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Take the stress out of holiday travel with these gadgets, apps, and tips

travel tech guide
According to a recent survey conducted by the travel-planning website TripIt, 94 percent of Americans plan to travel during the 2014 holiday season, with 76 percent of those respondents saying they plan to fly. The AAA says Thanksgiving travel will be 10-percent higher than in 2013. With those kinds of figures, you can already imagine the maddening scenario that will unfold at airports, train stations, and highways, before you even leave your home.

The holiday-travel spectacular will test jetsetters’ nerves, for sure, but you can minimize the headaches – hell, maybe even make it enjoyable – with our holiday-travel survival guide. From hardware to software and services, we have compiled a list of recommendations to help you make the most of non-festive travel. 

Bring a surge protector, multi-connector cable, and portable battery

Many airports are making more power outlets available, but there won’t be enough to accommodate the extra throng of fliers. Be a local hero and bring a surge protector (bonus points if there are USB ports). You are more likely to convince people to share their outlets with you, and if you’re traveling with several family members, everyone’s devices can stay juiced up. Surge protectors are also great if you’re staying at a hotel; we’ve stayed at plenty where it was nearly impossible to find an available outlet.

Calamari 3-in-1 USB cable ($15)

Outdoor Tech Calamari

When there are truly nowhere to plug and recharge, or if the plane, train, or bus you’re riding in lack any outlets, a portable battery is a godsend. We recommend you get one with a 5,000-mAh battery or higher, or 10,000-mAh if you have a tablet. Also, we like multi-connector cables like the Calamari from Outdoor Tech. This three-in-one USB cable has a 30-pin, Lightning, and MicroUSB connector (covers pretty much all smartphone and tablets), and at $15 (MSRP) each, get a few if you’re traveling with others.

Kodiak – 6,000mAh USB power bank ($50)

Outdoor Tech KODIAK power bank

Pair the Calamari with Outdoor Tech’s 6,000-mAh Kodiak power bank ($50 MSRP), a super-durable external battery that’s waterproof.

One other item to consider is a security lock for your computer or bag. With so many people traveling and moving around the terminals, having your gadgets out in the open could lead to theft. It’s also handy if you’re staying in a hotel, and a safe isn’t big enough to hold your stuff.

Back it up

We don’t recommend bringing your work laptop when on holiday, but these days work never stops. If you must, bring along a portable hard drive to back your stuff up.

Western Digital My Passport Wireless ($220)

Western Digital My Passport Wireless

We have been using Western Digital’s My Passport Wireless and really like it. It’s easy to use, and it’s wireless, so you can back up data from mobile devices. The best part is that you can turn the device into a hotspot, when it’s connected to the Internet.

Even if you don’t plan to bring along a computer, we like the My Passport Wireless’s SD card slot for photography. Simply insert the SD card from your camera, and the portable drive automatically pulls all the photos and videos off the card for backup – ensuring that your vacation memories are intact.

Regardless of the brand, having a backup drive is peace of mind, in case your gear goes missing (but hopefully not the drive!).

Get a prepaid wireless hotspot

Even when an airport isn’t terribly busy, the free Wi-Fi networks aren’t the fastest, so imagine how much slower they’ll be when you’re sharing with other holiday travelers. And at many airports, Wi-Fi is still a for-pay service (call us cheap, but we hate paying for so-so Wi-Fi).

Netgear Mingle ($79.76) or Karma Go ($149)

Consider picking up a portable prepaid wireless hotspot like those from Virgin Mobile or Karma. These don’t require a contract and you pay for only what you need, and when you need it. If you’re traveling by car, or if the destination you’re heading to doesn’t have Wi-Fi, a mobile hotspot gives you an Internet connection wherever you are.

Next page: Booking last-minute flights and reserving the best seat

Booking last-minute flights

If you’re still making travel plans, well, we wish you the best of luck. It won’t be cheap, nor will you find the best options, but it’s still very possible to find something.

TripIt Travel Organizer (free for iOS and Android)

TripIt has the following tips for when you’re booking online.

  • Be aware that only the insane travel on the Wednesday before and the Sunday after Thanksgiving; so too are December 22, 23, 28, and 29. Not only are these days the most expensive ticket-wise (if there are even any seats left), they will be the busiest. Your best bet: Travel in the morning of the actual holiday, or between December 16 and 20.
  • From experience, we have never had great luck connecting through cold-weather airports (we’re looking at you, Chicago and Denver). If a connection is a must, TripIt suggests picking cities in warmer climates, like Phoenix or Houston. Weather is always unpredictable, but your likelihood of getting stuck in Atlanta is significantly less than, say, Detroit. Plus, give yourself some time during the connection, to factor in for late arrivals.

Not all seats are created equal

SeatGuru by TripAdvisor (free for iOS and Android)

Before you book a flight, take a few minutes to consult SeatGuru. There are lots of useful travel websites and apps, but SeatGuru continues to be one of the most useful since it launched in 2001 (and one of our all-time favorites), and now it has dedicated apps for iOS and Android (although the website scales nicely on mobile devices). Browse to the airline and aircraft type, and SeatGuru lists all the amenities available onboard (including whether the plane has Wi-Fi and power outlets) as well as which seats to avoid. Don’t know the plane model? Just punch in the airline, flight number, and date, and SeatGuru automatically finds it for you. SeatGuru even gives you flight information.

Another app to check out is ExpertFlyer. Not only can it help you find the best seats (using info from SeatGuru), but if none of your preferred seats are free, it will monitor all of the available best seats on your flight up until departure, and send you an alert when one opens up.

