Smart Phones as an International Travel Tool?


As they get smarter, smartphones as an international travel tool continue to generate strong feelings among avid travelers.  Purists believe in the sanctity of learning a new city through a physical map and the kindness of strangers.  While others see smartphones as an amazing travel resource that simply shouldn’t be ignored; they can reduce wrong turns and unnecessary frustration, especially in foreign countries where you don’t speak the language.

On a recent trip to Toledo Spain, I decided to test the notion.  My chosen challenge:  During the 18 hour trip from my home near Washington, DC to a hostel in a foreign country, could I rely solely on my smartphone for key information (e.g., catching the right train, locating the bus station, finding a good place to eat … you get the idea), without needing to ask someone for help?

And the outcome:  My smartphone and I turned in a performance that was not-so-smart after all.   Over the 18-hour jaunt, we fell considerably short at three key points along the way:

  1. At the Munich airport, where I needed to quickly figure out how to secure a boarding pass to clear passport control for my onward flight to Madrid.
  2. At the Madrid airport, where my smartphone got me to the airport Metro station, but not to the train station in an outlying terminal that I needed for transport into Madrid.
  3. In the Madrid train station, where I purchased a train ticket to Toledo with only five minutes to board (probably hubris in any case!) and then just missed the train due to a wrong turn (and my limited Spanish proficiency).

In each case, I had to turn to human assistance.

So for now, the smartphone challenge did not work for me.  If anything, being so dependent on it cost me valuable time (and some steep foreign roaming charges).  

Here are some additional take-aways from my experience:

Budget travelers have the best opportunity for serendipity.    That’s because the cheaper option for most things carries more opportunities for slipups (and perhaps, fateful outcomes).  On my trip from the Madrid airport to Toledo, I could have simplified things had I opted for the door-to-door service of a taxi.  But it would have cost over 125 Euro, compared to 15 Euro for the rail option — of course, including my unlucky change of trains.  Yet the missed train gave me two extra hours in Madrid to see the city and discover a good place to eat.

English still only takes you so far.  The information which I needed to avoid missteps was no doubt available in Madrid’s airport and train station if my Spanish were better, and on my smartphone if I had the time to find it in a form I could understand.   But machine translations of foreign language web pages can lack the nuances to make good on-the-ground travel decisions, and even human web translations can be puzzling in a rush.   More Spanish language familiarity would have taken me much further.

The future is with virtual maps.   We already have robust mapping software to get us from one city to another.   All of my slipups could have been avoided with a next-generation mapping app aimed at visually navigating airports and train stations.  (If you are an app developer, I’m glad to share some insights!)

As someone who is energized by the self-reliance and serendipity of budget travel, a smartphone holds a decidedly mixed appeal: I enjoy the puzzle of a new city, but who wants to encounter frustration unnecessarily?  For now, using a smartphone as a “go-to” travel tool carries enough of its own baggage that I’ll continue keeping it more in my pocket than my palm.  But when that next-gen mapping app is released, I’ll be one of the first to try it!


Take the challenge:  How far can you go without a travel misstep in a foreign country by relying solely on your smartphone?   What tripped you up?  Share your own results with me at

By | 2015-04-22T10:14:23+00:00 February 20th, 2015|All, Thoughts From the Road|0 Comments

About the Author:

Since 2000, Russ has been the CEO of Hostelling International USA (HI USA), a nonprofit, member organization founded on an enduring belief in the power of travel to foster a deeper understanding of people, places, and the world around. The HI USA hostel network is consistently recognized as one of the best in world by the International Youth Hostel Federation and by independent rating agencies. Russ has been a featured speaker at national and international conferences on topics ranging from experiential education to nonprofit management. Russ serves on the Boards of the UNWTO, US Travel Association, and WYSTC.

Leave A Comment