‘Appy holidays: the weightless travel gadget comes of age

Jamie Carter

July 11, 2011

I’m such a lightweight, me. Ever since I wandered Asia a decade ago with an 85-litre backpack constantly pulling me backwards, I’ve always tried to make amends by travelling light.

Micro-fleece, quick-drying clothes, apple mac (as in, fruit-sized waterproof, not Cupertino-compact) – all that kind of stuff.

My obsession reached its zenith when I started travelling with this quick-drying, compact number in my, ahem, briefcase.

However, thanks to an onslaught of so-called portable gadgets, going light is getting more difficult.

First came the digital camera. Then a smartphone. A smartphone charge-pack. Netbook. Scratch that: iPad (does this remind you of the Gadget Show’s prize fund yet?).

A micro-four thirds camera that’s half the size of a D-SLR (and about half as good) seemed like a good idea for holidays and, of course, an ebook reader’s arrival in my backpack was as inevitable as a second pair of those merino wool underpants.

I got these gadgets because of their small size, because they can replace an entire music collection, shelves of novels, and put professional photography in my grasp.

Exactly which three of those did I miss back in 2001? None.

Back then, I had a Walkman (the three mix tapes I took were ‘lost’ en route, and we’ll say nothing of the ‘Goa Trance’-based replacement) and camera, which both needed new AA batteries every month, and, less frequently, a new roll of film.

It’s not the ‘whatever, whenever, wherever’ mantra of modern technology that I’m getting sick.

Rather, it’s the chargers and the evil empire that is the proprietary USB cable, which at a stroke means I have to set aside a quarter of my luggage for a bunch of wires that are practically identical.

And that pre-sleep (possibly booze-confused) panic about charging-up gadgets for the following day? A holiday can quickly become merely a change of scenery.

Still, I was happy enough to cart this crap around with me until the first day of a week away, when I settled down with my complete works of everybody ebook collection … and the darn thing froze on page six.

The only way I could jolt it into action was to attach it to the mains; the ultimate insult for a portable gadget.

Now I’ve returned to paperbacks, and I just take my phone on the road. I’ve come to the conclusion that the only current tech obsession that doesn’t add to weight to luggage is the humble app.

Forget the iPod functionality; on my last business trip I had my itinerary on TripIt, photographed and logged all my receipts using Shoeboxed, turned my phone into a PDF creator using the paper-killing CamScanner+, and sent off a few scanned-in business cards to CardMunch to get typed-up and returned to me as .vcf files, the latter quite possibly by pixies.

If a trip is pleasure, apps become real space-savers; the guidebook has been replaced by some cracking apps – some with augmented reality and all with compass-aided mapping and location-based info – from Lonely Planet’s City Guides, Rough Guides City Apps and DK’s Top Ten.

Qype and Skype work great in cities with WiFi, and even if you’re purposely headed away from the modern world, there’s an app for that, too.

Once downloaded, ViewRanger Premium can be stuffed with digital Explorer and Landranger OS maps to use offline, with guided trails and – if you do find a mobile signal – a BuddyBeacon mode to let others know your location.

Will a smartphone soon be standard issue for trekkers? Probably. It’s no different from the reason a lot of people bought their first mobile phone a decade or more ago – to feel safe if the car breaks down.

Now GPS is a standard feature, parents tracking their kids can’t be far away. Is that against human rights? Maybe, but the UN is more concerned with making internet access itself a human right, and, besides, the kids are logging their location regardless.

I’m not talking about the likes of me proudly ‘checking in’ at random pubs via Facebook, but apps like Google Latitude, which share users’ location – complete with maps – with pals and anyone else.

Either way, it seems that if you’re not telling everyone what you’re doing, and who with, you’re not ‘joining in’.

A bit like one of my friends who just gave up technology for July; no phone, no Internet, no TV. She can’t quite explain why she’s still listening to the radio, though I guess Radio 4 is about as far from the tweet elite as it’s possible to get.

When I asked her how we would arrange a hike later this month, she replied ‘we can write to each other’ and, sure enough, a handwritten letter arrived for me a few days later with suggested grid references for the walk.

I immediately input them into my phone, checked the brilliant Good Beer Guide app, planned the walk on ViewRanger before sending her a screengrab and a thank you note from my iPhone using the brilliant Postcards app – and all without leaving the sofa.

Now that one really is the ultimate travel app.


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