Download your airline’s app

The latest smartphone apps from many of the airlines offer a lot of options, from changing your seats to getting on standby for an earlier flight. They are so full-featured that you can even look for a last-minute flight if your original one got cancelled. Since your smartphone is always connected, you can bypass logging onto a computer (and pray for Wi-Fi) or seeing an airline rep to make changes. These apps also provide real-time notification of things like delays and gate changes.

Organize your trip

If your holiday travel involves hotel stays, excursions, rental cars, restaurant reservations, etc., get organized. You could do it the old-fashion way and write down all the information, or use a travel app like the one from TripIt. Sign up for a free account, and then simply email all your different itineraries to TripIt, which will automatically create a single itinerary that includes your flight and hotel info; you can then manually edit the list to include any activities. There’s also a TripIt Pro option ($49) that monitors the status of your flights, and recommends better seats if they are available. We have used TripIt for some time, and find it handy and simple to use (Pro isn’t a must-have for casual travelers). A useful feature is the ability to share the entire itinerary (or parts of it) with friends and family members – like the ones who are picking you up from the airport or train station.

Use social media when in a jam

Chances of something not going according to plan – a flight has been canceled or delayed, you were bumped off an oversold flight, etc. – are pretty high during busy-travel seasons. You could wait in long lines to rectify an issue, or you could get onto your Twitter account and live-tweet the airline. Not all airlines have a social media presence, but those that actively use social media to engage with customers – JetBlue, Virgin America, and Southwest come to mind – can offer real-time assistance. From our experience, both JetBlue and Virgin America were incredibly quick to respond to queries on Twitter.

Next page: Splurge for a lounge, Uber your ride, or book via Airbnb

Splurge for a lounge

Sure, $50 for a day-pass at a lounge might seem expensive, but when airport gate areas are filled to the max, that $50 will be a great investment, especially if you have a long connection time. Lounge entry fees do vary in price (Airspace Lounges cost just $25, while a one-time pass into the United Club is $50), and not all are created equal. But what you’ll get is a place to relax, an outlet to recharge your electronics, free Wi-Fi, and snacks and beverages (some lounges even provide complimentary hot food and cocktails, and a place just for kids). But before you hand over money, make sure the lounge has room for you, and it isn’t overcrowded from other travelers who have the same idea (many lounges won’t admit you if their spaces are already at max capacity).

Certain premium credit cards also give you complimentary or discounted access to select lounges (American Express Platinum holders, for example, get to use the uber-luxe Centurion Lounges as well as Delta Sky Clubs and Airspace Lounges).

LoungeBuddy (free for iOS and Android)

A useful app to have is LoungeBuddy, which has lounge information for nearly every major airport in the world. It not only lists what lounges are open for all travelers, but it details the cost as well as free access for those with frequent flier status or premium credit cards.

“We think that an airport lounge is that viable alternative, that all-inclusive space that may not have been on your radar before,” says Tyler Dikman, CEO of LoungeBuddy. Dikman says that paying for a lounge and all its included amenities may be more economical and relaxing than having to pay for airport food and Wi-Fi.

Uber your ride

Uber (free for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone)

Like lounge access, paying for a ride to or from the airport might seem like excess, but it could be far cheaper than paying for parking and gas – not to mention dealing with holiday road traffic. Pull up Uber (or Lyft or Sidecar) on your phone and get yourself a car service.

Airbnb to get away

Airbnb (free for iOS and Android)

If you’re finding the relatives a bit difficult to deal with this holiday, or more family members showed up than there are room for, pull up Airbnb to see if there are any available accommodations nearby. Heck, with people traveling out of town, you may find plenty of places to rent.

Take pictures

No, we don’t mean pictures with gramps. Before you head out on a trip, use your smartphone to take photos of your ID cards, credit cards, insurance cards, AAA cards, and any other card that are essential, in case you lose them (be sure to snap the front and back). Also, email PDF versions of any documents you may need, or store them (securely) in the cloud. Photos aren’t acceptable alternatives to the real thing, of course, but they could help you in replacing them.

Know what to pack

Pack the Bag (free for iOS)

With nearly 650 bag items for nearly 26 travel categories, Pack the Bag is an app (iOS) that helps you pack only the essential items, and avoid over packing. You can easily check-off what you’ve packed, and glance at which items you may still need.

Find your way with Google Maps

Google Maps (free for iOS and Android)

Google Maps has evolved to become an indispensible tool for travel and navigation. Not only can it help you get from point A to B, you can pull up indoor maps of select airports, helping you find the nearest lavatory or Jamba Juice. It also displays flight and hotel information. On some devices, you can even download maps and use them offline, using GPS to guide you but without requiring cell service – handy for international travel. Google Maps has a section with information specifically for travelers.

Fill up for less

Gas Buddy (free for iOS, Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone)

If you are driving long distance, through unfamiliar territory, not being able to find a gas station can be scary. A trusty app, Gas Buddy locates the closest station, based on your location. In populated areas where there are more options, Gas Buddy shows you the latest pricing information, so you can not only see what’s around, but who has the better prices.

Don’t get hangry

“Chances are that by the time you take off, the in-flight food options left will be slim,” says Barry Padgett, the executive VP of TripIt. “Before you head to the airport, grab a few healthy pre-packaged snacks to keep the ‘hangryness’ at bay.”

But finding a place to eat at the airport can be a challenge in itself. That’s where an app like iFly (iOS and Android) comes in handy. Available as free and paid versions, iFly has maps for more than 700 airports. In addition to general information, the app displays where restaurants and cafes are – including user reviews. So before you settle on a non-appetizing $7 churro near your gate, pull up iFly to see if there are better eateries. Another useful free app to consider is GateGuru.

Have any tips or suggestions from your personal travel experience not mentioned here? Leave one (or two) in the comments section below?

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