How 17 essential travel apps can improve your next vacation

Whether you’re packing your bags for a summer trip to Europe or packing the car for a summer road tip with the kids, you may be tempted to define your vacation by what you’re not packing: your computer, tablet or mobile phone. As more and more of us struggle with the invisible electronic leash that keeps us tied to our (virtual) desks, it can feel like the only way to get free is to cut ourselves off from technology altogether.  More than one friend has excitedly told me that they’re taking their holiday out of cell range — so that it can be a real holiday.

I’m not beyond spending the occasional day off the grid — in fact, our own summer vacation plan includes a couple of days at a retreat centre with no cell coverage or wifi. But I’ve also found that my favourite devices and apps can make every stage of a family vacation more enjoyable — before, during and afterward.

Here is how we use some of our favourite apps to enhance our vacations — and our ability to remember them!

Organizing Your Trip

  1. Evernote: I create an Evernote notebook for each and every vacation we take, and use Evernote’s web clipper to compile lists of accommodation options, recommended restaurants and suggested activities. I share this personal guidebook with my husband, and we each save it as an offline notebook in Evernote on both our phones and iPads, so we always have access to our trip notes and ideas — even when we don’t have cell service.
  2. Airbnb: Inspired by the recent experience of immersing myself in the sharing economy for the report I co-authored with Jeremiah Owyang, I finally put our own home on Airbnb. The rental fees are not only subsidizing the cost of our long-planned summer vacation (part of which we’ll be spending at an Airbnb rental in another city) — they’re also allowing us to take more weekend trips. We’ve made our house available for most weekends this summer, and whenever we get a booking, we use the money to take a weekend trip…or to improve our collection of camping gear.
  3. Google Maps: Whether we’re trying to decide on which town to visit or which house to rent, Rob fires up Google Maps and uses street view to check out the neighbourhood. It’s a great way to get a feel for whether a particular community or location is going to suit us.
  4. RoadTrippers: My new favourite travel site is the beta version of a new-and-improved RoadTrippers, which lets you plan an itinerary much more easily and powerfully than you can do in Google Maps. Unlike Google Maps, which just gives you the total travel time for your entire trip, RoadTrippers shows you the drive distance and time for each segment….and then makes it easy to delete, rearrange or add stops if you want to adjust your timing (crucial if you have kids who get rangy after a few hours in the car). Cooler still, it can suggest everything from restaurants and campsites to scenic drives and attractions — all of them calibrated to your specific interests and the number of miles you’re prepared to deviate from your route. You can add points of interest to multiple “bucket lists” (I’m building separate lists for kid-friendly attractions, campsites and swimming spots) and then view them on your map at any time. And of course, you can sync to your phone using the RoadTrippers app.
  5. Craigslist/Ridejoy: The last time we were planning a big road trip (Vancouver to San Francisco), our desire to drive less and relax more led me to the idea of a one-way trip: while we hated the idea of driving for 16 straight hours with the kids, we knew they’d love an overnight train trip that allowed them to roam between cars. And taking a faster way back would allow us the time for a more leisurely drive down. The only problem: one-way car rentals are expensive, as are services that move your car between cities (yes, they exist). Our solution: posting to Ridejoy, a ride sharing service that included a lot of people looking for a lift from San Francisco to Seattle. When we were contacted by a responsible-sounding woman who shared a common point of contact (the service identifies any mutual Facebook friends), we arranged for her to drive our car up to Seattle while we took the train with our kids. She got the ride she was looking for, and we got our car back to Seattle for the cost of the gas.
  6. TripAdvisor: When we’re evaluating potential hotels, TripAdvisor is usually part of the process — but not based on the star ratings alone. I try to look at a range of reviews and get a sense of how people describe the positives and negatives of each option; that lets me figure out whether a given hotel’s drawbacks are going to matter to us.
  7. OpenTable: Travel is stressful enough without the additional drama of being hungry! The hungrier I get, the crankier I become…and the less willing I am to eat at some place that might represent a “waste” of this on-the-road culinary opportunity. Making advance reservations with OpenTable ensures I never get to that OMG I MUST EAT BUT I CAN’T FIND A TABLE state. I try to make reservations on the later side, as a fallback position in case we don’t find something we want to do on the spur of the moment.
  8. TripIt: I’ve written quite a bit about using TripIt for business travel in the context of Work Smarter with LinkedIn, but it’s also a fabulous way to create and share your itinerary while on vacation. Just forward all your random travel confirmations to TripIt, and their magic itinerary parser will chew through your confirmations and provide you with a nicely-formatted itinerary that provides direct links to things like airline seat recommendations and airline check-in. If you connect it to OpenTable, your OpenTable reservations will show up automatically, too. Again, there is a nice iPhone app that lets you see your itinerary from your phone.
  9. Hotwire, Expedia and HotelTonight: I keep a bunch of different hotel search engine apps on my phone so that I can search for last-minute deals when we’re taking a spontaneous overnight trip. These are the three that have impressed me the most in terms of both functionality and pricing. We got a great hotel deal on our last weekend trip with an Expedia rate that was mobile-only.

