How Waze and Google Maps Work on Your Phone

August 31, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

It was May 2016, and I was on my way to Indianapolis, driving from Orlando. As I was nearing Atlanta, my phone beeped frantically. It was my GPS app, Waze, telling me to exit in a half mile.

I had learned from experience to always follow Waze, so I got over and exited onto some county highway just in time. As I exited, I saw cars stopping on the highway, backing up almost to the exit, the line stretching up as far as I could see

I followed the new directions, driving along county roads east of Atlanta. It took 30 minutes, and Waze finally deposited me back onto the highway, 10 miles north of where I had exited, back into the traffic jam I had left. I was back in the same line of traffic, but only for one mile, and I was only stuck in it for 20 minutes.

Waze location services screen on an iPhoneIt happened less than 30 seconds before I had to exit, but something alerted Waze and got me to change course.

How did Waze know to tell me when to exit?

Have you ever wondered how the traffic function on Google Maps or Waze works? We no longer have the eye-in-the-sky news helicopters flying around town, alerting us to traffic jams., but the GPS systems are gathering traffic data from somewhere.

It’s our phones.

Well, not our phones, per se, but our anonymous aggregated data.

Google Maps gathers its data — our location, direction, and traveling speed — from all Android and iPhone users who have Google Maps and Waze open while they’re driving. It already has all the maps of the U.S. and a lot of the rest of the world (thank you, Google Maps!), and it has kept track of previous travel data, so it can predict future traffic patterns based on past traffic.

And since Google owns Waze, the two share the same data so you can use one or the other and be sure they’re both accurate with real-time information, not something that’s 15 or even 60 minutes old. I never had this experience with a Garmin GPS. We bought one a few years ago, and I stopped using it two weeks later because I downloaded Waze. (My wife was not happy about that.)

Google Maps also knows the speed limits on all the roads and compares that to the current speed of all the cars — well, phones — traveling on that road. If it’s slower than the posted speed limit, or if the cars have all stopped, it updates the traffic conditions and gives it a traffic rating, all according to the speeds that are being shown.

Now, they don’t transmit all your personal information, like “Erik Deckers is heading home to [address] in his Ferrari Testarossa and will arrive at [time].” But it does track “there’s a user traveling on I-4 at 30 miles per hour, but it’s normally a 55 mph zone. In fact, there are a couple hundred phones all traveling at that speed in a 55 mph zone. That’s a traffic jam!”

Google can also predict traffic patterns by analyzing tens of thousands of users who have driven on highways at the same time every day. They know that every day between 4:00 and 6:00 pm that northbound I-69 in Indianapolis is clogged up, or that I-80 through Des Moines is jammed up between 4 and 6 CDT. And that no one has moved on I-405 around Los Angeles since 2008.

That means they can also predict when traffic will be at its heaviest. This way, if you ever use the “Go Later” function on Waze, it will look at the historic traffic patterns, and tell you what time you have to leave in order to arrive at your desired time.

(I always leave 15 minutes before that, if I can help it because you never know when there’s going to be a crash that makes everything worse.)

Waze and Google Maps are also up to date on the latest construction traffic patterns. There’s a lot of construction around Disney World right now, and the two have always been up to date with the latest changes. That’s because they’re also using our traffic data to improve their maps by seeing where people might deviate or take new routes, especially when the current maps are showing something else.

My Atlanta story happened again recently when I was returning to Orlando from a weekend in Atlanta. I knew where I needed to exit off I-75 to get home, but all my routes told me to exit around Gainesville, and I couldn’t figure out why. I had thought about ignoring it, but remembered my promise to myself: Always follow Waze.

I exited where I was told and saw that the traffic, just like last year, was backed nearly up to the exit. I realized traffic was backed up for about 5 miles and 30 minutes. My detour took less than 10 minutes, and I missed the entire traffic jam. Once again, Waze to the rescue!

In the end, a GPS system like Google Maps/Waze is only as good as the data it’s getting. So you can help your fellow commuters or vacationers by keeping one or the other open while you drive. But if you’re worried about privacy — remember, they’re not gathering personal data, just anonymous aggregated data — you can turn off your location services on your phone. (Which will also mean Waze won’t be able to guide you accurately.)

