In the past few months, when I've visited Athens, Istanbul, Venice, Puerto Vallarta and other foreign ports, there always seemed to come a time when I came face to face with an “OK, what now?” moment.
Do you have that experience from time to time? Whether I'm with a traveling companion or traveling solo, I don't like to pack my day with wall-to-wall shore excursions, and I find that I can only do so much advance planning.
So when I'm in the mood for serendipity, I whip out my smartphone and try to find some cool stuff to do and see right around me. (I've been a fan of travel guides ever since I used to run Microsoft Sidewalk's San Francisco city guide team back in the day.)
Now, admittedly, using a travel guide app (or a “local discovery and travel research application,” as Gogobot calls itself) can be hit or miss. Sometimes you strike out. But other times you strike gold and find yourself, within minutes, exploring an underground cistern, or enjoying happy hour at a hole in the wall that only savvy locals know about.
Cruiseable has a travel guide component to our app and website: We feature a free, comprehensive travel guides section to help travelers discover the best things to do and see in more than 200 cities and ports around the world — in fact, the advice from our travel writers often ranks with the best I've seen anywhere.
But we haven't been everywhere, and other online and mobile guides offer valuable tips as well, often from locals who know their cities best. With that in mind, and with the caveat that not every app covers every destination, here is our pick of the Top 10 travel guide and city guide apps for cruise travelers. Tip: Download these before you leave home!
I love the fancifully named Gogobot app and online community, and feel a bit guilty that I haven't contributed much to the collective knowledge pool. Gogobot, with HQ in Silicon Valley, is chiefly a mobile app bursting with personality and smart insights from locals and travelers alike. Gogobot offers suggestions on where to go and what to do based on what kind of activities you're interested in. Before I go on a trip I make a short list of hot spots to hit, and Gogobot gives me the goods: photos, pungent reviews, event listings, along with maps and a roll-your-own itinerary. When I don't have time to do that kind of planning, I fire up Gogobot on my smartphone and see what cool stuff is nearby. Whether I'm abroad or in U.S. city, Gogobot almost always comes to the rescue.
Stay has got to be the best under-the-radar travel guide that you've never heard of. Consider: It offers 150 destination guides, from Lake Tahoe and Seattle to Cape Town and Sardinia. Many of its guides are created by artists, chefs, baristas and other in-the-know locals. As the Stay folks put it: "Enjoy adventurous food, pulsating nightlife, independent boutiques, and cozy cafés, all curated by locals and influencers whose guides bring a city’s true character to life.” It features a boatload of offline maps, which means you don't get hit with roaming charges. And its iOS and Android apps are stylish and easy to use. You don't just look at pretty pictures — you use the app to plan your trip. It's engaging enough that you coming away thinking that you just had fun, not that you just did some work. Brilliant. Similar apps: Tripomatic, Wanderfly.
AFAR Travel Guide
Like Gogobot, AFAR's recommendations come largely from the community: curators who know the local landscape and visitors who share their experiences. San Francisco-based AFAR's mobile app — which was updated just 2 weeks ago — is actually better than its clunky and cramped website. AFAR boasts "45,000+ unique travel experiences around the world," and I don't doubt it, based on its rich catalog of destinations, including a great series of "perfect day" itineraries. What's more, the app serves as a tool to create a customizable, shareable digital travel guide: Make some choices before you leave, then add others on-the-go. The trip planning guide you craft is available to you even when you're offline. The best part of the AFAR app is the wealth of authentic experiences shared by fellow travelers.
I'm a longtime open source advocate, so I'm rooting for Triposo, which pulls content from Wikipedia, Wikitravel and Wikivoyage (although it doesn't always properly attribute the photographers) and combines it with user contributions. Its self-styled mission is a grand one: "One travel guide for the whole world." The app isn't the only one you'll want to use, but it does offer a wide selection of content, covering every country and thousands of cities, with photos, maps (which work offline), real-time weather and suggestions of city walks, attractions and experiences. Find top-rated bars, restaurants, shops and nightclubs.
Facet for iPhone & iPad | Free
Here's an app you may not have heard of: Facet is all about video of the top destinations in the world. It won the iTunes Editors' Choice as one of the Best New Apps of 2015. It offers a simple way to capture, find and discuss great travel experiences through videos of everything from hidden gems to popular attractions submitted by a "community of explorers." The app includes some nice social sharing features, such as the ability to connect with "top world travelers." And you can watch original daily travel and food programs. Many of the videos are decidedly short — 15 seconds — but that can be just long enough to convey the vibe of a place. There's a nice serendipity factor to Facet that you don't always get with other travel guides. Standout feature: You can collaborate with friends or family in planning where you want to go and what you want to do. Oh. Note to Facet: Ditch that horrid logo. (No Android version.)
Here's another travel app you haven't heard of. Minube (which also is in need of a logo designer) combines travel planning and organizing in one convenient app, letting you scout out destination ideas, save favorites in lists and create a personalized travel itinerary. What powers it are the recommendations from a community of 1.5 million travelers who have visited more than 2 million attractions, hotels and restaurants the world over. Scope out expert lists by topic (cheapest eats, best scuba diving spots). Control which photos you want to share publicly vs. privately. The app can even help you organize the photos from your trip after you've returned home. Standout feature: The Inspiration tool lets you explore possible destinations through filters such as colors and distance from your home.
