Road tripping this summer? Free apps can help before and during your journey

If you’re like many Americans, you’ll be hitting the road this summer or fall for a family vacation.

Last week, I wrote about some of my favorite road trips. Now, here are dozens of free mobile apps to make planning your road trip — and driving it — easier and more fun.

Planning your road trip

Download the AAA Mobile app to map routes and find food and lodgings along the way. Google Maps and Waze also will do this (other uses below).

roadtrippinphone-matheus-bertelli-via-pexels-license.jpg
Image by Matheus Bertelli via Pexels License.

Roadtrippers will help make sure you don’t miss any must-see landmarks or off-the-beaten path stops along the way. Browse categories from historical markers to hiking to amusement parks, read about each site and add it to a to-see list on the app.

Type any location into the map-based Findery free app to access notes that other users have left about the place (a walk they did there, tips, photos) or browse the latest notes. You also can leave a public note or make it private.

TollGuru will help you calculate gas prices and tolls for your journey by vehicle type, including RVs and towing a trailer.

If you plan to drive on major U.S. interstates, GPS-based iExit will help you plot where to take pit stops. The default mode shows a summary of amenities, such as gas, toilets, coffee, playgrounds and camping, at upcoming exits in real time, but you also can search upcoming exits for a specific service. The app can be helpful while driving.

While on the road

Google Maps is still the best way to steer clear of traffic snarls and accidents that could cause delays. If a faster route opens once you’re on the road, the app automatically changes your directions. Similarly, Waze will help you find a faster route based on crowdsourced, real-time reports, and it can send you speed-trap alerts from other users.

GasBuddy will find the lowest gas and diesel prices anywhere based on crowdsourced data. Just type in a city/state and voilà.

Magic Mountain Parkway highway sign
Apps can tell you that Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park is just off Interstate 5 near Los Angeles. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

There’s nothing worse than not being able to find a bathroom when you need one. In addition to iExit, two apps will help you find just toilets. You can search Flush Toilet Finder‘s database of 100,000 public bathrooms worldwide (no Internet connection needed). On SitorSquat (powered by Charmin), clean locations get a green “Sit” rating; less desirable ones get a red “Squat.”

GPS-based Glympse lets you temporarily share your real-time location and estimated arrival time with friends, family and others.

You’ll find many apps to help you find overnight lodgings. Airbnb is one of the most versatile. It’s everywhere and you can filter searches by price, type of accommodation, wi-fi service and more. Try Hotel Tonight for discounts on same-day bookings or seven days ahead. I also like the TripAdvisor app (on iTunes and Google Play for its user reviews, photos and deals.

If you want to eat something other than fast-food and truck-stop fare while on the road, Yelp will help you find the best places to eat and drink in many U.S. towns and cities. User reviews are helpful for quality, service and meal recommendations.

Happy travels!

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The classic American road trip still rules

Despite higher prices at the gas pumps this summer, the classic American road trip remains one of the most popular travel options.

At $2.86, average U.S. gasoline prices are at their highest level in about four years. Though the price for regular unleaded gasoline on July 8 was up from $2.26 a year ago, it was down from $2.93 a month ago, according to AAA. Gas prices were highest in the western states ($3.66 in California) and lowest in southern states ($2.53 in Alabama).

However, AAA spokeswoman Jeanette Casselano said “elevated crude oil prices and other geopolitical concerns could tilt gas prices more expensive in the early fall despite an expected increase in global crude production from OPEC.” If U.S. demand remains strong, inventories rise and oil continue to sell at over $70 a barrel, drivers could see average gas prices hit nearly $3 a gallon in the coming months, she said.

In the meantime, families are hitting the road.

Nearly two-thirds of the 88 million Americans planning to take a family vacation this year expect to hit the road, according to AAA. About three-quarters seek a destination they’ve never been to before. Families also seek attractions, such as beaches and mountains (61 percent), sightseeing (59 percent) and relaxation (56 percent).

If you’re thinking about a road trip this summer or fall, here are some favorite road trips I’ve taken over the years:

Click here to continue reading Continue reading The classic American road trip still rules

Surf’s up: Hit the top 10 beaches this summer

It’s summer. That means it’s time to hit to the beach.

Whether you grew up near a beach, vacation at a beach or married on a beach, chances are you have fond memories of surf somewhere at some time.