Do you use a GPS to get around town or only on vacation? Do you have a favorite program or method to find your way around a new city? Share them in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers (Used with permission)

Travel Tech to Make Your Trips A Little Easier in 2017

August 17, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Every year, there are new gadgets and apps to that promise to make our traveling life a little easier. Whether it’s a cell phone attachment that works as a digital scale and a battery charger, or a coffee shop guide app that shows you all the coffee houses in the world’s major cities, there are lots of new things that can help you make your next trip much easier and enjoyable.

These are a few of the different gadgets, gizmos, and gewgaws to consider getting before your next family vacation.

Waze is one of my favorite travel tech options when I'm on the road

Waze is one of my favorite travel tech options when I’m on the road

1. Get Waze on your mobile phone. It’s a few years old, but it’s by far the best GPS app out there. You may love your Garmin, and you may use Google Maps on your phone, but honestly, I’ve learned to use and appreciate Waze far and above the others. I became a believer when Waze diverted me around a 3-hour traffic jam in Atlanta by changing my route 30 seconds before I reached the 10 mile line of cars.

That’s because Waze, which is owned by Google, gathers its traffic data by aggregating anonymous data from all the Android phones, iPhones using Google Maps, and even Waze users traveling on the road. Then it converts that data into up-to-the-second traffic patterns, alerting you to traffic slowdowns, accidents, construction zones, police cars, and even road hazards. (My next post will discuss how exactly all this works.)

You can download TV shows and movies on Netflix now. If you or your kids have some favorite shows you want to watch, Netflix will let you download them on your home wifi so you’re not at the mercy of crappy hotel wifi or racking up big data charges on your cell phone bill.

Or if you’re like me and have an old wifi-only iPad, you can’t download anything in the car. So download a couple shows, and let your kids watch in the back seat. (Or you can watch when you reach your hotel.) You can also buy movies and TV episodes on iTunes, and save those to your hard drive or phone, which also makes them available even if you don’t have wifi.

Wear a SCOTTeVEST to carry your tech.. SCOTTeVEST is like one of those fly fisherman vests I used to wear on my yearly fishing trips, but they look much classier. For one thing, all the pockets are on the inside, giving you a smooth exterior. For another, they’re designed specifically to carry your electronics gear. I’ve seen SCOTTeVESTs that will hold an iPad in a back interior pocket, phone, charging cords, battery backup, notebook and pen, sunglasses, passport, and so on.

I’ve also read a few travel articles by extreme “no luggage” travelers who will pack everything they own — which amounts to one extra pair of underwear and t-shirt — into the back vest pocket, as well as their tech, and travel the world wearing their luggage.

Use a Bluetooth shutter button to take better selfies. Prop your camera up on a flat surface or use a miniature tripod. Then, when you’re all posed and ready to go, press your Satechi Bluetooth remote (or other brands; there are dozens to choose from) and it will snap a picture. No selfie stick, no asking strangers to take your photo, and nothing that shows half your arm; just a nice, normal photograph. I’m not a big fan of selfies, but I’ve used one of these remotes before and it’s changed the way I take photos when I travel.

Carry a couple short charging cords like the myCharge PowerCord or an Anker 1 ft. charging cable. I like these smaller cables because they fit into my work backpack or even my pocket with ease. As long as I’ve got my laptop, or even a converter cube and a hotel desk lamp, I don’t need to whip out one of those 6-foot boa constrictors every time I need a power boost.

You might also want to consider the Ventev portable chargestand. This is both a charger and a phone stand. It will charge your phone for up to 12 hours of talk time, and you can use it in either horizontal or vertical orientation to watch your favorite videos on the plane or before you go to sleep. It has a built-in cable, so you can use it horizontally, and is available for both Apple and Android devices. It’s ideal for a hotel or home nightstand charging station but can double as a battery pack on a flight or car trip.

What’s some of your favorite travel tech? Do you have anything you like to carry to make your vacations easier? Share them in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers (used with permission)

Does Your State Have a Tourism Trail?

