Love it or hate it, it's the last hurrah of summer vacation, which means you're likely to be cramming yourself onto a plane or staring at an endless line of brake lights snaking into the distance. To ease your travel travails, here are a few gadgets and services to salve the pain.
That baby wailing behind you needn't disturb your flight. A good pair of earphones can block out much of the cacophony -- so-called noise-isolating earphones -- as well as create the illusion that you're sitting in your living room listening to your home stereo.
An excellent choice are the Ultimate Ears 700 from Logitech. Many higher-priced, high-fidelity earphones can sound harsh playing digital music. The 700's deliver solid separation of instruments and voices without coming across as too crisp. On the other hand, these earphones aren't slouches, yielding tight bass notes and a warm midrange. Even audiophiles should be happy with these $150 earbuds.
Ever tried to work on the road while the family is vacationing in, say, Canada? A friend of mine discovered after a week of relying on his smartphone that he had racked up a $1,700 bill. Granted, he was using it as a wireless Internet connection for his laptop, and to make conference calls back to the office and listen to hours of streaming music ...
Still, you need to remain connected, whether you're in Petawawa or Prague. For that you need a global phone -- one that will operate on European networks -- and a global plan. Recently, I tested a few phones while traveling and one of the most reliable proved to be the HTC HD7S on AT&T.
It uses Windows Phone 7 software (not the most popular choice these days), but it proved perfectly adequate, with all the free apps I needed. I even watched streaming movies on Netfix while in Europe.
AT&T says it will work -- voice calls, text messaging, e-mail, and Internet -- in over 200 countries around the world. Just make sure you get the right plan with roaming built-in. Voice roaming for discounted rates in foreign countries is an additional $5.99 a month and then $49.99 a month for 125 MB of Web traffic covering about 100 countries (so use free Wi-Fi where you can).
Beat the Traffic
Sure, you can use a smartphone for navigation, but for convenience and the latest smarts, a standalone portable navigation device is still better. Tom Tom's GO 2535 M Live adds a new twist: honest to goodness real-time traffic reports.
Other such services gather data from a variety of sources, such as local DMVs and emergency first responders, but the information usually arrives too late to do you any good. Tom Tom's $300 GO 2535 offers something new: live traffic information from other Tom Tom users on the road. The nav device has built-in two way communications, so that you can relay your progress and receive information about others on the road ahead of you.
Of course, the accuracy of the service depends on how many of your fellow Tom Tom owners are traveling the same route you are, but I've found it can save drivers a lot of aggravation. On one trip, it warned me about a tie-up and saved me 45-minutes on a 3-hour trip. It failed to warn me about sudden construction, though, so it's not perfect -- just better than any other such service I've found.
I shouldn't have to remind you to bring chargers -- in fact, bring an extra one. Go pack it now. You're bound to leave one behind on your peregrinations, after all. But one place that's still difficult to find an outlet is in the family sedan. Mom and dad have their phones, then there's junior's music player, the nav device -- you get the picture.
An extra outlet can limit family squabbles. A good, and inexpensive solution is Belkin's Dual Auto Charger for iPhone and iPod. Despite it's name, the $30 gadget works with any device that charges using a USB cable. So you can charge a Bluetooth headset or Android phone. It plugs into a 12-volt outlet and then gives you two USB outlets: a "quick charge" and a slower trickle charge plug. All you have to do is remember to plug in.