The nation’s No. 1 beach this year is Kapalua Bay Beach, Maui, Hawaii, according to coastal ecologist Dr. Beach, aka Stephen P. Leatherman. (See my photo of Kapalua Bay Beach at top.) He’s a professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University. The rest of his top 10 list is at the end of this post.

Sea turtle
This was one of two sea turtles that swam very close to the shore of Kapalua Bay Beach in April. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

When I visited the crescent-shaped, white-sand Kapalua Beach along Maui’s west coast in April, I could stand right next to sea turtles frolicking in the shallows.

Kapalua is one of the island’s safest swimming areas and its clear azure water and sheltered location (the bay is protected by two headlands formed by lava flows ages ago) make it a good snorkeling spot. It’s also near a few restaurants, bars and a water sports rental hut.

Great beaches

So, just what makes a beach great?

For me, it either has to be large enough for long walks or have a great surf for swimming and boogie boarding.

For Abbey Burns, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, a great beach must be swimmable, have little to no wind and provide “an insurance plan in case you forget something,” such as a snack shack or shop, according to Abbey Burns.

Her favorite beach is Mayflower Beach in Dennis (Cape Cod), Mass. During college, she went there every year to stay at a friend’s family home.

“I really love it because at low tide the beach is huge and you don’t even notice other people are there,” Burns said. Beaches in the Bay Area are too windy, she said.

Feet in the sand
Criteria for Dr. Beach’s top 10 list include the type of vistas and the color and softness of the sand. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Click here to continue reading and see the rest of the Top 10 list: Continue reading Surf’s up: Hit the top 10 beaches this summer

Road trip? California Highway 1 section in Big Sur set to reopen in September

Visitors to California can look forward to the reopening of one of the most scenic parts of California Highway 1 that winds along the Big Sur coastline in September after being closed for more than a year.

Highway 1, or the Pacific Coast Highway, is the state’s best-known scenic byway, starting near San Juan Capistrano and ending in Mendocino County.

California Highway 1 shield
(SPUI via Creative Commons)
Highway 1 winds for hundreds of miles along much of the state’s coastline, hugging cliff tops and passing through some of the state’s best tourist spots. Visitors will see California’s largest cities, many beaches, Redwood trees, Elephant seals, boardwalks, lighthouses, missions, wineries, Hearst Castle and spectacular coastal views.

Currently, however, you cannot drive along Highway 1 past Ragged Point just north of Hearst Castle to Big Sur. The detour route winds inland and adds about 30 minutes to the drive. The featured photo at top of California Highway 1 in Big Sur is about a mile north of Ragged Point looking south. (Fred Moore via Creative Commons)

Caltrans closed that section of road in April 2017 due to dangerous conditions. One month later, a massive landslide — one of the biggest in state history — occurred there at Mud Creek. (An earlier mudslide in March 2017 destroyed the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, which is used to access Big Sur from the north, but it reopened in October 2017.)

 

Big Sur northward view
This view of California Highway 1 near Big Sur includes Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge to the North. (Astronautilus via Creative Commons)
The treacherous stretch of Highway 1 around Big Sur has seen upwards of 60 road closures since 1935. A Caltrans report detailed 56 road closures from 1935 through mid-2000, but there have been many more  since then.

San Quentin Prison inmates and locals, like writer John Steinbeck, built Highway 1. It opened in 1934.

5 tips for summer travelers to avoid new food screening at airport security

Get ready for longer airport checkpoint lines this summer as travelers may have to remove fruit, sandwiches and other snacks from their carry-on bags for separate screening under new security measures.

Transportation Security Administration agents recently asked a friend of mine to remove fruit and snacks from her carry-on bag at three airports — Dallas Love Field, Denver International Airport and San Francisco International Airport.

Although food is allowed in carry-on bags, the new screening is part of the TSA’s enhanced measures to raise the “baseline for aviation security.” Now, TSA officers may require travelers to separate items from their carry-on bags, such as food, powders and “any materials that can clutter bags and obstruct clear images on the X-ray machine.” (Tips to avoid this at end.)

Travel food photo
Pack your carry-on snacks in a separate bag for easy separation at the airport security checkpoint. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Under the new rules, items that cannot be identified (does that include a mangosteen?) and resolved at checkpoint cannot be taken on an airplane. The entire process could hold up security lines and make waits much longer even though the TSA is adding over 1,600 more security staff at airports in preparation for the summer crush.

