Who has time (or money) for a vacation anymore? There’s just not enough free time in the month for your typical hardcore geek to unstick him or herself from that butt indentation in the office chair, throw some Threadless t-shirts into a bag, and travel to parts unknown. No, there’s email to check. Digital dungeons to stomp! Desktop files to organize!
Before you emit a frustrated sigh and close this article from the realization that, yes, our lives are truly just like that, fret not. For I have visited many a location across this great wide Internet, and I come back from my cyber-vacation with riches to behold. You don’t need to take a real-life vacation, because everything you’ve ever needed for a digital vacation is but a few keystrokes away.
Don’t believe me? Think this is going to be just some lame exercise in travel-themed Web apps? Guess again. Grab your virtual Ray-Bans and slap on some cyber-sunscreen: We’re going to travel the world together… and Carmen Sandiego is decidedly not invited along. Think we missed a gem? Alert us to the error of our ways in the comments!
Location, Location, Location
Google Maps is quite extensive in the view-a-home-away-from-home features it builds into its service (hint: Hover your mouse over the big “Map” or “Satelite” button in the upper-right corner, then select webcams, videos, or photos for live feeds, YouTube clips, and pictures). But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Mapcrunch is, hands down, my favorite tool for taking a scenic trip through another land. Pick some countries and hit the big “Go” button to randomize yourself to a Street View shot somewhere within the areas you’ve selected. But if you actually want get a little more realistic than mere pictures, Geoquake’s driving simulator will put you behind the wheel of a car set overtop Google Maps itself–no extra points for getting all Grand Theft Auto about it.
Even digital cars can be pretty slow, though. And that’s exactly why Google has built a flight simulator into its downloadable Google Earth program. It’s not quite as fancy as that Microsoft program of a similar name, but it gets the job done if you just want to buzz by your favorite landmarks in a digital environment.
For a more musically intensive and, dare I say it, artistic trip through some of your favorite places, there’s always The Arcade Fire’s HTML5-based music video for “We Used to Wait.” What it lacks in actionable data points and directions, it makes up for in American Beauty-like… er… beauty. Pick your hometown for the address you input into the app; you won’t be disappointed.
Of course, you can always eschew Earthly minutia entirely. For a more holistic view of that great, big marble in the sky, check out Desktop Earth. This simple wallpaper gives you an accurate depiction of how Earth looks at precisely the moment you’re viewing it.
Pictures: Worth a Thousand Words
Let’s all say it together: Flickr. There. It’s out of our systems. We all know Flickr exists, and we all know that you can type in any given geographical place and pull up a smorgasboard of shots tagged for the location within Flickr’s main search. Ta-da.
Panoramio, however, is a little different. I prefer it because it overlays images across a standard map of the world–very similar to Google Maps’ similar, built-in functionality. Not only can you see the most popular (and most recent) photographs for any given space, but you can also see photos that have yet to be submitted to Google Earth/Google Maps. Or, for whatever reason, photos that were rejected for publication into either app. It’s the real deal, yo.
OK, it didn’t take that long for us to jump back into the Flickr boat once again. Earth Album is just like every other “puts photos on a map” web app out on the Web, only it does so with pictures that have been uploaded to Flickr. Easy enough, right? Well, the catch with Earth Album is that this Web app only samples the cream of the crop. You’re only going to see the top Flickr images over an unspecified time frame slapped on the map. The site’s less compelling to visit on a daily basis but, when you do go, you’ll know that you’re getting some of the best images that the photography world has to offer.
Twitter: That Little Blue Bird Gets Around
Oh, Twitter. I confess, the only semi-interesting and somewhat novel Web app I could find related to Twitter and travel was Twittermap. It’s not an outright travel-related mashup of Twitter and a big ol’ map, but it’s definitely a useful tool for finding out the popularity of a certain keyword or phrase throughout the globe. For example, suppose I want to know which users in which countries have most frequently used the word “cat” in their recent Tweets. Type in the word, and little Google Maps-style indicators will pop up on the map for every user that’s recently used the word in a 140-character (or less) message.
Webcams: Seeing Is Believing
Now we’re getting to the good stuff. As well as the bad stuff. I say that as I do, for a webcam slapped right in front of a national landmark or scenic area is practically as good as visiting, right? Why pay $2,000 to go hit up the Eiffel Tower when you can just pull up the official EiffelCam? Still there! Still a tower!
Unfortunately, trying to find legitimate sites that feature webcams instead of SEO spam is like trying to find Atlantis. EarthCam is one such site that has yet to be too burdened by the annoyances of BS text and links. As I mentioned earlier, Google Maps also comes with a webcam layer that you can activate overtop its standard map display–a useful tool for trying to pinpoint webcams around a particular location, but not one that always delivers the best quality webcam feed for a given spot.
