Touch Traveler: London, Paris and only an iPod Touch

eiffel.jpgRecently, I spent two weeks vacationing in London and Paris with only an iPod Touch for communications and connectivity.

As I wanted to honor the fact that the trip was to celebrate my 10th wedding anniversary, my wife/I didn’t bring either a mobile phone or a PC/Mac.

Mind you, I am not suggesting that this was a wise thing to do, but it’s what I did, and this post captures the good, bad and ugly of the experience.

First off, the revelation (for me) was how much the Google Mobile Maps App on iPod Touch completely changes the equation when traveling. Touch-based control with a virtual keyboard is the perfect UI for zooming in and out of geo-locales, and Mobile Maps offers a workflow whose predictability and logical structure both de-mystifies and anchors foreign travel.

Moreover, Maps allows you to visually navigate in Real-Time (very different from the experience on my Blackberry), all the while push-pinning favorite destinations, and determining routes in just a few clicks. It is the consummate reality augmentation application for travel, a sort of “magic compass.”

marais-context.PNGCase in point, is a context traversal function whereby you search for and find a destination. Right clicking on the pin reveals listing info, and left clicking takes you into Street View, revealing a 360-degree panoramic view of the target destination.

Street View provided a form of error-correction since you could visually confirm that a given destination was indeed the right destination, an extra bit of piece of mind when visiting a new area.

Candidly, I wish that Maps was even more autonomous about capturing my real-time travels and indexing them, as then I would never need to re-trace my steps, not to mention the entertainment value of being able to replay the day’s travels at a later time.

Similarly, if you could somehow overlay your interaction data with that of locals, professionals (e.g., Fodors) and other travelers, you could create a very potent social fabric that is data rich, and can be filtered on parameters such as user-generated, professionally mastered, crowd-sourced and/or curated.

To frame this one, let me give you a specific example from my trip. I was walking through St-Germain in Paris when I had a flashback to the last time I was there (eight years before).

Back then, I had eaten at this incredible sandwich place nearby St-Germain. The restaurant made their own breads, had good sandwich combinations, and was an earnest, warm place. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember its name or specific location.

I remembered, however, that the sandwich place became a retail chain in New York. (It’s good, but nowhere near as good as the original shop.)

While I couldn’t remember the name, I did remember them having a branch near Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, so I opened the Yelp app on my iPod Touch, and typed in “sandwiches” near the geo of Rockefeller Center, and up came Cosi. (Note: Yelp had limited data for London and none for Paris).

Cosi.PNGNext, I fired up the Maps App, typed in “Cosi,” and a pin dropped on the map.

I clicked on the pin, and it confirmed that I had been staying less than two blocks from this place for the past week! I then left-clicked, and saw a picture that took me back eight years.

Lunch? It was everything that I remembered.

Meanwhile, another App that we used throughout the trip was Facebook. My wife and I were sharing one iPod Touch, and Facebook really delivered in terms of being very easy/seamless to log into and out of our respective accounts, not to mention providing (relatively) full access to Facebook’s services.

facebook.PNGIn fact, it was through Facebook that I loosely tracked the vacation that my brother and his family were currently taking in Israel, Jordan, and Greece.

I had some short exchanges with my niece, and there was a reference to a London overlap, but it didn’t seem like the times meshed.

Days later, my wife and I are walking from the Kensington Park area where we were staying to Harrods in Knightsbridge.

45 minutes later, we are ogling over the sweets and pastry section of Harrods (if you have never been there, it is a spectacle; they have everything). Suddenly, a voice chimes out, “I didn’t think they let your type in here.” I turn around, and it’s my brother and his youngest son.

It turns out that he had tried to call me the night before to let me know that he had changed his itinerary, and that they were going to be in London while we were there. But, I brought no phone so I never got that message.

Similarly, he had emailed me, but it turned out that he sent it to an address that is not received on my iPod Touch, so I never got that message.

Finally, he had gotten the wrong hotel information from my parents (we booked our room just days before we left), and so he couldn’t leave us a message at our hotel either.

Yet, just hours after landing in London, here we were face to face at Harrods in London.

Kismet, to be sure, but I am left wondering whether technology helped (the Facebook exchange with my niece), hindered (wrong emails, unanswered phone calls), or was simply a neutral observer in this outcome.

