Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Foot Notes: Europe by audio guides

Few regions of the world are as conducive to self-organized, independent travel as Europe, and, with lovely weather and long days, summer is the perfect time to visit. With independence, however, come questions and doubts—which way to turn; which things to see and which you can give a miss; what would the locals do? Lugging a heavy guidebook to make sense of a place or spending a fortune to hire personal tour guides can be a pain.

The growing trend of mobile audio guide apps seems to have the best answers. It replaces the need for a local guide while giving tourists access to expert guidance and directions, and it costs far less. Apps typically include a selection of tours with audio narration, offline maps and a few other features, such as the ability to book tours and tickets on the go, or even create a photo album of your trip. Most work without an active data connection once you have downloaded the content, so you save on data charges.

We review some of the top audio guide apps with good coverage of Europe, specifically keeping in mind their cost, ease of use, quality of content and features.

Rick Steves’ Audio Europe

Available for: Cultural tourist destinations across Europe

Cost: Free

Rick Steves’ Audio Europe is the best-known audio guide for discerning travellers, many of whom know him from his TV shows. The guides include “walking tours", “monument tours" as well as “interviews" with guides and personalities such as author Bill Bryson for interesting background on the country being visited. Take London, for instance. The typical tour has 20-60 minutes of audio. In lieu of a regular map, you get a hand-drawn map of the tour. The content is comprehensive and engaging, and demonstrates the difference between well- researched guidance from an expert and hurriedly crowd-sourced content. Unfortunately, the app is marred by a difficult interface and a clunky downloads system, but for now, Rick Steves would be our top recommendation for a cultural trip in Europe.

Rating: 4/5

Detour

Available for: (In Europe) London, Paris, Barcelona, Berlin

Cost: Europe tours are free for now

Detour, a somewhat different approach to audio tours, moves away from the “tourist attractions" and focuses instead on the people and their lives, the cultures and subcultures. One of the tours currently available for London, for example, takes you through the backstreets of Westminster in the company of a “forgetful senior civil servant" who provides a highly engaging narrative of the hidden machinations of politics and bureaucracy in London’s centre of power. Not your typical tour. Both narrative content and production value are good. Detour has been created by Andrew Mason, founder of e-commerce marketplace Groupon, and is available for a few places in Europe, the US and Marrakech, Morocco.

Rating: 4/5

PocketGuide Audio Travel Guide

Available for: Major tourist destinations around the world

Cost: $5 per (around 335) tour, $10 per package (5-10 tours)

PocketGuide, available for more than 150 places worldwide, has a mix of traditional and off-beat sightseeing and walking tours. A typical city package includes a set of audio tours, a few dozen sites of interest with brief audio descriptions, a map that can be downloaded and used offline, listings of restaurants, attractions, parks and other places of interest, as well as the option to book tour packages. Each tour lasts 3-6 hours—the focus is on exploring the city’s streets. The app is not too useful for details about specific monuments or sights, which can be the whole point for most visitors.

An interesting feature is the ability to do the tour in a group (where each participant has the app and an active Internet connection), and the audio is synchronized. PocketGuide also has a tour diary feature that lets you create a 3D video from photos to share with your friends.

Rating: 3.5/5

VoiceMap

Available for: Tours available in around 30 countries

Cost: Ranges from free to $5 per tour

VoiceMap represents an interesting concept where individuals can create and record an audio tour for any place in the world, set the price for it and share revenue with the platform. Tours vary from the typical walking tours to more esoteric or speciality tours, such as one of London’s “Theatreland", narrated by the actor Sir Ian McKellen (free!). Choosing between tours is difficult, for one has to look into each one and view the description and user rating to figure out which one to buy. Still, with the wide variety on offer, and the focus on the narrator’s “voice", VoiceMap is a great option.

Rating: 3.5/5

(A parting tip for the road: Once you’ve chosen your preferred audio guide app, try and download as many tours as possible at home. You never know if you’ll have the time, or reliable Wi-Fi, on the road.)

Siddhartha Kongara is a co-founder of CaptivaTour, a maker of audio guides for select Indian tourist sites.

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