Oh yeah, the TSA expects to screen a record number of U.S. travelers this summer: 243 million people vs. more than 239 million during summer 2017.

The TSA’s stronger security measures began last summer — with requiring travelers to separately place all electronic devices bigger than a cell phone (laptops, tablets, e-readers and game consoles) in bins for X-ray screening.

Its appears that travelers with TSA PreCheck, a program that moves low-risk passengers through security quicker without having to remove shoes, laptops, liquids, belts and jackets, won’t be subjected to the enhanced screening measures.

Here are my tips for getting through airport security faster this summer:

  1. Review TSA’s list of banned carry-on items before packing for your trip.
  2. The TSA encourages travelers to organize their carry-on bags and avoid overstuffing them to avoid screening gridlock. Pack your snacks in a separate bag, whether it be a canvas or plastic bag, so you can easily separate it from the rest of your carry-on items. (See my photo at upper right.)
  3. Join TSA PreCheck ($85 for five years) or Global Entry, a similar program ($100 for five years) that also provides faster U.S. Customs clearance.
  4. Buy your snacks at the airport after going through the security checkpoint.
  5. Consider buying food on the airplane. It’s still not the most affordable option, but food options and quality have improved.

Photo at top of a security checkpoint at Chicago’s Midway International Airport is by Chris Dilts, Creative Commons via flickr.

Taste of travel part 2: Cheers to brewery tours

When traveling, I try to taste as many local delicacies (I use that word loosely) as possible to get a real taste for a place and its culture.

Last week, I blogged here about trying iconic Scottish soft drink Irn‪ in its original form. It wasn’t for me, but I had to taste it to find out.

The frothy craft beer and distillery movements across the country and globally make it easier to find local products — made with locally grown hops, berries, flowers, and more. It’s all about supply and demand. For every $100, Americans spend $1 on alcoholic beverages, according to government data.

Travel mixed with beverage tours — whether it’s beer, wine or liquor — have become popular across the country and worldwide. Many breweries — big or small, mainstream or craft — offer free tours and samples. 

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You only get to see this at Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, Wis., if you visit. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Here’s a flight of breweries to consider:

Old and new: Milwaukee is a city rich in beer history (Blatz, Miller, Pabst and Schmitz), but it’s also big in craft beer. (See photo above and at top.) Read my article about some of Milwaukee’s craft breweries that was published in The Dallas Morning News.

Boulevard Brewing Co
The guided tour at Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City, Mo., lasts an hour. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Fun learning: Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City, Mo., is a bit unusual in that it starts its free 1-hour tour with a small sample of its original pale ale. It also does an excellent education job: exhibits tell you about the history of beer in Mesopotamia as well as its owns product, which dates to 1989. My tour guide, Kelsi Pile, noted that 75 percent of Boulevard beer is sold locally. She also mentioned that Boulevard made 19 beers before it was bought by Belgian-owned Duvel Moortgat Brewery in 2013; now it brews 41 varieties. Boulevard also has a large beer hall, gift shop and hosts events, such as trivia and bingo nights.

Boulevard beer hall
The beer hall at Boulevard Brewing is reminiscent of the ones in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)


Brewery Goliath: Coors beer has been around since 1873. I’ve been on a tour of the Coors Brewery in Golden, Colo., which claims to be the world’s largest single-site brewery. On its 30-minute tour, you’ll learn how Coors beer is brewed and packaged and then try free beer samples in its “Hospitality Lounge.”

Go overseas: For a taste of something different, head to Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, Belgium. This small, family owned brewery has made Lambic, Gueuze, Faro and Kriek beer using the same tools and brewing process since 1900. If you like the sour beer trend, then you’ll love Cantillon. Lambic beer is fermented using wild yeasts and bacteria native to the Zenne valley. Gueuze, a blend of lambics produced during different years, has a slightly acidic, fruity taste. Kriek is a blend of lambics and sour cherries. Cantillon also blends lambics with grapes, raspberries, apricots, hops, elderberry flowers and rhubarb. Tours are not free, but include a tasting.

Taste of travel: Irn-Bru reduces sugar and loses some local cred

What would fictional Scottish copper John Rebus think of the reformulated Scottish soda Irn-Bru — known as the “other national drink” of Scotland — with less sugar? Och!

