Combine Facebook, Twitter, geocaching and a Lonely Planet guidebook, and what do you get?
This location-based, social networking tool is part game, part travel companion. Download the free app to your phone or iPad, register for an account and then "check in" at various spots around the globe.
But that's the basic, 10-second description of the app — in reality, there's a lot more to this well-designed site.
There are several ways travelers can use Gowalla:
- Go on a trip. Gowalla staff and users have created different, themed trips to follow. For instance, there's an Art Deco tour of Miami, a pub crawl trip in London, and one trip called the "Austin Stairs of Doom," which takes urban hikers up and down the city's interesting staircases. As you take the loosely guided tours, be sure to "check in" to the location and add your impressions, reviews or photos.
- Check out the spots. Gowalla works with your mobile device's GPS coordinates, so when you log in, the app will list what's nearby. This is especially handy if you are just arriving at your destination and need food, fast. You can also see when previous Gowalla travelers visited a location, and what they had to say about it. One of the most popular locations in my city of St. Petersburg, Fla. — Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team — had an update from a user as I wrote this story: "Upgraded from upper deck to just behind Padres bullpen." Good to know.
- Check in for real rewards. When you check in to a spot, you might win a prize or receive a discount on a service. For instance, the first 500 folks who checked into any Best Buy on June 17 received a 4GB wireless memory card free. To find out about offers like this, read Gowalla's blog: http://gowalla.com/blog.
- Check in for virtual rewards. People who check in and update their status on Twitter or Facebook receive "pins" or small icons to be displayed on their Gowalla page. People who use the phrase "World Cup" in their comments will receive a soccer pin, and those who are in South Africa will receive special stamps in their Gowalla "passports."
- Become "friends" with some of Gowalla's partners. USA Today, The Washington Post, National Geographic and the Sierra Club have teamed up with Gowalla and all feature various trips around the country to follow. Follow USA Today for instance, and for the rest of the summer, those who check-in on Gowalla at major airports across the country will receive the newspaper's travel advice, such as the quickest way to get through security, dining and shopping options, real-time flight information and more.
- Be part of the news. Gowalla's creators in Austin, Texas, often create news-related trips, as well. Gowalla travelers who checked in from any "Park or Nature" category recently received a "Help the Gulf" pin to raise awareness of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The Sierra Club also catalogued a "BP Oil Disaster" list of sites, which included places affected by the gushing oil. Photos taken by Sierra Club members and other Gowalla travelers are included in the listings, creating sort of a citizen journalist feel.
There are also other fun touches to the app, which can be set in six different languages (English, German, French, Japanese, Spanish, and Arabic).
After I joined and played with the site on my iPad, I noticed that I had a virtual teddy bear in my virtual backpack. It turns out that by checking in at my local Starbucks, I received a teddy bear icon that had been "dropped" in that location.
You can also invite friends to join you on Gowalla from Facebook and Twitter, which improves your chances of people commenting on your posts — in my area in Florida, there's not much interaction between Gowalla users, but I can see how in larger cities this could be an interesting way to meet, or compete, with others, similar to Foursquare, another location-based social networking app.