Why Foursquare is a better travel guide than any book or app you can buy

I recently went on vacation for a few weeks. Given my job at iMore, I did what any of you would expect me to do — I loaded up my iPhone with all the interesting travel apps I could find, all the ones I thought would help me explore more, all the ones that would help me make the most of my time in London and Paris. Guess what? I ended up not using any of them. What I ended up using was an app I'd had installed on my iPhone for years... Foursquare.

I'll preface this by saying I've never really used Foursquare locally unless it was for check-in specials or I had a specific reason, like holding myself accountable to go to the gym three times a week. I've just never seen the point in checking in to random places that I visit regularly. When I got overseas, my mentality completely changed.

The first time I opened Foursquare on our vacation was our first night in London. Our flight was delayed three hours and we hadn't eaten since we left Chicago. Nothing on the room service menu looked appealing so I turned to my iPhone. I opened my travel folder and started browsing the apps I'd downloaded before we left. To my dismay, nothing really looked like it'd help me find something relatively close to our hotel that served a low key menu. And to figure that out, I'd most likely have to search them on another app like Yelp! anyways.

Then I remembered Foursquare and fired it up. In a matter of seconds I was presented with a huge list of pubs and restaurants all within a mile of our hotel. Not only could I see locations, but I could see tips people had left as well as the menu and price range. Excellent. We were on our way in just a matter of minutes to a pub we had picked out.

After dinner we figured we'd head out and explore a little of London before retiring for the night. Again I found myself turning to Foursquare to see what was around us. The London Eye was right around the corner so that's where we went. From there we decided to head to some other sights across town. Again, I could simply search something in Foursquare and choose between both Google Maps and Apple Maps for directions. In our case, it was Google Maps due to the excellent transit directions for navigating the London Underground. In a matter of seconds we were on our way.

During our trip I also found myself wanting to check in places, so we both did. This served two purposes for us. The first was that we had a digital diary of all the places we went during our trip that we could look back at anytime we'd like. The second was that my girlfriend and I both have very worrisome parents. Since our check-ins posted right to our Twitter and Facebook feeds instantly, they knew where we were at all times. It was also fun for them to follow along with our trip and view photos of all the places we were before we even uploaded any.

The most interesting thing I found about Foursquare while abroad was how many of the things we saw that were completely off the beaten path. In London those places consisted of pubs that locals recommended and coffee shops that weren't Starbucks. We even found tips on what vendors to check out at the local Borough Market (which we probably wouldn't have found without Foursquare anyways). Not to mention the money we saved with check-in specials at local businesses. In Paris we found lots of cafes and bakeries from tips left on Foursquare that we never would have stumbled upon otherwise. Neither of us speak very good French so being able to read tips in English saved us a lot of time.

To me these are things that I just didn't get from specialized travel apps. We know what Big Ben is and how to search for the London Eye on Google. What I want is an experience that's different from the next person that went to London on vacation. Foursquare gave us that. The difference is that most of those apps can't serve up vast amounts of crowd sourced data that's always current. I now realize why so many check-in apps are just throwing their hands up and pulling from Foursquare instead. You just can't beat it.

Starting now I'm going to change my attitude about how I use Foursquare. It was the feedback and input from European locals that made our visit to London and Paris a cultural experience that didn't consist of staring at monuments and buildings right next to other tourists. When I know a Chicago restaurant is worth checking out or that a museum offers free admission after a certain time, I'm going to make it a point to leave those tips for others to discover.

And next time I go on vacation, Foursquare will be the only guide book in my pocket.