Hitchhiker’s App to the Galaxy

Have you gotten lost on holiday this summer?

Don’t panic!

Have you struggled to find somewhere nice to eat?

Don’t panic!

Are you worried you’re not getting enough exercise after all that indulgence?

Don’t panic!

Did you forget to pay that bill before you left home?

Don’t panic!

Are the kids getting restless?

Don’t panic!

Need to make someone jealous of the glorious weather you had at the beach?

Don’t panic!

I sometimes look at the plain black case on my smartphone and think I should use the phone to search online for a replacement case with ‘the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover’.

Douglas Adams may not have had a smartphone in mind when he was describing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the eponymous book, but he might as well have. Smartphones these days not only allow immediate access to encyclopaedic information on any subject of curiosity or concern that may present itself (even if, depending on the internet sources you gravitate towards, such information may well contain ‘many omissions and… much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate’), they also offer apps that provide solutions to any situation you might find yourself in, especially when travelling.

It has been reported that over a third of UK internet users aim to have a digital detox on holiday, leaving devices at home to avoid the temptation to check work emails or spend more time on Facebook than facing their partner or family. However, another study has found that ‘more than half of smartphone users consider [their device] essential to their travel experience’.

Admittedly, the latter study was about travel generally, rather than holiday travel specifically. However, the point remains. More than a third of the UK population (over half of the 72% who the study identified as having a smartphone or smartphone access) turn increasingly to smartphones to plan journeys, navigate on route, find shops and services on arrival, distract the kids when queuing, track their physical activity and so much more.

The biggest challenge may not be whether the information or app exists, but how to find ones suited to personal circumstances. Ones which are reliable, both in terms of the information and the battery drain.

If your concern is your regular commute, you can choose travel apps that allow you to have an account with your local bus operator to buy tickets, or sign you up to receive alerts on whether your normal train service is delayed. You might have an app that allows you to check any roadworks or incidents on your usual route to work in seconds. You might download a travel loyalty scheme with rewards or sign up for a cycle challenge, competing against colleagues.

But if you are seeking more flexibility in your daily choices or are travelling to unfamiliar places, knowing what app to use or what information to look up becomes trickier.

Some places have a multitude of apps developed from a plethora of data, others are black holes for 21st century technology, offering little for locals, never mind tourists. Some apps you use at home might offer their services nationally, or even internationally, but can you be confident that their data or user base is as high quality or includes as much detail in Londonderry and Yorktown as in London or New York?

Furthermore, how many apps do you want to download, filling your phone with unused icons? How many will tell you what you need to know, when you need to know it, maybe without even asking?

The answers to these questions are a work in progress, but the future looks bright. Increasing open and standardised data will increase app coverage and confidence. Healthy competition between app developers will create options for everyone. And improving access to wifi and 4G (then 5G) for travellers would increase service delivery. Perhaps in the not too distant future, our smartphones will assess our situation and be able to tell us, “Don’t Panic.”


1 thought on “Hitchhiker’s App to the Galaxy

  1. There are so many apps, you are right, and finding the one or two that will do what we want takes time and effort! We just went to a wedding held way out in the country. The invitation just gave the address on the assumption everyone would just use their phone for directions.

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