How do you keep your loved ones and friends abreast of your travels? Can you recollect all details of your 5-year-old trip to an exotic land? Is going back to Instagram or Facebook the best you can do? Here’s a traveling photographer’s comprehensive research and thorough unbiased review of 5 best travel journal apps.
Being a professional photographer opens many doors, including those far and away. Year 2008 was a milestone for me when I made my first business trip to Alaska. TripIt, through which I’ve been logging almost all my itineraries since that year, tallies my journeys to about 207,000 miles in 22 countries, a little short of reaching the moon! Do I remember much of it? Perhaps on the surface, with spotty bursts of memories. What will be left of it in 20 years? In my preparations for India trip in a few weeks I decided to try changing it and find a versatile and engaging tool. I’m a type of researcher who digs deep and throws everything in the comparison tables to crunch and rate the findings. I then realized that the massive data I put together would be a shame to bury and it may help someone else―I wish I found an overview like this a few weeks ago! What follows is my unbiased personal take on the travel journal apps which I formed for myself and then polished for my friends. None of the mentioned app developers were advised of this research.
There are two main approaches to travel journal writing: traditional pen-and-paper and electronic (social media posts, dedicated diary apps, Evernote, etc.). I love writing and expressing myself epistolary so the former was a joy for me in my youth, such as this diary from 1996 when I was traveling between Moldova, Romania, Russia, and the US. I had lots of spare time but not as much later. My attempt to bring an elaborate pocket diary to my 3rd trip to India in 2014 failed―I only wrote one record.
Of course, with the proliferation of technology, trips like that in 2014 get a fair chance of being recorded through mobile photography and a favorite social network. Photos themselves tell stories but how about non-visual stories and observations? What goes past Instagram? You can write a post about your thoughts but how do you later piece it all together? Have you tried looking up your Facebook non-photo posts from 3 years ago? How can you tell a complete story to your child when she grows up? A dedicated electronic travel journal―as a unified medium that collects your notes, thoughts, details, photos, videos, etc.―still seems to be the best approach so this is the one I decided to take for my next trip.
I first thought of a cool-looking personal online travel blog and Exposure kept coming up and recommended as a solid and handy solution. Alas, as much as I got hyped reading its features, one point immediately cooled me off―although it’s mobile-friendly, it is web-based and requires internet to function, an obstacle in a wild remote location. Until they have a companion mobile app like WordPress has one, writing on the go will be awkward. I did not include such travel blogs in my comparison below.
Refocusing on mobile apps brought me closer to the goal. There is a plethora of mobile diary apps, some are hugely popular, established, powerful, and polished (Journey, Day One, Bonjournal, Diaro). What kept me at a distance is that they are exactly that, general-purpose diaries, not targeting the adventurous travelers specifically. There are no “trips” to share per se. They are like your phone camera: photos are private until you publish some so you’d have to keep sharing and sharing. However, they are so handy that I included some in the overview in case you seek a broader scope of journaling and can forgo a few specialized travel features.
What I was left with are the dedicated travel journal apps and they became the scope of my thorough research. To get me headed in the right direction, I set the following features as essential for me to look for:
Below is the comparison table based on my research and testing several travel journal apps as of 01/03/2017. I included some other features that I can make do without but are nice to have, some are unique to a given app which will hopefully find their way to the others. Since these apps are actively being developed, I am sure they will change and improve (e.g., “Not yet” indicates that the developer is reportedly working on a feature). This data is fed live from a Google sheet so if I make changes in the source, they will be automatically reflected here. I also did a limited test of contacting most devs on the same day of 12/27/16 with a question or bug report to see their responsiveness. For your convenience, a PDF version is available by clicking the button, as well as a printer-friendly version.
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Now, let me share the overall impressions about each of my contenders.
PolarSteps To a visual artist this app appeared to be the coolest-looking and thorough platform. Seeing how much they already implemented for being new to market and still in beta, I have high hopes for them. The satellite map strikes you first and hard, especially when you follow a trip on the web. As you scroll down the storyline, the map dynamically moves along. There is also a neat day slider on top which lets you jump along the chronological path. In many other maps navigating a story can be less elegant, down to vigorous finger swiping. Another cool and rare sellable feature is GPS-free location logging (see bullet features above), only found in Esplorio counterpart. I would dread the thought of constantly having to turn GPS on and off, let alone keeping it on, to avoid the monstrous battery drain when hiking in the mountains. Automatic logging, another shared feature with Esplorio, is also handy when you get too busy trekking. When entering past trips via their web interface, it was easy for me to copy/paste image links and snippets from social media stories―not as easy if I had to do it on the phone as other travel journal apps may make you. I loved the opening stats for each trip. Photos are displayed large and tiled neatly without hiding any in a stack. I like their marketing campaign with an appeal to adventure travellers making you feel part of a rugged crowd. My wishlist: import trips from TripIt; ability to have selected entries private; use videos; pull geolocation from photos; leave comments; option to include weather; ability to insert photos from the cloud (Google Drive or Dropbox) and not just the local storage; see all story photos when on mobile similar to the web version; export trips to PDF (although book option is coming similar to FindPenguins).