    Enjoying your trip

    Once you’re on vacation, the name of the game is play. Here are some of the apps that keep us (or our kids) amused while we’re traveling:

  10. Plex: I lavish attention on our home media center setup as if it were our third child. And when we go on the road for vacation, that effort continues to pay off. Thanks to the MyPlex service, which connects to the Plex media server we have at home, we can watch any show or movie on our hard drive from anywhere we have Internet access — even the car. Which is why we also have the rule: no streaming video over 3G when we’re outside the country.
  11. Audible: Our kids love listening to audiobooks, and Audible makes it easy to build and manage a collection. When we’re traveling, we make a point of downloading audiobooks related to our destination. (Sadly, during our recent trip to Hawaii, Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes lost out to the Beacon Street Girls’ Ready! Set! Hawaii!
  12. Location-specific apps: When we hit the road, I hit the App Store and browse all the apps related to our destination. We’ve had our trips enhanced by apps like Exit Strategy (tells you which part of the NYC subway platform as possible if you want to be as close as possible to the exit at your destination station) and Paris Pastry (where to eat carbs in the city of light). Before you leave home, search the name of your destination(s) in the app store for your mobile device to find the apps that might make your holiday that much tastier.
  13. Carcassonne: The iPad version of this excellent board game is our family’s go-to activity when we’re waiting for food in a restaurant. It moves quickly even with multiple players, it’s interactive (i.e. you will actually converse with your fellow players) and it allows for reasonably even play among players of different ages and skill levels.
  14. Scrabble: Look, you’re either a Scrabble person or you’re not. But if you are a Scrabble person, let me just point out that the pace of a competitive Scrabble game is singularly well-adapted to a poolside vacation with kids. While you take your turn, your partner watches the kids. When you finish your turn, you watch the kids while your partner tries to avoid crushing defeat at the hands of your 7-letter, 87-point burst of genius.

    Remembering your trip
  15. Yelp: If you like using Yelp to get the low-down on the restaurants, shops and experiences you may want to enjoy on vacation, you know that all those handy and amusing reviews have to come from somewhere. If you’re already using Yelp to find and bookmark potential watering holes and activities, you’re just one step away from compiling a travel journal that not only helps you remember your vacation, but helps other people plan theirs. Whenever I hear from someone who’s contemplating a West Coast road trip, for example, I point them to the exhaustive Yelp list I compiled when we drove from Vancouver to San Francisco. It’s fun for me to revisit, and even more satisfying for me to share.
  16. Facebook: When we’re on the road, I like sharing photo highlights with friends — as well as the Yelp reviews I write every day or two while traveling. Setting up a more limited Facebook list, which includes only the people who might actually want to hear about our road trip, allows me to share our travel news with a handful of friends and family….without boring and annoying all my other friends and colleagues. I get the added benefit of a one-stop overview of our trip, since both photos and Yelp reviews get archived to my Facebook timeline as long as I leave Yelp connected to Facebook.
  17. Aperture: Creating a photo book from all your vacation photos is a great way to create a memento of an exceptional vacation. You can do that using iPhoto, Shutterfly or many other photo book services, but I like using Apple’s Aperture to build my photo books, because it gives me more control over layout and formatting. I include some text reflections on our trip, and leave (carefully measured!!) blank spaces to glue in the ticket stubs, brochures and postcards we collected along the way.

What apps do you use on vacation? Let me know on Twitter, or in the comment field below.

7 ways to enhance your vacations with Facebook

This post is part of a series of thank-you notes to the social media services that made our family vacation possible!

Dear Facebook,

I know that we’re together so much that sometimes it feels like I take you for granted, and I don’t tell you how much it means to have you in my life. But our recent holiday together really helped get the spark back, and reminded me of what makes you so special.

Without you, Facebook, I wouldn’t have discovered the beautiful Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, where we camped for two glorious nights, thanks to a tip from the beloved Jessi. I found it because I posted a question on my wall:

My request for advice on where to camp with kids in Northern California

And that Facebook post is what also led us to the Andiron Inn near Mendocino. Because, you know, when you ask for camping suggestions, what you are really expecting is:

Madeline's comment suggests her inn, the Andiron

I’ll confess: we booked our visit in the spirit of “isn’t it cool that someone we know owns an inn?” But it turned out that it wasn’t just a fine place to stay…it was a totally relaxing, delightful, beautiful, immaculate, fun and inspiring experience. The suite we stayed in was a tribute to Madeline’s mum and dad’s WWI romance, decorated with their love letters and other mementos of the time. It was all I could do to keep from unboxing my ancestral papers the second we got home!

See, this is the kind of serendipity you make possible, dear Facebook.