The British government just slapped a new tax on sugar to help fight rising obesity rates. The United Kingdom — just like the United States — has a big obesity problem.

In Scotland, not everyone is happy with the change to its sugar-laden national treasure.

On a visit last fall to Scotland, I tried Irn-Bru (pronounced ‘Iron Brew’) under the original recipe. It tasted just like bubble gum, but it also was too sweet for me. My traveling companion, however, loved it.

The taste of travel

Trying local foods and drinks of other cities and countries is a one of the great joys of travel. It’s part of the experience of learning about different cultures and how people live. Many people plan trips around wine tasting, beer tours or top French restaurants.

In addition to Irn-Bru, I’ve drank fresh coconut milk from a coconut in Hawaii, tea made from plants grown on a nearby hillside in Taiwan and a hot ginger-lemon concoction that cured my ills in New Zealand.

Visitors to the United States may want to try a Slurpee, Dr Pepper soda or eggnog. They also may find that chili in Cincinnati is very different than in Texas.

In March, the maker of Irn-Bru cut sugar in the drink by more than half (to 4.7 grams per 100 milliliters) to avoid the new tax and a price hike. The reduction of sugar and the addition of the sweetener Aspartame lowered the calories in each can of soda — to about 65 from just below 140.

The UK’s obesity rates have soared so that it’s now the most overweight nation in Western Europe, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). About 27 percent of UK adults are obese.

The legend of Irn-Bru

Americans may not be too familiar with Irn-Bru, which dates to at least 1901, even though it’s exported to the United States.

Barr's Irn Bru on Falkirk Town Heritage Trail
The Town Heritage Trail in Falkirk, Scotland, features this plaque. Falkirk is the birthplace of A.G. Barr, the maker of Irn-Bru. (Mark Begbie, Wikimedia Commons)
In Scotland, Irn-Bru is so popular that it’s called the “other national drink,” after Scotch, and it frequently pops up in popular Scottish writer Ian Rankin’s crime series featuring Detective Inspector John Rebus. In the books, Rebus swears Irn-Bru is the best cure for a hangover and drinks copious amounts of it.

In addition to its unique taste and high sugar content, Irn-Bru stands out for its bright orange color, its vibrant orange-and-blue labels and oft-controversial advertisements. (See my photo at top.)

Scottish Irn-Bru fans reportedly are scouring shops for the full-sugar version and stockpiling it. Some fans have made their outrage public: Ryan Allen of Ayr, Scotland, started the Hands Off Our Irn-Bru campaign, a petition to save the traditional recipe and Stephen McLeod of Glasgow started the Save Real Irn-Bru campaign to protect the nation’s iconic drink.

Will people warm to the new recipe? Perhaps.

For me, I probably should make another trip to Scotland for a taste comparison — for reporting purposes.

Are travel sites ripe for personalization?

Most people plan and book their travel online these days.

Last year, consumers booked nearly half of all U.S. travel online, and the online travel market is growing faster than the offline market, according to industry researcher Phocuswright.

Research firm eMarketer predicts that global digital travel sales will increase from $548 billion in 2016 to $855 billion by 2021.

Phocuswright's Mark Blutstein headshot
Mark Blutstein (Courtesy of Phocuswright)

It’s not all smooth sailing though. A new report from Phocuswright notes that consumers often complain that online travel shopping takes too long and they have to search too many different websites.

Phocuswright analyst Mark Blutstein notes that other websites — from e-tailers to Netflix —  have personalized and streamlined the process. These sites offer customers suggestions, such as movies or clothing they might like, based on current site activity, what’s in their cart and past searches or purchases. Why can’t travel sites?

Half of U.S. online travelers say they’d rather see fewer choices based on their interests than spend hours searching for the perfect option, according to Phocuswright.

The flip side of personalization, Blutstein reminds us, is that you have to share your personal data.

Many consumers are on high alert about data privacy these days. Social network Facebook recently garnered a lot of attention about the way it collects and stores users’ information following news that Cambridge Analytica, a company with links to President Donald Trump’s campaign, accessed the personal data of tens of millions of Facebook users to target them for political campaigns.

Travelers may be different — at least when it comes to some general information. Roughly half of travelers say they’re comfortable sharing their past or current travel brands and destinations with online travel sites if it helps provide a more personalized experience, according to Phocuswright.

