So you're going on holiday. What do you pack? Maybe that guide book is looking a bit dog-eared. Perhaps you have a tablet, one of those new, trendy touchscreen computers like the Apple iPad or HTC Flyer. But what can you do with it on holiday? Well, today Apple launches its first travel workshop – and I had an exclusive preview of what it offers.
Apple would like you to think that its iPad can do a better job than a traditional guidebook. After all, electronic updates mean there's no need to wait until the next edition hits the bookshops to find the latest prices, ratings or opening hours.
"Travelling with iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch" workshops start today. They are free and scheduled regularly throughout the summer in all of Apple's 30 UK retail stores, such as the huge one in Covent Garden, London, where I got a taste of things. Along with nine other guinea pigs, I sat at a pale wood table to find out how to use the iPad to enhance trips abroad.
It was a friendly enough affair. Once the Apple workshop trainer had introduced himself, the rest of us did the same, saying what we wanted to get from the session. Don't be worried if your answer, like mine, was: "Don't know".
There then followed an hour of detailed hands-on practical advice, guiding us through what to do, tap by touchscreen tap. Let's be clear, the company may be holding these workshops to keep us locked to the world of Apple, but they're engagingly done. If you find touchscreen computers a little daunting, the workshops are a good place to see you're not alone.
First, there was a section on pre-trip planning, focusing on loading music, videos and applications – apps, as they're more commonly called, if you've been trapped on planet Tharg for the past five years – on to your iPad. The second part dealt with using apps abroad (see below for my pick of the best). The rundown included flight tracking apps, ebooks and guides with augmented reality features.
Augmented Reality is very cool: it's a technology that allows web data to be overlaid on a view of the physical world. So when you hold up your iPad, it shows you the view the camera sees with animated markers that seem to float in the air, showing you exactly where the place of interest is. AR is available on many tablets, but in the world of Apple, only the iPad 2 has a camera.
It quickly became clear that with any app you should always ensure you're in a Wi-Fi area before you download data. If you have a tablet that connects through the mobile phone network, data traffic fees abroad are always exorbitant, so it pays to go easy on interactive services, including AR. Finally, the trainer suggested what to do after we got home – how to transfer images from iPad to computer, and even how to create photo books – an option provided by several companies.
There are, of course, other options – HTC's gorgeous 7-inch tablet, the Flyer, or the 7-inch PlayBook for BlackBerry fans – and many have apps that are just as good as the iPad's. In some cases, like Google Maps on Android tablets, they are arguably better. For range though, none comes close to the iPad. Apple has 100,000 dedicated iPad apps, and another 425,000 iPhone and iPod touch apps, most of which work on the large screen though without the graphical beauty of the optimised apps.
Taking a tablet on holiday is simpler than handling your laptop and a bunch of novels. But bear in mind that if you're prone to dropping things in the sea, it's cheaper to replace a John Grisham paperback than an electronic device. And paper doesn't need batteries. Maybe your trip abroad is designed to be email-free. Nevertheless, a tablet in your hand luggage gives you lots of interactive possibilities that books don't, even if you only end up using it for Angry Birds.
Travel Workshops start from today at Apple stores. For more information, see www.apple.com/uk or the Apple Store app on iPhone and iPad.
Appy holidays: Great travel downloads
Before you travel
* Flight Track Pro (iPad, £5.99; Android, £6.11)
Tracks flight times, delays, gate details and has handy plane maps to help choose your seat.
* TripAdvisor Hotels, Flights, Restaurants (iPad, free)
Shows hotels, restaurants and more so you can plan where to go even before you arrive at your destination. When you're there, the app has Augmented Reality built in.
* iBooks (iPad, iPhone, free)
Lets you read books on an iPad or iPhone. Other tablets have ebook reader apps which let you take scores of books with no added weight. Tablets are bad for reading in the sunshine, though (apart from the Amazon Kindle).
* iCurrency (iPad, 59p)
Shows live exchange rates for when you're in a shop trying to convert the price back into sterling. Android users can choose "Currency", which is free; those with BlackBerry PlayBook can try "Currency Gizmo", also free, which handily shows the cost of commission rates too.
While you're away
* Maps (iPad, 59p)
This app can guide you effectively but uses data to work. So take screenshots of the map and use these. Even though the iPad 3G has GPS built in, the maps themselves are downloaded via cellular data, so if this is switched off (as it should be when you're abroad), you'll see exactly where you are but on a blank grey screen.
Instead, load the map in a Wi-Fi area and take a screenshot of it (this is simple on the iPad and explained in the workshops) so you have a map available wherever you are (though the image is not interactive). Android phones have a different solution using "Google Maps" which is more complicated, but more interactive. Nokia smartphone users and HTC owners have the best deal; their maps are available to download in advance, for free, and work with data switched off.
* Weather+ (iPad, free)
Tells you what to expect in terms of sunshine. HTC's Flyer has an outstanding built-in weather app and the PlayBook also has a weather app installed.
* Virtual History Roma (iPad, £5.99)
A great example of something only a tablet can do. Ancient Rome is reconstructed in virtual form, above, in an immersive and deeply impressive way.