Old-Fashioned Travel Advice With New Smartphone Apps

I’ve seen people all around Chicago and Europe using smartphones and iPads in ridiculous ways that actually make travel less efficient and disconnects them from their environment. It’s totally crazy to gaze at major works of art and architecture primarily through your smartphone viewfinder, for example, when a masterpiece is right in front of your eyes. Or even worse, awkwardly holding out your giant iPad to use the not-so-great camera. Try spending valuable vacation time searching the web for travel advice on a mobile app when the person right next to you might just have perfect advice on directions, a restaurant, or stuff to do. I’d like to share some suggestions for just plain better, time-tested ways to  smartly navigate and explore a city (like Chicago) beyond travel apps.

Bad use of mobile technology travel adviceTip #1:

Before you get to a new city, or right when you arrive, have a good look at a map – either online or a printed map of the city. Study it. Pick out a few major landmarks located north, south, east and west. Try famous or tall buildings, a main square, or bodies of water. Get a broad visual idea of the city – it will come in handy when you get lost. And of course the first step in getting a more cultural and historical perspective on a place is to consider its geography, but that’s another story.
travel advice

Tip #2:

Navigate by looking around you rather than at your smartphone. I once saw two women walking with suitcases on Wacker Drive by the Chicago River. Um, first of all, don’t walk while looking at your cell phone, especially while in an unfamiliar place where there can be unexpected obstacles like potholes and cyclists. This is not my point though. These women were watching the blue dot on their smartphone maps slowly move, and they could not for the life of them figure out where Michigan Avenue was even though they had both been to Chicago before – which I found out because I asked if I could help.

Michigan Avenue was in full view of where we were standing, and when I pointed to the big, grand bridge, the one said, “Oh and that’s the Wrigley Building, isn’t it?” If she had looked around at the architecture and the river rather than at her phone, they wouldn’t have been nearly so confused. GoogleMaps is great, but so is the cityscape around us. Landmarks can be better for navigating than blue dots on tiny screens.

Tip #3:

For a city-based travel guide on your smartphone, download a travel app with a reputable names. The worst travel apps are made by app developers who sit in front of a computer all day long, every day, other than an exotic trip or two once a year. These appsTravel Apps in Chicago have put minimal effort into branding, and have logos like the one pictured here. There are lots of these out there. The makers of these apps often know next to nothing about the travel industry, architecture, or history. They pull unedited content into some poorly designed travel app just so they can try to make money of it.

If you get one of these “crappy apps” I will call them, you will sift through endless amounts of poorly presented information on sightseeing, hotels, and restaurants while you could be out exploring the city and discovering cool things to do on your own. People spend a ton of money to get away. But then they waste precious moments of their vacation time with crappy apps. Imagine how precious this time is for American tourists, with our short vacation times. For travel guides specific to your destination, the best apps for travel to cities will be the classics: TimeOut for the U.S., Rick Steves for Europe, Lonely Planet elsewhere. Oh, and the new Sutro Media apps aren’t bad.
Ask for Directions when you travel travel advice

Tip #4:

Apps can be helpful for finding restaurants, bars, tours and other things to do. Remember that people can be great resources for travel advice. I have see numerous couples in downtown Chicago standing in the middle of the sidewalk. One patiently waits for the other to sift through information on their iPhone. They could ask for advice from a human being and receive an immediate answer! People often give information more quickly and likely more dependably and they can easily target what you want.

I once asked a confused couple if I could help them. They said they were just looking for somewhere to grab a drink, maybe with a view, and not a sports bar. We were on Madison near Wabash in the Chicago Loop. Twenty minutes poking around on probably wouldn’t have uncovered that just a few blocks away Terzo Piano at the Art Institute of Chicago was open for drinks with a terrace complete with a cool view of Millennium Park. That’s where I told them to go.

Guardian travel angels often do not appear when you need them. So try these people for travel advice: hotel concierges, servers at a restaurant, employees in a museum, or just someone who looks cool on the street. When I travel I have no qualms about asking strangers questions. Responses are always pleasant, and may include some helpful travel tips and suggestions. At the very least, you’ll get a friendly interaction with a local.

Historic Bar Tour Chicago travel advice

Talking to People is Our Main Travel Advice

Which brings us to another point – talking to humans is nice! They have emotional expression and character that your blackberry doesn’t! It’s great to interact with people local to the place you are visiting. Duh, right? Of course, that’s a lot of what Chicago Detours is about with our guided tours of architecture, history and culture (shameless plug, I know). We do use iPads with historic photos and video clips. But the live tour guide catalyzes a social dynamic that technology is taking away from our lives. A big part of travel is who you meet. That’s why we’re glad cool people show up for our Chicago tours. The Historic Bar Tour has a super fun dynamic that no travel app will ever be able to replicate.

Many of the examples of travel follies outlined here stem from technology disconnecting us from our environment. The beauty of travel is making connections with a place and its people. Mobile apps can be helpful, but let’s not forget the value of people as resources. That’s our travel advice for when we visit cities like Chicago.

–Amanda Scotese, Executive Director


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K


Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F

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