Gowalla vs Foursquare as tools for travel

Posted: July 12, 2010    Categories: Travel Gear

Gowalla vs Foursquare TravelGowalla and Foursquare have been at the forefront of the location based social networking, or the two major players in the “check-in” wars. I’m a big social media guy, so I wanted to see how these two platforms match up for people who are traveling. I should make it very explicit that this review is from the perspective of someone who is traveling and is not at home where most of their friends and normal hangouts are.


Over the last few months, I have been using and abusing Gowalla and Foursquare. I’ve tested them in Spain, New York, Chicago and Appleton, Wisconsin, which give me a good overview of their use overseas, in large cities and in small towns. I have been using both services on the iPhone 3GS and the iPad. I do not have an Android or Blackberry device to test them on. I abused the systems as much as I could trying to find out how far away and how often I could check in.

The Game

One of the reasons for the success of both services is that in addition to knowing where your friends are, there is also a game aspect to the service where you can earn virtual rewards.

Foursquare has two ways of playing the check-in game. First, if you check-in enough times to a location, you can become the mayor. A few places will offer specials like a free drink if you become the mayor of that spot. If you are traveling, the odds of ever becoming the mayor of anything is pretty slim, especially if you are visiting a big city. I am currently the mayor of locations in Spain, New York and Chicago. I don’t expect any of those mayorships to last very long

The other game aspect to Foursquare are the badges you can earn for doing certain things. For example, if you check into 5 different Starbucks, you can get the Barista Badge. Unfortunately, the vast majority of badges are only available in New York or a few other large cities, or are only available at the SXSW festival in Austin. If you just go by the number of badges, you’d think that Foursquare only has an audience in New York, Chicago and San Francisco…and people who visit SXSW. If you do not live in a major city, there are only a handful of badges you can possibly earn.

As of my writing this, I have earned 46 Foursquare badges and I had to go far out of my way to get most of those when I was in New York and Chicago. If I wasn’t actively trying to get badges, I would have no where near that many, even if I was always checking in to locations I was visiting.

To make matters worse, how you earn badges is more often than not a total mystery. You can’t tell by using the Foursquare app how to earn a given badge. The only way I knew how to get many of the badges I earned was by scouting websites which gave hints how to get various badges. In fact, the Chicago Tourism Board has created 3 Foursquare badges to encourage people to visit various parts of the city. If you go to their website, they have pdf files you can print out to know what places in Chicago to visit. There is no built in mechanism in Foursquare to let you know where to go to earn a badge.

Anything which requires printing is a failure.

Gowalla Passport Page

Gowalla Passport Page

The game aspect of Gowalla is much better. Instead of badges they have pins, which are basically the same thing. Unlike Foursqure, Gowalla pins tend to be rewards for creating new spots, uploading photos, etc. They do not have a mayor feature for given locations, but they do offer a leader board which shows how many people have checked into a given spot.

There are several parts of the Gowalla game which are totally different from Foursquare and make the game far more interesting from a travel standpoint.

The first is the passport. Every time you check-in to a location for the first time, that is added as a stamp in your passport. Most stamps are generic icons for the type of place you check-in at: restaurant, store, gas station, etc. However, they have created a number of custom icons for famous places around the United States: stadiums, monuments, airports, etc. Those special stamps are tracked separately in your passport. I have currently check-in at 36 places that have featured stamps in Gowalla. The Gowalla iPhone app makes it very easy to see if there are any featured spots within about a 30km radius from your current location.

The passport also currently tracks the number of American states you’ve visited as well. I’ve read some comments from Gowalla developers who say they may expand that to countries too. If they do implement that, and I hope they do, it would make Gowalla almost like a real passport you could use to show people the places you’ve been around the world. It would also be cool if they could just count the number of cities you’ve been to as well. You could then integrate that data into a service like Where I’ve Been or the Cities I’ve Visited Facebook app by TripAdvisor.com. (There is also nothing stopping Foursquare from adopting this.)

The third part of the Gowalla game are items. Items are virtual items you can find by checking in to random places. Almost any location in any city can have an item. This part of Gowalla makes the game fun if you live anywhere outside of New York or Chicago. There are about 135 different items you can collect. In addition to collecting the items, you can leave items at locations to become a founder of that spot. Up to 10 people can be a founder of a given location. You can then swap items which have been dropped by other people to help you complete your collection. This means you can play Gowalla with people you don’t even know by swapping items at locations. You can almost think of this part of Gowalla as virtual geocaching. You run around to collect things, except in this case, the things are just items on your cell phone.