Here are some of the other ways you made this the best vacation ever:

  1. Road trip triage. When we realized we didn’t have enough time to see both the coastal redwoods and Yosemite, we asked our Facebook peeps to help us decide. The overwhelming consensus in favour of the redwoods made our decision easy!
  2. The BlababoothWe visited a couple of touristy spots that had the traditional photo booth — with a twist. The strip of photos it printed out included a code that let us share our photo strip on Facebook, and watch a YouTube video capturing the quarreling that went on while getting everyone to pose. Super fun!
  3. Need-specific activity planning. I asked friends for their picks of the best things to do with kids in San Francisco. Their answers helped me get beyond the universal touristy recommendations, and find the kinds of activities we knew our kids would like.
  4. Audience-specific travelogue. We kept our friends and family amused with our endlessly delightful kid photos and stories (they were endlessly delightful, right?) that are visible only to a small circle. We shared reviews of our favourite stops by cross-posting from Yelp, visible to anyone. And we shared selected snaps with our whole circle of friends — enough to be charming, not enough to be tedious.
  5. Arrange special opportunities. One of our kids wanted to visit a relatively inaccessible destination as part of our trip. I asked our Facebook friends for help — and got an introduction that made a very memorable visit possible.
  6. Create a trip timeline. Even if you’re not diligent about reviewing stops or uploading photos the second you write or take them, posting them to your Facebook timeline gives you the option to edit the date. That allowed me to turn my Facebook timeline into a chronologically-accurate record of our trip, which I know my great-great-grandchildren will appreciate and treasure when they figure out how to scan a Facebook server with their nanobot implants.
  7. Pay it forward. One of the friends following our travelogue was planning a similar trip herself. Once she started asking questions about my posts, I made a point of addressing her likely travel needs — like finding gluten-free food — in my reviews. ‘Cause I’m that kind of Facebook friend.

Ironically, dear Facebook, there was one more way your presence was felt throughout our vacation: by the apparently endless stream of criticism targeted at your IPO. And I know that kind of thing can really leave a social network feeling down in the dumps.

But that’s why I wanted to thank you for what you did for us — not your shareholders, but your grateful users. We still know what makes you special.

Take a one-way road trip with Ridejoy

Dear Ridejoy,

Thank you for allowing us to undertake a 2,000-mile road trip with two young kids at a relaxing pace.

When we first decided to road trip to San Francisco as our family vacation, we thought we’d visit the coastal redwoods and Yosemite on the way down, and take the interstate on the way back. Then we realized that doing that much driving with two young kids — even kids equipped with iPads — would take all 16 days of our vacation, and leave us virtually no time to explore or to stay in San Francisco itself.

TIP: Use Ridejoy or Craigslist to find a driver who can bring your car home the next time you want to take a one-way road trip.

We trimmed our itinerary aggressively, consulting our Facebook friends on the relative merits of Yosemite and California coast in July. (The consensus was all in favour of coast.) But even that route would take at least 4 days — and would be possible only if we did long stretches of driving each day, leaving us little chance to actually explore. The only way to have more time on the coast would be to trim the time we spent in San Francisco — but it seemed like a very long drive to undertake for just a few days in the city.

Out of curiosity, I looked into the possibility of Amtrak. The famous Coast Starlight route, running from L.A. to Seattle, could get us back from San Francisco to Vancouver in just about 24 hours. (Unlike Mum and Dad, Amtrak doesn’t have to stop just because the kids need to pee or run around.) Taking Amtrak back would allow us much more time for the drive down, because we’d only need one (fun!) day for the return trip, instead of three or four (hellish) driving days.

There was just one problem: how would we get our car back to Vancouver?

The obvious answer was to book a rental car for a one-way trip to the Bay area, and then leave the car there. But a one-way, 14-day minivan rental would cost at least $1,000.

In the course of looking for one-way car rentals, I came across the phenomenon of “drive away” services, which could provide a driver to take our car back to Seattle while we took Amtrak. Cost: $500.

I decided to check for independent drive-away offers on Craigslist. Mixed in with the “ride wanted” and “ride offered” ads on Craigslist, I saw the occasional request for one-way drivers. And appended to one ad, I saw the intriguing line, “contact me on Ridejoy”.

That’s how I discovered Ridejoy, a ride-sharing site that matches drivers and riders in 790 cities across North America. Ridejoy cross-posts to Craigslist, so you still get the benefit of Craigslist’s rideshare board, but you get a much better search and matching tool.

Here’s how it works: you post the dates (or date range) when you want to travel, and the start and end points. If you are a driver, Rideshare can match you with riders who are looking for rides along all or part of your itinerary (so if you’re traveling from San Francisco to Seattle, it can suggest riders who are traveling from Oakland to Portland). If you’re a rider, it suggests potential drivers. Drivers can specify how much they want passengers to contribute to travel costs, and both riders and drivers can specify their ride preferences or perks they are offering (like AAA membership or wifi tethering).

I used Ridejoy to post an ad asking for someone to drive our minivan back to Seattle while we took the train. I noticed that Ridejoy’s would-be passengers ranged from advance planners (“I’m a teacher taking a bicycle trip up the coast in 2 months, need to get a lift back down to the Bay”) to relaxed itinerants (“been in the Bay a while, feel like it’s time to move on, looking for a ride heading somewhere in Washington in the next few days”). Since we were planning to hand over our car full of possessions, we wanted to find one of the advance planners, who we thought would likely be older, more experienced drivers.

Our ridejoy adI posted our ad on June 12, looking for a driver for the weekend of August 4. Within a couple of days, I had heard from several people, including a couple of “advanced planners”. One of these had put Ridejoy’s Facebook integration to good use: she had noticed that we had a Facebook friend in common — someone we both knew from our nonprofit work. That made me feel a lot more comfortable about the idea of handing over our car.

