From Petrarch to Mark Twain, travelers have been chronicling their journeys for as long as they have climbed mountains and crossed oceans.
The impulse appears to be as strong as ever. Yet the methods have changed. Geolocation apps are the new leather diaries. With a few taps on a smartphone you can create a digital journal with interactive maps, log every glass of Spanish wine you sip from Rioja Alta to Rioja Baja, and turn your photos into scratch-and-sniff postcards that smell like suntan lotion. (Yes, really.)
No app is as foolproof as my Moleskine notebook. But they can make multimedia memories with details like miles traveled and ambient sounds heard along the way, whether they’re church bells in Florence or Pacific loons in Alaska. And of course everything is designed to be emailed or posted in real-time on Facebook and Twitter, taking vacation-photo sharing to state-of-the-art heights of self-absorption.
After testing dozens of apps, I ruled out the ones that were not intuitive (no one wants to be fussing with a phone in the medina of Fez). For an app to make the cut, it had to be relatively easy to use yet able to produce slick maps, blogs, journals or postcards.
With that in mind, here are some of the best high-tech methods for chronicling (and over-sharing) each step of the way.
Off Exploring: Don’t have a blog? Wish you did every now and then so you could share that trip to Bali with family and friends? This app and website enables you to do just that. Smartphone users can post text, photos and video to a Web address created for them by Off Exploring. Cost: free.
Travelog: Like Off Exploring, this app enables users to blog to a Web address created for them by Travelog.me, though it’s a more no-frills affair. The minimalist blog page has a pale gray background and there’s no option to include video. Cost: free.
Map and journal mashups
These apps do a lot, so a bit of practice is in order — which I recommend before you’re wandering through Midtown Manhattan.
Livetrekker: Using your smartphone’s global positioning system, this app plots your route on a map and can pinpoint the monuments, museums, restaurants and hotels you visit. You can also share your updates in real time through email, Twitter and Facebook. Cost: free.
Trip Journal: When you open the tiny journal icon for this app, you can begin tracing your route on a map, thanks to your phone’s global positioning system. The app also allows you to add photos, videos and notes to the journal while it calculates your altitude, latitude and longitude. And you can share those details with others on Facebook, Flickr and Picasa. Cost: $2.99.
Tripline: Build your own interactive map with photos and text by adding or checking in at various spots: a park, a theater, a nightclub. Here’s the fun part: Your map is uploaded to Tripline.net, where you can set it to music — like “Irish dance," “secluded bay" or “Cape Town welcome" — and then watch as an animated red line zooms about the streets, pausing at the places where you posted photos or text. When it does, thumbnails of the photos and snippets of text pop up (click on them to enlarge). You can keep your map to yourself, or share it with friends and family on the Tripline website. Cost: free.
Postcard on the Run: The downside of these postcard-making apps is that they don’t include a stamp from wherever you are, which is arguably the reason to send a postcard in the first place. But the apps deliver a charming blend of old and new media. With Postcard on the Run, you snap a photo of a lighthouse, for instance, and then personalize it by choosing a border and, for 50 cents more, a scratch-and-sniff scent like “ocean breeze," “chocolate" or even “skunk," should you want to share an unfortunate camping experience. Then type your message, select a name from your phone’s address book and sign your name by moving your finger across the screen (for old time’s sake). The app sends a real 4-by-6 glossy postcard for you, so there’s no need to find a post office. Cost: $1.49 for a postcard in the United States; $1.69 internationally.