The Good and Bad of Local Discovery on Our Summer Road Trip
Greetings from a summer road trip in the Pacific Northwest. Amid games of twenty questions and alphabet animals that blur into one another and mix with the beauty and tedium of the I-5, we have faced the typical needs of the traveler: shelter, food, gas, and fun. Naturally, we’ve turned to local search to find the best, the most affordable, or at least the nearest.
I’ve written about local search more frequently from the perspective of one’s home turf, where most Americans spend the bulk of their time, and I still think that the real test of effective digital search tools is their ability to cover the full range of needs we experience on a frequent or occasional basis when close to home.
And yet, today’s traveler is turning to mobile more than ever to book rooms, find restaurants and discover the hidden gems nearby. To wit: 18% of leisure travelers used local search in 2010; today nearly a third of them are turning to local search on the road. Travel is another kind of use case entirely, one that in many ways has been “solved” by existing services — but has it? In our experience, you often have to be creative to get what you need.
Here’s the report from the road so far:
Navigation: It deserves to be said that Android, and Apple with the release of iOS6 and the subsequent release of the updated Google Maps, have utterly changed the nature of travel to unfamiliar places. Now that I have a serviceable GPS device on my phone that can be plugged in to my car’s audio system and provide spoken turn-by-turn directions to any destination, I am fully relieved of any worry about getting lost and even more confident about exploring. I definitely prefer Google to Apple, not just due to accuracy but because the interface is friendlier in many details, instantly adjusting to change your directions if you happen to head the wrong way down the street.
Navigation apps can also be a great tool for local discovery, as we found in Portland when we decided to search for a vintage store in order to find an interesting part of town for my teenage daughter, a budding hipster, to explore. The vintage store turned out to be in the terrific neighborhood of Hawthorne, which we might not have found otherwise.
Hotels: We’ve decided to play it by ear in terms of how far we’ll travel in a given day, meaning that we don’t always know for sure which town we’ll end up in that night. It turns out this is pretty easy to manage if you’re willing to play around a bit with different services. My favorites have turned out to be Kayak and Priceline. Overall, it’s hard to find a mid-range hotel without several negative reviews, many of them picky and in my experience unwarranted. (I do note that either reviewers are more severe when writing about hotels, or perhaps the apps I was using have a tendency to surface negative reviews over positive ones – a topic that deserves further research.)
Restaurants: Here, I’ll trust Yelp any day of the week, though it also helps to find a good neighborhood like Hawthorne in Portland. When you’re on the road, though, and you see a sign that says “World’s Classiest Truck Stop,” you may decide to visit just out of curiosity or impulse. Call it effective advertising, but roadside signs are still a big part of discovery for the traveler.
Attractions: That brings me to a topic where ordinary local search may really be the wrong paradigm. Say you’re like my family and you want to find out about odd roadside attractions that may be a bit off the beaten path. What do you search for? Two solutions have worked best for us: Google organic search and Roadside America. Searching Google for “unusual roadside attractions in Northern California” is much more effective than any search term you might come up with in a local app, specifically because it leads to numerous curated results on travel and news sites, and curation is still the best substitute for this type of local knowledge. Roadside America, a dedicated website and app for unusual attractions, performs a similar service.
A combination of these tools has led us to such places as the House of Mystery at the Oregon Vortex, an odd but unforgettable diversion a few miles off I-5 near Grants Pass. And what’s a road trip without a few unexpected discoveries?