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The Smartphone Road Trip

Mobile technology transforms travel

I love road trips. In fact, I travel for a living. For the past two decades, I’ve made a living as a professional writer and photographer, traveling back roads in search of great stories to tell. Planning each trip demands time and effort, so I’m always searching for the latest technology that will make me more productive and efficient. Even though the Internet has streamlined trip planning, on-the-fly changes to trips are not easy.

Smartphones make road trips much easier and more spontaneous. The paradigm has shifted: Instead of simply carrying a phone, I—like most road trippers now—carry a powerful handheld computer that just happens to make phone calls.

Just as the smartphone has largely replaced alarm clocks, cameras and wristwatches, it also has taken the place of common travel accessories, like the GPS locator.

Before the smartphone, I used a dedicated GPS unit that I switched from vehicle to vehicle. With my iPhone, I have a built-in GPS mapping program that gives me turn-by-turn directions until I reach my destination. It not only provides the quickest route to my destination, it also recommends other routes that take me off the beaten path. It’s a good idea to take a map for times when the phone’s map is wrong or you don’t have cellphone service.

In addition to mapping, I also prepare for my trip by storing an automobile insurance card on my phone, along with a gas-tracking app that helps me identify the cheapest fuel stops, and a playlist customized to play my favorite traveling songs.

Along the way (while I’m stopped, of course), I check out Wikipedia on my phone’s browser. The Wikipedia mobile site is GPS-enabled and will suggest articles about nearby points of interest. You can immerse yourself in local culture by learning more about the people and places nearby.

Smartphones, Smart Cameras

One of the ways smartphones excel is as both a still and video camera. Sales totals indicate consumers have figured this out. In 2013, camera-enabled smartphone sales topped 1 billion—a 38 percent increase over the previous year, according to a report in PCWorld magazine. During the same time, digital camera sales dropped 36 percent.

For photography, the in-phone camera app is the best place to start. The phone I use has settings for standard images in the 4:3 format and square format, and it includes a panorama setting. I use the panorama mode to take wide-angle shots from the road and to capture the broad vistas that smaller formats can’t.

While the standard camera settings are fine for most situations, I often use apps that utilize the camera and the processing power of the phone’s computer to give pictures a vintage feel. Even though Hipstamatic is my favorite app, there are several others available in the Apple, Android or Google formats that add effects such as filters, filmstrip borders, frames and light leaks.

Apps with special effects can give smartphone photography a leg up on digital cameras.

Russell Graves

One of the greatest tricks that a smartphone camera performs is embedding GPS information in each picture. Now, instead of guessing where pictures were taken once you’re back home, you can rely on any one of several low-cost photo-management software solutions to extract the GPS location from the photo and pinpoint the location on a software-generated map.

Smartphones also are equipped with high-definition video cameras. I use my HD phone camera sparingly because I own dedicated high-definition video cameras that I prefer. But the smartphone offers the ability to shoot slow motion, use apps to record video with a vintage 8mm look and do on-the-fly editing along with seamless posting to social sites like YouTube or Facebook. It’s easy to see that you have a powerful video tool capable of faithfully recording and sharing your adventures on the open road.

Stay Connected

Speaking of sharing, wouldn’t it be nice if you could take a picture and cross-post to multiple social media platforms so you can keep in touch with all of your family, friends and followers? You can. All it takes is a single touch of the screen.

Most social apps have the ability to cross-post to a variety of networks. If you post to one site, you can post to many other social accounts on the go, all at once. It is a real time-saver.

Staying connected has advantages beyond social interactions. When you are away on your travels, you can completely monitor your home from the road. Most security companies offer ways to monitor your home alarm and watch home-security cameras using your smartphone. You can also check to see whether doors are locked, close or open garage doors, and activate or adjust the thermostat from the phone.

I use a Nest thermostat system that I can turn off when I leave, and half an hour or so before I arrive home, I can log in from my phone and turn on the heat or air conditioning so the house is comfortable when I walk in the front door after a trip.

Television providers also have technology that allows customers to set and manage recordings from a smart device. Gone are the days of missing your favorite show or the big game because you are driving in the countryside. From anywhere I have cellphone or Wi-Fi service, I can log in to my Dish Network account, set my home DVR to record a show, and either enjoy it from my phone while I am away or watch it when I get home.

Extending your trip longer than you’d initially planned? Use your smartphone to connect to your bank account and transfer money from one account to another or pay your bills remotely.

The Hipstamatic app can give photos taken on the road a vintage feel.

Russell Graves

Make a Note of That

While it goes without saying that you should not divert your attention from the road by looking at your phone, you easily can use the notes or audio memo app on your phone to speak and record your thoughts. Recording an audio memo is just like it sounds: You talk to the phone, and it records your voice.

These recording apps, or speech recognition apps such as Dragon, make your trip journaling so easy. Using its built-in voice-recognition software, your phone transcribes speech to text right on the screen. When you get home, you are set to put your notes with photos or videos. It’s easy to email your notes, edit them in word-processing software and then copy and paste them into a book layout or any other presentation method of your choosing .

I’ve found that I often speak to my phone and take notes on topics of interest that I’ve seen, story ideas, great restaurants or various musings that come to mind. The ability to take notes without writing something down has really increased my efficiency.

Eating and Sleeping on the Go

If you’re like many travelers, the most important questions you face are, “Where am I going to stay?” and “What am I going to eat?” Not too long ago, staying in a hotel or eating at a restaurant with which you were unfamiliar was a hit-or-miss proposition. Even if you are choosing among locations of a national food or lodging chain, local management can make a significant difference in your experience. That’s where the crowd can help.

Many downloadable apps double as social networks that offer input on lodging and eating establishments. The app finds available lodging in a given area, publishes the price and provides user-generated feedback about the quality of the hotel’s amenities. Once you’ve found a place you like, you can book it from your phone in a matter of seconds.

The Yelp app works in much the same way that hotel apps work. Yelp provides crowd-sourced reviews of restaurants by giving patrons an opportunity to rate the establishment and provide feedback about the quality of food and service. Take the time to read the reviews and gather as much information as possible.

The bottom line is that the technology in your hand lets you focus less on planning and more on traveling. Smartphones are an indispensable tool for road trippers.

The best tip? When you get to that cool destination, be sure to turn off your phone for a while and enjoy the trip.