Travel Smarter 2012: Take these tips for a better road trip

VW bug road trip photo

With temperatures hovering near the 70 degree mark on the East Coast this week, many of us can already feel spring in the air, and that means that road trip season is nearly upon us. I grew up as the youngest child in a family of six boys and road trips were an annual event for us. We used to pile into a big, old station wagon and spend the bulk of our trips arguing over who was taking up too much space, who smelled bad, and who got to sit next to the window.

Once, when I was five, I wandered off at a roadside rest stop and was left behind. An exit or two later, someone noticed that I wasn’t in the car and they turned back to find me. My mother expected me to be upset, but maintains that I was completely unconcerned. I don’t remember the incident, but nearly 35 years later, I still love to wander off and explore.

In the 80’s, we had a radar detector and a CB radio and felt like we were on the cutting edge of technology. There were no apps and the concept of watching movies in the car was still many years away, but we amused ourselves by playing memory games, trying to decipher all of the dirty jokes we heard from truckers with thick Southern accents on the CB, and annoying the living hell out of my parents. These days, I have two little boys, ages 2 and 4, and the tables are turned.

Below you’ll find some apps and tips that might be useful on your next road trip.Free Apps

GasBuddy. With gas prices in the U.S. now at a national average of $3.79 a gallon and rising, saving a few bucks at the pump is a priority for many. This app allows you to comparison shop for the best price based on your location.

RoadAhead. This terrific app provides useful information about what you’ll find near highway exits all across America. Listings include gas stations with the price of gas listed, and restaurants and cafés, some with links to user reviews on Yelp. The app can also tell you what’s nearby even if you aren’t on a highway.

Where. This app is similar to RoadAhead but isn’t focused on highway exits. It does offer listings of places to eat, things to do, and local coupons. If you just need a bathroom, Sit or Squat can help.

WiFi Finder. This app allows you to find WiFi hotspots and also has a worldwide hotspot database you can download (for free) and access while offline.

RepairPal and iWrecked. Some people love these apps, but they don’t suit my personality at all. RepairPal helps you get roadside assistance, find a repair shop or get a range of estimates for fixing common problems. For example, the app says that in my zip code an oil change costs between $27-62, and a power lock problem I have with my Toyota will cost somewhere between $192-$338 to fix.

iWrecked helps travelers prepare accident reports and find taxi and towing companies. I suppose both of these apps could be helpful, but I just don’t see myself standing by the smoldering ruins of my vehicle, fumbling around with apps. If you’re a very bad driver, have an unreliable car, or are simply a very practical person who likes to prepare for the worst, these apps might be useful for you. But I think they just invite bad luck. The only contingency planning I’m into is AAA, which offers unbeatable roadside assistance with membership plans that start at just $66 a year.

Tips

Use a GPS but don’t be a slave to it. I finally broke down and bought a GPS last year and now I don’t know how I lived without it for so long. That said, it’s always good to cross-check the GPS’s suggested route on Google maps or another site, because Garmin and other brands don’t always provide the best routes. There’s also the danger of turning into a GPS zombie who will literally follow their device right into a body of water. In June, three women from Mexico did just that – submerging a rented Mercedes Benz S.U.V. with a Hertz “Never Lost” GPS unit in a slough near Seattle (see video below). Invest in a GPS but don’t believe everything it tells you to do. And I wouldn’t bother paying for the traffic function – I have it on my Garmin and it’s virtually worthless.

Hit the library before you go. Before any long trip, I go to my local library and take out a few audio books. This is a great way to kill time while enriching your listening skills.

Don’t strap your dog (or dead grandmother) to the top of your car. This is particularly important if you plan to run for public office someday.

Contest speeding tickets. In a recent poll, Gadling readers indicated that they think it’s best to admit guilt when pulled over for speeding. I’m not sure I agree with that strategy. Don’t construe this as legal advice, but based upon my personal experience, it is nearly always more advantageous to contest speeding tickets in court. Even if it involves a long drive from where you live, you still might save money.

Mix tapes really do help combat road rage. Let’s face it – the roads are filled with bad drivers these days. Some like to tailgate, others stubbornly putter along below the speed limit in the left lane, and plenty are distracted by mobile devices, unruly children, or that sandwich they’re shoving in their face. Make a playlist of some of your favorite tunes; it’ll help put all the annoyances in perspective.

But listen to some A.M. radio as well. You’ll hear all kinds of doomsday and conspiracy theories, revolting political ideologies, and God knows what else. You might not like it, but it’ll be an education of sorts.

