By Jason Snell
August 31, 2017 5:23 PM PT
What I Use: The Road Trip Aftermath
So as I wrote about at Six Colors earlier this month, I just spent 11 days on the road with my family, staying in a variety of locations, from hotels to rental condos to an alfalfa field.
Tech gadgetry is, of course, a huge part of my life, and this trip gave me some perspective about how I approach travel tech. I’ve got some observations that might help all of you, not to mention my future self who’s preparing for another one of these trips…
USB block chargers are good. After many years of resisting, I bought an Anker USB charger a few months back. It’s got a nice cord to reach to inconvenient power plug locations in rentals (or even at home; this one lives by my side of the bed when we’re not traveling) and then offers up many USB ports for use charging iPhones, iPads, Kindles, Nintendo Switches, you name it. This was my first time seriously traveling with this accessory, and I loved it.
Long USB cords are good. As I mentioned in my piece on the site, I bought a bunch of six-foot braided nylon Lightning cables a while ago as a way to stop the destruction of Lightning cables in my house by my children, who will always use their devices while tugging on the end of the power cable just for maximum damage. They’ve held up a lot better, and on a trip the extra length is good for those inconveniently placed power outlets, as well.
Long cords on Apple’s power bricks: use them. These days I always travel with at least one Apple iPad charging brick—with the long Apple power cord snapped into it. No, the iPad chargers don’t ship with the long cord, but many Apple laptops have, so you may have one of these floating around your house. All the Apple power plugs are swappable—you can just pop off the plug that’s attached directly to the brick and pop on the longer power cord, and you’ve got even more reach to plug in your Apple Watch or iPhone while keeping it by your bedside.
I’m so glad we have a USB car adapter. We don’t have standard power plugs in our car, but we do have a power port that’s permanently got a two-USB adapter attached to it. That’s all our power for a long car trip, but combined with those long USB cables, we managed to run a whole lot of devices and never run out of power.
Wireless data plans that rate-limit you aren’t great. Not too long ago, we changed our AT&T wireless plan to one of their new “unlimited” plans. Will it surprise you to discover that those scare quotes are there because the plans aren’t really unlimited? After 10GB of use in the billing cycle, all devices are throttled to 128kbps connections for the rest of the month. That’s really slow, and due to the poor connectivity in the places we were staying on our trip, we managed to hit that cap very quickly. In the old days, we would’ve been charged $15 for a small additional pool of data—which would’ve probably cost a whole lot of money.
I’ve since been told by a Twitter follower who works at AT&T that the right thing to do in these circumstances is to call AT&T and ask to be put on a full unlimited plan (which is also not unlimited, it speed-rates you after something like 22GB of data in a month) for the remainder of my billing cycle. I looked online for something like this while we were traveling, and didn’t find it—but I suspect this is one of those things that simply requires a phone call. If I had to do it all over again, I might’ve given a phone call a try—I don’t want the more expensive plan every month, but if we’re going to be traveling for almost two weeks, I’d like to be able to pre-buy more full-speed data.
Still, we managed with slow data. I was able to check Slack and Twitter a little bit—but it was slow. Don’t make me go back to the days of slow Internet on my phone. It’s no good.
Internet in other’s peoples houses is bad. We stayed at two vacation properties rented via the VRBO service, and both boasted Wi-Fi—but the Internet connectivity was lousy at both places. I’m starting to think that my correct vacation strategy should be to call my wireless carrier, get that upgraded data cap for the vacation month, and then not worry about lousy hotel Wi-Fi. See also: John Gruber and XKCD.
Don’t worry, adapters are everywhere. If you left an adapter or cable at home, don’t worry. At a truck stop in middle-of-nowhere Nevada, there were three walls of every conceivable cable and adapter, more than half of them with Lightning plugs on them. Apple’s dominance of the accessory market is pretty amazing — given how many Android phones are out there, the truck stop I stopped at (to buy a USB-A to USB-C cable for my son’s new Nintendo Switch) was dominated by iPhone accessories. Oh, and I bought the cable with Apple Pay.
I may stop travelling with an Apple TV. Given my connectivity woes, I never bothered to hook up the Apple TV I brought in the hopes of watching Netflix or HBO GO from our rentals. Maybe next time I’ll just bring an HDMI cable and a Lightining-to-HDMI adapter to attach to my iPad. Or maybe I won’t bother at all, since my 12.9-inch iPad screen was big enough for at least a two-person “Game of Thrones” viewing party.
Yelp is helpful, but Yelp reviewers are bad. I’ve mocked the reviewers on the book-review site GoodReads before—their reviews are often hilariously focused on the reviewer’s own lives and their descriptions of their own review philosophy, rather than focusing on the books themselves. Look, I’ve been reading and writing reviews for a couple of decades, so I know that it can be a hard job and all that throat-clearing and focus on meta issues happens to every new reviewer. What I hadn’t realized until this trip is that Yelp reviews are just as bad, if not worse. I’m in Salt Lake City looking for a good place to take my family that’s within a couple of miles of our hotel, and I’m hoping that the Yelp reviews will help me get a sense of the places I’m considering. In aggregate, I suppose Yelp ratings can do that—but tapping into specific reviews was a mistake. I don’t care that your flight got in late and so you were really hungry when you got to the restaurant. I don’t care about your history as a burrito eater in Texas and California and how it affects your thoughts on Utah burritos. I don’t care that it was snowing heavily when you went to dinner. I award these Yelp reviews one star out of five.
There’s still no good way to travel with tea. For those of you who have missed a tea-related update in the Six Colors Magazine, congratulations! You’ve found it. It’s hard to travel as a tea drinker, because making tea is fiddly (you can’t leave the tea in the water or it gets bitter after a few minutes) and most of the tea hotels and restaurants provide is terrible. This trip I brought a couple of in-mug tea infusers and some of the loose tea we use at home, and that did the job in the rental condos. I also bought a travel thermos, which was awesome at keeping our tea hot for hours after we made it, but we only used it one time. I’m still figuring out the right gadgets to bring to get morning tea when we want it. We mostly did okay this time.
I endorse the Wirecutter’s camping pick. I haven’t set up a tent since I was a Cub Scout, and boy, has the technology improved. We bought the Wirecutter’s choice for best tent and I can endorse this endorsement. It was easy to set up and served us well in the alfalfa field in Idaho where we awaited the solar eclipse. The 30-Day Duro Camping Lantern was also pretty great.
If I had to do it all over again… I’d pretty much take what we took, though I’d leave the Apple TV at home and make sure to call AT&T to up our data plan. But summer’s over, now, so I guess I’ll have to file all of this away for 2018.