Smartphone apps to ease travel guide writing pain

Last week we headed across to Kuta Beach on southern Lombok for a holiday. While it wasn’t exactly a work trip, as we plan to cover Lombok anyway I thought I’d try a bit of an experiment and do some research solely on my iPhone4. The result? I’ll never buy a sheet of grid paper for mapping again!

One note before I get started: I realise not everyone is quite the Apple fan-boy I’ve developed into, but in many cases there are Android equivalents to what I’m going to cover here.

Mapping: Everytrail Pro
I love drawing maps — really — but as anyone who has tried to draw a map from scratch knows, it can be a trying process. Roads don’t line up, alleys disappear, and don’t get me started on towns with hills and valleys. Once you’ve got it down on paper, you then need to mark the points of interest — now was that guesthouse on the left or the right? The taxi rank on the northwest or southwest corner? Oh God, it’s 40 degrees outside — do I really have to walk down and check? You know the drill.
The apps you need
One app makes this all go away. Everytrail Pro records a GPS track as you go — it’s incredibly accurate — and you can punch in points of interest (waypoints) as you go. This then records the longitude and latitude for each place. Once you’ve finished walking out the map (or doing it by motorbike or car for bigger towns) you can then upload the data to your free Everytrail account, from where you can then download it in a variety of formats — I take it by GPX for transfer into OpenStreetMaps, which is the platform we’re slowly migrating to with Travelfish.

Even if you’re not after the road layout, Everytrail can still be used to punch in data points as you go, so you can then supply them to your publisher with longitude and latitude points — something that I’m happy to wager is going to increasingly become a requirement.
EveryTrail Pro in iTunes (US$3.99)

Waypoints
If all the mapping is overkill, but you still need longitude and latitude, Waypoints is an excellent app for telling you exactly where you are. It works better if you stand outside, so get a reading before you walk into the club. I’ve generally been able to get a reading within five-metre accuracy. It does give elevation readings as well, but I’ve found them to be a bit more mysterious.
Waypoints in iTunes (US$2.99)

WiFi Finder
WiFi Finder is a crowd-sourced application that lets you find WiFi (free and paid) sources that are nearby. I’ve found it to be pretty useful, though 3G coverage here in Bali isn’t too bad so I find myself needing WiFi less than if I was in one of those developing cities like Sydney, Australia where free WiFi is about as easy to find as a reasonably priced latte. The great thing about it is you can download the database so that it works offline, meaning you don’t have to HAVE WiFi to FIND WiFi! Duh! This is useful not just for your personal use, but if your brief includes listing places that offer WiFi.
WiFi Finder in iTunes (Free)

Gowalla and FourSquare
As Facebook Places isn’t active yet in Indonesia I couldn’t give that a run, but I tried both of these apps and definitely prefer Gowalla — Foursquare feels way too much like a pissing contest for my liking. Tripadvisor also has a similar app. Whichever one you choose, these can be very useful in discovery. Turn it on, allow it to use your location and see what pops up nearby. On Gowalla you can click on a particular place that’s nearby and it will tell you how many people have checked in there. This could be a sign of a popular place worth checking out.

A note on both of these apps: the information, especially the location, can be off. For instance, Foursquare lists Frangipani in Bali (a bar a 30-minute drive away) to be at the end of my street — so don’t use either of these as a definitive source. There’s no substitute for going there yourself.

Secondly, while these were both useful, personally, I’d prefer talking to people and you’re certainly tying yourself to an “electronic niche” in relying on these too much.
Gowalla in iTunes (Free)
Foursquare in iTunes (Free)

Twitter
If you’re not on Twitter already, get on it. Set up a hashtag following destinations you’re going to be writing up and save them as a search. Be specific, but not too specific. So, #bali is a better fit than #indonesia. Then keep an eye on the stream and see what people are tweeting about: it could be a new bar opening, a hotel with crappy service or a beach you’ve never heard of. Twitter can be a great discovery tool — but it can also be a major time sink, so be disciplined!
Twitter in iTunes (Free)