I looked up E. on Google and LinkedIn and confirmed that yes, she was a responsible adult with a regular job — not a permanent traveler with no fixed address. I made a phone date to talk with her about driving our car from the Bay up to Seattle, and to discuss potential timing. She sounded very responsible, and happily sent me a reference (her boss) and a copy of her driver’s license.

I checked with our insurance company (ICBC) to make sure that that our insurance would cover an American driving our car in the US; no problem, as long as it was legal in the US. I checked with US border services — it was fine with them. (Note that the reverse is not true: it’s illegal for a Canadian to drive a US-plated car in Canada, a measure that prevents Canadians from buying cars more cheaply in the US.) Then, just to be on the safe side, I increased our liability coverage to $5 million, something our insurance broker recommended for anyone driving in the US (even us!) because it’s more litigious and accidents can lead to much higher claims.

We agreed to a driving schedule in which E. would leave the Bay area the morning of August 4th; we were scheduled to take the Amtrak train that night. Since E. was driving without kids, she figured she could easily drive up to Seattle in 2 days (it’s a 15-hour drive, roughly.) We paid for the gas so that E. wouldn’t need to find additional passengers; we were more comfortable handing our car over to one person, rather than a group of people, as long as she felt comfortable doing that much driving.

I met E. at her office the day before she was scheduled to start driving, so that we could make eye contact and ensure we both felt comfortable with the arrangement. She turned out to be a totally lovely person who reminded me of a lot of our friends — someone I had no worries about giving our car to. I showed her the car’s various quirks and we went for a short drive so she could get a sense of the vehicle. Since she’s used to driving a (smaller) Honda, our Honda minivan felt very familiar to her and easy to drive.

That night, we packed up our minivan with all the luggage and detritus of our trip, except for a couple of bags we needed for our last day in the Bay and our night on the train; we also packed an extra night’s worth of clothes in case E. was delayed or some other hitch kept us from re-uniting with the car on schedule. The next morning, I drove to E.’s house in our car, and picked her up with her baggage. She dropped me back at our hotel, and headed on our way.

We had planned to rent a car for our last day in the city, but it turned out that the car rental offices near the Amtrak station weren’t open after 1 pm on Saturdays, so there was no way to drive to the train and leave a rental car there. So we went carless for the day, and some kind friends took us to the station that night.

We had kept the train trip a secret from the kids, partly because we didn’t want to disappoint them if it turned out E. couldn’t do the drive, and partly because we thought it would make a fun surprise and a great finale for our vacation. I was intrigued that our kids didn’t ask about how we were getting back from our time in the Bay; perhaps they assumed they had another long drive ahead of them. They did ask some questions about where the car was on Saturday (we told them it was getting a pre-departure tune-up) but were amazingly uninquisitive when our friends dropped us at the train station at 9 pm on a Saturday night. After all, there were vending machines! and the job of getting change so that they could buy Skittles was much more interesting than wondering where we were.

Eventually, our daughter stopped to ask what we were doing. We encouraged her to look around, and she noticed we were in a train station. Her eyes widened: “Are we taking a train home?” Yes, indeed, we told her — complete with sleeper car. She burst into tears of joy. Her brother was somewhat less excited, mainly because he was almost asleep.

Our trip home was a wonderful 24 hours of exploring the train, enjoying the scenery and eating a virtually non-stop series of meals and snacks. Thanks to the sleeping compartment, we got a decent night’s sleep, which left us ready for the late-night drive home to Vancouver. While our train was a little late to depart, we made up time en route, and we kept in touch with E. via text message and cel phone. When we got to Seattle, she was waiting at the station with our car!

We got back in our minivan at 9 pm on Sunday night, and were back in Vancouver by midnight. The trip that had taken us eight leisurely days on the way down took us only 24 hours on the way back. Thanks to Ridejoy’s help in matching us with a responsible, efficient driver, we were able to organize our vacation around a slow-paced drive down the coast, stopping two nights in each spot along the way, while still enjoying a full week in the Bay area.

Ridejoy has opened up a whole new horizon for family vacations. Now that we know it’s possible to do a one-way drive, I can see us organizing future vacations throughout Western Canada and the U.S., or even across the continent.

Thanks, E., for helping us enjoy the best road trip ever. And thank you Ridejoy, for making it possible!

Better vacations with social media

First, the bad news: planning works.

If you’re anything like me, you love the romantic idea of spontaneous travel; of hitting the road with nothing but a toothbrush and a change of underwear (plus the entire Apple product line, of course). Get in the car, and let the fates determine where your vacation will take you.

We tried that approach last summer, and we had a pleasant but intermittently stressful holiday. (There are no hotel rooms available for 60 miles! I can’t find a restaurant our kids will eat at! how come you didn’t notice there were no gas stations here?) So this summer, I tried the opposite approach.

I planned our vacation down to the last detail.

I did the vacation planning with social media.

We had a truly fantastic vacation.

So now it’s time to write my thank-you notes: the richly deserved acknowledgements to the different social media services that made our blissful holiday possible. My thank-yous will include the details on the creative and tricky ways we used each service, so you can use the same tools and techniques to plain the next great vacation (or business trip) on your own itinerary.

