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Travel apps make long-distance travel easier

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Charlie Bowen Charlie Bowen

Charlie Bowen is a writer, teacher and web designer. He lives is Huntington.

It was the dream trip. Twenty-five days on the road, nearly 8,000 miles and 14 states.

In 44 years of marriage, Pamela and I had often imagined driving across the country and back, but whenever we had the money, we didn't have the time; whenever we had the time, well ...

Then last year, as if in a Dickens novel, a kindly uncle left a small inheritance. voilà! unexpected, un-earmarked funds! Suddenly we allowed ourselves to entertain some rather great expectations of our own. At last we could set out for parts unknown. The decision as to where unknown was easy. Since we'd never been to the American Northwest, we made up our minds to cross the wide Missouri and then, like latter-day emigrants, aim for Oregon.

But unlike the half million adventurers who trekked the Oregon Trail 175 years ago, we would travel in the company of robots.

Techies from way back, my wife and I love our iPhones, iPads, laptops and email. We seldom leave home without them. So even as we began planning our personal voyage of discovery, we realized that this trip also would enable us to really test assorted apps and web sites designed to assist travelers.

Such software doesn't usually get a proper road test, simply because most of us travel fairly familiar ground. When visiting friends and relatives, hitting the road for business, attending reunions or conventions, we usually don't find ourselves very far from a few well-trodden paths. Consequently, the bright and shiny software that promises so much travel assistance goes largely untapped. After all, when on I-64, I-77, I-79, I-81 or any of the connecting state and U.S. routes, we're still in our own neighborhood and generally don't need an app to know where to find a meal or a hotel or a tank of gas.

However, since the prime directive of this trip was go only where we had never gone before, these apps could prove invaluable, but only if: 1. They worked as advertised and 2. We had web connections along the way that would let the programs get to their lifeline of data.

And that was our first big surprise on the trip: We were almost never without a cell phone signal.

We are not accustomed to such connectivity. Around here, for instance, when we drive from Huntington to Cincinnati using a popular shortcut on Ohio 73 out of Portsmouth through Otway and Rarden, we expect up to an hour of cell silence. But in the flat, wide-open ranges and prairies of the West, the cell signal was much more dependable, meaning our apps and web sites were almost always awake and ready to work.

Our second surprise was that we didn't need our GPS system.

It's official. Google has gobbled Garmin's lunch. Before leaving home, we faithfully packed our Garmin GPS unit, expecting that somewhere along the way we would need to call on its satellite-driven data for assistance. However, in four weeks, we never got it out of the trunk.

Google Maps was the first app we fired up every morning. Its spoken directions gave us a clear, step-by-step navigation to our next stop and provided easy alternative routes. Sometimes it even gave us detailed floor plans for indoor navigation of stores, hotels and museums. A new version of the app was released during the trip that provided even more features, including an "Explore" option for finding nearby points of interest, from restaurants to rest stops. (An older Google+ Local app, which was retired by the company earlier this month, offered many of the features now built into this heftier rendering of Google Maps.)

Once we were underway each day, other apps came into play. We didn't always travel the interstates — we opted for scenic highways when we could — but when we were on an unfamiliar I-Something, an app called iExit became our favorite robotic advisor. 

iExit has one simple mission: to tell you what's coming up in real time while you're driving on any interstate in the country.  As you're tooling along, it summarizes the services available at each of the next 100 upcoming exits, including gas stations, restaurants (from fast food to sit-down facilities), hotels, shopping and so on. Click on one for directions to that service from the exit.

Such technology was a real comfort to us Easterners as we began to learn how far "far" was in the West. Accustomed to exits every five or 10 miles, we soon were introduced to hour-long stretches of exitless travel. It was not unusual to see a sign stretch across an interstate to warn, "No services for the next 65 miles." It was great for whoever was navigating to be able to tell the driver, "Cracker Barrel ahead in 25.6 miles. Watch for Exit 346."

Finding gas stations was easy. Google Maps and iExit both searched them out for us. But we preferred a separate application for that. GasBuddy not only listed the station nearest our current location, but also helped us shop for the cheapest fill-ups in the vicinity. The app interacts an extensive database of gas prices all across the country.

One feature we especially appreciated was being able to locate specific brands of gas. While we traveled with several gas credit cards to use on the adventure, we never considered that once we crossed the Mississippi, some locally ubiquitous brands — Exxon, BP, Marathon — would become much less common. Since these large, serviceless distances we were driving had inspired us to try to keep the tank at least half full, it was valuable to be able to use GasBuddy to plan that next refueling where we could use a gas card, even if it that stop was 70 miles away!

One unknown variable on vacation is always the weather. We lucked out. Almost always Big Sky Country was big and blue. But then again, this was The West, where weather could change rapidly and often violently. I'll never forget driving east out of Colorado after a bright, sunny day in The Rockies. As evening approached, we were treated to a bizarre spectacle. On the left side of the road, for as far as we could see, it was a robin's egg blue twilight with just a few puffy white clouds. On the right it was, as an old friend used to say during every thunderstorm, "as dark as the inside of a cow." Since we were careening toward Kansas, I was exercising Oz imagery and wondering if at any minute we were going to be carried away by wicked winds.

The Dark Sky app relieved my anxiety. Dark Sky is different from most weather apps in that it focuses only on whether it's going to rain (or snow) in the next few minutes. It offers no long-range forecasts, no allergy reports or ski weather prediction. Instead, it keeps to its single mission, using state-of-the-art forecasting technology for extraordinarily accurate, down-to-the-minute predictions of precipitation.

In seconds, Dark Sky showed me the radar — indeed, the cow-dark storm was contained on our right — and assured me that in the next 10 minutes or so we would be merrily driving out of the maelstrom into the mild blue yonder.

The bottom line: Robots – travel apps working as advertised – enhanced our adventure.