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.

By James Vlahos, Tuesday, Nov 23, 2010, 12:00 AM

A rolling shrine (Dmitri Alexander)

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.

A night of the Taj's velvet embrace vanquished my jet lag, and by the next morning I was ready to begin exploring Mumbai in earnest. I figured I'd start with the beaten path of justifiably renowned tourist sites and then try to discover places where locals go to eat, relax, and hang out.

Major guidebook publishers like Frommer's and Lonely Planet have released dozens of country- and city-specific apps but they haven't gotten to Mumbai yet, so I set out with the HearPlanet audio guide running. Before leaving the States, I had figured out how to unlock my phone so I could swap in a local SIM card and use location-aware apps like HearPlanet without huge data charges. (Beware: This may affect your warranty.) But what the company bills as "like having a professional tour guide always by your side" was more like "a robot that can read Wikipedia entries."

Instead, I switched to the CITY WALKS Mumbai Map and Walking Tours and chose a tour that included the Big Ben–like Rajabai Tower, the palatial Prince of Wales Museum, the lawn-fronted Bombay High Court, and the sprawling Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus station. City Walks had less information than HearPlanet and no read-aloud function, but it provided the basics and directions from site to site, and it showed my up-to-the-minute position on a map.

Brandishing a glossy iPhone in a developing nation makes you look like a wealthy rube. On the plus side, it's a real conversation starter. Among the curious who approached me were a coin collector, a Jennifer Lopez–obsessed playboy from the United Arab Emirates, and a young man in the hot-pepper aisle of Chor Bazaar, a.k.a. Thieves' Market. He pointed at the phone and rubbed his thumb and fingers together. Using FREE TRANSLATOR, I typed, "In India, it costs 23,000 rupees," and the app told him that aloud in Hindi. His jaw just about hit the peppers.

On another day, following a suggestion from an open-source electronic guidebook company called FIDESREEF, I took the hourlong boat ride across Mumbai Harbour to Elephanta Island, where caves shelter giant, 7th-century rock sculptures dedicated to Shiva. Winding between carved pillars, I managed to befriend some local women. It was raining as we left the cave, so I pulled up a drawing of an umbrella in an illustrated translator called ICOON, and one of the women shared hers with me.

These were all nice perks, but they hadn't yet convinced me that guidebook apps were ready to put the paper ones out of business. The what-to-do suggestions were helpful, but the information was clearly pulled from free Internet sources. And it was often scanty. In the FidesReef app, the only entertainment listed for South Mumbai was a $300-an-hour yacht tour.

That said, travel apps do give travelers clear advantages over their un-networked predecessors. One is that smartphones know exactly where you are. AroundMe guided me from my deluxe room at the Chateau Windsor Hotel—a $90-a-night deal I'd scored using hotels.com—to the nearest ATM, and then to Mocha Coffees and Conversations, which was buzzing with young people watching a championship cricket match. Smartphones also know when it is, namely right now. Mumbai has a thriving art scene, and one morning I checked my two city-life apps, MUMBAIKAR and MUMBAI BOSS, and discovered a pair of photography exhibitions opening that day. Pictures of the 2010 Zoroastrian Bodybuilding Championship sounded intriguing, but I opted to go to the National Centre for the Performing Arts for "Portrait of Mystic," which featured glowing imagery of a Sufi devotee whirling in the grip of religious ecstasy.

The most powerful aspect of smartphone travel, though, is that you can easily connect to a network of savvy locals while on the go. Before I arrived in Mumbai, the number of people I knew there was...zero. But within days I had joined 10 FACEBOOK groups, including Secret Mumbai, Mumbai Parties, and the Foreign Correspondents' Club. I was also following a dozen in-the-know TWITTER users: people like photographer Nitesh Nitesh and popular singer Sona Mohapatra. I also trolled food and nightlife blogs and e-mailed their authors. That led to in-person socializing, starting with Tim Judge at Harbour Bar, who fixed me one of his signature martinis mixed with masala-spiced vermouth. I subsequently feasted on couscous, pomegranate, and mint with filmmaker and foodie Gaurav Jain at Indigo Delicatessen, in the restaurant- and bar-packed Colaba neighborhood.

Before leaving the U.S., I had asked a friend who grew up in Mumbai to post a message about my trip on Facebook. That led to nearly a dozen friend requests from people in her native city, a few of whom took it as their mission to give insider's advice. Ashish Jagtiani, for instance, wrote: "Janata Bar is a cheap dive but quite famous locally...just heard of a place called Hangla's that serves Bengali food and has a couple of locations, including one that opened in Colaba this week." All told, I was getting a dozen or more ideas for outings every day. Even if I could follow up on only a fraction of them, the social-network-enabled stream of info flooding my iPhone helped me put my finger on the city's pulse. Photo clinic here. Karaoke night there. Festivals everywhere. I knew what was up.

