Forever getting lost? This game-changing app is mapping the world—every three square meters at a time—meaning you can find your way even in places without street signs.
“Meet at Valero Square” the instructions said. It sounded so simple, but was easier said than done. I stood there, with a noisy construction site to one side and a smattering of busy cafés on the other, cut right down the middle by a sci-fi-looking tram line and traffic-packed road, searching for a stranger called Maria.
I was in Jerusalem, looking for the tour guide who was to show me around the food paradise that is Machane Yehuda Market—a place that would be impossible to navigate without local knowledge and an understanding of the Hebrew alphabet. Stalls, restaurants, bakeries and bars are packed in so tightly, it’s hard to see where one ends and the other begins—finding a specific establishment can seem borderline impossible.
This is my perpetual problem as a traveler. My propensity to visit far-flung places, where not only the language is different but the alphabet too, presents one consistent problem: Getting around.
In many destinations—in Dubai, for example—a simple Google Maps search for a hotel, restaurant or attraction name will throw up a pretty accurate result.
But in countries where addressing systems aren’t standardized, or vast remote landscapes without road names or street signs make up a nation’s geography, Google Maps just doesn’t cut it. This is why, in 2018, Lonely Planet adopted a new system of addressing for their Mongolia guidebook: The what3words way.
Using a randomly-generated three-word address for every three-meter-by-three-meter square, the what3words system works globally, from the favelas in Rio to the mountains of Nepal. The very desk I’m writing this at has its own address (///jumpy.lost.always, if you must know), and Lonely Planet’s offices have theirs (///reader.life.begins), significantly more poetic than my chosen workplace.
In 2016, the government of Mongolia adopted what3words as their official postal address system. Now, those three-word addresses are listed in one of the top guides to the country. Practically, it just makes sense, Megan Eaves, destination editor for North Asia at Lonely Planet, says: “It’s offline, you can put it on your phone and go—you don’t have to try to type in a 15-digit coordinate.”
In the [updated] Lonely Planet guide to Mongolia, follow the three-word address given and you’ll arrive at the front door of that hotel or restaurant without fail.
The system has its own app and website for discovering three-word addresses, but it’s also integrated into well-established navigation apps such as Pocket Earth or Navmi. The latter works offline too, meaning no matter where you are, you’ll be able to find what you’re looking for regardless of pesky roaming charges and unreliable signal.
The brilliant thing about what3words is that it’s highly specific. Directions to my humble single-person tent at Glastonbury Festival went from being “That blue one next to the rainbow flag” (of which there are doubtless hundreds) to a simple: “Meet me at ///livid.bulb.action.”
And in the Lonely Planet guide to Mongolia, follow the three-word address given and you’ll arrive at the front door of that hotel or restaurant without fail.
Co-founder Chris Sheldrick was inspired to create this system during his time in the music business: “I regularly had to get 30 musicians and truck drivers to show up at the back entrance of a stadium, but when you put the address in it takes you to a side entrance which is not where you want to be.”
Sheldrick soon adopted latitude and longitude for giving instructions to his colleagues, but after one driver mixed up a four and a five and ended up at the wrong end of Italy, he was forced to find another solution.
Without something already on the market, he turned to a mathematician—now co-founder Mohan Ganesalingam—for help. The result is a simple yet elegant solution to one of the most irksome problems for anyone trying to get somewhere tricky, and now ensures delivery drivers, emergency response teams and travelers can swiftly and accurately find their destination.
It’s not just remote places where travelers could benefit. Seoul is an example where what3words would be indispensable: The city has two addressing systems and businesses pick and choose the one they prefer. Quite frankly, it’s baffling.
“One of my writers was having a really great time out in the Gobi desert finding the exact address of a specific cool-looking rock,” says Lonely Planet’s Megan. Instead of sending travelers to a car park and supplying vague directions for exploring the Gobi’s highlights, he could retrieve that rock’s address and help visitors avoid disappointment at the hands of the inadequate technology we have relied on in the past. Instead of a navigational nightmare it becomes a thrilling treasure hunt in one of the world’s most beautiful locations.
But it’s not just the remote places and developing countries where travelers could benefit. Seoul is another prime example of somewhere what3words would be indispensable: The city has two addressing systems (an old one and a new one) and businesses pick and choose the one they prefer. Quite frankly, it’s baffling. In the UK, whether you’re looking for a specific market stall in Spitalfields or a farm shop out in the verdant countryside, what3words could be the answer.
Some Airbnb hosts have even started using it to direct visitors to their rental apartments. All of a sudden, thanks to this little three-word address, that cosy Parisian bolthole becomes discoverable without a headache or the need to wander the streets with your smartphone held in front of you as you try to find a tiny alleyway.
Of course, for what3words to become even more useful it needs to be widespread, it must become the mainstream. I’ve been using it between family and friends for years, but as soon as travel companies and small businesses catch on, my adventures will be even simpler to plan.
As for my trip to Israel, I didn’t meet anyone using or advertising three-word addresses—which meant I got lost on a daily basis—but I did eventually find Maria at ///classics.shorts.reddish and got to sample some of Israel’s finest foods … I highly recommend the khachapuri at ///clinker.misfortune.mellows.