An unexpected insight from  our recently-completed Turkey vacation was the way mobile devices and wifi networks simplified and improved our travel experience. It was a qualitative change in our travel experience, affecting how we spent our time and our money, and what we packed.

The crucial change was that I carried a borrowed Android smartphone, in place of my 2005-vintage Treo 650. The phone spoke Turkey’s GSM frequencies and was unlocked, ready to accept a local GSM chip. It could use wi-fi and 3G networking, and had a built-in camera. Ducky carried her iPhone, which she didn’t have for last summer’s Botswana trip. Though locked out of Turkish voice and data service, it still could use wi-fi networks and take pictures. We were travelling in parts of Turkey with good mobile voice and data coverage, and where we could easily steer to hotels with wi-fi service.

Let us count the ways this transformed our travel experience.

We bought a GSM chip from upstart Turkish carrier EVA (though we could have chosen Turkcell or Vodaphone). This chip gave us affordable voice rates, and let us call hotels and agencies at our convenience, rather than waiting for a pay phone or a web terminal. Plus, now the hotels or tour agents could call us, too. I didn’t realise how much time I spent looking for pay phones until I stopped needing to.

Adding an affordable data plan let us use the surprisingly detailed web maps of our Turkish destinations. Google Maps has good coverage of Turkey! Also, the phone could show us our location, with astonishing accuracy. Suddenly, finding our way to the charming Ottoman restaurant in the winding Ankara side-street was trivial, and buying local paper maps was much less critical.

Wifi reception on the mobile devices gave us free internet access at almost every hotel. No longer did we need to spend a couple of hours every few days in Internet cafes. We could catch up on mail, or research the next destination, while lying in bed at the hotel. Another bonus was that I could trust my web terminal, because I control it.  I am always nervous about typing in passwords to web terminals at internet cafés. Who knows what key logger might be installed?  That concern vanished when it was my device on which I typed.

The convenience led to improved communication with the folks back home. Status emails and Facebook posts, especially with photos attached, proved cheaper, more personal, and muuuch more timely than postcards they have largely replaced. We even got to enjoy replies from home before we even returned.

I lost the family camera a few weeks before the trip. I’d be fairly distressed about embarking on a memorable trip with no way to capture memories. But our mobiles had cameras adequate for well-lit snapshots. And because digital photos are easily shared, we could rely on copying photos our travel companions shot, and borrow their nice cameras when we wanted a particular shot. (We tripped on our backwards tech, though. The SD card reader at home maxed out at 2GB SD cards, and both nephews had larger-capacity cards SDHC. Time to buy a new card reader!)

Network access let us retrieve helpful information like suggested destinations, local contacts,  and flight reservations. A nice added safety net was having scanned images of our passports as attachments in our web email, as well as on paper in our luggage.

We could even play games. We (re-)discovered the Turkish favourite game, backgammon, while drinking tea at a restored caravansary. The next night, I downloaded a backgammon app from the Android Marketplace.  Presto! A free travel backgammon set, with no added luggage weight.
Recording our experiences also became easier. I pecked out the first draft of this essay six miles above the western US, on the flight home. Having a web browser rich enough to handle Wikitravel let me add listings on the spot for hotels and restaurants which I would not otherwise have bothered with.

Apropos of maps, our trip last year to Botswana gave us a chance to replace a paper map in a most interesting way. It was hard to find accurate paper maps of the Botswana bush at all, let alone in North America. The impressive Tracks4Africa project was able to provide us digital maps of Botswana and South Africa, suitable for loading on GPS devices. This gave me a perfect excuse to buy a fine new Garmin GPSmap 76cs, which delivered the maps, and our position, very well. The really innovative touch is that T4A generated its maps by aggregating GPS track data contributed by their clients. Where many tracks ran through roughly the same latitudes and longitudes, T4A infers the existence of some kind of road. High speeds indicate a highway; crawling indicate a bush track. Thus T4A is a generative mechanism, not just a rehosting of existing content on handheld devices. Even better, their coverage is best precisely where travelers venture most often. In due course, smartphones will become able to both host and contribute to generative maps like T4A.

Many of you are reading this with pity, me the laggard who is only just now moving off the 2005-vintage PalmOS handheld. OK, I’m not cutting edge. But seeing so much of the transformation in the concentrated weeks of a major international trip drove home the marvellous benefits of this new handheld technology. I have a feeling I’ll plan differently for next year’s trip, knowing what the device in my pocket can do for me on the road.