Indulge your children – to a point. A long road trip isn’t the time to be a task master. Stop for ice cream, seek out playgrounds, and help them improve their powers of observation with games. Let them watch a movie or check out this list of apps if you’d rather have them focus on something more educational. If you prefer more old-school games, this site offers ideas for kids, toddlers and babies.

Get more miles to the gallon. To improve your car’s fuel efficiency, use motor oil that is “energy conserving,” take out any dead weight from your car you don’t need, and keep your tires inflated to the proper pressure.

Venture off the highway. This is common sense, but it’s easy to forget that the shortest distance between two points doesn’t always make for the most interesting journey.

Brake for historic districts. Have you noticed that nearly every town in America is billing itself as a historic district these days? You really have to use your imagination to feel the history in some cases, but if you don’t check them out, you might miss some legitimately interesting places. And even the bogus ones are good for a laugh.

Carpool. Paying to carpool is a common way to get from one city to another in some European countries and, according to a story on NPR last week, the company that runs the biggest carpool site in Europe is about to expand their operation into the United States.

Pick up a hitchhiker – preferably one who isn’t a serial killer. This might sound like a crazy idea but, according to a recent Freakonomics podcast, it isn’t nearly as dangerous as you might think. Full disclosure: I only pick up hitchhikers in certain foreign countries where hitchhiking is more common than it is here. If I tried to do it in the U.S., with our two children in the car, my wife would insist that I undergo a full psychiatric evaluation.

[Images via Dave Seminara and Albertopveiga on Flickr]

Eight Money Saving Tips for Your Next Road Trip

With the economy still on uncertain ground and the weakness of the dollar making foreign travel increasingly expensive, many Americans will be looking for affordable travel alternatives within the United States. For families on a budget, few vacation options can come close to the value provided by a well-planned road trip, particularly now that gasoline prices are more reasonable. How can families stretch their travel dollars even further on their next major road trip? Here are eight tips that can put money in your pocket without detracting from the overall experience.

Use Priceline to Minimize Lodging Costs

Nearly everyone is aware of the savings that are possible using priceline.com and other similar auction sites that allow the consumer to specify a price and bid for the best available lodging. However, few people know how to use Priceline effectively to achieve really big savings. There are many other sites that provide information on the types of hotels within Priceline’s “zone” system as well as the prices actual people have paid for successful bids. My personal favorite is biddingfortravel.com. The consumer can see a listing of all hotels in Priceline’s zones and check to see if others have attempted a bid for the desired dates.

Beyond collecting this type of information, consumers should be aware that often the best Priceline deals are scored at the last minute. Hotels typically give Priceline blocks of unused inventory shortly before a travel date if it looks like they will be unable to fill the rooms at regular “rack” rates. On your next trip, take along a laptop computer or use a hotel’s business center to bid on rooms for the next day. While there may be more uncertainty associated with where you will stay, the savings can amount to hundreds of dollars over a typical vacation.

Minimize Gasoline Costs

One of the major expenses for any road trip is gasoline. While the price of gas may not be above $4/gallon anymore, there is still no reason to pay any more than you have to. Gasoline prices can vary widely depending on local competition and it is very difficult to know where to get the best deal if you simply wait until the gas gauge reads empty and then exit the interstate. A better approach is to use GasBuddy.com to plan your gasoline stops. GasBuddy will allow you to enter the specifications for your vehicle and the starting and ending points for the trip. The system will then calculate the best gas stops based on your fuel needs and route. Since fuel costs can change often, I like to use GasBuddy.com to plan out the next day’s drive when I am on a road trip.Avoid Convenience Stores at Gasoline Stops

You’ve been driving for 250 miles without a stop and pull into a gasoline station to refuel. It’s a fairly certain bet that everyone in your car will get out and buy drinks and snacks in the convenience store attached to nearly every gasoline station. This is one of the easiest ways to waste money given that a bottle of water may cost $1.50 and a candy bar will be at least $1. Instead of paying convenience store prices, stop at Wal-Mart or another big box retailer prior to your trip to stock up on bottled water, soda, and snacks. Each item will be a tiny fraction of convenience store prices. If you have four people in your car and each spends $2.50 at each gas stop, you could easily save $15 to $20 per day.

Opportunistic Camping

Most people either love camping or hate it. Those who dislike camping object to the lack of private bathroom facilities, exposure to the elements, and the need to carry a large amount of equipment. What I call “opportunistic camping” can avoid many of these objections. Simply pack a tent and sleeping bags in your car, and leave the rest of your equipment at home. If the weather looks nice and there is an attractive campground nearby, just use it to pitch a tent and sleep there overnight. Eat your meals at restaurants as you normally would. Never camp out more than one night in a row to limit objections to the lack of showers in campgrounds lacking full facilities. While this approach isn’t for everyone, it is possible to save significant money and have fun at the same time.

