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Image credit: Nathan Ingraham / Engadget

Lonely Planet's Trips app is Instagram for travel junkies

Instead of just posting pictures, Trips lets you build a full-fledged travel guide.
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Nathan Ingraham / Engadget

If you've ever planned a vacation abroad, you've probably spent some time with Lonely Planet. The company is the largest travel book publisher in the world and offers plenty of free resources on its website and in the Lonely Planet Guides app. The latter provided the inspiration for the latest Lonely Planet project, a new iPhone app called Trips (also coming to Android this fall). At its core, it's a crowdsourced version of the Guides app. But instead of featuring contributions from Lonely Planet experts and contributors, it's all about what regular users have to say and the sights they see on their vacations.

Trips walks users through building their own travel guide by combining photos with text and maps in a simple but flexible format. When you open the app, there's a big plus button at the bottom that starts the creation process. From there, you can select photos to add to the guide. The app uses geolocation tags to automatically group the pictures by location. The software also puts them in chronological order, though you can always rearrange them yourself.

While you could just hit publish and blast those photos out into the world, Lonely Planet included extensive options for adding captions, headers and text to your creation. It's all extremely intuitive, and there are only a few ways to customize the layout (tapping a photo to show it full bleed versus with a border around it, for example). After picking some photos, I had a quick journal built from my trip to Seattle and Vancouver earlier this month. Sure, the text wasn't terribly engrossing, but if I spent a little extra time on it I could have polished it into something pretty nice -- and a lot more in-depth than the average Instagram vacation photos.

With Trips' focus on photo sharing, it's easy to compare the app with Instagram and wonder how Lonely Planet will get people to use it. "We don't expect people to abandon other photo-sharing apps," CEO Daniel Houghton told Engadget. "We even built functionality in Trips so you can link back to your Instagram and show those photos. But this is a more in-depth product from a travel point of view." He's hoping that users put effort into the text, not just their photos. "Instead of posting one photo or blowing up your Instagram feed with 10 in a row you can do a gallery or write your own magazine-style travel story," Houghton said.

Of course, there are plenty of apps and services (Medium, Google Photos, VSCO's Journal) that let you build similar projects, but those don't have the specific travel focus of Lonely Planet. That focus on community is how Houghton sees Trips standing out. "If you do share your creations publicly, it all gets exposed to the rest of the community and hopefully encourages you to share more," Houghton said. "There's a lot to be said for being in a community of people specific to travel."

For starters, Trips lets users browse nine different categories for story submissions (road trips, adventure, cities, hiking and so on), though Houghton said that Lonely Planet will add more over time. When you pick a particular trip to view, you can save it to your favorites or follow the author. Eventually, once you follow enough people, your feed will start filling up with trips to explore. But it almost certainly won't ever be like Instagram, where users post multiple times per day. However, if you find the right set of travel junkies to follow, you could get a pretty active feed -- it just depends on whether or not Lonely Planet can attract people to its platform.

As one of Lonely Planet's first forays into user-generated content, Houghton is expecting the company's community to make the app a success. "We've never really had anything like this before, short of Thorn Tree, which has been around for 21 years," Houghton said, referring to Lonely Planet's long-established travel discussion board. "It's just a forum, but it's a successful one."

Getting those active users over to Trips might take some work, but Lonely Planet made it easy to jump into the app and start publishing. The company didn't put in unnecessary features, which makes the creation process quick. You can't do any photo editing in the app, for example: "Photo editors exist, people all have their favorites, and they integrate with Trip," Houghton said. "We didn't want to distract people from their process." And from a design standpoint, Trips looks nearly identical to the content found in Guides as well as what's on Lonely Planet's homepage; there's a simple consistency that makes the new app feel familiar.

Of course, things aren't perfect at launch. When adding photos to a story, it shows the most recent at the top. That's logical if you're in the middle of or just wrapping up a vacation that you want to post about. But for me, I had to do a lot of scrolling to get to some pictures worth sharing. If you have images that are months or years old, they won't be easy to find. Lonely Planet should definitely look into supporting the album structure in the iOS Photos app so images are easier to find. The test version of Trips that I tried also lacked a search feature; I've asked Lonely Planet when that'll be added but haven't heard back.

Ultimately, Trips is a well-designed app that can show off photos well, but that doesn't make it unique. What will make it stand out is if travelers start using it to show off their adventures in different ways than many already do on Instagram. But Lonely Planet is in the comfortable position of not needing this app to be a hit to survive. Even if it just ends up being an app used by frequent travelers who love to shoot on their phones, those users should have a good experience with it.

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