Road Trip USA: A Techie’s Toolbox For A Great Drive
Are you already using your Android for everything but phone calls? Smartphones also make for great travel companions! Before you start your road trip, be sure to stock up your digital toolbox with useful apps.
Smartphones are amazing tools and they become invaluable while you’re traveling. Not only can you use your phone to make emergency calls and access the Internet for free, you can also use your GPS-enabled Android to navigate, discover nearby attractions and spots to enjoy nature, find places to eat, save on gas, and pick great accommodation. Doesn’t that sound like a must-have travel companion? Let’s see which tips, tricks, and apps will serve you best.
Tip 1: Stay Charged!
Without juice, your smartphone is worthless. So be sure to pack chargers, adapters or converters where needed, and extra batteries if your phone has a user-replaceable battery. If you’re lucky, your (rental) car has a USB outlet, so you can charge your phone while driving.
Otherwise, you might want to invest in a car or a solar charger. I brought a WakaWaka Power on my trip and it saved my phone from dying on a long day more than one time. Matt has compiled a list of ways to charge your phone in an emergency .
When even your emergency charger fails, you can always give your phone a quick charge at a rest area along the way.
Spotted at a rest stop on the Lewis and Clark Trail Highway near Astoria – Megler Bridge, Oregon.
Tip 2: Don’t Get Lost!
When I made my rental car reservation, I seriously considered adding a GPS to the package. When I saw the price, however — $13.95 per day!! — I re-considered. Finally, it dawned on me that my phone already has a GPS. Well, when you live in Europe and use public transport as your general mode of transportation, that feature is not on the forefront of your mind.
Google Maps offers one of the best turn-by-turn navigation services out there, but it generally requires mobile data. To be save, I recommend trying one of the offline GPS apps we have previously introduced or one of these alternative offline maps , which includes ways to take Google Maps offline.
During my road trip, I thoroughly tested OsmAnd and wouldn’t want to recommend any other navigation app. It’s not perfect, but with a little bit of preparation .
Tip 3: Remember Where You Parked Your Car!
You will pass through unknown territory and particularly in bigger cities, an app that helps you find your car might come in handy. My colleague Erez, however, recommends a method that doesn’t require an app in the first place: Turn on your camera’s store location option, snap a photo of where you parked your car, and let the stored GPS coordinates take you back later. If you have Internet access, you can also star the location on Google Maps; hold down your current address and tap the star.
Tip 4: Get Free Internet!
What was the longest time you have spent without Internet in the last few years? Probably not long. It’s amazing how accustomed we have become to this medium. Given our constant need for an Internet connection, is it really necessary to buy a burger or an expensive coffee to get “free” WiFi?
Strictly speaking, yes it is, if that’s where you want to get your WiFi. Technically, not so much. You can probably park outside a place that offers free WiFi and use the connection without problems. You could also stop close to a motel and see whether the WiFi is secured. To make it easy on themselves and their guests, motels often use their phone or fax number as the WiFi key, if any.
If you don’t want to “steal” public WiFi, however, you either have to invest in some consumables or find other public spaces that offer free WiFi without strings attached, like airports, train stations, malls, libraries, or universities. Students will be pleased to know that eduroam will get them free high speed WiFi at universities around the world. Participating institutions are listed on the eduroam website.
Yes, even graduates can take advantage of eduroam! When I arrived at the University of California in San Diego, my phone automatically logged into the local eduroam network using my FU Berlin alumni account. So if you’re no longer a student, check with your alma mater whether they offer alumni accounts that provide access to eduroam and possibly other services worth checking out.
Tip 5: Prepare To Discover Roadside Attractions!
Next to downloading offline maps, preparing information material about your destination is the most important preparatory step you should take before going on your trip! Apps can help you discover attractions close to your route, but it can take a while to track them down and load them onto your phone. You won’t want to waste that time while traveling!
My road trip took me through Washington, Oregon, and California. My objective was to go hiking and see a few cities and friends along the way. To help me out with travel tips, I downloaded the official Washington State Parks Guide [No Longer Available] from the ParksByNature Network (they have many more guides), the CalParks app [No Longer Available], and several mobile city guides [No Longer Available] from TripAdvisor [Broken URL Removed].
CalParks, the official California State Parks Foundation app created in cooperation with EveryTrail, turned out to be my favorite. You can sort the parks based on how far they are from your current location. Each park has its own profile, with background information, photos, a list of park features, and trips that were added by EveryTrail users.
This app took me to several cool places, such as the beach in Manchester State Park.
If you cannot find good apps, search the Web, take screenshots of websites that contain the information you’re looking for, and store them on your mobile device. This way you can always look up directions or contact information while you’re without access to the Internet.
A great online tool to find attractions along the route is Roadtrippers. My colleague Yaara briefly introduced it as a great app to plan a road trip route . You enter your route on the website and it will find anything you could possibly need, including accommodation, entertainment, food and drink, history, nature, shopping, sports, scenic drives, etc. Find more tools like this in Yaara’s article on websites for planning fun road trips .
Tip 6: Get A Good Rest!
Whether you want to camp, stay at hostels, meet the locals, crash at motels, or spend the nights at luxurious hotels, rest assured, there’s an app for that! I was lucky and could stay with family and friends (sorry, no app!) in some places, but I can also recommend CouchSurfing, , AirBnB, and HRS Hotel Search for finding hotels and motels. Many apps promise to find you a campground, but you have to test them yourself.
Since I was traveling off season, I didn’t reserve accommodation. My strategy was to compare motel or hotel prices online and then check for real prices locally, which often turned out to be cheaper. The reservation services do take a cut, after all.
What Tools Will You Take On Your Trip?
Equipped with all those apps and tips, your road trip should be a blast! If you’re lacking inspiration for a destination, check out these scenic North American Drives . And when you’re back, do let us know which apps you used and which ones you liked best!