Travelers have long used the web as a guide when choosing a holiday destination, but recent additions to the technological landscape have made the world even smaller and more accessible. Hand held devices with GPS locators and downloadable applications now offer users the kind of inside information that was once only available to intelligence agencies. No matter where you are heading, even on your first visit, you can arrive pre-armed with detailed and updatable knowledge of a particular location.
The advent of Google Maps™ and Google Earth™ changed people's world view forever. It also changed the way we travel, not only to big cities with broadband, but even to small tropical islands where its now possible to zoom in on specific areas right from your lap top, explore the terrain, check out the beaches and assess the local amenities.
Thanks to GPS, you can plan a trip down to the finest detail before you ever leave the office and online mapping now goes far beyond finding short cuts or directions from the airport. Hotels are flagged, each with its own pop out box containing information and links to the website, menu options let you view photos and videos of the area, and you can even read relevant articles on wikipedia direct from the page. A network of connected web links guarantees no stone is left unturned, and with a choice of different satellite images to choose from, web travellers can find out more about a place before they get there than ever before.
More convenient still, a number of applications and useful travel tools are also now available to smart phone users. This means you can carry your travel research with you or even access local knowledge on the move. Few would argue that iPhone™ applications are one of the most significant new additions to the world of personalized information. The fact that hundreds have already been designed to specifically meet the needs of business and leisure travellers means it may not be too long before guide books, and perhaps even travel websites, are overshadowed, especially with other brands such as Blackberry™ also getting in on the act.
One advantage of downloadable applications is that anyone with the necessary skills can build and submit them to global service providers. This creates healthy competition when it comes to design and usability and has already inspired a large number of creative tools that help people plan and make the most of their business trips or holidays. Travel Tracker is a personal travel assistant that was one of the first 100 iPhone™ applications released. The programme offers one-touch flight status information, helps you organize your packing lists, keeps track of all your travel expenses, and even syncs all this information into a travel itinerary. More recent ideas for the iPhone™ include HearPlanet, a clever concept that not only tells users what's nearby when they visit a particular location, but also plays wikipedia descriptions out loud, effectively providing a tour guide by their side. For Blackberry™, WorldMate Live is an equally powerful tool that automatically builds an itinerary of flights, hotels and meetings and offers local search features that include restaurants, shopping and nightlife. Not to mention providing worldwide weather forecasts, world clocks, plus currency conversion and online rates.
Global suppliers of information have also been quick to take advantage of the application boom. Lonely Planet™ released a comprehensive series of downloadable phrasebooks through the itunes store, while popular social media applications like Twitter™ allow you learn from people on the ground by joining topic groups where people post comments and useful links. For more detailed information, the Frommers™ Guides application will take you on a guided tour of the world's major cities, and if you want to let others know about the place your visiting, you can switch to the Here I Am application, which lets you to send an email with a link to your location that friends and colleagues can open in maps.
Of course, not everyone has an iPhone™ or Blackberry™ and many people prefer to read detailed information on a larger screen. Today's lap top travellers can connect and surf the web in most places around the world, while new, lightweight machines like Amazon's Kindle™ and the recently releases iPAD™ make digital information ever easier to carry with you. The Kindle, at just over 1/3 inch, is as thin as most magazines and weighs just 10.2 ounces. You can download books wirelessly in 60 seconds and the paper-like display reads without glare, even in bright sunlight. Travel guides and travel novels are widely available to download, as are travel magazines and specific interest publications. The IPAD™ take things a step further, combining a reader with a touch screen browser and entertainment unit. The wafer thin design features a 9.7", high-resolution LED-backlit IPS display, perfect for web surfing, watching movies or viewing photos.
Web connected travellers already enjoy access to information and details online that they would struggle to find themselves on the ground. The addition of ultra portable hardware and carefully targeted traveller-friendly applications, means the world is now literally at everyone's fingertips. The next challenge is for travellers to use the information to make informed, advantageous choices.
By Jules Kay