When it comes to using my smart phone, I’m a huge advocate of crowd sourced information apps. You know the ones: those “check-in” games where users earn badges and gain points for doing mundane chores in the real world. From going to the gym to eating a hot dog, you can broadcast (admittedly) useless updates to friends and acquaintances across various social media platforms, and earn some thumbs up for doing it!
The database of real world information in these apps is built from the rabid users who populate the games with their knowledge and experiences. These handy little programs harness the power of thousands of people documenting the world around them, and the software opens it all up to the masses. The best part is that anyone who has something to add can contribute.
Why would anyone want to do this? While fun enough to play with friends and to game-ify some otherwise boring tasks on a day to day basis, the following six apps to take on vacation are the ones that I find the most useful while traveling. You may already use these programs – hopefully this article helps you think about using them in a new way.
If you’ve read some of my articles before, you know that I’m a huge advocate of planning ahead. Yelp is one of the best websites around for doing that. Before visiting Chicago, I knew that I wanted to eat a deep dish pizza well ahead of arrival. Too many excellent options abounded. Narrowing things down was easy, though, because of Yelp’s advanced sorting features. I was able to plug in the right neighborhood, price range, and user review ratings to determine the best place to eat dinner – Lou Malnati’s – and add it to my itinerary. That ooey-gooey cheesecrustsaucemeat monster was enough deliciousness for a hot dinner and a cold breakfast the next day. Check them out when you’re in the second city, or use Yelp to find one more suited to your own tastes. It’s great on the go, too. The same filters and the ability to scan your vicinity for whatever you’re craving make Yelp the top app for finding a great lunch where you least expect it.
Yelp is useful, but Foursquare can save you money. This location based check-in app has a ton of businesses that provide coupons and specials just for showing up. As if that wasn’t enough, the app is a game itself – badges, titles, and points keep friends competing to see who can rack up the most new places in a day. Talk about traveling! Use Foursquare to search for nearby restaurants and bars. The more you use it, the better it gets, because the search results, suggestions, and recommendations are all tailored to your individual check-in patterns.
Warning: this one will get addictive pretty quickly, and you’ll check into everything from street corners to bathrooms if you start competing with your friends. That dies down, eventually, and sooner or later you’ll be using it to check into places that you simply want to remember.
This app has changed the way that I drink beer. Now, I don’t go to the bar without this app. Throughout my early twenties, I was your average Bud, Corona, or Guinness kind of guy. Don’t get me wrong – I still like them as go-to pours when there’s nothing else available, but nowadays, ‘nothing else’ is happening less and less frequently. The craft beer movement has gained a lot of steam, and most places have at least one handle devoted to a local brew. When you’re traveling, sometimes that tap can give you more insight into a place than you might think.
Whether it’s a conversation starter or just a new encounter in an unusual place, drinking a craft beer can attach itself to your memory of a location. Untapped is the best way to document the experience. It scans your location for nearby beers, and also lets you upload photos and save ratings. Like Foursquare, the app rewards your check-ins with badges. The difference is that it keeps a running tally of how many unique brands of beer you’ve downed since you started using the app. While the goal is to increase the number of different kinds of beers you’ve tried, the result is that you learn a lot about different flavors and styles, because you’re always searching for something new.
Travel is all about using your senses in different places. If you like beer and you’re thinking about expanding your horizons, try Untapped. You won’t go back to purposeless drinking.
Similar to Untapped in that it’s a laser beam of focused knowledge once you’ve actually found a restaurant or bar, this one acts like a visual menu. It’s relatively underused, in my opinion, so you’re more likely to populate the database with your own photo than to find something you’d actually like to eat. However, as it grows in popularity there should be more pictures available to scroll through and pick out a dish. For now, it’s a great vacation app because you can blast your foodie photos straight to Facebook and Twitter for all your friends back home to drool over. It’s only when people start to use it locally that it will really take off. Get in on the ground floor!
Not an app itself, but a company that makes apps. These guys are great if you’re into the seriously obscure and remote. They take a world map and fill it up with the precise latitude and longitude markers of whatever kitsch you’re into: from state parks to covered bridges to lighthouses. Of course, users can input new information and upload photos and ratings. The content is quality controlled and reviewed by staff, though, so it doesn’t go up immediately. It’s a small source of pride that I’ve added photos and locations that have eventually made it onto the lighthouse map. Heads up – these aren’t free, so make sure you’re actually into whatever map-app you download and pay for.
I love looking at maps: old maps, Google maps, road maps – you name it, it’s interesting to me. Maps always seem to invite the possibility of travel and experience. Believe it or not, one of the most interesting is the Facebook Places map. If you’ve ever been tagged at a location, added a place to a photo, or checked in somewhere via Facebook, then find the “places” link on the homepage of your Facebook and take a look.
What you’ll discover is this awesome, visual representation of all the places you’ve been, with photos and people and events pinned to the board. When I discovered this, I made a point of going back through my photos and tagging locations, just so they’d show up on the map. I wanted it to look as full as possible. The result was staggering.
When you’re zoomed out, you can see the continents you’ve traveled, and what regions are woefully under-visited (as of yet). Zoom closer, and you can see your travel patterns closer to home, where you spend the most time (or have taken the most photos), and reminisce about past travel by clicking a pin and looking through the pictures there. It’s a virtual map of your memories, and it makes you want to get out and add more.
In the end…
Whenever I’ve showed people my Places map, or the number of beers I’ve enjoyed on Untappd, or all the mayorships I hold on Foursquare, I expect them to think it is the coolest thing ever. In fact, they’re usually horrified. They wonder aloud why anyone would want to have their comings and goings documented for the world to see.
I say, whether or not you help the process along, it’s happening anyway. In a virtual world now monitored by government agencies and corporate advertisers who pay money to know what you want, people can embrace and sculpt a digital presence that reflects who they want to be, and put their best foot forward, or resist this new plane of existence and passively let someone else craft their image. I prefer to have a direct input.