How Tech Can Ease Your [Summer] Travel
The relaxation you crave from summer vacation can quickly deteriorate into anxiety when things go awry, especially when traveling to an unfamiliar place.
At the airport, rummaging through your luggage for your boarding pass is no fun. On a road trip, how annoying is it to miss an exit because you had a hard time following a map on your smartphone screen? Even before you leave, there’s stress in trying to book a flight for the right price.
Fret not, summer traveler. Here are some tech tools to help simplify your trip, based on my tests and some picks from The Wirecutter, the product recommendations site owned by The New York Times.
Managing your trip itinerary
When you’re rushing to catch a flight, digging around for your itinerary or boarding pass is a major time waster. Paper printouts are easy to lose, and emailed itineraries can easily be swallowed by your inbox.
What’s the best solution? In my tests, the free mobile apps TripIt and Google Trips were both great trip organizers. They scan your inbox for itineraries, hotel bookings and car rental reservations, then stitch all that information into a neat itinerary.
Between the two apps, I preferred TripIt because it was less cluttered and showed my trip information in a timeline that is easy to read; Google’s app is crammed with extra features like coupons and recommendations for things to do.
A major caveat for both apps: They regularly scan your inbox to find travel-related emails. So if you are paranoid about privacy, create a separate email account just for travel documents and forward all your itineraries and booking confirmations to that address.
Traveling abroad with a smartphone
When traveling overseas, the idea of a digital detox sounds romantic, but a smartphone is handy for retrieving maps or finding places to eat nearby. There are several options for taking your mobile phone abroad.
The cheapest way is to unlock the phone and use a foreign SIM card, which I detailed in a previous guide. The downside is that this can require more research because rates for international carriers vary widely, and if you travel to multiple countries, you may have to juggle several SIM cards.
Less confusing options include T-Mobile’s free international roaming, included with that carrier’s cellular plans, or signing up for Project Fi, Google’s wireless plan that costs at least $30 a month to use in more than 135 countries. The caveat for T-Mobile is that the free international data service may be slow, and the downside of Project Fi is that it works only with a small set of Android phones like the Google Pixel.
For Verizon and AT&T users, a simple but pricey option is to sign up for an international data pass, which costs $10 a day on top of the rates for their normal plans. For example, if you have an individual plan that costs about $100 a month and you want to use your smartphone for a 14-day trip to France, you would pay an extra $140, bringing your bill to $240 that month.
Battery life is crucial while you are out with your smartphone for many hours. To give your device extra juice, carry an external battery pack like the Anker PowerCore 20100, which has enough power to charge a smartphone a day for about a week.
A smoother road trip
When on the road, your top priority should be driving safely, your second priority should be finding the most efficient route to your destination, and your third priority is probably keeping yourself from going crazy by listening to your favorite songs and podcasts.
On long drives, I have found an inexpensive car mount to be the most important tool. The $11 TechMatte MagGrip, which attaches to your car’s CD player slot, is a great choice. It holds your phone with a magnet, and its placement on the CD player slot keeps the smartphone from obstructing your windshield.
For music, you could pack a standard audio jack that connects a smartphone with your stereo system. Or you could use a Bluetooth kit like the Anker SoundSync Drive ($20), which plugs into your stereo and includes a receiver that pulls audio wirelessly from your smartphone.
Finally, your phone will need constant power to provide maps. You could use one of the aforementioned battery packs, but a better option is a USB charger that plugs into a cigarette lighter, like the Anker PowerDrive 2.
Booking the right flight and hotel
A vacation can easily be ruined by a subpar hotel or the feeling that you overpaid for a flight. Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix: Booking the best flight and hotel requires a number of tools and some research, and there are many travel-deal apps on the market catering to people’s special preferences.
For flights, the app Hopper is useful for tracking fares. You set your travel dates and destinations, along with some criteria like the number of flight stops. From there, the app uses big data to predict when the airfare drops to its lowest price, and it will send an alert when it’s time to book a flight. I used this app to get a great deal for tickets to Japan in October.
Booking the right hotel is trickier because people have different preferences and reviews are so subjective. I recommend using a combination of TripAdvisor and Yelp for reading customer reviews, and Kayak and Priceline for finding the best prices. If you are feeling spontaneous, you could use the app Hotel Tonight to look for a same-day booking at a reasonable price.
Keeping track of your luggage
Everyone has heard horror stories about luggage misplaced by an airline — and one day that bag could be yours.
There are companies that sell expensive luggage with built-in tech for locating it, but I prefer a cheap solution. Just slip a Bluetooth tracker like a $25 Tile into your luggage.
If you’re having trouble finding your suitcase at the baggage carousel, use the app to get the Tile to ring. Or if the luggage has vanished, you can tap the “Notify me when found” button in the Tile app, and if any Tile customer comes near your Tile, you will be alerted with its approximate location on a map.