July 27, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

If you’re ever looking for a short vacation you can do close to home, but don’t know where to start, try a tourism trail. A tourism trail typically focuses on food, alcohol, history, or sports, and is usually created by tourism boards or local businesses.

For example, Indiana has six separate wine trails, all created by the Indiana Wine Grape Trail. Covering different parts of the state, you can spend a day or two each on trails in southeastern Indiana, northeastern Indiana, or Indianapolis.

But if you don’t want Indiana wine, there are wine trails in nearly every state. Check out America’s Wine Trails to pick a wine trail in your favorite part of the country or something close to home.

When I was a travel writer in Indiana, I even devised an Indiana Microbrewery Trail. It’s a fantasy beer trip around the Hoosier state, in three parts, each taking two days.

The Woodford Reserve Distillery is part of the Kentucky Bourbon Tourism Trail

The Woodford Reserve Distillery is part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Kentucky has its own Bourbon Trail, something I wanted to visit with a couple of knowledgeable bourbon expert friends and a limo driver but never had the chance.

Maybe you’re feeling a bit hungry and you prefer the Upper Midwest. You can tour the food trails around Wisconsin and Michigan. If you’re into farm-to-table food, check out California’s California farm trail website and pick a few places to visit on the west coast.

If you’re in the mood for some art, New Mexico has its own art trails, as does Connecticut and North Carolina. Or maybe you’re a fan of fiber arts. The Midwest has its own Midwest Fiber Arts Trail for year round travel.

If you’re interested in small town history, you could drive the National Road (US 40), which rolls 620 miles from Cumberland, Maryland through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and ends in Vandalia, IL. You could drive it in a very long day, or spend a few days exploring some history and smaller towns in the eastern United States along the way.

If you’d rather rough it and do a little camping, check out the National Park Service’s National Trails System website for information on the Iditarod, New England National Scenic Trail, or even the Lewis & Clark national trail, plus dozens and dozens more.

What about taking your family to all the major league ballparks in the country, or even all the minor league ballparks in your own state? Try picking up a book like The Amazing Baseball Adventure: Ballpark Wonders from the Bushes to the Show by Josh Pahigian, and see how many ballparks you can see over the years.

Or maybe you like minor league baseball. There are 8 teams in the California league, 10 teams in the Carolina League, and 12 teams in the Florida League, all Single A-Advanced minor league baseball teams. Try spending a summer or two visiting each of the ball clubs, and watching a game in each ballpark.

There are also 14 teams in the International League in the eastern half of the US, and 16 in the Pacific League in the Western half. These are all Triple A ball clubs, and you could probably hit a few in a week. It may take you a while to reach them all, but if you don’t want to do the more popular Major League Baseball trip, a minor league trip is still filled with history and a celebration of “nearly there.”

Every state has some kind of food, wine, alcohol, cultural, sports, or art trail. It just takes a little digging and exploring, and the area convention and visitors bureaus or travel bureaus can help you. Some trails even have their own websites and managing agencies.

Are you a tourism trail visitor? Do you have any favorite trails that you like to cruise, or any that you’re looking forward to? Share them in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Ken Thomas (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

How to Eat Healthy On the Road

February 17, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

My family has a lot of food allergies and sensitivities between us. One can’t eat gluten, another can’t eat dairy, another has a peanut allergy, and the fourth can’t have a lot of processed meats. I’m the only one who escaped any kind of food issue.

This makes eating on the road very difficult. We can’t just buzz into a fast food restaurant for a quick lunch. We need to carefully plan and plot our trip, so everyone can get something they want without being shortchanged.

Plus, eating healthy is a good habit to be in, and every meal on the road shouldn’t be ordered at a drive-thru window anyway.

Here are a few ways to eat healthy on the road, whether you’re just trying to watch calories or if you have food allergies that limit what you can eat.

1. Pack your food

A nice salad helps you eat healthy on the road

Those are figs in the center. I never knew what a fig looked like.

If there are certain foods you can and should have, pack them in special airtight containers and tuck them in your suitcase. That way, even if everyone else wants fast food, you’re not watching them eat.

