Road Trips: Gear and Gadgets
Let's face it: If you're taking a road trip without a battery of gadgetry you are either one of the 6 remaining people who still think cell phones are a passing fad or you're my sister Rachel, in which case you really should put your money toward a new car before shopping for the latest GPS system.
For the rest of us, this is a golden age. We have music libraries in the palms of our hands, maps that can drill down to the drive-thru line at the IHOP, and portable gaming systems that can captivate our kids on a drive from Boston to Burbank. Still, we need old standbys like roadside emergency kits and old-fashioned guidebooks.
At times I harbor nostalgia for the 20-hour station-wagon slogs with nothing to distract us but traffic jams, road kill and scratchy AM radio. But that was then. So, with an emphasis on now, here's our short list of gear and gadgets that will make your next road trip more fun, safe and efficient.
Depending on how far you venture from the actual road during your road trip, we have 2 GPS recommendations. The Garmin nuvi 3790LMT has all you'd expect in a top-shelf GPS (maps, voice recognition, clear display) plus traffic updates and a nifty feature where you ask "Where am I?" and get an accurate answer. For park-and-hike types, the waterproof Magellan eXplorist 710 has a mini-compass, topographic maps, and photo and voice memo (and sharing) capability.
With a ballooning number of gadgets comes the frustration of a ballooning number of chargers. Solution: The FreeLoader Pro Solar Charger ($80). The company says the solar- or USB-powered product can power "virtually every electrical device, anywhere in the world." The FreeLoader can infuse up to 70 hours of standby time to an iPhone and is compatible with 9 of 10 digital camera models. The 6-oz. charger re-charges itself via the sun or a USB port.
If your siblings' endless renditions of Sittin' on a Baby Bumblebee had you clawing at the car window as a kid, just think how your child feels listening to NPR for 400 miles. The PlayStation Portable (PSP) 3000 handheld game console features hundreds of games, movies, TV programs and videos. It also features music, photos and wireless internet connectivity. The 4.3-inch LCD screen has an anti-reflection feature to combat glare.
Roadside emergency kit
Breakdowns on the road happen. You forward-thinkers probably have this covered, but for the rest of us there's the Tekton 1843 Auto Emergency Toolkit from Michigan Industrial Tools. The 110-piece kit includes: heavy duty jumper cables; impact-resistant flashlight; siphon pump (to transfer fuel from another vehicle); auto fuses; tire gauge; first-aid kit; and a 12-in-1 tool (pliers, wrench, screwdrivers and more).
Eat and sleep apps
Again, we're going to hit you with 2 products here, because both serve distinct -- and valuable -- functions. TripAdvisor brings to the mobile experience the same crowd wisdom and intuitive search that made it an internet hit: Hotels, restaurants, attractions and more ranked by customer feedback and price, along with links to partner sites for bookings and reservations. Hotel Tonight provides same-day deals to numerous hotels in more than a dozen cities, with more on the way. Discounts, which can be up to 70 percent off of published rates, are categorized by low, medium and high priced. One drawback: The app is available only on the iPhone and iPad.
Telling someone which guidebook to buy is like telling them what to do on a road trip: It's hard unless you know what kind of traveler they are. Intrepid, active and budget-conscious road trippers should go with Lonely Planet guides, which unearth a city's bones and offer sound intelligence for a wide range of budgets. Higher-end travelers will appreciate the Frommer's series, which includes mouth-watering restaurant listings and creative excursions, like touring D.C.'s monuments by moonlight. And anyone who eats will appreciate RoadFood, which harbors 800 restaurant reviews scattered across the country (200 of them new for 2011) along with regional maps, a state-by-state index and details on local color, food history and characters staffing the restaurants.
Those are my votes for the latest cool and useful travel aids but if you've got something better, well, use it and enjoy it but don't feel too smug: Someone else probably already has something that'll make both of us look like luddites.
John Briley has driven many parts of the world since the 1980s and looks forward to continuing the journey.