I've just returned from a trip to Paris with my family and have to say that I found the use of my iPhone on the trip pretty transformative. For those of you who haven't travelled as a tourist in a foreign city before the iPhone, it used to go something like this -- buy a travel book (or two or three) and plan out what you'd like to see, as best you can. Email your friends and gather as much advice from them as possible to assist in the process of picking out things to see and places to eat. Get a tourist map when you arrive in the city and mark down the locations of the things you want to see and the places you want to eat. Go to your closest subway station and get a subway map, then try to match it up with your tourist map. Commence touring around city with tourist map and subway map scrunched in your back pocket and guide book in hand, periodically pulling out unwieldy maps and books to try and figure out where the heck you are and what you are seeing. At all times look like a dorky tourist.
Enter the iPhone. No need for those paper maps. No need for those heavy guide books. This one little device in your pocket literally does it all.
Before heading to Paris I did two things that set me up for smooth traveling. First, I called up AT&T and pre-paid for international data. Data doesn't come cheap in Europe but it is cheaper if you pre-pay. I never made a phone call while in Paris, but I used plenty of data. The second thing I did was loaded up on a bunch of useful apps. I got a good translation app -- invaluable when stuck on a menu item -- and a French Tutor app. Sadly, no amount of listening to the proper pronunciations of French phrases could help my accent (just ask my kids, who teased me mercilessly every time I attempted a French word). I also dowloaded a French Metro app that had a full subway map and would use GPS to find the closest Metro station from anywhere in the city. Along with those apps, I spent five bucks on a Rick Steve's Paris Tour but didn't really ever use it. It had some good histroical info but I tended to use Wikipedia for that, rather than Rick. Ok, ready to cross the pond, as my dad would say.
While in Paris, I could count on the iPhone to answer two questions reliably: 1) where am I? and 2) how old is that? While that may not seem like much, I would say it accounts for more than 50% of inquiries while traveling around Europe. I can't understate the power of pulling up Google Maps on the iPhone when you emerge from the Metro. No more trying to orient yourself on a paper map. Just launch Google Maps and there you are. Better yet, if you have the new iPhone, you can even see which direction you are pointing, so you won't have to walk a block just to realize that you are walking in the wrong direction. Looking for a particular museum or restaurant? Search for it on maps and, voila, there it is located with a red pin. The iPhone takes out all the gueswork in navigation.
"How old is that?" isn't the only question the iPhone can answer. It can also answer "Where did Picaso live?" or "Who's burried in Pre Lachaise?" or "is the Louvre open on Tuesday?" If you are looking for a good crepe in the Marais, the iPhone will pull up all the crepe restaurants around, along with ratings and reviews. If you're wondering when's the best time to visit the Eiffel Tower, no problem.
Admittedly, the iPhone isn't the only device that can help you find your way around Paris. Nearly any smart phone will do some or all of the things that made my experience with the iPhone so satisfying. I am not a an iPhone zealot by any means. I still carry a Treo in one pocket and iPhone in the other (give me an iPhone with a keyboard and I may think about carry just one phone). But the combination of useful apps, smart map and GPS integration and powerful web browsing made traveling in a foreign city with the iPhone a joy.