Window or Aisle?

Why “window”, and why WindowSeater.

“Window or Ailse” is a question you are probably asked a few times a year. It really comes down to how you view travel. Let me flesh this question out, and at the same time give you the story and philosophy behind WindowSeater — our new mobile app that enriches journeys with astonishing stories of the world outside your window.

Why Aisle?

Aisle is clearly the more practical way to travel: you get in and out of there faster, you don’t have to bother someone when you want to stretch your legs or powder your proverbial nose, and you might occasionally manage to annex some aisle space to increase your comfort.

For some, the aisle can definitely be where the action is too. Perhaps you’re more of a people watcher. Some journeys are great for it, such as this delightful travel blog. Or perhaps you’re an extrovert, and want to increase your options for friendly chat with people in and across the aisle. There plenty of stories about intriguing things that happen inside a cabin of a moving vehicle. Murder on the Orient Express, or Snakes on a Plane for example.

So there are those who choose aisle, and for some decent reasons.

Why Window?

But for travellers like me, aisle-seaters are missing something.

Long-distance travel is a marvel! Whether its plane, train, or automobile, its an opportunity to engage with the astonishing world outside your window. The space between cities, new cities, new climates and geographies, cultures and economies. Even if you’re travelling domestically and for work, its all these things you don’t often see in urban life that makes the view from a window seat so rich and novel. At a windowseat, you’re at once once a naturalist, a geologist, an anthropologist, an economist, or an historian, because you have questions: What am I looking at? How did it come to be? How is that kind of thing evolving from place to place? How does it all fit together?

For example, I once flew from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles with great weather. Looking down, it starts with rich green fields of crops laid out like an endless quilt; then the climate very gradually gets dryer and settlements more distant, until you see nothing but desolate and impenetrable deserts and mountains stretching on and on; until, at the last minute, deliverance — California. Somehow that window seat put the whole confusing country and its history in better perspective for me.

So I would always pass up an aisle seat for that, but there’s something else:

I feel strangely at peace with the world when staring out a moving window. Especially that of a train. Preferably listening to Paul Simon’s Graceland album.

You’re in motion, yet at ease. You’re trying to get somewhere, but there’s nothing you can do to get there any quicker. So you have a few hours of anonymity and comfort to just relax, daydream, to question and explore the view shifting past your window.

The window-seater’s sensation

“Train travel animated my imagination and usually gave me the solitude to order and write my thoughts: I travelled easily in two directions, along the level rails while Asia flashed changes at the window, and at the interior rim of a private world of memory and language. I cannot imagine a luckier combination.” — Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar. Page 188.

I remember when I realised I was a window-seater: It was a December a few years back when I was living in Paris and decided to go visit a friend in Innsbruck, Austria. Hands down, it was the best train journey I’ve taken:

From the warm yellow-lit cabin, you stare into a landscape that is cold and silent under a clean duvet of snow. You find out how every type of precipitation — huge fluffy flakes of snow, angry squalls of sleet, or lazy drizzle — look at different speeds and react to the glass next to your face. And as you ascend, clouds begin to sweep past and occasionally open up to reveal unexpected soaring peaks lit up by the sun above. Hamlets and villages hug the sides of rivers and treed slopes, or float in valleys of white. The trees are dark, still and leafless, allowing you to peer through them to the lights of cabins and Christmas trees in their backyards.

A rail bridge in Alberg, Austria

Truly, taking a train through the European Alps in December is something that every window-seater should do once in their lifetime.

I met the love of my life that winter. Fast-forward a few years, an you would have found us sitting together on our honeymoon on another astonishing train journey, which provided another revelation.

The window-seater’s problem

We were steaming on a TGV in the Rhone River valley south of Lyon towards the Mediterranean on a crisp sunny day in April. We weren’t planning on stopping on our way to Spain, but the south of France was a place I always wanted to see and know more about.

It was a gorgeous part of the world: Dark-green forested hills undulated and were interrupted either by light-green fields, a glistening river, or grey granite crags. There were old towns, hilltop castles, countless vineyards and pastures. We were at peace watching it all pass by.

The landscape of the Cotes du Rhone

On the horizon emerged a monolithic granite mountain. It looked out of place. It reminded me of Uluru in Australia. I really wanted to know what I was looking at. What geological processes had created it?

I wish there was a nice English-speaking Frenchman sitting across from me. Perhaps he was an elderly gentleman, and noticing my ogling, he would lean slightly forward with a smile and start with “You know,…” before regaling me with something fascinating from his encyclopaedic and nuanced knowledge of a region he holds dear.

Instead, I reached for my mobile device. I didn’t have a connection, and the train wifi was designed with little empathy for its user. I fumbled around on Google Maps, Wikipedia, Wikimaps. I couldn’t find anything. I was frustrated. But I figured that I could just look it up in the next place we got settled. No big deal.

But further down the line I saw something else: An old fort perched on a hill overlooking the coast, the architecture of which I really couldn’t place. Was it Moorish? Did they get this far north? I looked around for that kind local with the stories.

This time I didn’t bother reaching for my mobile. I instead looked at the fort, and started a mental list of points of interest that I was determined to remember to look up later.

The list got long. I realised that I had a problem that begged for a solution.

How can a window-seater easily get the story behind something interesting outside their window, while looking at it, and in a way which doesn’t detract from the experience of the journey?

The WindowSeater solution

Our logo. Like it?

WindowSeater is a mobile app. It is the product of a couple of years of my stewing over the problem I had on that train — sometimes while sitting on another train, but usually while having a shower (for reasons I know not).

It delivers well-researched stories curated specifically for your journey. Stories about what you can see, while you see it, and with narrated audio so you can keep looking at it (rather than your device).

We’ve found that there are fascinating stories everywhere. I challenge you to find a place on the globe without a story. We’ll find something either informative or entertaining; perhaps expected, but often surprising.

It works like this: When you’re about to take a journey, you find it on our app, download its content before you get on board, and WindowSeater notifies you every so often when it has a something interesting to tell you.

We’re currently doing final testing on some test journeys. If you’d like to sign up to test the Beta version, please do so here. Soon enough you will be able to download the app in your app store.

We hope to be covering your journeys soon, so keep in touch!