Ditch the Car in Big Cities

A car is a major liability in most big cities. You will have trouble navigating the unfamiliar traffic and often pay exorbitant prices to simply park your car. While in the city, most people will just leave their cars in the hotel gathering dust. Most major cities have commuter rail stations in suburbs and, with a bit of planning, one can park at a station and take the train into the city. For example, if you are visiting New York City, leave your car at Metropark, New Jersey and take New Jersey Transit into the city for $16 round trip. Parking is $9/day, a fraction of what hotels will charge for parking in New York City. If you are traveling with children, most will consider the train ride a highlight of the trip.

Eat with the Locals

Why eat at the major national chains when you are on the road? While it is true that chains offer the assurance of a predictable meal, it is often possible to save money and have a better experience by eating with the locals. Yelp.com is a great way to discover the best local places to eat, but it is even better to simply ask the people you encounter when arriving in a town or city. Most people are eager to help.

Visit Free or Low Cost Attractions

While the purpose and goals of every road trip will differ based on the preferences of your group, it is almost always possible to plan interesting activities that are either free or very low cost. For example, when you are visiting a state’s capital city, it is often possible to visit the state capitol building and in many cases there are museums and other attractions nearby. National Parks are a wonderful low cost destination for families. The $80/year National Park Pass will entitle you to enter any park in the country. This is a very hard deal to beat when planning a summer vacation, particularly to the Western United States.

Maintain Your Vehicle

This tip almost goes without saying, but there are far too many travelers who do not monitor air pressure in their tires, fail to replace dirty air filters, and never check their oil level. Not only can you save money by simple steps such as inflating your tires and using clean filters but you can also prevent a break down. Even the best planned vacation will be ruined if you are stranded at a truck stop for hours waiting for a mechanic to find the parts required to fix your car. Have your local mechanic check out your car prior to any major trip.

With some advance planning and a bit of flexibility, it is possible to make your next road trip more interesting and affordable at the same time.

10 gadgets to make your road trip more enjoyable

ROAD TRIP! It doesn’t matter whether the economy is making you pick the car over the plane, or that you just really like driving through this wonderful country – everyone needs some time away from home, and taking the car is a fantastic way to see more than you can from 35,000 feet.

Of course, a lineup of awesome road trip gadgets is perfectly timed for the Gadling Perfect Road Trip contest, so read through these ten products, then use them as some inspiration for the contest!



BlueAnt S1 carkit

Each month, a new state, county or city adds their name to the list of places you are not allowed to drive without a hands free device, carkit or headset. The fines for being caught on the phone when not permitted can be as high as $250.

One of the newest hands free devices on the market is the BlueAnt S1 Bluetooth carkit. This compact unit clips to your sun visor, and uses a rechargeable battery to provide up to 15 hours of talk time, or a whopping 800 hours of standby time.

One added advantage of the unit is its ability to play music off your phone, making it perfect for a rental car, or even as a portable speaker in your hotel room.

PRO’S: Good quality audio in phone calls, supports stereo audio.
CON’S: Does not come with a car charger cord, Stereo audio sounds “tinny”.

Price: $79.99
Where: myblueant.com


HiGear TravelRest pillow

The TravelRest pillow is an extremely clever travel pillow. It takes a little time to install, and involves inflating the pillow, wrapping a cord around the headrest (or the back of your seat if on a plane), then attaching it to the bottom of your seatbelt.

Once installed, the TravelRest is actually very, very comfortable and the first pillow that really seems like it would be able to let me sleep through a long car (or plane) ride.

When you are done with the pillow, you simply let the air out, and roll it up.

PRO’S: Very comfortable, folds up nice and small
CON’S: Takes a little practice to install

Price: $26.95
Where: travelrest.net


Plantronics Voyager Pro Bluetooth headset

The Plantronics Voyager Pro is one of the larger headsets on the market, but inside its fairly bulky exterior sits the electronics required to make the best headset ever developed. The Voyager Pro finally makes it possible to speak on a Bluetooth headset without having to yell, or explain to the person on the other end of the line that you are in fact, not talking to them from inside an oil barrel.

When you talk at a whispering level, the other end of your call will be able to clearly hear you, and virtually all outside noise is eliminated. Even when you make a call on a train, or in a car with the windows down, the Voyager Pro manages to make the call sound as clear as it would from in a quiet room.

PRO’S: Amazing sound quality, charges using MicroUSB
CON’S: Does not come with a carrying case, price is steep

Price: 99.99
Where: plantronics.com


Kensington Auto/Air power inverter with USB

The new Kensington Auto/Air power inverter with USB is one of the smallest power inverters on the market. This tiny device turns regular DC power into 120 watts of AC power. In addition to this, its 2 USB ports allow you to charge any USB capable gadget.