To plan my final day, I scrolled through tweets and reviewed suggestions from my new friends. Then I hopped in a cab and used the METRODOWN app, which translates Mumbai's baffling zoned taxi-fare system into real-life rupees, to make sure I'd been charged the right amount. ("It is exact!" the driver gasped when I showed him the screen.) The first destination was Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, where much of Mumbai's laundry is washed outdoors. Ducking through lines of drying shirts, I marveled at hundreds of tubs where men stood shin-deep in soapy water, shaking and stomping clothes clean.

That afternoon, I went to Kamala Nehru Park. (Hanging Gardens, across the street, is a tourist staple, but my Mumbai friends had told me that Kamala was better.) Under a purpling sky, Mumbai was coming alive. Headlights twinkled along the oceanfront arc of Marine Drive, nicknamed the Queen's Necklace, and hundreds of couples and families strolled along the seaside promenade. Directly below the overlook, hundreds of celebrants of Ganesh Chaturthi filled Chowpatty Beach.

From Nitesh on Twitter, as well as from my Facebook friend Arjun Mukerjee, I had heard good things about a world-music club called the Blue Frog; that night, it was featuring Rajasthani music and dancing. The place looked swanky when I showed up, with a large stage and pod-like white booths, but it was only 8:30, so the club was dead. To kill time until the show, I left to have a look around. But the traffic, crowds, and frenzy of the Ganesh festival were so heightened that I never made it back. Things happened. I was sweaty and dancing and had no idea where I was. But none of that mattered. With the flick of a finger, I could be anywhere I wanted.

THE APPS

AROUNDME This geo-aware app lists key services (coffee, food, gas, etc.) closest to your current location, no matter where. free

KAYAK The app arm of the popular OTA, Kayak finds cheap flights, rooms, and trips with the flick of a finger. free

GATE GURU With maps of 86 U.S. airports, this app will help you find a gate, grab a bite, or shop in most terminals. free

FLIGHT UPDATE Track flights in real time; find baggage carousels; plan alternate routes on the fly—this app does it all. $5

HOTELS.COM With 80,000-plus member hotels, the app features discount room rates, user reviews, and ratings. free

CURCON Of all the currency-converter apps out there, this one has the slickest, easiest-to-use interface. $1

SNAPSHOT POSTCARD Convert any iPhone image into a postcard. Select it, type a message, and send. free

CITY WALKS One of dozens of options from City Walks, Mumbai Map and Walking Tours plots detailed GPS-assisted trips. $5

FREE TRANSLATOR Loaded with 35 languages, this app not only translates your phrase, it says it out loud. free

FIDESREEF An open-source guidebook maker, FidesReef has hundreds of app guides, including one for Mumbai. $1

ICOON With 500 handy illustrations, this translation app lets you get your point across without speaking a word. $1

MUMBAIKAR Think of it as Mumbai mapped—restaurants, shops, and more are plotted relative to your location. free

MUMBAI BOSS This supercharged Mumbai city-life app is a constantly updated source of food, culture, and events news. free

FACEBOOK Does it really need an introduction? All the social-networking perks, now in mobile form. free

TWITTER Sign up for the right feeds and you'll have a bunch of in-the-know locals by your side at every turn. free

METERDOWN Convert Mumbai's confusing zoned taxi-fare system into real-life rupees, no haggling required. free

FIND IT

LODGING
Hotel Airport International
Nehru Rd., Ville Parle East, 011-91/22-2628-2222, hotelairportinternational.com, doubles from $90

Chateau Windsor Hotel
86 Veer Nariman Rd., 011-91/22-6622-4455, chateauwindsor.com, doubles from $100

FOOD
Swati Snacks
248 Karai Estate, Tardeo Rd., 011-91/22-6580-8406, nine-item sampler platter $6

Indigo Delicatessen
5 Ground Fl., Pheroze Building, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharishi Marg, Apollo Bunder, 011-91/22-6655-1010, indigodeli.com, about $25 for two

ACTIVITIES
Gateway of India
Apollo Bunder, across from the Taj Mahal Palace, free

Chor Bazaar
Mutton St., Mandvi, open Saturday–Thursday, free

Elephanta Island
Round-trip ferry tickets ($5) are sold in stalls by the Gateway of India. Boats leave about every half hour 9 a.m.–2 p.m., admission $6

National Centre for the Performing Arts
Southern tip of Marine Dr., 011-91/22-6622-3737, ncpamumbai.com, free admission to the Piramal Art Gallery

Kamala Nehru Park
Atop Malabar Hill, across from Hanging Gardens, open until sunset, free

NIGHTLIFE
Harbour Bar
The Taj Mahal Palace, 011-91/22-6665-3366 ext. 3275, tajhotels.com, martini from $12

Blue Frog
D/2 Mathuradas Mills Compound, NM Joshi Marg, Lower Parel, bluefrog.co.in, cover from $3

ADVENTURES BY APP