Behold the 800-pound gorilla of trip recommendations (225 million reviews — count 'em!). A few years back TripAdvisor was a noisy affair, but the signal-to-noise ratio has gotten better recently, and you can barely walk down a foreign street these days without seeing the ubiquitous TripAdvisor logos looming in shop windows. TripAdvisor shut down its CityGuides app last year, and while it briefly offered an Off the Beaten Path guide that users could filter by personal interests, it's either gone or deeply buried in the current app. Today you can use the TripAdvisor app to scout out hotels, flights, vacation rentals, restaurants and attractions, complete with maps, user comments and aggregate ratings.
If you're interested in researching a place rather than booking a tour, you'll need to drill down to a specific attraction, like the Eiffel Tower, then scroll down past the recommended tours and choose one of the travel guides from a narrow horizontal band. Many of these are smart and informative: Paris has 33 guides contributed by users. Though I'm not sure how useful it is to see 73,392 review of Paris. Similar apps: Yelp, which you already know about.
Viator Tours & Activities
Those of us in the travel business know Viator as the giant tour operator, offering shore excursions and tours when traveling abroad. But Viator's mobile app, downloaded more than 1 million times, is impressive as well. Because its parent company is TripAdvisor, Viator has access to 600,000+ user reviews and photos. If for no other reason, the app is worth the download for the ability to skip the lines at crowded attractions like the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building. Choose from 1,500 destinations. Browse or book activities and tours, get your bearings with online maps, see videos that give you a taste of local highlights and more.
City Guides by goop
A little offshoot from Gwyneth Paltrow’s popular lifestyle site, the goop City Guide app brings you in-depth and authentic guides to a handful of major cities, including New York, London and Los Angeles, with Paris on the way. As goop promises: "You’ll find well-known haunts, little-known gems, and plenty of insider resources, sourced from our own editors, Gwyneth, and friends of goop. Restaurants, specialty shops, boutiques, hotels, museums, culture, and all the services both locals and travelers lean on." Though the pickings are slim at the moment, the app is fun, distinctive and has loads of personality. Swipe through different neighborhoods. Look for restaurants and galleries not listed in other guides. Share your favorite finds. And check the weather for the next five days. Thank you, Gwyneth. (No Android version.)
Peek for iPhone & iPad| Free
I've long admired the San Francisco startup Peek. The app offers suggestions about things you might like to do when in town, like taking a photography class while exploring Oahu at sunrise ($90) or taking a 2-hour tour of Savannah's scandalous past ($48). Peek gets a 15% to 30% cut of every activity booked through the app. You can browse things to do by date, by category (like kid-friendly or walking tours), by neighborhood or by attraction. It covers 18 cities and regions (only Paris, London, Cabo and Cancun overseas). Nifty feature: You can browse and favorite what you come across when you're offline. Tip: If you can't find the "perfect days" section of the app, use the mobile Web to go to peek.com/perfectdays, where you can see a great visual collection of how to spend a perfect day in New York and lots of other places — mini-guides created by knowledgable locals, without the need to book a tour. Shortcoming: Peek's Facebook authentication for logging in almost never works. Peek has recently launched Peek Pro, but that's for tour operators. There is no Android version of the app.
There's an argument to be made that mobile powerhouses Google Now, Siri and Cortana will ultimately be the arbiters of what we should do and where we should go. I don't buy it, but they'll certainly continue to grow in influence.
Location-based decision apps have been a volatile yet slow-moving sector for years. It's head scratching and disappointing that Airbnb announced its Neighborhoods program more than 3 years ago — but there's still no Airbnb Neighborhoods mobile app.
Here are some other travel guide apps (or “what to do and see” apps) of note:
- Party With a Local had 20,000 users as of last spring in 160 countries. Users post suggestions of what to do at night in their cities. Then, through the app, visitors can arrange to meet up with them at a local hot spot. Nice idea — let's see if it scales. Free for iPhone & Apple Watch.
- There's something to be said for the old guide book stalwarts. Lonely Planet has its Make My Day app (Clint Eastwood presumably not included), which turns your smartphone into an on-the-go travel planner (free download; 99 cents to $2.99 to unlock various cities, from New York to Hong Kong).
- Fodor's City Guides is a free app that lets you open up a specific city's guide for $2.99 a pop, though the activities are powered by Viator with little in the way of user content that I could see before it quit on me.
- City Guides by National Geographic is limited to New York, London, Paris and Rome. Free for iPhone and iPad.
- Luxe City Guides offers guides to 25 major cities at $5.99 a pop. Available for iOS and Android.
- Location-based apps Tagwhat (your "mobile tour guide for the world"), TouristEye, Trover and Foursquare haven't lived up to lofty expectations but they all offer diverting, informed local experiences and are worth a look. And Everplaces, which has been dormant for years, is back with a new release that I'll be checking out as well.
How about you? Which “what to do” mobile apps do you use?