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
, 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

, like many western countries, solo
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

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

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
, 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

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

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

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