Family travel fills many with dread, but some technological tricks can keep the trip from turning into a holiday nightmare.
Is This Thing On?, or ITTO, is our Wednesday column showing how everyday people use technology in unexpected ways.
Tripadvisor reports nearly half of holiday travelers plan to pile in the family car for their getaway, but the lure of the open road can fade during the holidays when a wide of array of obstacles, like highway ice or fighting children, threaten to dampen even the strongest seasonal spirit. Traffic jams and accidents can snarl highway traffic for miles, often without no advance warning.
“When it comes to traveling over a busy period such as the December holidays, preparedness is key — and with 43 percent of Americans planning to take to the skies, roads and more this festive season, travelers should anticipate significant crowds,” said Karen Drake, senior director of communications for TripAdvisor.
The “Inrix Traffic App for iPhone” app, which debuted just before Thanksgiving, gives users expanded traffic information covering more than 500,000 miles of roads across the nation, including highways, interstates, arterial roads, city streets, and local roads. The app also features up-to-the-minute alerts based on location and personal preferences specific to driving routes.
Beyond traffic, restless children arguing in the confines of a car can be enough to push a rational person over the edge. One sanity-saver is to load up mobile devices are with fun and interesting apps that put modern spins on road-trip favorites.
The old license plate game played in the backseat of the family station wagon gets a tech update with the iPhone “License Plate Game,” available for $1 from iTunes. The app lets kids keep track of license plates from each state they see on the road. The optimized version for iPad has links to Wikipedia, which enables kids to learn educational information while playing.
Another oldie but goodie is the “Road Trip Scavenger Hunt” app, which costs $1 from iTunes. A spin-off of the “I Spy” games, Road Trip Scavenger Hunt has hundreds of things kids can spend hours spotting from the car window in order to earn points. The game allows participation for up to six players, so the whole car can get in on the fun.
The new Android Reckless Racing game, available for $3, is nice looking and well-suited for mobile devices. With dozens of courses and a few hidden shortcuts, the game also lends itself well to multi-player contests to find out who really is the most reckless racer.
Sometimes, however, there is no technological solution for Mother Nature, so Tripadvisor recommends stashing a staple of emergency supplies in the trunk, since nearly a third of travelers have experienced considerable traffic jams during their December travel.
Traveling by air poses its own risks during the holiday season, with travelers risking cancellations, being stranded and lost luggage. More than half of those polled by Tripadvisor said they expect to be stressed out by holiday travel, and the number-one cause cited was airline annoyances, especially since nearly one in four travelers endured a flight cancellation during the holidays in the past.
The travel industry has embraced technology, however, and for travelers who know the right tools, this can make all the difference. Simply signing up for text alerts from airlines can keep travelers abreast of the latest cancellations and delays. Many airlines also post system-wide updates on their Twitter feeds to keep passengers aware of changes.
In the event of cancellations or last-minute changes, there are many websites and apps to help book holiday travel, including “Kayak” and “Hipmunk,” which help travelers search for alternate flights. Tripadvisor serves as a one-stop shop, while “TripIt” keeps the itinerary handy and can help manage frequent flier miles.
For those who are stranded, “GateGuru” displays the bars, restaurants, and other amenities at the airport, conveniently categorized as either inside or beyond security, and Priceline.com can help find affordable hotel rooms.
Apps and websites assume travelers can get online at airports, but finding Wi-Fi can be a surprisingly arduous task at some hubs in the U.S. For those who need to get online while making the trip, the “Free Wifi” app helps track hot spots within a location, which may help travelers avoid pricey connection fees to hop online for just a few minutes.
Many travelers are aware they can avoid lost luggage and reduce travel costs by bringing only carry-on bags when flying, but that can pose problems when the purpose of the trip involves bringing gifts. One remedy is to shop online and ship gifts directly to the holiday destination.
Traveling during the holidays requires near-military precision in making plans, but a Zen-like flexibility to change them if necessary. Turning to technological solutions can help make holiday travel as smoother, but in the end, even the best apps can do little to help with obnoxious relatives, a kid with stomach flu, or a scorched turkey.