iPhone Life magazine

Rick Steves as your tour guide - Audio Europe app review!

Travel. Who has the time? Most of us working stiffs don't get much vacation time, so when you do, you want to make the most of your trip, right? Find all the best spots, and not miss anything important. So, you need to do your homework, and take along a guide that knows all the secrets, ins/outs of your destination. If that destination is Europe, you will want to review and take along Rick Steves' free travel app.

The application is only 12.4M in size, so you can grab it any way you like (wifi, 3G, iTunes, etc.). The audio packs that contain content are additional downloads that you must pull from the web, so you will need some kind of network connection to use the app (though I did not check if there was a way to get content through iTunes). The longer audio tours may contain graphic images, and are generally larger in size. Most of the content I requested via Wifi downloaded in under a minute. Once it is downloaded, you do not need subsequent connections to listen or view.
 
The app is not difficult to figure out or use. You simply navigate to the section you are interested in (say France >> The Louvre), and the app will add that item to your playlist, and can be played back at any time. If you stop a section, and leave the app, it remembers your place when you return. Much of the content is audio only, which can be monotonous. The major tour sections have some graphics mixed in, but it would have been superior to have actual video shots of the locations intermixed (but Rick wanted it this way for a reason ...see QA below). In all aspects, I found it to be well-done and chock full of interesting travel tidbits, though admit I didn't actually go to Europe during this review to verify any of it. In every case, sounds like Rick knows what he is talking about...
 
There are some links to maps and content that are on the mobile web site. This is a minor complaint. It would be better to be able to easily select say a graphics download package (when available) from inside the app, similar to grabbing audio packages. The browser GUI is pretty anemic, and won't rotate to landscape. You may as well just use Safari and go to the web-site instead.
On the sections that do not contain an audio tour, I could find no accompanying graphics (for example: England--Outside London). The content consisted of commentary from Rick, and interviews with various other knowledgable authorities of the related topic. You can speed up the playback to fast forward through sections, or use the slider to go to a particular section. There is also a handy 20 second rewind.
Each section covers a large array of information concerning a region. For example the main section on Poland and areas around the former Soviet Union included sub-sections specifically on customs and other aspects of traveling through the area. Of course at any time, you could elect to go to the Rick Steve's website, and get more information as well through mobile Safari. There are not only forums, but video podcast downloads and much more great free stuff!
 
I forwarded some questions about the app to it's creator to learn more about the behind-the-scenes aspects of creating a travel app, and to inquire if any additional features might be added (say, under a pro pack). I was surprised at how robust this app is for a freebie, especially considering the amazing amount of information available through it. There were no ads or any other annoying "try/buy" gimmicks that I could see, which is refreshing. Still I couldn't help speculating how some add-on packs could spruce it up a bit. Below are some of the answers from the folks at Rick Steves... Evidently, they are intent on keeping it free and simple!
 
1. Me: How does this app compare with other travel-related guides? What specific aspects make the app unique (aside the obvious expert commentary provided by Rick himself).
 
"...from a user’s perspective this app is unique because it is designed to be used at home or on the road. Travelers always encounter downtime (riding on trains, for example), so, unlike most travel apps on the market, it works offline."
 
2. Me: Why did Rick (or his business manager) choose to offer the app free? Will there be a "pro version" later with more features?
 
"This app will always be free. There will be no “pro version” for sale in the future. Also, it will be automatically up dated with new content every few months. Rick has always said, “I measure my success by how many trips I impact rather than the amount of money I make. He sees this app as the extension of this philosophy."
 
3. Me: What kind of Google maps or streets view integration or upgrades are planned, if any? I see from release info you can view PDF maps, but will there be any actual GPS and/or location-based integration?
 
"There are no plans to have integration with Google maps in the future. The app was designed audio-only on purpose. Unlike having your nose buried in a guidebook or looking at a device, Rick hopes his audio content will free up the traveler to fully emerge “This app thrills the tour guide in me,” explains Steves."
 
4. Me: Is an iPad or tablet-specific version planned for in the future? Obviously the larger screen size would enhance any options concerning the last question.
 
"The app works on the iPad, but there are no plans to create iPad or tablet-specific version in the future."
 
5. Me: Does Rick use an iOS device himself (and if so, which ones) when he travels? Does he have any iOS-specific tips to share in that regard?
 
"He travels with the iPhone 4. He is a big fan of his dropbox app!"
 
6. Me: How best can an ordinary traveler prep for a trip to a location like Paris, for example? What are Rick's top ten travel tips for that site (or say a top-ten list of must-see locations)? Would these kind of features be found in the app now or in coming versions?
 
"The best way for an ordinary traveler to prep for a trip to Paris (or any location in Europe) is to go to Rick’s website (www.ricksteves.com). There they will find a ton of free articles and other free content (like this app!) to help with their planning."
 
7. Me: Any specific travel anecdotes Rick (or you) want to have covered/mentioned? Travel horror stories? What not to do...etc?
 
"There are so many anecdotes! To find the latest your readers can read Rick’s blog or Facebook page."
 
 
You can grab the free Rick Steves' Audio Europe app here. The app has obvious value for a trip to Europe (or just an interesting armchair glimpse). I suggest you grab a resource like this well in advance of your vacation/trip. The especially important part is that the app allow you to save or cache content local to the device like this one does. Important maps and graphics should probably be printed and stowed along as well. You cannot know what networks, if any, will be available or how well they will work (or that your iPhone battery won't die, or the unit lost or destroyed). The more prepared you are in advance, the better you can make maximum use of your valuable vacation time, and the less you will stand out like a tourist!
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Nate Adcock's picture

Nate Adcock is a system and integration engineer with experience managing and administering a variety of computing environments. He has worked extensively with mobile gadgets of all shapes and sizes for many years. He is also a former military weather forecaster. Nate is a regular contributor for the iphonelife.com and smartphonemag.com blogs and helps manage both websites. Read more from Nate at natestera.drupalgardens.com or e-mail him at nate@iphonelife.com.