10 funny things to read or do online from a hotel room

Dear Bored Travellers of Earth, I am assuming that if you were horny you would be googling different keywords. So I am figuring you are merely looking for amusement, which is why I have rounded up some blog posts that point you towards moderately entertaining activities, or which may even be enjoyable reading in an of themselves. The great thing about you, Bored Travellers, is that I don’t have to rock your world: I merely have to be more interesting than whatever is on the closed circuit TV channel at 2 am, or at least, offer something you can read in the bathroom.

Here are 10 posts that are cheaper than pay-per-view:

  1. Make a list of your secret dating criteria. Not the things you put on a dating profile — the stuff that really matters.
  2. Post your first (or next) 21 tweets. Or just make fun of people who tweet in an incredibly tedious, formulaic way.
  3. Find out what the Internet secretly looked like in 1971.
  4. Take pictures of the most interesting graffiti or signage in the bathroom. This works best if you’re staying in a dodgy hotel; the swanky ones tend to keep the walls clean).
  5. Imagine glorious or entertaining ways you might die. For added poignancy, imagine them happening in this very hotel room.
  6. Take an inventory of the cords you felt the need to pack and consider which unresolved childhood issues they represent.
  7. Test yourself for menu bar blindness, America’s secret killer annoyance.
  8. Watch whatever Star Trek episode happens to be on, and decide whether it’s appropriate for your kids to watch it. If you don’t (yet) have kids, contemplate the advisability of creating offspring that take years to reach Star Trek-watching age.
  9. Put on your pyjamas and look in the mirror. With that image fixed in your head, start culling your Facebook friends.
  10. Play with the hotel gaming system and see if it conjures up deep insights into what life was like in 1997. It certainly won’t inspire you with visions of 2020.

Welcome to Social Media for Bored Travellers

Some people remember their freshman year of college for their first love, or the professor who blew their mind, or the book that changed their whole way of looking at the world. What I remember is the life-altering realization that I was now living in a building with a vending machine that provided 24/7 access to peanut M&Ms.

No wonder, then, that the dilemma of how to resist readily available M&Ms haunts me to this day. And when I saw the amount of traffic I got from a March 2010 blog post on 10 things to do in a hotel room other than eating the peanut M&Ms, I figured lots of other people might share this particular challenge. In the year after I wrote the post, it became the most frequently read post on my site (until finally getting bumped by 25 rules of social media netiquette).

8 of top 15 search strings include references to hotelsBut it didn’t take much in the way of analytics wizardry to realize that the popularity of this post wasn’t driven by fealty to the combination of chocolate, candy and legumes. The truth is that there seem to be an awful lot of bored people sitting in hotel rooms. Just take a look at the top 15 search strings in the search engine traffic to my site: 8 of them are people who are just desperately trying to escape the combination of a 22-channel universe and a polyester bedspread.

So to these noble, bored souls, let me offer a warmer welcome. That M&M blog post couldn’t have staved off boredom for more than about 2 minutes (2 minutes and 18 seconds, actually, according to Google Analytics’ “average time on page”). That’s why I’m rounding up some of the posts and resources that I think are most likely to interest the bored travellers of the world — beginning tomorrow.

10 essential iPad and iPhone apps for your next road trip

When you’re about to hit the road, you need to look at your iPad or iPhone as a Swiss Army Knife: a device to load up with the essential tools that allow you to rise to any challenge. Here are 10 apps I won’t leave him without:

  1. TripAdvisor: To check out reviews of any hotel you are thinking of booking. Don’t just look at the overall rating: read the comments to figure out whether the kinds of complaints people have are the kinds of things that are likely to bug you, too, or conversely, whether the things people love are the things you’re looking for.
  2. Yelp: To find the nearest and best restaurants, food stands, ice cream, book stores or drug store for an emergency ibuprofen stop.
  3. iExit: Look up which shops and restaurants are available at upcoming exits on the interstate.
  4. Skype: To save on phone charges if you are traveling outside your coverage area; make calls when you’re in a wifi hotspot instead.
  5. Audible: To download and listen to audiobooks, if you can’t find what you want on the iTunes store.
  6. OpenTable: To make reservations at the restaurants you identify on Yelp.
  7. Evernote: To view the travel guide you’ve cleverly compiled for yourself from online resources snipped using Evernote’s web clipper.
  8. OffMaps: To download maps that will work when you are out of 3G range, or if connectivity is overloaded (as happened to us in New York). You have to download the specific maps for the places you’re visiting so make sure you do that before your connection cuts out.
  9. Facebook: To quickly upload and share photos and videos from your road trip (which you can’t do by simply using Safari on your iPhone or iPad, because there is no way to browse to your phone/pad’s photos). Just make sure you’ve set your Facebook privacy settings so that you’re comfortable with who is seeing those uploaded images.
  10. Klexi: To download movies and TV shows from your computer onto your tablet for offline viewing.
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Packing list: 11 tech accessories for your web-enabled road trip

If only Apple would introduce an Apple Store passport! We’re well on our way to the goal of getting stamped at every Apple Store in North America. Not (only) because we make a point of seeking out each retail location in hope of finding some as-yet-unseen doodad, but because we rarely hit the road without discovering that we have left behind some crucial piece of our tech kit (usually a Macbook, iPhone or iPad adapter, but occasionally all three!)