For the aspiring Snow Bro, the website Snoweye catalogs webcams specifically placed on, or near, a ton of different ski resorts across 46 different countries. That’s over 5,000 webcam feeds in all: Try not to let the tear falling from your eye turn into a hunk of ice as you pensively dream of shredding from the comfort of your nine-to-five day job.
Vacations just aren’t about the sights and travel plans: Part of the essence of travelling to a new location is basking in the music and culture of wherever it is you’re going to. To do that from the comfort of your desk, there are a few sites that immediately spring to mind for getting your international rock on. Shoutcast is self-explanatory: This popular music streaming service gives you plenty of free International feeds to listen to across a number of countries and cultural categories.
The website Tracksonamap takes this premise a little bit further and, like every other app in the known world, uses a tie-in to Google Maps to display its results. In this case, you’re getting a map that’s full of different tracks to listen to, arranged by the originating country of the music. The music comes from the Soundcloud service, and you can flick between different genres merely by selecting your favorite styles at the bottom of Tracksonamap’s screen.
Livestation is a website that’s analogous to Shoutcast for video feeds: For the intelligent traveller, pulling up a number of different (and free) international news feeds is as easy as clicking the mouse. MyP2P offers a similar service for the sports world, though your mileage may vary as to how successful you’re going to be for tuning into live, international sports coverage. For UK-only enthusiasts, try TVCatchup!
Language, Lingo and Lexicon
Language. It’s my personal pitfall of travelling, as I have neither the time nor the mental fortitude for learning even the slightest bit of any non-English language. That doesn’t mean you can’t, however. The giant online network Palabea is a mix of person-to-person communication tools, learning aids, and native speaker meet-ups, all designed to help you learn a language that isn’t your own (or, conversely, teach someone else who’s trying to learn your language). My Language Exchange presents a similar concept–it’s like finding a digital pen pal and language practice dummy all in one.
The beta app Voxy–for both Apple and Android phones–is a points and achievement-driven multiplatform tool for learning languages “from life,” as founder Paul Gollash puts it. The platform, currently in beta, combines contextual learning (think language learning based off current news items, not stale sentences in the style of, “Jane does something”) with a wide range of delivery methods: learn via your mobile device through an app or text message, receive lessons through your Inbox, or fire up your Web browser itself! Every spare moment is a language learning opportunity, as Voxy calls them.
If you’d like to try and master an accent in addition to the language of a particular region, fire up Map Your Voice. Those submitting to the app are tasked with reading a list of six words or a slightly longer short story, Roger Hargreaves’ “Mr. Tickle.” These submissions are then plotted on a world map, giving browsers an easy method for listening in on the accent of any given area or presumed language. Cool stuff, aye? (Or, eh?)
Extra! Extra! News from Around the World
We'd be doing ourselves a diservice if we didn’t include a tip of the hat to the medium of publishing itself. Besides, wouldn’t you want to read about what’s going on in the places you’re currently visiting (or plan to visit)? For a geography-driven presentation of the top stories around the world, look no further than the news-meets-maps mashup of Mapeas. It’s pretty; it’s newsworthy.
If you want the slightly more unfiltered feed, or have a love of dead tree media (Keep buying! Keep buying!), then the perfectly named app “Newspaper Map” does exactly what its title suggests. In this case, you’re given a map with a whole ton of little markers on it. Clicking on a marker pulls up a newspaper for a particular area, and the colors indicate what language the newspaper is written in.
And, finally, because Web Apps are the new newspaper, the website AppAppeal does an excellent job of showing you which Web apps within the sites database are most popular per country. It lists these categorically or, if you really want to drill down, you can see which countries send the most traffic to a specific web app of your choosing.
Unusual Travel Bonuses
What’s the most important category for a virtual vacation? Travelling, of course–gotta get to your destination after all, no? Whereables is the perfect web app to plot out such a virtual voyage: Each icon overlaid on a huge map represents an airport you can fly in or out of. Click on an airport, and then click on the routing icon, and you get an instant visual representation of every location that airport serves.
Once you’re in a given area, fire up the app MisoTrendy to combine the latest data pulled from the Foursquare service with any area you’re interested in learning more about. All you need is a Foursquare account of your own to reap the benefits of every other travellers brain trust–locals too!
And last, but certainly not least, a small present for the men (and bold ladies), if you’re in a foreign land and you just have to go. You know. Go. Then why suffer the embarrassment of having to ask for directions to the potty/loo/WC? Pull up Urinals of the World for that yes-everything-has-a-Google-Maps-mashup web tool for showing you the nearest place to accomplish your business. Seriously; if you need a Web app just to pee, we have bigger problems than your travelling habits. Or maybe you should have taken it easy on the World’s Best Bars listing.
Former Maximum PC editor David Murphy loves to travel. He does not enjoy paying roaming charges for his various mobile devices.