The final part of the Gowalla game, and the one which is really great for travel, are Gowalla Trips. Trips are just a collection of places you can check in to earn a pin. Many of them are basically walking tours in a given city. Unlike Foursquare, each trip has a page where you can see exactly where you have to go to earn the pin, but you can also see all the locations on a map. This makes it very easy to use trips as a type of guidebook for visiting a city. For example, National Geographic has created trips for Chicago Parks and the Museum Mile in New York.

Moreover, anyone can create a trip. If you follow me on Gowalla, you will have access to any trips which I make. Any visitor or tourism organization can put together a trip of their own which will be available to users who follow them.

Foursquare Software

Foursquare Software


I can only address software on the iPad and iPhone, but for me, there is no contest. The Gowalla software is superior across the board. For starters, there is no native Foursquare app for the iPad, so that is all there is to say about that.

The Gowalla software for the iPhone looks better, seems to be much more accurate, and has more integrated mapping. Only with the latest release of the Foursquare app have they added mapping (which seems really odd for a location based service).

The Foursquare list of badges has a bunch of greyed out buttons, many of were only available at special events and can no longer be earned by anyone. Why they display these for everyone is beyond me.

There was a bug in the Gowalla 2.0 app for the iPhone which didn’t allow for updates of distance for a location. It was fixed quickly and you can literally see live updates for how far you are from any location you have on the screen.

Checking In

In the process of testing these services, I did over 1,000 check-ins. I tried to check in often and as far away as I could a few times to see what the limits were of each app.

The limit of Gowalla is 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) and it is 300 meters for Foursquare. The 1km limit for Gowalla is probably too far. I think it would be better for Gowalla to reduce the distance to 500m. The Foursquare distance would be fine if the app was more accurate. However, many times I was under 300m and I was told that I was too far away.

That is another problem with Foursquare. It will let you check-in even if you are too far away, it just wont give you credit towards badges or mayorships. Gowalla will not let you check-in if you are too far away. You never have to worry if something counts on Gowalla. If you can check-in, then it is kosher.

Foursquare also puts limits on how many times you can check-in during a given period. While walking around New York, I was checking into locations in midtown Manhattan that I thought I normal tourist would check-in to: St. Patricks Cathedral, Rockefeller Center, Times Square, etc. I eventually would hit the check-in limit, wait a few minutes and start again. Eventually, Foursquare shut me out of doing any check-ins for almost a full day. Just doing normal tourist things at a walking pace was enough to send up a red flag with Foursquare and make the service totally unusable for a day. If you were visiting New York for a weekend and wanted to check-in at famous places, you might find yourself unable to use the service.

Gowalla has no limit on the number of check-ins you can make. This means you can check-in to any number of locations which are within 1km of you. While this does seem a bit ridiculous, I’d rather see Gowalla reduce the check-in radius than put a cap on the number of check-ins.

The check-in cap can make Foursquare useless as a tourism tool.

Social Network

Based on what I’ve said so far, you’d think that Gowalla was the superior tool. Based on everything I’ve said so far, it is. It has better software, better game play and content which is available to more people.

Yet, Foursquare has bout 5x as many users has Gowalla and its growing about 75% faster. The reason for this is the social aspect. Everything I’ve talked about so far doesn’t involve other people. You can enjoy almost all of the Gowalla game without having a single friend on the service. With a social network, however, the more people who use the service, the more people you can gain.

The appeal of Foursquare I think, is the social aspect. It is easier to see what your friends are doing in Foursquare and Foursquare has one feature which Gowalla does not: trending places. If a bunch of people are all checking-in at the same spot, that location will show up on the list of places.


I think Gowalla has lost the battle to be a location based social network. However, it can still do quite well if they position themselves as a travel tool. The fact is, most of what makes Gowalla great has nothing to do with interacting with other people. Gowalla should double down on the game play and try to become a virtual passport. I’d double or triple the number of items and pins available and keep pumping out the special passport stamps for famous places around the world. A deal with the National Park Service could create a virtual version of the National Park Passport book which so many people seem to enjoy.

I was mainly using Foursquare before I started to do research for this article. I was surprised at much I liked Gowalla. If you are a Foursquare user, I’d download Gowalla and give it a try. Give it a solid week and try to explore all the parts of the game.

Everything Gowalla does right could easily be mimicked by Foursquare. They are already collecting the data and it would just be a matter of writing some better software. If Foursquare improves their software and adds more content for game play outside of New York and SXSW, it would be the final bullet in the check-in war.

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