THE BUDGET TRAVEL CHALLENGE
Travel by Smartphone: Mumbai, India
The boom in smartphone apps has made a lot of things easier—but what about travel? To find out, James Vlahos heads to the beautifully overwhelming, mazelike megalopolis of Mumbai, India, with nothing more than a half-packed carry-on, a phone, and a wide-open schedule.
Pink paint coated my forehead. Drums assaulted my ears. A mob of dancing teenagers had swept me off my feet, literally, and I was crowd-surfing above a parade, which extended for at least a mile into the torrid Mumbai night. It was mid-September, and India was nearing the height of Ganesh Chaturthi, a 10-day-long party that combines the holiness of Christmas, the pyrotechnics of the Fourth of July, and the girls-and-guys-gone-wild abandon of spring break. But, just like Jell-O shots, a little bit of the elephant-headed-god festival goes a long way, and as sweaty arms dropped me clumsily to the ground, I began searching for an escape. Easier said than done: I didn't even know where I was. Instead of asking a fellow reveler, I pulled out my iPhone and opened an app called AROUNDME. Following a red dot on a Google map, I weaved my way out of the crowd, strolled down a few side streets, and ended up at Swati Snacks just in time to order a nine-item platter of western India's local Gujarati food.
Travel is not only about embracing the unknown but also about taming it, and the smartphone has emerged as the globe-trotter's most powerful weapon. The number of travel-related apps has exploded from dozens three years ago to thousands today, putting the powers of a personal concierge, a supercomputer, and a network of local friends in the palm of anyone's hand. Apps allow you to make bargain-price bookings and check restaurant reviews on the fly. They speak in foreign tongues and guide you to worthy sites. Want to find a toilet, snap a panoramic picture, verify a taxi fare, or interpret an unfamiliar hand gesture? There are apps for all of that.
In the days before smartphones, however, there were equally amazing inventions to aid travelers. They were called guidebooks, and they got the job done. Are apps really ready to run them out of business? I decided to put that question to the test in the most challenging travel environment possible: Mumbai. A megalopolis of 14 million people crowding a skinny peninsula in the Arabian Sea, the city is like Manhattan but with beaches, colonial British monuments, thousands of restaurants, art galleries, and bars, and the occasional monkey. If I could get by traveling here with apps alone, I could do it anywhere.
My adventure began in a Starbucks back home where the Wi-Fi was speedy and Norah Jones trickled from the speakers like a morphine drip. I used Travelocity's app to search for tickets from San Francisco, and the first fares I found were shockers that topped $1,500. Cheaper options popped up when I switched to another airfare finder, Wanderlust, run by onetravel.com, but the KAYAK app snared the best one of all: a base price of $941 on Cathay Pacific, $1,275 total with taxes. That was still about $1,265 more than I'd ever dropped in a Starbucks, but I'd scored a decent deal to the other side of the world with scarcely more effort than it took to buy a song on iTunes.
Over the next few weeks, I raided the Apple iTunes App Store for dozens of travel tools, vetting them by star rating, number of downloads (the truest measure of success), simplicity of the user interface, and (of course) cost—although many of the best ones were free. At the airport, I tried out the first batch: GATEGURU to find an Italian restaurant, the Firewood Café, in my terminal; FLIGHT UPDATE to get table-side gate and plane information so I didn't have to abandon my pasta to check the monitors; and HOTELS.COM to book an $89 room at the Hotel Airport International, including breakfast and a shuttle, for my 3 a.m. arrival in Mumbai. Two flights, several hours of hotel sleep, and one hectic taxi ride later, I arrived, armed only with a half-filled carry-on and my app-packed phone.
Mumbai introduces itself with a shout, not a whisper. At the Gateway of India, a magisterial archway at the edge of the Arabian Sea, women swirled about in lime-green, hot-pink, and electric-yellow saris. Islamic men walked by in white dishdashas, with women trailing them in head-to-toe black abayas. Vendors tried to sell me melting ice cream, faded maps, and balloons the size of portly 10-year-olds. It was day one of my grand app experiment, and before I knew what was happening, a pretty young woman convinced me to buy her food. It wasn't until later that I learned—thanks to the slickly designed CURCON currency-converter app—I'd dropped $30 on a tiny bag of rice.
The Gateway of India is about as emblematic of Mumbai as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris, so I took an iPhone photo and opened SNAPSHOT POSTCARD. Selecting the image I'd just taken, I entered an address and a short message, and the company handled the rest, printing out and mailing a custom postcard to my wife (it arrived in four days). Across from the Gateway, I spotted an elegant building with white gabled windows, red, onion-bulb towers, and a cupola-topped dome: the Taj Mahal Palace. Inside, mandarin oil perfumed the lobby. The women behind the reception counter wore turquoise saris flecked with gold. How much does a single room cost in one of Mumbai's nicest, most historic hotels? The answer was 21,500 rupees—$477, per CurCon. Ouch. Not quite ready to give up, I pulled up hotels.com, which offered a room at this same Taj, with a full Gateway and ocean view, for only $218—still a splurge, but now within reason. I tapped on the screen to secure the booking and then returned to the reception counter to claim it.