The unit even features an “EmPower” plug, which is found on some airlines. Having access to DC and EmPower means you’ll be able to charge and/or power your laptop, phone or other device in a car or a plane.

PRO’S: AC and USB in one device, very small, integrated fan for cooling, powers off car and plane outlets.
CON’S: Power limited to 120 Watts (150 for brief periods), no carrying case

Price: $69.95
Where: kensington.com



Garmin Nuvi 855T

When it comes to finding the best directions from A to B, you have many choices.

However, you need those directions and the latest fuel prices, news, weather, traffic information, a handsfree carkit and the ability to send addresses from your PC to your car, then you’ll need the new Garmin Nuvi 855T.

This top of the line GPS unit offers a huge lineup of features, including a very impressive voice recognition system and steering wheel mounted remote control.

PRO’S: Best routing of any GPS unit I have ever tested, huge array of features
CON’S: Pricey, paid subscription required for wireless (MSN Direct) services

Price: $499.99
Where: garmin.com



XM2Go Satellite Radio
receiver

Satellite radio is the perfect entertainment gadget for people who just want to sit back and enjoy the ride. Unlike AM and FM radio, satellite radio doesn’t suffer from having to find a new frequency every 50 miles. You pick the station you like, and it’ll follow you from coast to coast.

Sirius/XM (they are one company now) offers something for everyone in their lineup – from sports to kids radio, there is always bound to be something that will keep most people in the car entertained.

Satellite radio units display the track you are listening to, and some units can even be taken out of your car so you can continue to listen to the radio at the airport or in your hotel room. The XM2Go radio (pictured above) can even record live radio from multiple channels allowing you to listen to your favorite channels when you are far from Satellite coverage (like on a plane, or outside North America).

PRO’S: No more searching for radio stations, easy to install, affordable radio receivers
CON
‘S
: Monthly fee for content

Price: From $40 + monthly service
Where: www.xmradio.com / www.sirius.com



Autonet Mobile

This product takes “geeky” to a whole new level. Imagine always having access to the Internet, through a wireless router installed in your car. That is what Autonet Mobile has to offer. Available as a factory installed option on select Chrysler and VW vehicles, this device offers wireless access to a 3G broadband network for any passengers in the car.

The product is also available as an aftermarket accessory for $399.99. Service starts at just $29.95 per month.

PRO’S: Speedy access anywhere within coverage of the nations largest 3G network
CON’S: Pricey compared to other mobile broadband options, annoying login procedure

Price: $399.99 + installation + monthly service
Where: www.autonetmobile.com


Potette Plus portable potty

Bet you didn’t expect to find a portable potty in this button-heavy lineup? The Potette Plus is a “must have” for anyone traveling with small kids. This $16 portable toilet can be used as a regular porta-potty (by using disposable bags) or as a seat for on a regular toilet, so your little one doesn’t fall into the bowl. Its legs fold flat making it easy to bring along, and a carrying bag is included.

Bags for the Potette Plus are $5 per 15, but the biggest advantage is being able to tie a bag shut instead of driving around with a potty full of poop, or having to dump the potty on the side of the road and try to get it clean.

PRO’S: Never having to worry about finding a roadside rest stop for kids potty breaks, bags reduce smell
CON’S: Pricey refill bags

Price: $16 + $5 for disposable bags
Where: Potette.com


Google Latitude

Google Latitude is the only software product in this lineup – but it does something so cool that it really deserves a spot in the list. With Google Latitude, you can share your current location with anyone in the world. Of course, you get to pick who is allowed to see where you are.

Once setup, your mobile phone relays back to Google where you are driving, and those people unlucky enough to be left back home can log in to Google maps online or on their phone, and check your progress.

PRO’S: Family and friends can check your progress, see where you are
CON’S: Family and friends can check your progress, see where you are

Price: Free – requires a compatible smart(phone)
Where: Google Latitude



Wagan Power Dome

If your road trip takes you to places where the signs read “next gas station 200 miles”, then you’ll of course already know that it is important to take some basic precautions. You’ll pack drinks and snacks.

One product you may also want to consider is the Wagan Power Dome. This portable power pack combines a battery booster, DC and AC power ports, USB charger ports an AM/FM radio and a 260PSI compressor.

The unit has enough juice to actually start your car, which is mighty handy if you left it outside your hotel room with the lights on all night.

PRO’S: Never have to find someone to help give you a boost
CON’S:
Heavy, takes several hours to recharge

Price: $119
Where: Auto stores, Amazon.com and Wagan.com