Tablets for Travel
With the versatility of a smartphone and the power of a laptop, tablets and apps can open up a whole new world of traveling
Twenty-five years ago, you could earn your geek badge by simply owning a desktop computer. A few years after that, it took a laptop computer to be a certified computer junkie. Then came the smartphone with Internet and Wi-Fi capability that allowed you to take some mobile computing ability with you on the road. While this is a huge advantage in that you can search the Internet and use a wide variety of “apps,” the small screen makes using a smartphone as your primary Internet connection tool very hard to do, especially with eyesight that starts to decline past the age of 40.
The latest device, known as a tablet, offers all the mobile connectivity of a smartphone with a size that’s in between a laptop and a phone. Just as with most smartphones, there is not a separate keyboard; instead, the keys are part of the touch screen. Though typing on a touch screen can take a bit of practice, it is the lack of a separate keyboard that allows a tablet to be so small and portable. The tablet is much more compact and easier to carry than a typical laptop and the use of apps makes it a tool worthy of any road warrior. As a die-hard computer geek dating back to the early 1980s, I usually travel with a laptop for serious computing and writing as well as a tablet and a smartphone for more mobile use. When I can only take two, I usually default to the smartphone and a tablet.
If you don’t already own a tablet, consider the advantages of using one on the road. Imagine being able to find the best restaurants on the road, buy the cheapest fuel or stay at the best campgrounds. Having a tablet can enhance your RV experiences and open up a world of travel options.
ANDROID or APPLE?
As with smartphones, there are numerous manufacturers of tablets, but I made the migration to an all-Apple arsenal and my tablet of choice is now an Apple iPad. My wife’s choice is the iPad mini, which is just a slightly smaller version of the iPad. I chose the iPad because of the ease of connectivity with my other Apple devices (an iPhone 5, MacBook and iMac). This, in combination with the huge library of apps available in the Mac App Store, is reason enough for me — but if you want to use something else, there are numerous Android-based touch-screen tablets on the market, such as the Samsung Galaxy, Amazon Kindle Fire, Google Nexus, Sony Xperia and many others. If I told you there were 1 million apps available for the iPad/iPhone I would only be slightly exaggerating, as the current total is more than 900,000 for the trio of mobile devices offered by Apple.
Once you decide that a tablet is going to be a tool you use, just make sure the one you purchase meets your needs. In the long run, it serves no purpose to save money and buy a low-cost tablet that will not allow you to do the things you want to do. This means having access to a large library of apps, which is at least half of the reason that a tablet can be such an important tool on the road.
When picking a tablet, make sure you understand the difference between one that is able to get online only though a Wi-Fi connection versus one that can use Wi-Fi and a phone connection to stay connected. Of course, a tablet with a data plan will result in an added expense from your mobile phone carrier, so choose wisely. If you are usually in an area with a Wi-Fi network, you can save some money on the device and access plan, but then you’ll be limited to Wi-Fi locations only and you won’t be able to use the tablet as a GPS.
When traveling, you will likely need to access information about rest areas, fuel, RV parks, etc. For these normal “on the road” travel-related services, a few of my favorite apps are GasBuddy (fuel prices near your current location) and Waze (community-based traffic conditions and navigation). Virtually all of the national-based truck stops offer apps to help you find their facilities, such as myPilot, Sinclair, TA, etc.
Another thing you may need along the road is the location of the nearest suitable campground, or Walmart for overnight or longer stays. Apps include Good Sam Camping, Passport America, KOA Finder, etc. Walmart has an app to help you first locate the nearest location and then call to determine if overnight camping is allowed. RV Parks is a free app for locating nearby campgrounds. State Lines is another useful app. It provides information on each state, such as sales tax, radar detector laws, towing laws, cellphone and texting laws, etc. RV Dump Stations is another popular app that can be of major importance when boondocking or making long trips across the country.
When looking for nearby attractions, Roadside America is a good way to find things to see or do in the immediate area. Another great app that I use multiple times every day on the road is Yelp. Yelp is used by 100,000,000 people every month and is a great way to not only find businesses (most anything) in areas you are not familiar with, but you can see ratings of businesses by people just like yourself. In particular, it is great for finding restaurants, but don’t think it is limited to food. Think of it as a phone book with ratings and in some cases the ability to make reservations. It is one of my Top 5 apps.
Another really handy app that I use on my smartphone and tablet is Flashlight. It may be hard to always carry a flashlight around, but in a restaurant when you can’t read the menu this one can be really important.
Weather is important to anyone traveling or living in an RV and there is no shortage of weather apps. I use Weather Bug, but many others, such as The Weather Channel, are also very popular.
All major news networks have their own apps for up-to-date info such as CNN, Fox News, ESPN. If you have satellite TV, both DirecTV and DISH have apps that allow you to set your DVR, check the schedule and, in some cases, access programming for mobile viewing.