Esplorio If I were an iOS fan, I’d be torn between this app and PolarSteps. They have some core features in common, namely GPS-free trip logging with little battery drain and auto-entry. Esplorio also has a cool interactive map and spiced it up with 3D experience. They beat PolarSteps in a few areas: where they stand out is an extremely useful and time-saving feature of importing trips from TripIt and TripCase. This is a God-sent, especially during the retrospective entering of your old trips. I have 50+ of them in TripIt and a thought of entering each manually, looking up and typing in all airports, dates, time, hotels, train stations, etc. is just discouraging. No other travel journal apps I looked at offer this convenience. Esplorio also integrates and can pull images directly from online services like Flickr, Instagram, and Picasa, as opposed to photos in your mobile device as all except FindPenguins limit you to. Like Journi, they can pull geolocation from photos, another timesaver. A unique feature is detailed tracking, i.e. showing not just the places visited but also the precise routes taken as seen in the sample below on the right (I assume it only works with GPS enabled, though). They do better than PolarSteps in keeping selected stories private. However, where they fall short is inability to add entries via web. The design and mapping are average but what ultimately keeps me away from wanting to adopt the app is lack of Android version. My wishlist: said Android version; web entry; videos.
VOLO This is one of the largest and better-established players with some of the biggest fanbase in social media and in app stores. They immediately appealed to me with a clean polished interface. You can tell that it went through a lot of development and improvement in the design department. Photos, although limited to 10 per entry, are neatly tiled, although the more of them you add, the smaller and less legible they become when grouped into a square. You can conveniently rearrange them by drag-and-dropping, as well as zoom in/out and pan within the grid frames. Entries are nicely categorized by type, including location, so geotagging is no longer mandatory for every entry, unlike with PolarSteps and FindPenguins. Entries are not truncated and on the web, you can navigate the timeline via clickable day indicators. They have plenty of unique features that I haven’t seen elsewhere. For example, specifying the means of transportation when building a route (car, cab, train, bike, boat, plane, foot, UFO, etc.) coupled with cute icons. Some activity graphics are also there for fun, properly aligned with the text. Another unique and fun tool is a Travel Route Summary in form of an infographics. You can co-author a trip so that more than one person provides input to the same journey! Finally, they use hashtags, up to 5 per trip, to help the community find trips by locations and interests. Unfortunately, they lack powerful mapping abilities seen with PolarSteps. The maps are static, not interactive, and small in size, leaving little reference point of the overall progress. Incredibly for a travel journey app that’s been polished for so long, there is no overall journey map to give a sense of a trip. Unlike most travel journal apps, I did not find a way to sign up for notifications from those whom I follow. Among other minor shortcomings are lack of web entry and trip stats. My wishlist: versatile mapping, web entry, videos, notifications of friends’ activities.
FindPenguins The app intrigued me a lot and I was looking forward to testing it after reading the reviews and description. I was immediately pleased with an option to set my own URL with custom words (still part of their subdomain but PolarSteps and VOLO set it for you based on your name), giving my “blog” a custom name, ability to use web entry and editing, an option to pull photos not only from the device/computer but also cloud storage (Google Drive), a choice of having select entries hidden as private, an integrated way to share to Facebook and Twitter, having comments in addition to likes, allowing clickable links in the entries to forego copying/pasting, and searching for Facebook and Twitter friends who already have the app installed. Mapping is solid and functional, plus you can explore other trips and users right from a geotagged location in your journal. The biggest and unique perk that they offer is a beautiful photo book designed in minutes right in your phone from your trip entries (you decide what stories to include)! The book looked incredible in the proof. As a photographer, I know the value and meaning of printed photo albums. They are the ultimate and distinctive way of preserving and passing your memories. You just do not get the same vibes from looking at your monitor or tiny phone screen as from flipping through the book, feeding your nostalgia for a traditional and revered paper travel journal. No wonder that others are picking on the trend and PolarSteps is about to announce theirs as well. Regretfully, as I was getting my feet wet and cold with the penguins, I started discovering some deficiencies. Nothing major but losing to the competition. Photos, both on the web and in the app, are limited to 6 per entry and only the first one is shown large with the rest placed along an edge in much smaller size. For one entry, I contrasted my plane in a NYC winter airport to one of Punta Cana. Side-by-side comparison worked in other travel journal apps but not as striking as in FindPenguins. You can set the main photo but cannot rearrange the others so be mindful of the order you add them. The interface somehow did not excite me, it felt 5-7 years old and a little confusing on the web. I experienced some difficulties with geotagging, especially setting custom locations (needed to type out the complete name as there are no suggestions from partial name). Limited stats and no timeline navigation were other drawbacks. Finally, and I am unsure if it’s a plus or minus, the entries are in the reverse chronological order, making reading long stories you follow easier every time you revisit but for shorter stories or when you can find time to read everything at once, it becomes awkward. My suggestion here would be to give viewers an option to switch between ascending and descending orders. My wishlist: modernize the design, better photo presentation options, more photos, better location search.