More discovery
There are a slew of other location-based travel apps of interest, but one that really stands out from a discovery point of view for finding hotels is HotelsCombined’s iFindHotels. You just turn it on, let it detect your location and then it shows you all the hotels it has in its system nearby. Then you can click on the ones you’re interested in to see if they fit the profile for the properties you’re looking to review. A few other apps have similar functionality.
iFindHotels in iTunes (Free)

Instapaper Pro
This lets you clip interesting online stories (could be magazine or news stories, travel write-ups, blog entries and so on) and save them to your iPhone for reading later. You can also sync it with your desktop. It is a very good app and I’d recommend it to anyone who reads a lot online.
Instapaper Pro in iTunes (US$4.99)

PDF Reader
If you’ve grabbed some resources in PDF format (or any other kind of research material — train and ferry timetables spring to mind) then this is a great app for reading them easily.
PDF Reader in iTunes (US$0.99)

Photos
The camera is a built in part of the iPhone, but if you’re taking snaps of accommodation (if you’re not already being asked to do so, expect to be asked soon), consider turning on “Location Services” as that will stamp all your pics with longitude and latitude. The camera is also useful for all the other typical stuff: business cards, timetables, shots to jog your memory and so on. Obviously organise your photos into albums – they’ll be easier to keep track of and sync with your computer when back home.

Notes & Voice memos
Two more built-in (and so free) apps. My process was to review a property, snap photos, and then once outside jot all the details into “Notes”. I’d just start a new page for each listing. If you find the keyboard tricky to work with, then record a voice memo instead — either way you’ll have all your first impressions recorded immediately, when they’re freshest, which should result in better end-version write-ups.

Email & Skype
Email is built in and obviously helpful for receiving those emails from pesky editors. Skype is handy for calling them to tell them to leave you alone (use the above-mentioned WiFi Finder to find a free connection to call on).
Skype in iTunes (Free)

One app that is missing?
Evernote is the one overarching app that would be perfect to collect all this information into, but, as far as I can see, there is no way to export the information back out again, which makes it close to useless for our purposes.

Update:
Thanks to @hackneye and @bm_ for pointing out that Evernote actually does allow you to export the data (in a HTML format with the images in subdirectories etc, or in an XML format) so it could be a nice envelope to stuff with all the data you collect afterall!
Evernote in iTunes (Free)

In summary
With one iPhone you can record your notes (typed or voice-recorded), find WiFi, record longitude and latitude, look after pretty much all of your mapping needs, take photos to jog your memory for when you’re writing up 40 near-identical thatch bungalow operations, use location-based apps to stalk other travellers and see what they’re into, receive emails from annoying editors and yell back at them via Skype. Then there’s the browser (mobile Safari) which is handy for online research and checking the football scores.

Sure the iPhone isn’t a cheap phone, but, combined with even just some of the above apps, you’ll be amazed just how much time it can save you while you’re on the road. Publishers are forever demanding more work for the same coin and they’re increasingly going to be asking for data like longitude, latitude and accommodation photos. For once it needn’t be a headache.

Just don’t forget to back up!

Got any suggestions for other apps to ease a travel guide writer’s pain? Please share!

Oh and one more thing, if you’re in an app-buying mood, don’t forget to check out our travel guide apps for Southeast Asia!

3 thoughts on “Smartphone apps to ease travel guide writing pain

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Smartphone apps to ease travel guide writing pain at Unwrapped travel -- Topsy.com

  2. I reckon you’ve covered them all here. The only app I may take out would be the default notes app.

    Simplenote (free)is excellent and has the advantage of syncing seamlessly with your desktop.

    Taskforce (.99c) – also very cool and I reckon the simplest and slickest notes app around.

    I am definitely going to give Evertrail Pro a go even if it just to map out my garden!

  3. Pingback: Using an iPhone4 and Everytrail for website and iPhone app mapping in Bali at Unwrapped travel

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