The beauty of a road trip is that you don’t face the air traveler’s constraint of limited luggage and a security check that may look at you suspiciously if your entire suitcase is full of computer cables. Here’s what we’ve learned to pack…or regretted leaving behind:

  1. AC adapters for your car’s cigarette lighter/outlet. Buy at least as many charging adapters as you have AC outlets in your car (unless your car has more adapters than you have devices, in which case you either have too few devices or too big a car). Make sure your adapters are capable of charging all the devices you are actually bringing; in the case of the iPad, a standard iPhone charger won’t be powerful enough, so you need a special adapter.
  2. Power bar with all your adapters plugged in. The absolute smartest thing we did was to bring a couple of power bars that together provided enough outlets to plug in all our chargers (4 iPhones, 2 iPads, 1 pay-as-you-go phone). We plugged all the charging adapters into the power bars, and then dropped them into the one bag that came with us into every hotel we stayed at (the same bag that held our toiletries or pjs). Unfortunately we didn’t have quite enough USB/dock cables to leave them all plugged into the adapters (one had to move into the car each day to keep the iPad charged while we drove and navigated), but ideally you will have your power bar(s) fully set up so that all you have to do is plug a single power bar into an outlet at your hotel, and all your adapters and cables will be ready to charge your devices. Don’t count on your computer’s ports to cover any of your charging needs; you don’t want to be forced to pull out and plug in your computer just to use it as a power bar.
  3. Keyboard. If I’d packed my iPad’s keyboard or a Bluetooth keyboard, completing the occasional form would have been even easier. From now on it’s staying in the car!
  4. Extra-long charging cable. We got an awesome 10-foot iPod/iPhone/iPad charging cable at the Apple store, which is long enough to snake from the outlet in our trunk all the way up to a kid playing on an iPad in our backseat. Presto! No more whining because an iPad has run out of juice mid-game.
  5. Camera connection kit. The iPad’s camera connection kit lets you dump your digital camera’s photos directly to your iPad, using either an SD card or USB port. How we wished that we had remembered to pack ours so that we could quickly post our latest snaps to Facebook! Without the connection kit we were forced to wait until we connected the camera to our actual laptop at the end of the day…when we rarely had the energy to post content. An even easier option: the Eye-Fi card, which (depending on your camera) may allow you to upload your photos to the web directly from your camera, whenever you hit a wifi hotspot.
  6. Headphone splitter. Pack one or two of those headset splitters that let you plug two sets of headphones into a single jack. That way two kids can share a single iPad, sparing you from the nightmare of listening to Barbie videos while you drive. Better yet, use the splitter to share an iPad with your sweetie so that you can watch a movie in bed without waking the kids who are sleeping in the next bed. For those of you who have more than two kids, but are still brave enough to pack them up for a road trip, Belkin makes this multi-headphone splitter. If you have more kids than the Belkin splitter can accommodate then you might want to download this app.
  7. Cheap back-of-the-neck headphones. When Rob or I listen to something on the iPad or iPhone, we use Apple earbuds (me) or mid-grade earmuff headphones (Rob). Neither option works great for our kids, however, and kid-specific headphones are unnecessarily expensive. We’ve found that cheap, back-of-the-neck headphones work great: the kids put them over their heads instead of behind their necks, and the smaller circumference makes for a good and comfortable fit.
  8. Portable speakers. If you want to listen to music in your hotel room or by the beach, consider packing some speakers to connect to your phone, tablet or iPod. Just please don’t blast your music at a campsite. After dark. Next to people who are trying to get their kids to sleep. Hypothetically speaking, of course.
  9. Airport Express. Sad to say, there are still many hotels that charge for wifi, or that charge you separately for each computer you connect to their network. If you have an Airport Express router, it’s easy to throw it in your tech bag so that you can plug it into the Ethernet jack in your hotel room and run your own wifi network, sharing a connection among all the devices you’re using in your room.
  10. VGA adapter/cable and/or DVI cables. Most hotel TVs have their cables virtually soldered in place, but once in a blue moon you’ll stay someplace that could actually let you connect your iPad or TV to the hotel TV. (The all-time high water mark in this regard was the Hotel Intercontinental in Chicago, where the hotel TV had a separate adapter box offering almost every type of input imaginable.) Pack whatever video adapters you have for the tablets or laptops you are traveling with, and you may have the option of connecting to the hotel’s TV to watch your own bank of video content instead of whatever happens to be on TV.
  11. Separate bags for each computer. I didn’t bother bringing a separate briefcase for my MacBook, figuring it would be easier to throw it into the same backpack as Rob’s. But once that backpack was loaded with 2 MacBooks plus 6 devices’ worth of cables, it was a beast! I made Rob carry it into our hotel each night, which is why he is now lying in a special chair while he waits for his back spasms to subside.

Once you’ve checked all these must-have items off your packing list, be sure to take one item out of the car before you start driving. I don’t want to deprive you of an excuse to visit the Apple Store!

