We hear a lot of talk about the internet improving our lives, but most of the time this translates into time spent on FaceBook, shopping on Amazon or other distractions. However, on our just completed trip to Europe I discovered how mobile internet connectivity can transform the experience of traveling.
At home when I drive places I use Waze. It is extremely useful for getting directions and also avoiding traffic on routes you know well. If you are not familiar with Waze, it is a crowd sourced traffic app with real time route planning to avoid traffic jams. Also I occasionally use Google Maps to find shops, restaurants, etc. At home these things are nice to have. Believe me they help, but they are not what I would call essential.
Now let’s go back the early eighties when I traveled in Europe as a young backpacker. There simply was no finding a wifi hotspot and checking in on Facebook so your friends know where you are. I remember looking for the Bundespost so I could wait in line to make a phone call back to the US. I did this about once a week so my parents would know I was OK.
Even though my present day mobile carrier wanted a fortune for calls from Europe back home, I was able to use the Google Hangouts Dialer to make calls for free to the US as long as I had decent wifi. I use Google Voice for all my calls and I was able to just forward my incoming calls to Hangouts to avoid cell minutes – all on my phone.
But the big win was finding and getting to places. It used to be that if you needed to use a subway to get somewhere it was some work but totally doable, however buses and sometimes even trams were a bit of problem. Is this the right bus? Is this my stop? With GPS and Directions in Google Maps all of this became child’s play. Even parsing the Paris metro no longer requires assuming the self-identifying tourist-posture in front of the system map. This is an important tip for avoiding becoming a pick pocket victim. Everyone else is looking at their phones too – it makes it easy to “fit in.”
One of the best examples of how empowering having all the train schedules and transit info in the palm of your hand, while traveling in a country where you do not speak the language, is when the unexpected happens. Three times in our most recent trip we had trains stop mid-route because of air conditioning failures due to the extreme Summer heat.
Invariably we were told to get off in some small town, where we were left to figure out a new route. At one point we were in a crowd of about 100 people forced off a train and told to wait in 90+ degree temperatures for a bus to take us to our destination. However, it seemed no bus was coming for us. Then a local bus came by and people rushed it only to realize it was not the ‘replacement’ bus. Using Google I determined that we could use this local bus and then a train to get to Linz in time to catch our connection to Halstatt.
The best part was that I had to convince the German speaking bus driver that our plan to get to Linz would work. Our uncrowded and air conditioned bus pulled away from the milling crowd, with us safely on our way to our next destination.
Without the mobile phone, internet connection and Google Maps, we would have been left in the sweltering heat wondering if and when a bus might come, and then have to jam onto it with dozens of other stranded travelers.
This only scratches the surface of just how useful connectivity was on the trip. In a subsequent post I will talk about navigating to hotels, restaurants and water holes. One thing that is certain is that we did more, saw more and fretted less about navigation on this trip than any previous trip I have taken overseas because of the information at my finger tips.