If you’re traveling by car, you have additional options. Take a small cooler with you, and be sure to pack plenty of cold packs. (It will also help keep everything cool if you can freeze some of the food you’ll need later on.)

If you’re flying, however, remember the TSA liquids rule. That means Grandma’s French onion soup has to stay at home, but things like gluten-free bread are okay to take. Also, don’t pack any fruit if you’re traveling overseas, and don’t bring any home with you.

Finally, your hotel may have a mini fridge available, but often times these are filled with mini bar items that you can’t even touch without getting charged. Ask the hotel if they can remove the items or provide you with another fridge. Just know there may be a charge for that.
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Five Apps You Need On Your Next Road Trip

February 3, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

As a frequent driver, I love what my mobile phone can do. It’s a mini computer and camera that lets me make phone calls, and thanks to the various apps that are available, I could leave my house right now, and drive all the way across the country without a laptop or pre-planning, and navigate the entire trip.

But I couldn’t make it without my phone.

That’s because I use certain apps just to find my way around anymore. Whether it’s ordering coffee, booking a hotel, or finding somewhere to eat, there’s an app that’s sure to help any traveler on any trip. But there are a few that are perfect for road trips. Here are my top five.

Siri/Android Virtual Assistant

First, let’s get this out of the way: I don’t text and drive (and you shouldn’t either). Instead, I use Siri to send and read my texts.

If you have your mobile phone plugged into a power source, you can call out “Hey Siri” and she’ll answer. I plug the phone into the AUX jack on my stereo, so I can hear everything going on. When I say “Hey Siri, read my texts,” she’ll read any new texts, then ask if I want to respond. I dictate a short response to her, including all punctuation (because I’m a geek that way) and she sends it for me. There will be occasional errors, based on my pronunciations, like “will” instead of “we’ll,” but the people I text understand when I’m dictating, and will figure it out.
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Should You Drive or Should You Fly? A Vacation Formula

January 27, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

When heading out on vacation, the biggest decision you’ll make is how to get there. Do you drive or fly? If you fly, you can get there sooner and spend more time at your destination. Driving is more budget friendly, but it takes a couple of extra days out of your vacation time.

In my travels, I’ve driven and flown to dozens of destinations. On some airplane trips, I would have been satisfied with driving, and on some car trips, I wish I’d been born with wings. But for the most part, we made the best decision we could with the information and resources we had. If you’re trying to decide, here’s a handy 3-step formula you can use to help make your decision.

How far is your destination?

Kids on a planeI typically won’t fly anywhere if I can make the drive in less than six hours. If I fly, I get to the airport two hours early, and it takes me at least 45 minutes to drive, park, and get inside. My flight will take at least one hour. Then I have to disembark, walk to the rental car counter, get my car, and drive to the hotel, all about two hours after the plane touches down. And if I take the hotel shuttle, then I’m without ground transportation.

This all takes at least 5.5 hours.

But if I drive, I can take the same amount of time, and have my car with me in a new city, which lets me explore on my own. I’m in control of my progress and circumstances.
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How to Travel With Teenagers

January 6, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Going on a road trip with your teenagers seems like a lot of fun, until you realize, you’re going on a road trip with teenagers. Whether it’s a three-week summer road trip to trace Route 66, or a quick three-day weekend to visit family, travel with teenagers can be a little stressful. They don’t always want to do what we’d like them to do, their idea of fun may not match up with the rest of the family’s, and their interests seem, well, unusual.

(Not like when we were teenagers! We were a delight and never gave our parents a single problem.)

The Family Truckster from National Lampoon's Vacation. The "perfect" car for travel with teenagers.

The Family Truckster from National Lampoon’s Vacation. This is on display at the Auto Attractions Museum in Roscoe, IL.

I’m the father of three teenagers, and I know the struggle of trying to get your teenagers to be excited about family vacations. If you can get your teenager in the car, here are a few things you can do to help them enjoy their time with the family, and maybe even look up from their phones and video games for a little while.

