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Can smartphone apps replace real-life tour guides? Sometimes. (Photograph by Giorgio Fochesato, Getty Images)

App Vs. Human: Tour Guide Edition

I’m a big fan of tour guides, particularly when traveling with kids. Children listen better when another adult is speaking, and I consistently learn something that I didn’t know before.

So it was with some trepidation that I recently traded a person for a smartphone app when I did a Stray Boots walking tour with my seven-year-old daughter. This young company creates scavenger hunts that turn the traditional walking tour into a game—tasks, points earned, and all.

We chose the New York Chinatown and Little Italy hunt, ten minutes from our apartment, and ranked the app against a real-life guide in three categories: cost, kid-friendliness, and learning.

Which won out overall? The results may surprise you.

> Cost: App wins

There’s no question that the app wins this one. Stray Boots scavenger hunts start at $5, whereas group tours usually run at least $25 per person, with private guides pricing well into the hundreds in some cases. On a purely economic scale, the download scores.

> Kid-Friendliness: Tie

It’s a scientific fact that kids love smartphones, so the typing, swiping, and picture-taking involved in the app experience is sure to grab their attention. But great guides also know how to tailor their approach to suit younger travelers with fun, kid-appropriate trivia, coloring books, and more.

Either way you go, however, the trick is to pick a tour centered around a child-friendly subject. Both the humans and the phones fail if the fundamental idea isn’t of interest.

Walking tours of Chinatown and Little Italy were solid choices, combining history and culture with ample opportunities to stop for snacks. There was also a good bit of gory history: my daughter is still talking about the “Bloody Angle,” otherwise known as Doyers Street, formerly the most violent block in America. (Keep this in mind next time you stop for drinks at Apotheke, one of my favorite downtown bars, and located on Doyers.)

As a side note, with younger children, it’s beyond helpful to be able to break when you want, without feeling guilty that a guide is waiting for you to continue the tour. If your kids aren’t old enough, or focused enough, to go at someone else’s pace, the app is a hands-down winner.

> Learning: Another draw

In terms of total knowledge acquisition, a live human guide scores over the app. Spending two hours with a well-educated docent almost inevitably involves more learning than a scavenger hunt can impart.

But there’s a caveat: The size of the tour with a human has a major effect. If you’re willing to shell out for private guide, your family will certainly get a great education. If it’s a group tour, though, your experience is likely to diminish in proportion to the size of your cohort.

We did a tour at the Tower of London last year with the world’s best guide: He was funny, intelligent, and knew how to keep our attention with juicy details. But we were among a group of 50, meaning we only heard about half of what he said. And my daughter, as small as she was, could see very little.

I’d go with an app as back-up next time. Stray Boots, congrats. You’ve won two fans here, and we’ll be checking what’s available before all future trips.

  • Tip: Stray Boots recently introduced a functionality that allows users to create their own scavenger hunt. You can make one specially for your group, but if it turns out well, you can also submit it to the company to sell online.

Henley Vazquez is the co-founder of Feather+Flip, a new travel website for globetrotting families. Find out more @featherandflip