Travel View

"Gowalla!" said a friend of mine. "It'll be fun." This wasn't an African greeting but an attempt by a techie to get me enthused about location-based social media apps. Halt the collective yawning and knitting of brows and bear with me.

The rise of these GPS-powered "games" like Foursquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places has lately moved beyond something that teenagers and geeks do to show off about where they are, what they're doing, and who they're doing it with, to become a traveller's tool.

These platforms let users "check-in" online with their smart phone, to places in the real world (bars, hotels, home) and they gain badges and, more lately, rewards from hotels and restaurants. The popularity of these media are rocketing. There were reports last month that Foursquare is up seven million users, from one million last year. That's a decent crop of potential customers. Budget airline BmiBaby recently partnered Gowalla to launch what it says is the first social media loyalty programme for a European carrier.

Impressive for a concept that is just a couple of years old – but so far, so tedious for me. Who needs another friend finder/online distraction? And as for vouchers and loyalty points: it sounds like yet more chores to tick off. But perhaps where these social media come into their own as a traveller's friend is as a city guide app.

Log-in to Foursquare, for example and you get a map that plots every venue within walking distance, pinpointed and reviewed by travellers and locals who've been there before you. So, if you want to find the best tapas bar in Barcelona/underground gallery in New York/boutique on Paris's Left Bank, "check-in" and see what pops up on your mobile screen. Newer versions learn your likes and dislikes and tailor their findings.

The thing is, you need to be connected to the internet. Fine if you can snag free WiFi, otherwise searching for that cheap bistro, as far as I can see, will cost you a Michelin-starred dinner's worth of roaming charges. I'm not entirely convinced. I'd rather "check-out" then go and explore unplugged.


Looking for some summer reading? Ox Travels is a new collection of writing published in aid of Oxfam (read a full review in Books, page 68). It's full of sharp, dazzling glimpses into other worlds by the likes of Colin Thubron, William Dalrymple and Sara Wheeler. Thirty six travel writers, established and upcoming, were asked to talk about an encounter that changed them. Among tales of an Amazon expedition that ends in a death, and a chance meeting with legendary foreign correspondent, Rudyard Kapuscinski, there's a story from Chris Stewart that is truly brave. Stewart (famed for middle-class crowd-pleasing books characterised by titles like Driving over a Tuscan Sun in Provence) writes about his pilgrimage to a Spanish curandera, a woman who heals by laying on hands. His ailment? Something he acquired from a nameless lady 25 years earlier. The story manages to be frank, funny and somehow sweet. It may not make a movie but could spawn a travel trend: new-age spa holidays for the gynaecologically compromised. Any takers?

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