7 vacation tech tips to make your next adventure better
Contrary to some rumors circulating around the Internet, I’m not dead (not yet anyway) – I’ve just been on vacation for the last two-and-a-half weeks. I had a wonderful time with my family, saw some beautiful places, soaked up some sun, and spent way too much money on food. Since I am “Joe the Android Guy™” after all, I had plenty of tech in tow, but before we dive into that, let me give you a little background about how we went about our trip,then share some vacation tech tips to help your next excursion be more enjoyable.
Including my mother-in-law, we have eight people in my immediate family (cue the “Utahan’s have big families” comments). We planned on going to the Grand Canyon, Arizona (for a few days), and then on to California. With all those stops, flying was going to be less fiscally attractive than driving, so we loaded up our two hybrid vehicles (the Prius that you’ve seen in my videos previously, and a 7-seater hybrid Highlander) and we hit the road. Taking two cars allowed us to rotate passengers around whenever we needed to, provided some level of redundancy (those familiar with the philosophy of “2-is-1, 1-is-none” will respect), and kept us from needing the thief-attracting and MPG-killing car-top carrier that we’d have had to strap on our roof if we’d only taken one vehicle.
We left Northern Utah and headed down the eastern side of the state (through Blanding, Utah), then made our way into Arizona (the Mesa area). After a few days there, we headed West on I-10 into Anaheim, California, where we made our residence for the next week-and-a-half, before we headed home via I-15 through Nevada. I mention all this because it’s important to note that most cellular carriers build out their networks in metropolitan areas and along the highway corridors that connect them. Cellular connectivity is becoming much more important these days than it ever was when many of us were kids. Our path took us far away from metro areas, and far from interstate highways – and therefore well beyond cellular data range, and we even ran out of voice coverage more than once.
While in Blanding we stayed at a very rural hotel. In Arizona we stayed with a family friend. In California we made our home in a suite in downtown Anaheim. Each location had its challenges, and the trips between each location were unique. We had a great time, despite some hiccups that I’ll get into, but I learned a lot about that should help you with your next adventure.
This was one super-long road trip. We clocked almost 2,500 miles on each of the cars before the trip was over. I bought two road atlases before we headed out, just in case technology failed us, or we wanted to see the bigger picture. That turned out to be a really good idea. Although we started out with Waze and preloading areas in the newly updated Google Maps app, neither solution worked perfectly – especially when we were far from data coverage.
During the long hauls, Waze was ideal. We knew where road hazards and police traps were long before we got to them, and we were directed on the correct roads. Once we were inside big cities like Phoenix and the cities of Southern California, Google Maps reigned supreme. We lost some of the social aspects that Waze offers, but the spoken turn-by-turn directions given by Google Maps (telling us to take the right two lanes to exit the freeway, then stay in the left lane to turn onto the next street) made navigating much easier. Google owns Waze, so hopefully lane guidance isn’t too far off, but in the meantime, Waze and Google Maps both have their distinct advantages and separate use-case scenarios – and both deserve a place on your phone.
However, keep your atlas handy, since data isn’t as ubiquitous as you might otherwise believe, and we had to pull them out on more than one occasion.
No, I’m not talking about the “magic” stickers that you used to put on the back of your phone to “boost” the signal (which never really worked), I’m talking about a device that takes your signal, boosts it, and retransmits it at higher power. What’s more, these sorts of devices typically have an external antenna to help get outside the “Faraday cage” of a car’s passenger compartment, which can significantly increase data reception.
Just prior to leaving on my epic adventure, Pocketnow was contacted by weBoost with an offer to try out its Drive 4G-X product. We’ll cover this little device in much more detail in an upcoming article, but simply put, if you want your phone’s battery to last longer, your signal to be stronger, and your data speeds to be faster, you absolutely want a signal booster in your car!
If you spend any amount of time in your car, you owe it to yourself to pick up a signal booster. Trust me, this one’s worth it!
If you’re using your phone in a car you need some sort of handsfree device. Whether that’s a feature built into your car, an aftermarket add-on, or something as simple as a Bluetooth headset, don’t be that person that has one hand on the steering wheel and the other trying to answer a call, dial a number, or even hold your phone to your head.
My Prius has Bluetooth built-in, and allowed me to easily talk with the driver in the other car. We don’t have the same sort of fancy tech in the Highlander, so calls had to be fielded by one of the teenagers riding in the backseat. This would have been better handled if the driver in the other car had a Bluetooth headset, which she didn’t.