If you are an Amazon Prime member, there is a huge library of free content available in the Amazon instant video app that you can watch from any location on your tablet as long as you have Wi-Fi or a data plan that allows unlimited usage. Searching for movies and theater locations is a lot easier if you use Fandango to find all the info you need including reviews and show times.
Reading no longer means you have to carry bulky books or magazines around or wait on magazine subscriptions to arrive by mail. Many magazines such as Trailer Life can be downloaded right to your iPad, as can many books from the iTunes store. Another great source of content is podcasts, which are audio, or audio/video programs that you can download for free on just about any topic and then listen to at your leisure. Think of them as talk-radio programs that you can download and choose when and where you enjoy them.
SiriusXM radio, another great source of material, is one that you can enjoy if you have an account through its app. It allows access to all your channels on the road. Pandora is another great source that allows you to set-up personalized music channels and then randomly stream similar music to your tablet for your private listening.
Most all large banks and credit unions offer apps so you can check your account balances, transfer money from checking to savings or even snap a photo of a check and deposit it right into your account without ever going to a branch.
For keeping track of stocks, IRA/401k balances, I prefer Daily Finance, which is an app that you can use on a tablet as well as a regular computer. Once you set-up your stocks, you can continually check values, see charts on prices and get market news throughout the day. Most online brokerage firms also have apps, which allow you to make trades right from your smartphone/tablet. Of course, the Wall Street Journal also has an app as do all major newspapers and TV affiliates to stay up-to-date on local and national financial news. There is even an app called ATM Finder to help you locate the nearest ATM.
An app I find useful when shopping is QR Reader. It allows you to scan a product barcode and check pricing online as well as get more product info, when available, through the use of QR codes, which are sometimes available in stores or on various products. Another neat feature is the ability to scan a receipt or other document and save it as a PDF file. This can be very handy for saving receipts, etc.
One thing that really annoys me is carrying all those reward cards for various stores and frequent user programs. Key Ring is an app that allows you to leave those at home. Once you set up a free account and enter all your reward card numbers by scanning them with your tablet or smartphone, you can leave the cards behind and simply access the info needed on the card via the tablet. Many retailers offer discounts specific to Key Ring users.
Drugstores, such as Walgreens and CVS, as well as most other large pharmacies, offer apps to help you refill prescriptions, find locations, etc.
For personal and home security reasons, I try to avoid advertising to my friends on various social networking sites that I am out of town. However, any review of apps would be incomplete without mentioning apps like Facebook, Vine, Twitter and Instagram. Even if you do not want to post updates or photos of your travels, they are great for keeping up with everyone else in your inner circle.
If you are an Internet junkie, there are several apps that make keeping track of your favorite forums and log-on info a lot easier. Two popular apps are Forum Runners and Tapatalk. Sign into a forum once and they keep all your info and make getting back there and logging on a lot easier.
Shoot, Store and Share
If you find yourself wishing you had more space for documents, photos, spreadsheets, etc., on your phone, one app that can help you is Dropbox. Using a free Dropbox account you can save files from one device (home, tablet, smartphone) and have access to it on another connected device. You can also use it to share large documents or photos that you don’t want to take the time to upload multiple times. This allows you to share large groups of photos or other files with friends.
Speaking of photos, don’t forget that an iPad is also a pretty good camera. By combining the built-in 5-megapixel camera with one or more of the better photo apps such as Camera+ or Pro HDR, you can take photos including HDR (high dynamic range) that look like they came from a high-end digital SLR camera and not have to carry one around with you.
More to Explore
Though it may seem that we have covered a large amount of apps, we have only scratched the surface. There are so many more, and once you start using a few, you will likely find others that suit you and your lifestyle. If you decide that a tablet is in your future, you will have to decide between standard-size devices such as the iPad or the smaller units like the iPad Mini. Of course, the larger unit is easier to see with the larger screen, but the portability of the Mini means it can be carried almost as easily as a smartphone.
For those who are not computer gurus, don’t let this scare you off — tablets are very easy to use and very hard to damage, and unlike a traditional computer, it’s difficult to accidentally erase important data. Most retailers offer free classes for new tablet buyers and once you get up and running, you will wonder why you waited.
Taking your tablet does not have to mean swallowing a large pill — though there is an app called RxmindMe from Walgreens to help you keep track of your daily medicine and dosage if you need help keeping that organized, too.
Apps, Apps and More Apps
Once your touch-screen tablet is up and running, you can start loading apps. I’ve been using a tablet since the first iPad was released in 2010, and since then have collected a list of apps that I consider necessary for travel. Of course, every person’s needs are different, but hopefully my favorite apps will help you get familiar with the type of apps that are available.
If you are a full-timer who lives in one or two areas of the country, you may not need info on all the rest stops along a particular interstate, or the closest Walgreens to refill your prescription, but you may want to check the value of your IRA online, or want to Skype in audio and video with your family back home. If you are a serious computer user you will probably end up with dozens or maybe even hundreds of apps to take on the road with you.