Keeping it real, one paradox presented by relying on the iPod Touch as the sole connectivity device was that connectivity was, by definition, intermittent since the iPod Touch depends upon ready access to Wi-Fi for connectivity, a sketchy bet for mobile travelers.

london-underground.jpgIn London, this meant that 99% of the time, I had decent Wi-Fi connectivity at my hotel but no connectivity when mobile. This was key as we walked a ton, and took the Underground a lot (it is a great service).

Not having reliable connectivity in mobile contexts crippled some of the utility of Google Mobile Maps since it essentially removed the Real-Time goodness of the app. Moreover, it crimped the ability to search for nearby restaurants when on the move.

By contrast, in Paris we were able to grab onto “gray” connectivity within 5-10 minutes of trying to do so. This, at the very least, gave us a sense of intermittent connectivity being reliable.

Gray connectivity was captured two ways. One was via a discovery of Wi-Fi connections within the Settings tab, and jumping from one connection to the next until we found live access. Primitive, but fungible.

The second was that we discovered a service provider that offered different tiers of Wi-Fi access on-demand, including a “20 Minutes Free” option, which was like getting a lucky board game roll.

Armed with some sense of being able to queue up requests, messages, grab map views and the like, geo navigation became tactile, a virtual, but distinct, overlay to our physical navigation.

real-time location.PNGThe ability to visually follow block-by-block, and see the storefront of a business blocks or miles away was very powerful.

At times, it felt like Mobile Maps was a divining rod pulling us to our destination.

What was almost magical was how Maps seemed designed to watch proactively in the background for a live connection so it could autonomously update location data when connectivity was intermittent.

I was more than once surprised to discover that Maps had used a sliver of momentary connectivity, and updated location with no prodding from me.

That said, it seems that Apple could make MobileMe even more essential for iPod Touch owners by bundling into it a Boingo-like Wi-Fi Universal Pass so at least queue-level store and forward services can autonomously be negotiated for the mobility-oriented user.

Notes-Kindle.jpgA couple of final notes: One is that my wife realized tremendous utility in using the Notes App to capture daily food & water intake and other related health data. This was a simple, powerful, and recurring workflow for her.

Two is that during the trip I finished my first Kindle book on the iPod Touch, ‘Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando.’

I absolutely loved the fact that when I found myself with a five-minute slug of time (waiting in lobby, bathroom, at coffee), I could read a chunk of pages and click out as easily as I had clicked in (since the Kindle App automatically bookmarks where you left off).

It, like the iPod Touch itself, was a perfect travel companion.

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  • Darren Brierton

    What is this right- and left-clicking of which you speak? This was an iPod Touch, right? Or did you just repurpose an article about the desktop version of Google Maps?

  • @Darren, if you look at the first screen cap of the Maps app for iPod Touch/iPhone above, there is a blue clickable icon on the right, which brings up listing info, and a red clickable icon on the left, which brings up Street View. The post is direct experience from two weeks of travel in London/Paris using iPod Touch as sole communications and connectivity device.

  • So near and yet so far. There’s a device in here waiting for Apple to build it.
    – Camera
    – Microphone
    – >160Gb hard drive

  • Bob

    Interesting that you mention the need for layering of interaction data for your current locale. I just discovered Layar app. It does just this.

  • The gist of this post rings true for me. I’ve been travelling with my iPhone over the past four months, and thankfully, my carrier in Australia was happy to unlock it for free (I’m still on a contract with them, after all). This meant for the three months I was in the US, I used a T-Mobile SIM, and now in the UK I’m on 3. This has been far better than relying on open wireless gateways.

    I covered a lot of the same cities travelling last year as well, but I didn’t have an iPhone then, and the difference is amazing. Having a contextual map with you wherever you are is something I’ve grown used to. The public transport integration in New York on Google Maps is fantastic on the web, but so much better in your hand.

    Yelp does not exist in Australia, but I’ve quickly learnt to love it, being able to research restaurants, hotels and barbershops. Using Twitter to keep in touch with friends and peers who are where I am is awesome too. And I use Notes a fair bit to note down hotel, hostel and flight information.

    Travelling the subway in New York and the underground in London has made me realise why a compass in the new iPhone 3GS is such a great idea – because even with a map, if you don’t know that part of town, you don’t have a clue which way you’re facing.