 

5 Best Grand Canyon view points on the South Rim

Vermillion, shell pink and velvety emerald.

Grand Canyon National Park is all about color, light and grand vistas.

As the nation’s second most visited national park (after the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) with more than 6 million annual visitors, you have to share the view. But it’s pretty easy to find your own slice of heaven if you go off the beaten track, early in the morning or in the evening.

Each visit, each day, brings different light patterns and cloud formations, changing the view before you. Here are my top five view points from the South Rim:

Sunrise at Yaki Point
I woke at 5 a.m. to see the sun rise from Yaki Point. (Sheryl Jean)

Yaki Point: This is the best place to see sunrise. The slow-rising sun splashes the large mesa to the north a bright red. It’s worth getting up in the wee hours to see.

South Rim Trail from South Kaibab Trailhead toward the Grand Canyon Visitor Center: Stroll or bicycle along this stretch for incredible views down into the canyon, across to the North Rim as well as into the southern and western canyons.

Hopi Point, Pima Point, The Abyss and Mohave Point: These spots offer vast views across to the North Rim. They’re among nine designated view points on 7-mile Hermit Road, a scenic route along the west end of the South Rim to Hermits Rest. If you walk the Canyon Rim Trail (nearly 8 miles) or bicycle the road you’ll see many more stunning vantage points. There’s also a free park shuttle bus on Hermit Road; private cars are allowed only during December, January and February.

Desert View of Grand Canyon
You can see the Colorado River from Desert View. (Sheryl Jean)

Desert View: This eastern-most point of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim is the place for sunsets. Your view is enhanced by climbing up the 70-foot Desert View Watchtower, the highest point on the South Rim and a replica of an American Indian stone tower, for panoramic views of the park and surrounding area. Allow travel time: Desert View is 26 miles east of Grand Canyon Village.

Yavapai Point: Everyone goes to Mather Point, but Yavapai Point is nearby and offers the same stunning views of Havasupai Point to the West and Desert View to the East with perhaps slightly less crowds. An extra benefit is that daily National Park ranger talks or walks start here.

Grand Canyon National Park map

The Point Bonita Lighthouse is worth the trek and the wait

California Journal

Being at the Point Bonita Lighthouse just north of San Francisco is like being at the end of the earth.

In a way, you are. It’s the western edge of the United States.

Point Bonita Lighthouse tunnel
Visitors must walk through this hand-hewn tunnel to reach the Point Bonita Lighthouse. (Sheryl Jean)

The 1885 lighthouse is still used today, so it’s open for only three hours a day three days a week: from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Mondays, Saturdays and Sundays. Visiting it is like being let in on a secret.

The U.S. Coast Guard maintains the lighthouse, which is on on the Marin Headlands and part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The National Park Service provides access to visitors.

IMG_5175
After walking through a tunnel, and a narrow cliff-top path, visitors walk over this suspension bridge to reach the lighthouse. (Sheryl Jean)

Be prepared to walk a half mile to the site, through a rough rock tunnel (open only during visiting hours) and over a suspension bridge to the lighthouse, which sits on a small patch of land jutting into the Pacific Ocean. My National Park guide said it took 3.5 months to dig the tunnel by hand.

You’ll be rewarded with spectacular coastal views and seeing nature at its wildest and windiest best.

View from Point Bonita
This is the view looking North from the lighthouse. (Sheryl Jean)

How it works

The 1885 lighthouse was the third one built on the West Coast to help lead ships through dangerous water and thick fog. The original lighthouse was 300 feet above sea level, but fog often obscured the light. It moved to Point Bonita in 1877.

The Point Bonita Lighthouse can shine its beam 18 miles across the ocean in clear conditions using a Fresnel lens, which is based on ground glass prisms arranged in rings around a light source.

In dense fog, sound is used. First, there was a cannon, then a fog bell and a steam siren. Today, an electric fog horn emits two blasts every 30 seconds.

To reach the Point Bonita, visitors must to drive up and down a narrow, steep, twisting road through the Marin Headlands. Parking is limited. A free Marin Headlands Shuttle operates on weekends through September along Bunker Road, Field Road and Fort Baker, stopping at the lighthouse.

Point Bonita
Point Bonita (Google Maps)