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Rome, day three: Mobile and offline

In the final part of his digital tour of Rome, Donald Strachan goes offline and relies on travel apps and to discover the Italian capital.

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It’s day three of my electronic Rome experiment, and so far I haven’t strayed from the web. Foursquare kept me entertained and got me around the sights, but left me a little frustrated and chasing more depth and detail.

Google showed me the way with insight and precision, but burned my phone battery and blew my data sky high. Today I’m treading familiar ground: the travel app. Because an app is just a guidebook with a fancy engine. Isn’t it?

In an article in March’s National Geographic Traveller, I quote a conversation with Derek Lamberton, founder of publisher Blue Crow Media. He says, “It’s not a question of digital and smartphones versus print.” And he is right: it’s all about the content, not the format.

First, I switch off the mobile data signal on my iPhone. The best travel apps work totally offline, even their maps — locating me via GPS and plotting me on a proper offline map uses no data, so there’s no chance of bill-shock when I get home. And apps have more key advantages. They are cheaper and lighter than books. Neither of those is trivial, because it means I can carry more guides. Apps are quicker and cheaper to update, too. (Be sure to check its ‘last updated’ date, though, because a travel app shouldn’t have been left untouched since, say, 2011. Unlike fine wine, travel information does not mature with age.)

Lonely Planet Rome (£2.49; iPhone) is the most comprehensive app I’m using. Its detailed descriptions are familiar and trustworthy. There’s a well-designed offline map that allows me scroll around to see what I fancy doing next — although I don’t need any help finding today’s first stop, the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. I find archaeological sites a bit confusing; it’s difficult to grasp what I am seeing without some help, but LP’s information helps me understand the ruins’ context and meaning. On the downside, I’m basically reading a book on a four-inch screen — it feels a bit ‘square peg, round hole’. But the content is great, and the app works well. Maps are accurate enough to compensate for today’s internet cold turkey, though the touch-powered jump from map view to listings info is a little irritating. But at under £3 — the paper guidebook is six times the price — it’s a steal.

For eating my way around town, I packed Katie Parla’s Rome (£1.99; iPhone/Android). Guidebook restaurant recommendations can be a bit vanilla; I prefer opinionated expertise, and have spent my £1.99 wisely — that’s a cover charge in one bad restaurant. The app finds me the best tiramisu I’ve ever tasted, at Flavio al Velavevodetto, a sublime gelateria I’d never otherwise have jumped off the bus for on Viale Aventino, and even a decent Chinese close to Roma Termini station (I know, I know…). I happily trade convenience for a 15-minute journey to one genuine taste experience, so this app fits. It’s not perfect — the design is a bit fussy, and the map-pin for the Monti branch of Fatamorgana is far enough from the right spot to delay my ice cream by a few minutes. But this app was the best use of my phone during the trip.

It also dovetails nicely with the other sightseeing app I downloaded: Hidden Rome (£2.99; iPhone). As I sit by Monte Testaccio, chomping through an oxtail stew, I browse the weird history of the hill (it’s made of stacked, broken terracotta pots). As with Lonely Planet’s app, the offline map is smooth, plus there’s an enjoyable quirkiness to the curation. It’s another Rome app that just works — so I’ll forgive it for not warning me that the Pyramid Tomb of Cestius is draped in scaffolding.

I quickly get used to the online drip-feed from Foursquare, Google and the mobile web. I use them incessantly and simultaneously when I travel. But switching to apps has cost me £8 — less than a DK Eyewitness or Time Out guide to Rome — for information compiled by experts. I’ve spent nothing on roaming, and had no need for my Italian SIM or data plan. My battery is still going at bedtime. You know what? These apps may catch on.

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