On the Road: Apps, Sites, Gadgets & TipsPrint This
Last week in Aging With Geekitude, Erica kvetched about unusable user manuals and offered her tips for anyone who’s given up on getting any help from them – read about it This week, with summer travel season heating up, she’s sharing her favorite tech for your next road trip.
I adored travel when I was young – throwing a few things in a suitcase and taking off was the ultimate in excitement – but unfortunately, I got old and curmudgeonly. The very thought of deciding what to pack causes me severe anxiety. I need multiple pairs of shoes in case my feet act up. I wind up at my destination wondering how I could have possibly miscounted my medication so badly.
The answer: a road trip. Recently I forced myself to visit Florida (this was a matter of life and death; if you survived the last winter in the Northeast you know what I’m talking about) and instead of flying, I got in my car and drove all the way. My cozy Ford Focus wagon is like my home – I don’t have to worry about what to pack, I just take enough for a 20lb weight loss or gain, plus all my meds. I don’t have to leave on time or worry about the size of my backside causing dirty looks from disgruntled seat mates. Eight hours a day driving alone is no picnic, but I discovered the secret of long car trips – pick a really suspenseful audiobook. My favorites this trip; Falling Glass by Adrian McKinty; Raising Stoney Mayhall by Daryl Gregory which I found through Audible’s daily deals. (Check out my column about the wonders of Audible.com.)
Here are my road trip tips – highish and lower tech.
Essential Road Gadgets
GPS I would still be somewhere on a beltway outside Washington DC if not for my trusty Garmin Nuvi. It’s easy to use and I can see and hear it from behind the wheel. However, the latest maps app from Google Maps makes the Garmin look primitive. It provides much more detail and more precise directions, including route changes based on traffic. When I get a bigger phone so I can actually see it while driving, I’ll retire my Garmin.
Maps We all grew up using real maps on the road, and while at home I can map a route on my 17-inch screen, I still like the paper kind to consult when I get to a rest stop. If you want to be a higher tech traveler, you can download the maps you need onto your tablet. Here’s an explanation of how to download a section of Google Maps for your android tablet and for your iPad or iPhone. But don’t give up paper if you want an overview of your entire route.
Smartphone A tablet isn’t much use on the road because wifi is spotty (unless you have a cell-enabled tablet). A good smartphone is invaluable for just about everything – not just emergencies. You can use it make advance motel reservations while on the road, find local restaurants and attractions, find out what’s at the next exit and what the weather is at your destination, and listen to audiobooks – not to speak of making good, old-fashioned phone calls.
Essential Road Apps
Google Maps Thank God for Google, which was my buddy on the road. Once I got where I was going for the night I found that using a voice command to consult Google on my smartphone was invaluable for finding restaurants, stores and sometimes motels. (“What restaurants are nearby?” will get you a list.) Too bad Google left out juke joints and roadhouses, but then that’s another era. Google Maps will alert you to traffic jams as well, and find alternate routes. Unless you ask a specific question, Google will automatically display weather, nearby events and whatever else Google, in its infinite wisdom, thinks you ought to be aware of. I just checked and it told me the editor of the Woodstock Times, who I don’t know personally but have worked for, was 13 minutes away. Maybe it thought I’d like to stalk him. (Android phones have it installed, but you have to download Google Maps for your iPhone.)
GasBuddy I could have saved a bundle if I’d used it; from Georgia to Florida gas prices went up by about 30 cents per gallon. I found the best deals in my area with GasBuddy.com, which tells you the cheapest gas on the road and is simple to use. Click here for GasBuddy on your desktop.
iExit For what’s coming up at the next exit. Unfortunately it’s probably just another MacDonald’s. It only works when you’re near an exit.
Yelp Known for its user reviews of local dining, retail and services, this site and mobile app finds local non-chain restaurants, bars, nightlife, hotels and just about everything else you can think of. It’s informative in my area of upstate New York, and it’s helpful in cities – but I can’t vouch for Yelp on the road in rural areas since I took the low tech approach: Get off the road and ask the locals where to eat. That’s how I discovered that anyplace with the sign “Diner” is probably better than a chain. In South Carolina I drove a couple of miles from the exit and came across a Country Buffet with the best fried chicken I’ve ever had in my life. Wish I could remember where it was. Decent chains: Tim Horton’s, Crackerbarrel, Pancake House, Longhorn Steak House, Starbucks of course.