    I realise I’m ranting a little bit, but it really is a great travel device (provided you can unlock it and get a pay-as-you-go SIM).

  • I use Google Maps on my iphone all the time and love it. No complaints at all from me.

  • A very cool article, Mark. I enjoyed it very much. Now imagine a 3rd generation iPod Touch w/ built-in camera and microphone for recording videos and taking pictures of your trips that you can immediately upload to your Facebook account, or share on Twitter. It’s like the best of the iPhone w/out the pesky roaming charges. I’m going to tweet this! :-) @Wonder_Wheel

  • @Bob, haven’t played with Layar yet, but given space constraints, I clipped off 5-6 paragraphs focused on overlay apps as a reality augmentation construct, and how this might play to logical end with travel. Very much a believer in this particular domain.

    @Julian, Pat and McCaw, a question that I was going to throw out in the post was whether knowing what I know now, I would bring a phone next time? In the current world, the answer is a sort of “YES,” but with the next iPod Touches coming in a matter of weeks, it seems like VOIP, video and more storage are a given. I have a gen 1 IPT so no microphone/input on that one.

  • Charles Wiles

    Interesting article Mark. Since you seem to have been using the iTouch so much, and with WiFi active, I was wondering how you got on with battery life and recharging? Also, was it a 1st or 2nd gen model?
    Finally, I agree that lack of ubiquitous network connectivity is _the_ major disadvantage of the iTouch vs iPhone.
    regards, charles

  • @Charles, I am using a gen 1 device. As to battery life, I had no trouble getting through the day while on my trip, what with frequent connectivity status checks, perpetual map usage, email and light web usage. I should note that I was neither listening to music nor playing games during the day, and was cognizant of juice levels. On plane rides, though, I played games and listened to music, and made it from SF to London fine. In general, no issues with battery, but then again, not draining it as a phone.

  • Marc

    Great article marc! it gave me a lot of ideas.

    im thinking of purchasing and bringing an ipod touch to my first trip in paris this coming september. Would you highly recommend that i do?

    I’ve never been to paris but i think it would be very useful (especially after reading your article) i would primarily use this for maps/metro, a french translation app & music and as my main source of communication via email & facebook/twitter updates.

    the hotel im staying at has free wifi, but outside of the hotel, while sightseeing thru the city, how would you rate wifi access? Great/Good/Bad/Ugly – as my main source of communication i would like to know what to expect if possible…

    thanks in advance!

  • @Marc, I would buy the iPod Touch in a heartbeat. Usually, we think of swiss army knife types of devices as doing a bunch of crap in a mediocre fashion but nothing spectacularly.

    Here, battery life is great, music is great, email is rock solid, maps is gonzo, web is solid (best in mobile, I think), and the “there’s an app for that” goodness is cat’s meow.

    The wi-fi deal is a bit of sleuthing exercise outside of hotel, but findable in a pinch.

    My only other suggestion is do your heavy research (restaurants, sites, etc.) on full screen comfort of your desktop before you leave as heavy research on tiny UI is meh and time consuming.

    That’s why I was bummed that yelp not present in Paris as their iPhone App is really strong.

    Hope that this helps. Final, note, as my device is version one there is no input/microphone for doing skype. Had I had that I might have been able to avoid some ugly long distance calls.

    P.s., wait until the next iPod Touches are announced 9/8-ish if you can.



  • My husband travels to Europe frequently on business and has mentioned several business colleagues are using the ipod touch for this type of usefulness. I’m allowing him to buy one as soon as I get my wireless digital picture frame!!

  • Don

    Neat phone! I am trying hard to replace my symbian smartphone that is like 5 years old. Does the map work without wifi / carrier signal? (e.g. turn by turn driving instruction in rural area?)

    I have a feeling that the iphone or android phone relies heavily on internet connection for functionalities…

  • Mihailo

    Mark, what does it mean…

    “P.s., wait until the next iPod Touches are announced 9/8-ish if you can” ?

    Plus: is iPod Touch actually the same as iPhone 3GS?

    Thanks and greetings from Holland

  • @Don, the short answer is iPod Touch is not a phone. It’s an iPod with internet, wi-fi and App Store. Also, you need to pull up live data for stuff like turn by turn but a workaround (of sorts) is to do your map routing when you have connectivity and then you can click through what is cached in the software. Imperfect, but served me well in London/Paris.

