A few weeks ago I embedded a video showing the mTrip iPhone app, so if you haven’t seen that post, it might be best to read it first so the following makes more sense. I don’t normally do product reviews, but ever since I wrote back in April about the success of Lonely Planet in selling digital destination guides and then thinking about combining this with the prediction I made at the start of the year about in-flight entertainment systems moving beyond the cabin, so many of the different pieces have been coming together in my mind for how they might be relevant to an airline looking to carve out a unique position in mobile and ancillary revenue generation. So I’ve made an exception for mTrip; less because of the app itself and more because of the opportunity for airlines that the entire 3rd party travel app market could represent.

So with that in mind, I asked an intern in the office (he has an iPhone, I don’t) to take a look at the mTrip app for Chicago that I had been given access to and take over from me for a day on this blog.

Enough from me, and over to Danny De La Cruz from Vanderbilt University.

I recently moved to Chicago a few weeks ago and as a first-timer to the area Martin suggested I look at the iPhone application Chicago mTrip. After using the app for over a week as a site-seeing tourist, I feel like I’ve had a typical, if not extended  experience as an average user of the app. Below I’ve highlighted a few of my likes, dislikes, and how mTrip might be of value to airlines.

Let’s first start off with the likes. At its core, mTrip helps tourists navigate a new area. Your mobile phone is turned into a mobile tour guide. Users gain easy access to information, reviews, and suggestions about local attractions, cuisine, shopping, hotels, and even nightlife. Additionally, mTrip allows users to create a customizable multi-day itinerary based on the duration of their visit, interests, and desired “visit intensity.” What I particularly liked about the itinerary feature is the walking map it generates—the map shows the shortest walking routes users should take to see the day’s designated attractions from point A to B to C… Even more, the app uses the iPhone’s GPS technology to track the user’s progress between attractions.

As a quick side note, I thought the app’s augmented reality was an intriguing concept that might be useful to orient oneself from an eagle’s nest perspective, say on top of Willis’ Tower (formally Sear’s Tower). Otherwise until the augmented reality feature can identify individual buildings it’s nothing more than an intriguing concept. Nevertheless, as a first time tourist of the Chicago area, I found mTrip to be a good source of information to create a typical tourist experience.

With the good there is always the bad. One of the biggest problems I have with mTrip is my own bias against the concept of using the app and iPhone as a daily planner, tourist guidebook, and navigational tool. When I first landed in Chicago, one of the first things I did was buy a paper map of the city. Even though I am confident in the iPhone’s GPS capabilities, I personally prefer to have a physical map of the city streets; also, most maps include all of the tourist hot spots. Furthermore, I don’t like to have my day planned out and regimented. And though while it’s not for me, I certainly can see how this app would be a travel essential for the mom or dad that needs to have every part of the family trip planned, but doesn’t have the time or energy to do it themselves.

Another thing, with the $5.99 price tag on this app, it’s very difficult for me to shell out a couple of bucks on a application with very limited reviews and user ratings (the CHI mtrip app only got 3 stars and 15 ratings). I’m no expert, but I’m willing to bet that many users have the ‘you get what you paid for’ attitude which raises their expectations and lowers the ratings for mTrip. There is one solution and two methods I would recommend for mTrip to circumvent the pricing challenge—each with the potential to bring mTrip more revenue than app sales.

The solution for both methods is simple: make the app free. There are plenty of iPhone apps that have “lite” versions in which users have the choice to purchase the app at a price or watch advertisements within the lite app. While mTrip may not make $5.99 per user in the lite versions, the word ‘free’ will certainly attract more users and revenue.

Another path, and perhaps a more lucrative one, to making mTrip a free app is through partnerships with airlines. Globally, airlines are increasing the amount of investments in social media and mobile media. Already a few airlines, such as Delta and Southwest have iPhone apps. Delta even has parking reminders, terminal maps, and weather forecasts. In the rat race to create a superior app and gain a competitive advantage, it is not hard to imagine why airlines would be willing to buy mTrip’s technology for their own iPhone application. As a forerunner in this augmented reality market, mTrip already has the application made.