TruckStopLocator This app finds truck stop chains such as Pilot, Loves and Flying J. that are on all the interstates. These truck stops may or may not have cooked food, but they’re electronic gadget meccas, providing every variety of car charger imaginable, including chargers for multiple appliances. You’ll also find free wifi, good gas prices, decent coffee, and snacks and travel accessories – including coolers, pillows, seat covers. There are even showers for truckers, and some have decent restaurants attached.
Hotel Booking and Discount Sites & Apps
There are so many travel sites, you can get dizzy checking them all. Some people prefer Hotels.com, others favor Travelocity or Expedia or Priceline; see my pick below. Whatever you find on the Internet, before you book, call the hotel itself and see if it will give you a better deal. Quote the Internet price and tell them you’re a member of AAA or AARP which usually means at least a 10% discount. You may have to do some digging to find the actual number of the individual hotel in a chain – vest way is to Google the hotel name and specific address + “phone number” (for example, Red Roof Inn 324 Main Street 20023 + “phone number”.)
Quick tip: Red Roof Inns is my favorite chain. Unlike most motels today which are large, sprawling buildings where you have to schlep your luggage down long halls, Red Roof Inns have the old-fashioned motel layout where you can park in front of your room. Many are newly renovated and they’re all super cheap, comfy and clean with free wifi in the rooms that usually works. Ask for a handicapped room to make sure you’re on the ground floor. Downside: no breakfast, but they do have a fridge, microwave and coffeemaker.
Hotelcoupons.com Check this site or the app to see what’s on sale in the area where you’ll be stopping. I tested the site in my area and found great deals. Once you’re on the road, you can also try a low tech motel search: Rest stops on highways have stacks of booklets with discount hotel coupons. These are way better than any app when looking for a place to stay for the night because you get an exit-by-exit map with motels. Pick an exit in advance with the most motels (more means cheaper) and call ahead to reserve a room.
Trip Advisor.com Has a great app that shows all the local hotels wherever you are, with price range and reviews. Call to see what’s available.
Bing Travel Google’s main competitor in search, Bing lets you search by location, price etc. It pulls up Trip Advisor reviews and then lets you click to find the best rate on the Internet for the motel you’re interested in. DO NOT click the ad-supported boxes that open all the travel sites in different tabs. You’ll be sorry if you do.
Hipmunk.com is easy to navigate. Unlike most sites where you have to navigate back and forth from the main listing page to another page with the details – or even worse the site opens 10 pop-up windows for “comparison sites” and freezes your computer – when you click on a hotel in Hipmunk, the site slides open an adjacent window with prices, photos, details and reviews, making your search easier and faster.
Airbnb.com This site was set up for people who want to travel cheap and are willing to stay in someone’s spare bedroom. If this is you, you’ll save a bundle, but if not, just set the filter for “entire place” and set the price range at what you’re willing to pay. You will still find some good deals. (Click here to see Senior Planet’s article on AirBnB.)
HomeAway.com and VRBO.com (Vacation Rental by Owner) Both advertise fully furnished rentals all over the world that you can rent for a few days, weeks or months. Before renting an expensive hotel room with no amenities, see if you can find an apartment for the same price or less, where you’ll be able to prepare meals and stretch out in more than one room.
Hostelworld.com I wouldn’t stay in a hostel if you paid me – I need my private room and bath thank you very much – but I do have older friends who are more intrepid than me and have used this site. Hostels are much cheaper than hotels and not as comfortable (you’ll share a room, or a dorm, with strangers) but they’re friendly places where a solo traveler can get to know people. My friend swears you’ll find older people in hostels, not just kids.
Let me know if you have any favorite travel apps for road trips. Use the comments box below.
Erica Manfred is a journalist, essayist and humorist who writes about everything from dentistry to divorce to fantasy fiction. Friend her on Facebook.