    @Mihailo, Apple is rolling out new iPod Touches on 9/9. The rumors (nothing is formally announced) is video/pic camera as the primary add; doubtful on things like GPS since there is no carrier in Wi-Fi scenario, and candidly, the Wi-Fi based triangulation/directories that Apple/Google have cobbled together, and pretty darn terrific, and my understanding is that they use materially less battery than GPS does. But, key thing as noted about is that iPod Touch is not a phone. It’s akin to iPhone without the actual phone. I hope that this helps.

  • tom

    Hiya Mark,

    Did you know that Google’s Latitude service could have helped you find your brother (and / or vice versa)?

    Also, there’s quite a few apps in App Store, under the Travel section, that have location based lists of free and paid Wi-Fi access points…

    I’m heading to Italy and Paris next week for 3 weeks, and am actually looking forward to doing the same as you – well almost – 3GS is only thing I’m taking, but loading up iTunes and ditching my call plan!


  • A great article Mark, and a very timely article for me to read. I use the iPod touch in the classroom as a learning tool, but I head overseas to the UK and US for five weeks in October / November.
    It’s a whole new device when you apply it as a travel companion rather than as a device to facilitate learning.
    I have picked up some good tips about the apps I should have on the ready and also those friends and colleagues should have to keep in touch.
    I will be taking a Gen 2 iPod Touch complete with headphones with remote / mic.
    What would be your advice for the essential App travel list?

    Thanks again.

  • @Tom, thanks for the note. I actually am good friends with the product manager responsible for latitude at google so well aware of and a latitude user myself. Challenge is that I would have had to get someone in family set up on latitude. Ironically, the same friend at google was flying out at same time we were and pinged me to ask where we were going because of latitiude. Re wifi and other travel tools, candidly if I was a better preparer, there was probably more I could have done but this was somewhat an exercise on minimalism meets utility. Enjoy your trip!

    @ Louise, my only wish was that I had better researched restaurants before leaving, as I am a bit of a foodie, and felt a bit under prepared there. Otherwise, it was a great way to augment travel, although as noted above, I am a minimalist and utilitarian. Enjoy the travels.

  • Colin McDonald

    Great article, and touches on why I still don’t have an iPhone despite needing one desperately – the iTouch does so much without paying all the extra for the phone contract.

    However my experience of public wifi is MUCH less rewarding than yours. Even in London I find it rare to be able to tap into free or gray wifi, and if you don’t have a contract with BTOpenZone you’re going to struggle to have anything like the experience you’ve outlined in Paris.

    That’s why I’ll have an iPhone eventually, unless of course next month brings 3G-data enabled itouches, but I doubt it will.

  • David Poteet

    I was in Germany for 11 days in June with my PowerBook, my digital camera, my cell phone and, of course, my iPod. I think I lost about 15 pounds carrying the equipment and chargers and cases for all of it. I went to sleep dreaming about the features of the iPod Touch I’d wish for… and am looking forward to early September for the fulfillment. Thanks for writing this up.

  • Tara Smith

    And I thought traveling should be with as less luggage as possible. You will not need to worry about all these things if you are going to stay the Signature condo in MGM or any their other properties in Las Vegas, Mexico and Honolulu. Check for more details and discounts. After all vacation is luxurious living.

  • @Pat Allan: Don’t use notes to store your hotel/hostel info, use the Hostel Hero app ( You can do your research offline, and when you make a booking it stores all the details right in the iPhone/iTouch so you always have it with you, right down to the Google Maps links.

  • Hello Mr Sigal

    I also own ipod touch, i use it for listening music and for playing games only, before reading your post i really dont know that my ipod can be used in so many ways and its this much useful gadget.
    Now on i will try to use it in several ways.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Say a little more about why no GPS likely on new 9/8ish Touch? Why would a GPS chip need a carrier, as opposed to the Touch getting location info from GPS chip and using location info to, say, orient Google Map obtained by wi-fi?