10 ways to save on roaming charges when traveling with your smartphone

One of the joys of  a road trip is that it gives you a chance to have something of an adventure without breaking the bank. But any savings you get from taking a car instead of a plane can easily be wiped out by a single massive cell phone bill. I’m not the only battle-scarred traveller who can tell tales of a cell phone bill that topped $1k after just a few days on the road (SXSW 2010, I remember thee well. As does my wireless provider.)

That’s why it pays to begin your web-savvy road trip with a little data planning:

  1. Buy a roaming plan. I login to my wireless account or call my wireless provider every time I leave the country, because roaming plans change frequently and I want to choose the best one for each trip. I find the Rogers customer service folks to be exceptionally helpful in choosing the right plan or combination of options, but if I’m already on the road it’s often easier to do the job myself by logging into the Rogers website.
  2. Get another set of SIM cards. We have a separate set of US SIM cards; when we’re travelling in the US, we pop out our Canadian SIM cards and re-activate our US accounts. (We’ve been using AT&T thus far, but will get Verizon cards next time we’re in the US so we don’t suffer the lack-of-service problems that plagued us during a recent trip to New York.) It’s way better to pay $30 for a generous iPad data plan than $75 for a really tiny amount of roaming data on our iPhones, so we turn off cellular data on our iPhones (to make sure we don’t use data accidentally) and then rely on the iPads.
  3. Turn off “push”. If you leave your phone’s data plan on, set your email program and other apps to “pull” only so that your email only downloads if you tell it to. Otherwise your email will download as it arrives, using up your data plan.
  4. Reset your usage stats as soon as you leave your roaming area. The best way to track your usage is to zero your phone or tablet’s stats on phone minutes and data usage. That way you can track any roaming minutes or data used, and make sure you don’t go over your plan. The first time you do this, check your data after your first task or two — you’ll be amazed at how much data you can use with a simple Google search. Once you have a sense of how quickly your data is getting used up, check your usage once a day, and even more often once you get close to your limit.
  5. Get a cheap phone. If you’re traveling outside your coverage area, consider buying a cheap pay-as-you-go phone that is native to the area you’re travelling in, so that you won’t run up you roaming plan making calls to sort out travel logistics. We have an AT&T Go phone that tells us exactly how much each call costs us, and try to stick to local calls only.
  6. Coordinate by text. If you’re anything like us, you are used to coordinating with your sweetie or travel pals through an endless succession of phone calls (“I’m out front — pick me up!”, “What corner did you say you were on?”, “OK, got a table, can you bring my sweater in from the car?”) This is probably what cell phones were invented for, but at roaming rates, it gets expensive. Buying a text message package is a lot cheaper, and makes it possible to connect by text instead of voice.
  7. Load your tablet and smartphone before you hit the road. Fill your phone or tablet with essential travel apps, music, podcasts and videos — many apps and podcasts are too large to download unless you’re on wifi, or else use up your data plan! I’ll provide some recommendations in my next post.
  8. Lock your phone after each call. Rob and I spent $76 to buy a block of 40 roaming minutes on each of our phones, and on the second day of the trip, used up all those minutes with ka butt call from him to me. I answered the butt call and hung up immediately, but since my iPhone touchscreen isn’t working properly, the phone didn’t hang up until Rob noticed and hung up the call an hour later. From this I learned how important it is to be sure you have ended each call, which you can do by locking your phone each time you hang up.
  9. Cancel your roaming plans after your trip. If you set up new SIM cards, phones or data plans for your trip that automatically renew, make sure to cancel them when you return home. Better yet, when you’re setting up the plan, ask if you can specify a cancellation date.
  10. Get a refillable credit card. Depending on where you’re travelling, you may find it hard to pick up a pay-as-you-go SIM or phone without a local credit card. I maintain a refillable Green Dot Visa account, linked to the US post office box that I use for occasional online purchases (for retailers who won’t ship to Canada). Between my US address and US credit card it’s not a problem to set up US-based devices.

Obviously, we’re getting into some extreme measures here, especially when you get to the point of establishing a separate credit card or post office box. If you’re taking a one-time-only trip to a new country, you probably won’t go to quite these lengths (though it may still be worth picking up a SIM card or pay-as-you-go phone, if it saves you on roaming charges and/or hotel rates).

But a road trip is, by definition, something you’re likely to do close to home. For many Canadians, US road trips are an easy getaway; setting up US connectivity can be worthwhile not only for the family driving vacation, but for US business trips. And Americans, I’ve got even better news: not only can you enjoy a beautiful drive through your favorite province (or two), but up here you won’t have to deal with AT&T’s lousy connectivity!

10 ways to save on hotels using your smartphone or tablet

I’m just back from a week-long family road trip to the Oregon Coast, Portland and Seattle. One of the great virtues of a family vacation is its ability to separate us from our screens: to wean the kids from their daily fix of PBS edutainment, to interrupt the staccato sounds of videogame walkthroughs enjoyed on the nearest iPad, to prevent Rob and me from immediately distilling each experience into a 140-character summary. Those are (almost) all delightful parts of our daily existence, but taking a break from them gives us a chance to step back and reevaluate the role our various screens play in the rhythm of our family life, and to think about whether we want to make changes.