Journi I came across many web reviews and recommendations for this app and it indeed offers great functionality with some unique features. On the web, the storyline is fluidly presented with an interactive map on the side. Instead of standard liking, you can select a mood for your reaction (love, excited, wow, haha, cool, sad, etc.) You can also assign a colorful category icon to your entry (accommodation, nightlife, culture, transport, relax, etc.), as well as per-entry privacy. Another fun little something is earning stamps in your virtual passport that look like immigration / border control stamps. You can co-author a trip similar to VOLO and photos can automatically set the geolocation. Alas, unlike all of the apps I looked at, this is the only one that has a peculiar limitation: you can only enter current steps, things happening in present. You simply cannot select a date in the past… your new entry will have the current timestamp. In a way, it’s a live streaming of current thoughts and locations―not a bad thing unless you want to write a memoir. Now that I am jumping on one of these travel journal apps, I will want to add some past trips for a one-stop reference. Cannot do this with Journi although the good news is that they are reportedly working on enabling this feature. (UPDATE 01/05/17: The app developers advised that past trips on Android are being developed while iOS version has them already.) This alone may still not convert me as there are few other limitations: no trip routing, just unconnected placemarks; no web entry; photos arranged in stacks so that only one is visible per entry, the rest is up to the viewer to swipe; if used, geolocation for notes is not customizable but forced to current and actual (customizable on iOS); no individual entry sharing. My wishlist: allow past entries and web creation/editing on Android, better visibility of grouped photos, adding a traceable trip route, custom geolocating.
Journey/Day One Although not dedicated travel journal apps, these deserve honorable mentions. One is Android-only, the other―iOS. They are obviously watching over each other’s shoulder as the feature list is almost identical. I actually love them as diaries. They have huge following, great ratings, and are de facto leaders on their platforms. They do let you log your trips along with geolocations (both automatic or custom), notes (with a unique markdown option), both photos and videos (none of the reviewed apps handle videos yet) from your device or cloud, and you can follow your activities on the map or use a calendar as your timeline. You can seamlessly switch between using mobile and desktop apps, the data is synced; smartwatch support is there as well. Backing up to cloud, exporting to zip files, and publishing to WordPress is available. What’s even cooler, they can also pull metadata like weather, motion, step count and log it into your diary automatically. Finally, you can export their entries into PDF with which you can design your own scrapbook and print. If not for an essential “but”, I’d be seriously considering one: in the true meaning of diaries, they are designed to be private and although you can share selected entries to social media, they would not create your publicly accessible profile with separate and complete trips. There is no one to follow, either. So, while their feature set is quite more robust than the dedicated travel journal apps and are helpful in everyday life, their usefulness and desireness for a traveler are as great as you are willing to keep your activities to yourself.
CONCLUSION. What is my verdict and recommendation, then? I was leaning towards one app at the end of my informal research and after organizing my thoughts this well, my conclusion only firmed up. I am going with PolarSteps because of their innovation, feature set, visual appeal, ambitious plans, community reach, and customer care. If you are concerned about their startup status and R&D funding, VOLO can be your solid and established alternative as it lost me only marginally.
I hope this will help someone besides me. Share your thoughts and comments, either here or in my Facebook profile where I opened up a discussion a few days ago to get some last-minute thoughts from my friends. Better yet, I truly hope the bug of travel journaling will bite you and I will meet you in one of those apps. 🙂 I would love to follow you back! After logging the initial sample trip in four of these apps, I will only be updating my past and future trips via PolarSteps but I am not deleting the other accounts so whatever app you end up choosing, please don’t be shy, reach out! Here are my travel journal apps profiles: