I started using the Polarsteps app in March 2018 at the outset of a 31-day trip to Dubai, Australia, and Thailand and immediately got hooked on it. I’ll be honest. I’ve always thought taking photos and keeping a journal while traveling were self-indulgent and a waste of time. But there’s something about the visual, tangible, and timely nature of this app that really appeals to me.
Gone are the days when a travel journal was just a series of long text passages accompanied by related photographs. Polarsteps succeeds by seamlessly and easily merging the two into a professional and visually spectacular photo journal.
To view the online version of the Polarsteps Travel Tracker journal I put together during my Australia trip, click here.
If you’ve got any additional feedback, let me know via the Comment section below.
Update: December 12, 2019
Polarsteps has just updated the app to allow users to include videos in their steps. This is a huge improvement to an already excellent travel resource. Some important things to know about this new feature:
- You can only upload video from the Polarsteps mobile app. I tried and failed to do it from a web browser and it kept failing with no error message or explanation. It was only when I searched Google that I found out why I was having trouble.
- The online help for the web version still says that you cannot upload videos, so it was no help in figuring out why it failed on the desktop version.
- You upload videos through the mobile app exactly like you do photos: On the Edit Step screen, you click the Add photos and videos link and then select the item you want.
- The mobile help page is broken, so there’s no way to check if it mentions this new feature or not.
- There’s no mention of how video content will be represented in the printed travel book: will it be completely ignored? Will it display the first frame of the video? Will it display all frames of the video? I’ve contacted Polarsteps support to get an answer and will post it here when they reply.
Strengths of the App
Polarsteps benefits from the following four general strengths:
- Ease of setup
- Ease of use
- Cool features
Each of these facets is described in detail below, along with a few comments on areas I see for improvement.
The app is available for Android and iOS devices. There’s also a website version you can access from your desktop at https://www.polarsteps.com/
Ease of Setup
As with all good apps, Polarsteps can be set up quickly and with almost no effort. After locating the app in either the Apple App Store or the Google Play store, you simply click to download it to your device. After it downloads, you create a user ID and password and that’s it: you’re ready to start planning your next trip.
On a scale of 1 (poor) to 10 (fantastic), I would give it a score of 9 for Ease of Setup. It doesn’t get a 10 because the online help system is buried deep in the app. It appears as the 12th of 19 options listed on the Settings screen. To be truly user-friendly, the help should be directly accessible from all screens within the app.
Ease of Use
The Polarsteps login process is straightforward and hassle free. After you’ve created an account, you simply click the Polarsteps icon on your mobile phone and then click the Log in link at the bottom of the Polarsteps default screen.
How to Use Polarsteps: Creating a New Trip
As apps go, this is one of the easiest and most intuitive I’ve come across. When you want to create a new trip, you simply click the + button on the homepage and a New trip screen appears. You then enter the details of your trip and designate who can view it and that’s it. You’re done. Assuming you’ve done some pre-planning, the whole process should take about two minutes.
How to Use Polarsteps: Adding Steps to a Trip Timeline
As you travel, the app keeps track of where you are and inserts “Suggestion” steps into your timeline. You then have the option to click the Add step option to include the suggestion and then fill in details for it, or you can click a Discard button to remove it.
As you can see in the image, Polarsteps has inserted a new step suggestion called Tambon Khao Mai Kaeo (the location I was visiting at the time) into my timeline. It has also plotted the location of Tambon Khao Mai Kaeo on the map. If I choose to discard this suggestion, Polarsteps automatically removes the marker from the map.
How to Use Polarsteps: Sharing Trips to Social Media
As with the other features, this one is also very intuitive. You just open your trip, click the Trip Menu link and then select the social media types from the list at the bottom of the screen. I shared my recent trip to Facebook and it took less than 30 seconds to do.
There are a lot of cool features with this app, the major ones of which I’ve listed below.
As mentioned previously, the Suggestion steps that are automatically inserted into the timeline make it fast and easy to add new entries and photos. If you’re having an active journey, they also serve as a useful reminder of things you’ve done or places you’ve been that might be worth writing about.
The homepage lists a summary of each of your past and current trips along with statistics for each one.
The following information is available at a glance:
- How many miles/kilometers you’ve traveled
- The number of countries and continents you have visited
- How much of the world you’ve seen.
- The number of travelers whose journals you are following
- The number of travelers or would-be travelers who are following you
“Furthest place from home” Graphic
A minor but fun and interesting feature included in the statistics is a Furthest place from home graphic that shows on a world map the place you traveled to that was furthest from your home.
Editors’ Choice List
The Search feature at the bottom of the homepage opens a screen allowing you to view the Editors’ choice list of best Polarsteps trips. This is a great way to see how other people have used the app to document their journeys. It’s also a great way to find out about destinations worth seeing in the countries you’re headed to.
If none of the selections appeals to you, you can use the search field to locate travelers or trips related to the specific countries or regions you want to visit.
Note that Polarsteps protects your privacy even with this search engine. Trips will only appear in the search results if the trip is marked as viewable by anyone. Or if the traveler has specifically designated you as someone who should have access to it.
The app is free to download, making it a no-brainer in terms of trying it out. No need to search for a Polarsteps discount code or anything like that.
From a bandwidth point of view, the app uses very little memory, so the “cost” in terms of battery drainage is also minimal. I had the app running the entire month I was traveling and did not need to charge my smartphone any more often than normal.
After your trip ends, you have the option of purchasing a printed version of your journal. As of February 2019, there is a five-tiered pricing structure based on the size of the book. The smallest, at 24 pages, costs 30 euros. The largest, at 300 pages, costs 80 euros. Polarsteps offers an early adopter discount of 10 euros on your purchase if you enter the code that appears on their website.
Quick Review: My Polarsteps Travel Book
I ordered the Polarsteps travel book for my recent trip to Australia and was very pleased with its quality and layout. In terms of appearance, the Polarsteps photo book looks just as professional and sleek as any coffee table book you’d see in a book store. Inside, each of the steps you created during your trip is presented on a separate page, with the date, weather conditions, altitude, and GPS coordinates of the locale in the picture.
If you enjoyed using Polarsteps during your trip, I’d strongly recommend paying for the print version of your journal.
Problems with the App
I encountered no signficant problems with the app during the four trips I’ve used it on.
A concern I had prior to the trip was that it would drain my smartphone battery. As noted above, this turned out to be a non-issue.
Minor Gripe #1
(Added April 24, 2019) I’ve now completed my fourth trip using the app, so I’m able to note recurring issues I have with it. One thing I wish the developers would fix soon is the way the start and end dates are handled. Right now, it’s not possible to manually start or end your trip. The app uses midnight on the date you select as the starting and ending point. That means that if your trip starts at 6pm on a Sunday, the app will be tracking your movements all day before you leave. The same with your end date. If your trip ends at 10am on a Monday, the tracker will keep monitoring you until midnight. The workaround, which is clumsy, is to go to the Trip settings screen and turn off the tracker. Considering how intuitive the rest of the app is, it seems strange that this issue is handled so poorly. A relatively simple solution would be to incorporate Start Trip and Stop Trip buttons into the interface.
Minor Gripe #2
Another thing I wish the Polarsteps app did a better job of is plotting my actual movements on the map. Currently, the app draws a line directly from one point to another. In doing so, it ignores the real geography of the areas I walked. This proved to be a major limitation when I went for a walk around northern Sydney Harbour. The app plotted my starting point (Manly Wharf) and then seemed to plot my location only every 5 or 10 minutes or so. It then connected these points, ignoring the winding path through parks and along beaches that I actually took. The image shows the actual walk I did (yellow line) and the Polarsteps version of the walk (red line).
Note that this is a modified image. In the original there is no yellow line and the red line is actually white. I changed it to red to make it stand out more in contrast to the yellow line.
Because Polarsteps draws straight lines across the maps, they tend to end up looking very messy. This is especially true if you happen to walk in the same general area numerous times. An improvement to the mapping feature within the app would be to have it plot a user’s position more frequently. Say every minute or two.
Minor Gripe #3
One gripe about the travel book: the cover features the first photo that appears in your journal. For me, this was my starting point (Nice, France) rather than the destination of my trip (Australia). So my travel journal for Australia features a picture of the Port of Nice on the cover. A better approach would be to allow users to select the cover photo manually.
(Update: February 19, 2019) It turns out you can change the default image that appears for your trip. And it’s easy and quick to do by completing the following steps:
- Open the trip whose cover photo you want to change.
- (Smartphone app only) Tap the red Trip Menu icon in the top right corner of the screen. Note: There is no Trip Menu option in the desktop version of Polarsteps, so desktop users should jump directly to Step 3.
- Click or tap the Trip settings option.
- Click or tap the Change photo button.
- Select the photo you want to use as the cover.
- (Desktop users only) Click the Select cover photo button.
(Smartphone app only) Tap Save in the top right corner of the screen.
This is a very valuable app that made it easy, fun, and engaging to create a journal of what I was seeing and doing every day. The photo and location prompts that appeared automatically in the timeline really encouraged me to create new steps. I used this app again on a short trip I took to Spain last May and it performed very well again.
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