If I sound surprisingly calm about severing my connection to the Hive Mind for 7 days, perhaps that’s because I was the one person in our family whose screen time didn’t decline all that much while we were on the road. For a variety of reasons, we decided to let this trip unfold relatively spontaneously: when we hit the road last Saturday morning, our only reservation was for a Sunday night campsite on the central Oregon coast. So it was up to me, in my role as trip planner and navigator, to figure out each day as it unfolded. That meant I was on my iPad for several hours each day, sorting out everything from where to have an emergency pee to where we would sleep that night.

It’s the kind of adventure that would have been literally unimaginable for me in the pre-iPad, pre-iPhone days. I’m not a roughing it kind of gal — and by “roughing it” I mean sleeping in a cruddy hotel room. So the idea of trusting myself to the fates, and sleeping wherever we happened to land, would not have cut it. It’s only thanks to the iPad, and the ability to check out potential destinations while in transit, that I’m able to create the illusion of being a devil-may-care free spirit who can take off on a moment’s notice.

If you’ve got a tablet or smartphone, you can become a free spirit too. Here’s how to use your smartphone or tablet to book your well-priced accommodations from the road:

  1. Create accounts on several hotel booking sites before you leave home. We have accounts on Hotwire, Expedia and Hotels.com: that way, if we find a deal on any one of them, it’s a snap to quickly complete a booking. Believe me when I say you will be grateful you entered all your address and booking preferences beforehand, so you don’t have to do it on your tablet’s virtual keyboard.
  2. Search multiple sites. My routine consisted of a quick Expedia search (to see which hotels had rooms), a TripAdvisor scan (to see which hotels got the top ratings), and then Hotels.com and Hotwire searches to see what deals were available. If something appealing popped up on Hotwire (which gives you better rates, but holds back the hotel name), I did a follow-up search on Expedia to see if I could deduce which hotel Hotwire was offering; by cross-referencing the location, amenities, star and TripAdvisor rating of a Hotwire offering, I could usually narrow the likely candidate down to just one or two hotels. Then I reviewed the TripAdvisor ratings on that hotel to see if I’d be happy to land there.
  3. Choose a daily booking window, and stick to it. Our first couple of days on the road, I felt like I spent the whole day on screen, scanning for potential rooms, but holding off on booking until we saw how far we’d been able to drive. Once we hit the gorgeous coastline I didn’t want to spend the day staring at my iPad, so from then on I tried to either take care of booking a room at the very beginning of the day (at which point we committed ourselves to being at a certain place by the end of the day) or to hold off until we arrived at a town charming enough that we felt like staying. If you take the “wait until the end of the day” approach, it’s still a good idea to start the day by looking at availability in a few destinations so you don’t find yourself driving past 2 or 3 towns with vacancies, only to arrive someplace that is all booked up.
  4. Search multiple towns at once. Our hotel booking process got a lot easier once I realized that I didn’t have to search for hotels one town at a time: instead, I could input “Central Oregon Coast” or “Northern Oregon Coast” as our destination, and Hotels.com and Expedia showed me all the options in all the towns in the area.
  5. Filter your search results. The hotel search process is a lot faster if you can narrow your search not only by location (town or neighborhood) but by rating, price range or required amenities (like a pool or room service). Expedia offers the most filtering options so even if you’re booking on Hotels.com, this is another good reason to start with an Expedia search. Why spend an hour browsing through 40 possible options if there are only 3 you’d really consider?
  6. Know your minimum viable deal, and jump on it. In general we were happy to get a 2.5-star motel for under $100, and a 3-star hotel for under $150. A couple of times I held off on booking same-day deals when they first appeared because I was hoping for something better (higher rated, cheaper, or both) and ended up having to accept a less-desirable option because the deal I was eyeing got booked up.
  7. Book 2 days at a time. Another way to avoid staring at the screen all day is to handle a couple of day’s worth of bookings at a time. If you’re driving a stretch of road that is remarkably unscenic, or held hostage in a shitty motel room while your kids catch up on sleep, you might as well use the time to book your next two nights; while the best deals are same-day you can also get lots of good deals the day before, and you’ll have more options.
  8. Book campsites a few days ahead. Ironically, camping is one of trickiest options for a pseudo-free spirit, since you typically have to book at least 72 hours in advance if you want to make an online campsite reservation with Reserve America. If you like certainty, book a few days ahead. Otherwise, you can try visiting a campsite and seeing if they have space: we got a space at the campground we wanted, and they still had vacancy by the end of the day.
  9. Travel against the tide. Since we were travelling in peak summer vacation season, we structured our traveling so that we were in coastal vacation towns during (slightly less busy) weeknights, and in cities on the weekends. That gave us more options and lower rates.
  10. Pick up the phone. Don’t forget that many small or independent hotels don’t participate in the big online booking sites. If you see a hotel reviewed on TripAdvisor but can’t find a deal for it online, call the hotel directly — we found a couple of places that way.

Of course, this system only works if you have a good data plan, so in my next post I’ll share my tips for roaming with your phone and tablet. I’ll have additional tips to share on tech-savvy road tripping in the days ahead, so do jump in with your own suggestions!