If your car isn’t equipped with Bluetooth, make sure you’ve got a headset up and running before you start on your trip.
This one is probably the biggest take away of the whole vacation: you don’t have enough chargers; even if you think you do, you don’t have enough outlets. I had a tablet, smart watch, phone, portable battery, and a Bluetooth headset to charge – with two chargers. Everyone else had at least one device that needed charging.
That’s over a dozen devices, each with a charger needing an outlet. Even if we had brought a charger for each device, finding that many outlets to plug into would have proven difficult. Ultimately, we had about six chargers to take care of our charging needs. Put another way: we didn’t have nearly enough!
We ended up daisy-chaining a phone or tablet on the other side of one of our portable batteries (which saved an outlet) and still allowed us to charge both devices – albeit slower.
Next time around I’m going to grab a couple multi-port USB chargers that only take up one wall outlet each, but charge multiple devices at a time. Not only will we have fewer items to pack (and keep track of), but charging will be a much easier process than it was on this trip.
That might work in the hotel room, but in our cars, however, we needed another option. For those we had a pair of ONITE dual-port 12V chargers that featured Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0 built-in. They worked out really well, but don’t seem to be available any more. If I had to get a pair of new chargers I’d probably go with the CHOE 51W 4-port chargers. These would let us charge twice as many devices at once (four ports, compared to two in the ONITE chargers), and would still give us the Qualcomm Quick Charge tech to make sure charging happened fast!
Every day that we’d get up early and head to a theme park. We’d take pictures, check the line times for the rides, maybe even play a little Ingress. We’d keep in touch with text messages and phone calls as one group would head to one part of the park and another would go to the other end. Ultimately, we’d run our batteries dry.
On this trip we took two portable batteries – one with Qi-charging built-in, and the other without. Both were life-savers, and we’d usually drain each of them entirely – every day. Since both batteries had fairly large capacities, charging them took all night, and then some. Like I mentioned before, we’d often daisy-chain a phone in-line with the battery in an attempt to charge both while we slept. Sometimes this worked, but near the end of our vacation we weren’t able to keep up, forcing us to take half-charged batteries with us, and losing out on taking pictures because our phones were out of juice.
Regardless of what brand you buy or what features you get, make sure you have three or four portable batteries on-hand. You’ll thank me later.
The new Google Photos app is amazing. In addition to automatically syncing pics to the cloud, the app and associated service also create panoramas and animations from individual pictures that you take. While these are really cool, what was mind-blowing was the “Story” Google Photos created for me when I got home. My whole vacation, complete with dates, locations, maps, transitions, labels, and more were all pre-compiled into a sharable presentation.
Historically, when we’d return home from a vacation, we would spend a week compiling pictures, then digitally send them to a 3rd-party for printing into a hard-bound photo book. We still did that this time around, but the process was much easier since Google Photos automatically picked out the best pictures from the hundreds that we took.
What’s more, Google Photos isn’t just an Android thing. While we were in Arizona I was able to set our relative up with the app on her iPhone 6. She was astounded that all her pictures from her computer and her phone were all together in one place, easily searchable, and automatically backed up. She thinks I’m a genius now, all because of the power of Google Photos.
Last, but certainly not least is a smartwatch. My daughter was able to track her steps, control her music, and see who was calling directly from her original Pebble watch. I was able to do the same with my Moto 360. My son left the charger for his LG G Watch at home, so he wasn’t able to do all the fancy things that his sister and I were doing.
While this sounds superficial, I noted something interesting: despite my daughter and I both having Bluetooth turned on to connect to our watches all the time, her Nexus 4 and my Nexus 6 both outlasted her brother’s Nexus 4 and my wife’s Nexus 5 in the battery-life department. While there are probably too many variables to account for, the obvious difference is that she and I were able to keep our phones in our pockets whenever we needed to attend to a notification, phone call, or even check the time. The saved “screen-on time” translated into longer run-times for our phones compared to theirs. While your mileage may vary, I’m convinced that having a smartwatch helps your phone’s battery last longer than using a smartphone without a smartwatch attached.
Also, when navigating with Google Maps, having turn-by turn directions on your wrist with a convenient vibration just before your turn is really handy, too!
So there you have it! Seven quick tech tips to help make your next vacation a little more enjoyable. Each vacation is different, and you may come up with a different set of things that helps to make your vacation better, but hopefully these will get you pointed in the right direction!
Do you have other hints, tips, or tricks to make better use of technology while on holiday? I’d love to hear them! Head down to the comments and let me know what’s on your list!