The Family Trip, Circa 2015

By Mark Lowenstein on July 1, 2015

Millions of American families will take a vacation this summer. As we prepare for ours, with two teenagers in tow, I have been thinking about how the family vacation, in today’s connected world, compares with trips I took with my parents in the era before cell phones and the Internet. To me, it’s about finding a balance of taking advantage of all the fantastic devices and apps that help make a trip convenient and enjoyable, and having times where we are in the moment, together as a family, and engaging in wholesome outdoor activities.

This summer, we are embarking on a trip from Boston to New Hampshire to hike the famed Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains. Our family’s ‘connectivity configuration:’ naturally, we all have smartphones and we have a cellular-enabled iPad Air, which I use for work but is shared by the family when we are on trips. 

Mark Lowenstein

Since part of this excursion involves hiking and camping, I have made a list of all the items we need to bring, using my favorite cloud-based “to do” list app, Wunderlist, which everyone in the family can access. On the morning of departure, and prior to getting in the car for the three plus hour drive, I’m up for an early run.  My distance and pace are tracked by the RunKeeper app on my phone, and time goes by quickly as I stream my favorite sports talk show where the hosts are, unfortunately, lambasting the Red Sox for yet another loss.

Then it’s all packed up and into the car, kids, dog, and 10 GB family plan in tow. While my wife is driving, we chat and I catch up on e-mail and the news. In the back seat, my teens are being teens – headphones on, listening to music, keeping in touch with friends, and playing the odd game. Google Maps has plotted the drive to our destination, and, thanks to better integration with Waze, routes us around a summer construction project on I-93. Certainly this is different than the “dig the New England map out of the glove compartment, tune in to ‘traffic on the 3s’” days of yore…

After everyone has been in their own zone for a bit, we all listen to a couple of podcasts that I’ve downloaded via the speedy Verizon 4G LTE network. A new one on NPR, called Dear Sugar, has become a family favorite. Then my daughter, Hannah, streams a few of her favorite new tunes from her Spotify playlist. My wife mentions a song she heard last night on the radio, and Hannah instantly streams to that --- this on-demand audio experience is a bit quicker than the ‘audio cassettes in the Cutlass Cruiser’ world of my childhood car trips!

We planned on being on the trail by mid-afternoon, but the sky had darkened. I receive an alert from my favorite weather app that there is a flash flood watch. This prompts me to check the Appalachian Mountain Club web site on the iPad. The site is recommending that folks not go above tree line today.

So it’s time to implement Plan B for tonight. Mobile apps to the rescue! Hotel Tonight suggests great last-minute deals in North Conway, NH, which is a sort of base camp for a lot of hiking excursions. (I remember how on a trip to Europe with my wife about 15 years ago, a change in itinerary often required driving from town to town, knocking on doors in search of a vacant hotel room.)

Yelp helps with some local restaurant suggestions and reviews. And with some hours to kill, Flixster helps locate some movie theaters and show times nearby. Now we just need an app that helps a family of four with varying tastes agree on what to see!  And finally, since our motel does not accept pets, Rover.com, the “AirBnB for dogs,” helps us find a place for our dog for the evening.

Speaking of our motel, it’s a bit of a ‘60s throwback. The good news:  there’s free Wi-Fi. The bad news: you get what you pay for. The Wi-Fi pipe is about 1 MB, which is barely adequate for work and doesn’t really cut it for multiple devices. The Verizon 4G LTE connection is pretty good in North Conway, and is faster than hotel Wi-Fi. In fact, I have been finding lately through work travel that hotel Wi-Fi networks have been getting more congested and unreliable. Hotels are increasingly offering a “freemium” Wi-Fi service, with anything akin to real broadband requiring an extra fee. In many cases, I find that the using 4G LTE is faster than Wi-Fi.

We return to the motel after dinner and the movies. Our FamilyBase service shuts down the kids’ phones (mainly for texting) after 10 pm, which we find especially useful on school nights but also helpful tonight as we hope to get an early start.

The next day dawns clear, so we pick up the dog and set out on our three-day hike. We bring one phone with us on the excursion, plus a spare charger. We leave the phone on airplane mode in order to conserve battery and enjoy the pristine environment. I occasionally turn on the phone to see whether there’s coverage. There is a signal much of the time we are in the Whites, which is reassuring in case of emergencies.

We enjoy a pristine three days of nearly cloudless skies, mild temperatures, and great views. It’s a nice opportunity to disconnect from the world a little, and even to re-engage with some time-honored navigation skills. Still love those AMC maps! 

I’ve noted how smartphones and mobile connectivity have helped make even casual family travel easier, more convenient, and fun. It’s also great to ramp it down occasionally, in order to connect in a different way, learn important survival skills, and even gain some perspective on the wonders that mobile broadband connectivity has delivered.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem.  Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.

The thoughts, opinions and suggestions of the author may not necessarily reflect those of Verizon Wireless.

Tags: summer travel, mobile connectivity, staying connected, Waze, Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network, Google Maps, Spotify, Yelp, travel tips, Travel Apps, mobile apps