I often dream of recapturing the feeling that I used to have on the last day of the school year. The elation of school being at an end. The long, warm days suddenly free to be filled with anything my newly idle mind could imagine. Summer stretched out like Broadway at dawn, limitless and surprisingly empty.
You can’t buy back that feeling, but it is some consolation to be able to plan your own trips and not have to be hauled around in the back seat of your father’s Cutlass Ciera, bickering with your sister over whether to roll up the window. Here are 10 suggestions for making your hard-won summer excursion more enjoyable.
A true vacation is going to a place where you can get away from the cares of everyday life. Often, that means being someplace far from the reach of the Internet or WiFi like a national park or a foreign country. The flip side of the remoteness coin is that you can’t rely on your smart phone’s map application to guide you. But there is another app to turn to: Maplets. Users contribute their own maps and there are over 10,000 maps currently available of everything from zoos to transit systems to alpine trails. Use the app to access maps for Yosemite National Park, the Tube, or Tuscany even when you can’t get online.
Not just for bicycle enthusiasts, bicycle tours are a good option for families that want to go to Europe but fear a mutiny induced by dragging their children from one Gothic church to another. You can book a bike tour in just about any place to which you would want to travel. You can bike through Spanish wine country, national parks in Patagonia, or the Australian Outback. You can choose an appropriate skill level, whether you want a guide, and the amount of backup support you want (like a van or bus). You also won’t have to listen to your kids whine from the back of your rented Peugeot.
Neoair Xlite Mattress from Therm-A-Rest
For those of you exploring the outdoors this summer, here’s a suggestion for getting some comfortable sleep wherever you decide to make camp. The Neoair Xlite is a super-light mattress that rolls up to the size of a water bottle. Not only is it compact, it is also very comfortable and utilizes technology for trapping and absorbing heat.This basically makes the question of weight vs. comfort a false dilemma. The regular-sized model goes for $159.95 and is well worth it for those that camp frequently and are looking to get a good night’s rest.
If you’re traveling internationally, you may very well need to check back in with folks at home. Rather than activate international service or pay roaming charges, your best bet is to use Google Voice. To use Google Voice on your smart phone, you’ll need a Google Account, the app downloaded on your smart phone, and access to a WiFi network. You then pretty much make calls as you normally would but through the Google Voice app. Google’s rates are likely much lower than what you would pay if you went through your regular service.
If you have flexibility over the summer and you plan on flying somewhere, it may make more sense to wait for ticket prices to reach a price that you’re comfortable with. A number of sites, such as kayak.com and airfarewatchdog.com allow you to set an alert that automatically emails you when the price of tickets for a desired itinerary are lower than usual. Set several alerts so that you have a selection of locations from which to choose.Then, when the price is right, pounce.
This advice runs seemingly contrary to many of the techy suggestions on this list.But in this day and age, disconnecting is a luxury that many travelers can’t afford.However, for those of you that can, take a day or a weekend or even a week break where you don’t have access to a smart phone or the Internet. Enjoy the company and the surroundings. Get out and get back to nature. If you’re in the Bay Area, Adventure Out provides numerous survival courses and hiking expeditions to some of the most beautiful parts of the Golden State.
You know that a visitor isn’t going to get any sense of your home town by going to the tourist attractions. The same is true of any other city. You need to spend time walking around aparticular neighborhood to get a sense of where you are. Then you visit another neighborhood and repeat. Geocaching is a clever way to explore a place. Geocaching basically allows you to go treasure hunting all over the world. Participants hide caches in particular locations and then, using your phone, you navigate to the coordinates of the cache and search for it. In the process, you explore new places and neighborhoods.
Remember how there was a first rule of Fight Club? Well, the first rule of travel is never ask the concierge what restaurant you should go to. Even if he doesn’t have some deal going on with another restaurant, he doesn’t know what you like to eat better than you do. I recommend using Zagat.com because it has reviews for foreign cities and the rating system is pretty consistent, though the restaurants in cities with a greater diversity of eating options tend to be graded harder than in cities where there are only a few fine dining options.
For the air traveler that really hates lines, this is the solution for you. TSA Pre✓ allows you to travel through security faster without the annoying and cumbersome security procedures that make a visit to an airport seem as invasive as a trip to the doctor’s office. Most US-based airlines participate in the program. You will need to apply in person to provide biographic information, get fingerprinted, and pay an application fee of $85. Once TSA approves your application, you’ll be ready to circumvent the crowded throngs of cranky, disrobing travelers.
Context Guides and Tours
To the untrained eye, many ruins can look like little more than a pile of rocks arranged in vaguely geometric shapes. So how do you appreciate a trip to a historical site when all you have is a brochure in a foreign language that is, literally, Greek to you? One answer is to use a guide who is knowledgeable about the site and the region. Context is a company that offers tours that are run by scholars in fields like archaeology,art history, and urban planning. Context offers both public and private tours, but numbers are kept small so you can freely ask your guide questions and get further information about places that interest you. Your guide can provide you insights about the place you are visiting that you would never be able to glean if you were traveling alone.
Now that you are armed with the tools and knowledge, go West! Or East…or South..or North…