    I’m spending October walking in Spain and then two weeks in Paris in November, and am undecided between buying a Touch or an iPhone, which leads to two further questions:
    (1) Don’t need the phone (Skype app/wi-fi will do), but would like data access if there’s any way to keep AT&T’s international data roaming charges under reasonable control(friends have been hammered): Any thoughts?
    (2) Assuming new Touch is announced 9/8ish, how likely is it that I’ll be able to get one by 9/25? (Thanks for any help; obviously I’m a newbie — Bill)

  • @Bill, GPS can work standalone (i.e., no carrier) just like a Garmin GPS device. That said, network access enables “assisted GPS” which vastly improves time to first fix (on a location) and ability to work indoors. 

    Now, that said, Google Maps has an excellent Wi-Fi based approach of triangulating on location, and it works great, and is less of a battery hog than GPS (which sucks juice big time).

    Sidebar: beyond battery conservation, not having a GPS chip shaves $15-20 bucks off the retail cost of the device, making GPS a luxury for a Wi-Fi only device like iPod Touch.

    The caveat there is having access to Wi-Fi, which is not a given when roaming around (away from hotel), as I noted in the post, and an earlier commenter noted wrt London (I had same experience as them).

    Wrt, not needing phone but needing some data access, I saw fairly regular access to aggregators like Boingo, and some of the international folks had tie backs to AT&T so you might research best path there (e.g., get a month of Boingo for $10/month for US access points, but considerably more expensive for international access points at $60/month).

    As to last question, my guess is that new iPod Touch will be ready pretty immediately (or within a handful of days), as all reports are that inventories of current units are drying out with no replacements – i.e., something else should replace the old SKUs very quickly – new iPod Touch.

    I hope that this clarifies.


  • Mark Sigal

    @Sanet, thanks for the note, and the kind words. If you can use google maps on your laptop, you will LOVE the maps app on iPod Touch. The combination of touch, pinch/zoom, and the dynamism of a true application versus a web app just makes it a joy to use, and other than a simple learning curve, you will be fine.

    As to ease of use of iPod Touch, no worries there. Case in point my four year old picked up the device with zero prompting from me, and was rolling pretty darn quickly.

    The beauty of the device is that its convenient, powerful and customizable relative to the apps that address your needs most (as you will discover – not a one size fits all approach). Some folks are all about the music, others the photos, still others care about easy input for text/lists or maps, email or web browsing.

    As to the travel scenario, while I have been in tech a long time, it was a total revelation for me.

    Good luck!


  • sanet

    Mark thank you so much for your promp reply.I do feel more confident after this.Have a happy 2010.

  • Mark Sigal

    @Sanet. It’s a pleasure. You as well. :-)

  • John


    Thanks so much for posting your experience. I lived in Paris (actually Marly le Roi) for 3 years 30 years ago. I’m planning to take my wife and son there again in October 2010 and googled if I could use my iPod Touch third gen and found your article. Just based on this alone I will bring the touch and leave the laptop at home. One less large thing to pack and carry.

    I also learned of the street view from you. What a revelation! I was able to see the apartment I lived in quickly and easily. Neat.

    I’ll post my experiences when we return from the trip in October.

    Thanks again,

  • Mark Sigal

    @John, thanks for the thoughtful note, and do update us on your experiences.

    Also, bear in mind, that another option by then will be the iPad, the bookish sized tablet, which will give you a bit bigger screen, should run the same base of apps as iPod Touch, and is the perfect middle ground between lugging a full PC and the more pocket friendly iPod Touch. The iPad is the device for you if you have a day pack you will carry when you are on the go.

    Here’s my post on that device, if interested:

    Check Mate: Apple’s iPad


  • Howard

    Haha, not only iPod, also iPad can be use as a digital photo frame. I’m looking for a digital photo frame Manufacturer. Who can help me?

  • Curt

    Interesting experience for sure.

    On the other hand . . .
    An analog experience might also have been (somewhat) effective. A good Michelin map, a small Not For Tourist or Insight Guide book and a your fav Moleskine journal might have been good as well.
    You would need your cell however I would think.

    There is something to “throwing caution to the wind” by asking directions as well. Who knows what NEW cafe you might have discovered.

    Happy Anniversary BTW.

  • Mark Sigal

    @Curt, thanks for the thoughts, and the anniversary well wishes. I definitely don’t think these things are either/or scenarios.

    Analog is a perfectly good way to experience new vistas.

    At the same time, there was something liberating about feeling at home in a foreign place. It acted as a kind of anchor to my travels.

    Given that my iPad has replaced my paper notebook, I am already pondering how my next travel experience will be tweaked by that device.