Coming to Your Phone: Virtual Reality Travel Apps

No plane ticket and no time off? You can still go surfing in Tahiti or wander the archaeology of Petra thanks to a new wave of VR players that are bringing the world to your phone.

Traveling without leaving home? No-cost exploration of new destinations? It sounds like a thing of the far-off future, right?

This kind of travel is actually accessible right now with virtual reality (VR) roaring into the market. Abi Mandelbaum, CEO of VR app YouVisit, said the technology holds the promise of transporting the general public to far away lands, and he notes that true VR experiences isn't just about watching videos.

“An actual VR experience not only requires a 360-degree immersive video … but also offers the opportunity for viewers to engage and connect with that content” Mandelbaum said. “An experience’s interactivity is the key to true success, differentiating it from watching 2-D content. VR shouldn’t be viewed; it should be explored.”

While participating in a virtual reality experience, users will typically need special gear to interact with the content. There are a few companies making headgear and goggles for public use: Check out Google Cardboard, OculusRift, PlayStation VR by Sony, Samsung Gear VR or Homido MINI apparatus to buy a consumer-level headset. Not ready to buy the tech but still want to explore? Google Cardboard has instructions for a DIY Cardboard headset.

Virtual Reality headset
Virtual reality headsets range from full-blown units with integrated screens to DIY models that use your phone as the screen. (©Barone Firenze/Shutterstock)

While at-home systems like Google Cardboard may be more 2-D viewing than 3-D interaction (and a lot of what is billed as VR isn't technically VR), travel companies and media sources are pushing to create fully immersive, interactive content for virtual reality experiences.

Marriott Hotels jumped into the virtual reality ring, offering in-room VR headsets to guests with travel content. The service, called "VRoom Service," launched in 2015 after a two-week trial at hotels in New York and London. 

Matthew Carroll, vice president of Marriott hotels, said the technology was imagined for a new generation of travelers. “Travel expands our minds and helps push our imagination,” said Carroll in a press release touting the launch of the service. “Our guests want to be in inventive spaces that help foster their creativity and thinking." 

Marriott also developed its "VR Postcards"—virtual reality videos hosted on Samsung Milk VR for users at Marriott hotels or at home. The first three videos in the Postcards app were shot in Rwanda, Chile and Beijing to chronicle three different travelers' takes on why travel matters.

If virtual reality (or more accurately, immersive and augmented reality) travel is starting to sound intriguing, jump in eyes first with these apps.

10 Virtual Reality Travel Apps

AccorHotels for Cardboard: Who doesn't want to browse around in luxury hotels across the globe? Hotel group AccorHotels made a quick browse possible with VR experiences of its hotels in London, Paris, Sao Paulo and more. App available on iOS and Android.

Ascape Virtual Travel & 360 Video: Ascape's VR videos are called “trips” and they range from Petra, Jordan, to the 9-11 Memorial in New York City. Each trip has to be downloaded individually but after you download the file you can explore locations like Chernobyl, Hawaii's Turtle Island (Kaohikaipu Island), Bratislava, Slovakia, and more. Official app available on iOS and Android.

Ascape, a virtual reality travel app
To enter Ascape, travelers must "teleport" into trips like diving near LIttle Cayman Island.

Discovery VR: In this app, users can dive underwater with sharks and spelunk through giant caves in Texas, just to name a few experiences. The content corresponds with Discovery Channel’s programming and focuses on exploration of remote locations. Some of the content is 360-degree video for VR headsets; other content can be viewed as a regular video when you're ready to ditch the goggles. Official app available on iOS and Android.

DiscoveryVR, a virtual reality travel app
DiscoveryVR gives users access to 360-degree content in locations domestic and abroad.

Google Cardboard: While the world of VR travel apps is vast, Google's own offerings are a good place to start. Download the Cardboard app for a list of VR apps to explore in addition to VR experiences that Google has curated. Official app available on iOS and Android.

Google Cardboard Camera: This app lets users take 360-degree images through their camera's phone while using the Cardboard headset. Use the app to take panoramic photos in 3-D that include the sounds of the environment, then save those experiences in the app. In effect, you're empowered to create your own VR travel experiences. Official app available on Android.

Google Cardboard
Through Google Cardboard, users can experience new travel destinations and create content for other users to explore. (©Maurizio Pesce/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Google Cardboard Street View: The Street View app works using Google Map technology with 360-degree videos of iconic attractions and locations. Users can also create their own "photo spheres" of their surroundings to add to the app. Be on the look out within this app for curated collections of photo spheres that Google publishes at regular intervals. Official App available on iOS and Android.

GoProVR: The creators of the market-dominating extreme sports cameras have stepped up to the virtual reality plate. Tapping in to adventures of contributors, the company launched the apps to give free access to 360-degree videos and adventure experiences. Users can view the videos in a normal viewing mode or in a headset-optimized, 3-D view. App available on iOS and Android.

Jaunt VR: Jaunt handles high-impact concerts and performances while exposing users to their favorite celebrities and entertainers. Aside from the entertainment, users can follow treks through remote locations around the globe. All videos in the Jaunt library are free, and new content is uploaded regularly. Official app available on iOS and Android.

Sites in VR, a virtual reality travel app
Sites in VR allows travel videos to been seen as a normal video or through a VR headset. (©

Sites in VR: Travel through more than 12 countries—and outer space—with this app. Users can download the VR images in high-res with the ability to take a guided video tour. See what the sun looks like from the moon or Mars with astronaut correspondence audio overlaid on the view. More down-to-Earth tours include exploring sites like tombs, religious sites, palaces and natural preserves. Official app available on iOS and Android.

YouVisit VR: This app not only documents historic sites and breathtaking natural wonders, but also allows travel in little-seen VR settings. Users can follow adventure travelers through helicopter rides, surfing in remote locations and more. The app also explores big-name festivals and events like the TomorrowWorld festival and the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York City. Official app avaliable on iOS and Android.