Teach them how to read a map. This is one thing my dad did for me when we would go for long trips. He would hand me the map and ask me to navigate for him: Find the route, determine our current location, and calculate our arrival time based on our distance from the final destination. Turns out, he already knew all that information, but he would explain how to determine all of that based on the map and then let me figure it out. Not only did it teach me to read a map properly, but it made me feel invested in the actual journey. We may have GPS to do all of that for us now, but I think people who know how to read a map have a better understanding — and appreciation — for how their GPS works.
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How to Travel with Your Pet

December 23, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

For many people, pets are a part of the family. They would no sooner be left behind on vacation than one of the children.

But if you want to travel with your pet, whether by car or by plane, there are a few things I recommend you do to make sure your furry companion is comfortable and less stressed.

Use a pet carrier when you travel with your pet by plane, or if they hate car travel.

Make sure your pet carrier is large enough for your cat or dog to turn around.

Traveling By Car

If you’re traveling by car, pack a pet carrier, whether a collapsible soft-sided or hard-sided model. Depending your pet’s size, the right carrier may not fit into your car, so make sure you test this out before purchasing one. You may not want to keep your pet in her carrier the entire trip, but if you do, there are a few things you need to remember.

  • Keep your pet in the back seat. Air bags can cause serious injury in case of an accident.
  • There are special “sky boxes” for small dogs, and I’ve seen seat belt harnesses for larger dogs. Cats should ride in enclosed carriers, however.
  • Make several stops so your pet can have a bathroom break. They may be nervous about riding in a car, and may have to go more often than they do at home. Also, be sure to clean up after your animal. Don’t leave “anything” behind. Read more

Road Trip Survival Techniques

December 9, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Taking a road trip has always been exciting for me. I enjoy the journey as much as I enjoy the destination, and I like driving, so that makes car vacations a lot more fun for me than hopping on a plane to get where I’m going.

However, I’m also the first to admit that while road trips are fun, they get dead boring after the first hour. You pile in with your friends or family, chants of “Road trip! Road trip!” fill the car, and you play your favorite songs on the radio.

The Great American Road Trip - Death Valley

The Great American Road Trip – Death Valley

After about an hour, when everyone has (hopefully) quit chanting and you’re tired of the music, you realize you’ve got another 18 hours and 900 miles in front of you.

So how do you survive — both literally and figuratively — a long, multi-state, many-hour road trip? As a road trip veteran, I’ve got a few ideas, but I also checked with Lily Brooks-Dalton, the current Kerouac House writer-in-residence, world traveler, motorcycle road tripper, and author of Motorcycles I’ve Loved, about some of her suggestions.

1. Get your vehicle checked out

“Get your vehicle serviced before you leave,” Lily said, “and know how to handle it if things go awry.”

That means get the oil changed, get the fluids topped off, check the tires, check your battery life, and make sure your spare is properly inflated. Also, make sure your AAA card is somewhere handy.
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How To Drive 1,000 miles to Florida in a Single Day

September 9, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

In the fall, a young family’s fancy turns to thoughts of warmth.

When we lived in Indiana, I eagerly looked forward to the fall, my favorite time of year. The cool, crisp air, the changing leaves, the apple cider harvest. Now that I live in Florida, I’m just waiting for it to be less hot.

But for many people, fall is the gateway season to “I’m miserable when it’s so cold the air hurts my face.” They start making plans to head south to escape the bitter cold and snow.

Epcot in Orlando, Florida during the Flower and Garden Festival in May

Epcot during the Flower and Garden Festival in May

If you live in a place that gets bitterly cold each winter, it means you’re at least several hundred miles from Florida, and you just might be making plans to come down for a while. Depending on where you live, the big question is whether you should stop for the night and stay in a hotel on the way, which will dip into your travel budget.

For many years, we faced this question when we drove from Indianapolis to Orlando for vacation, and had to decide whether to make the 1,000 mile drive all at once, or split it into two days. If we split the trip each way, we shorted ourselves a day of actually being in Florida. So, for several years, we piled the kids into the car, and make the journey in one sitting.

We could usually make it in 20 hours because of frequent stops (see below) and traveling with three small children. But lately, I’ve been able to do it by myself in 16 or 17 hours.

Here’s how we did it.
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