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.

Holiday crush: AAA forecasts a record holiday travel season

The crowds will shift from malls to roads and airports, as AAA expects a record number of Americans to travel this holiday season.

More than 103 million people are expected to travel from Dec. 23 through Jan. 2, up 1.5 percent, or 1.5 million people, from last year. It’s the eighth straight annual increase in holiday travel, according to AAA.

“Rising incomes and continued low gas prices should make for a joyous holiday travel season,” AAA CEO Marshall Doney said in a statement. Overall, improvements in the economy are driving travel.

Consumer spending is expected to rise 4.1 percent this year vs. 2015, according to AAA’s holiday travel forecast report. The nation’s unemployment rate was 4.6 percent in November. Personal income will rise 3.3 percent as an improved job market drives up wages. The stock market is at a record high.

How people travel aaa-pie

Most holiday travelers (an estimated 93.6 million people) are hitting the road again, with road trips expected to rise 1.5 percent from last year.

That’s largely due to low gas prices, even though today’s average national price of $2.24 a gallon is higher than the of $2 a year ago. AAA estimates that U.S. drivers have saved over $27 billion at the gas pumps so far this year compared with last year.

In addition, average car rental rates are slightly lower than last year at $66 a day, according to the forecast.

Air travel will increase by 2.5 percent, with more than 6 million Americans flying. Other types of travel, such as by trains, buses and boat, will decline slightly.

AAA projects holiday airfares will average $204 for a round-trip flight on the top 40 U.S. routes. Lodging rates are to increase 7 percent, with travelers spending an average of $144 a night.

Where people go

While many people visit relatives for the holidays, others take time off for a winter vacation. Warm-weather destinations top the list, with the exception of New York, based on AAA.com bookings. Here are the top five destinations:

  1. Las Vegas
  2. Orlando, Fla.
  3. New York City
  4. San Diego
  5. Anaheim, Calif.

AAA’s travel projections are based on economic forecasting and research by IHS Markit.

Got job? Millennials remain optimistic, new study finds

Even though millennials see higher unemployment rates, many remain optimistic about their job prospects, according to a new Federal Reserve Board report.

fed-report-chart

Factors, such as automation and the trend of contingent workers, have affected employees, especially millennials who are the newest entrants to the workforce.

The Fed used unemployment rates from August, when the U.S. rate was 4.9 percent. (See chart at right.) The rates were lower in November, but the trends are similar: The jobless rate was 14.4 percent for people 18-19, 4.8 percent for those 25-34 and 4.6 percent for the nation, according to data the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Fed commissioned GfK to survey over 2,000 people in 2015 to compare to a similar poll in 2013. The 120-page report provides a snapshot of the employment, education and financial independence of people age 18 to 30.

Overall, those adults were more optimistic about future job opportunities in 2015 (61 percent) than in 2013 (45 percent). Moreover, people who were employed, enrolled in college or who had some college education were the most optimistic.

And, as other surveys have shown, millennials aren’t so different from earlier generations in wanting employment stability. They prefer permanent, steady jobs (62 percent) to higher-paying  jobs (36 percent) and to contingent or contact work.

Other key findings from the 2015 survey include:

  • 61 percent are positive about future employment opportunities vs. 45 percent in 2013. People with permanent (68 percent) or full-time (65 percent) jobs were more optimistic about their future than those with temporary (43 percent) or part-time (54 percent) jobs.
  • More millennials see value in higher education than in 2013. Half said the financial benefits of education outweigh the costs, up from 41 percent in 2013. Despite that knowledge, people without postsecondary training list cost, a lack of time and course scheduling as obstacles.
  • Over 30 percent didn’t not receive information about jobs/careers in high school or college.fed-living-expenses
  • 45 percent work in a field closely related to their educational and training background.
  • Nearly half of part-time workers were considered underemployed, and would prefer to work more hours.
  • 73 percent can cover monthly expenses with their income vs. 64 percent in 2013, but many receive financial support from their families. And more of them can cover long-term expenses in an emergency (See chart at right.).

The bottom line: Most millenials aren’t sure how their standard of living will stack up against their parents’, according to the survey. Those whose parents have a high school education or less are more likely to expect a higher standard of living (19 percent) than those with at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree (17 percent).

Let’s get real about interest rates

Yes, the Federal Reserve on Wednesday raised the key federal funds rate (by 0.25 percent).

Yes, it’s the second rate hike since last December.

However, the federal funds rate still is below 1 percent after hovering near zero since late 2008. And while higher rates will affect consumer loans such as student loans, car loans and home mortgages, the Fed repeatedly has said that future increases will be “gradual.”

The Fed “sees the potential for a modest uptick in prices and activity over the next 12-24 months,” Lindsey Piegza, chief economist at Stifel Fixed Income, said in a statement. “But in the long-run, the Fed’s forecast for a moderate (read: blah) trajectory of the economy remains.”

Much of what I wrote in this article for The Dallas Morning News a year ago on how higher rates might affect consumers still holds true today.

Interest rates generally are still low.

Look at the 30-year mortgage rate. It peaked at 18.5 percent in October 1981. Today, it’s 4.16 percent vs. just under 4 percent a year ago.

States see steady employment

New government data shows what the Federal Reserve leaders recognized earlier this week: steady employment trends in most states through November.

In a long-expected move, the Fed’s policy setting committee on Wednesday raised interest rates by 0.25 percent to 0.75 percent. Among its reasons were a labor market that has continued to strengthen and economic activity that’s expanded at a moderate pace since the middle of the year.

California leads national employment gains with 377,200 new jobs for the 12 months through November, according to data released today from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Overall, 31 states plus Washington, D.C., added jobs over the last year, Wyoming lost jobs and employment was about the same in 18 states.

You can see state-by-state data in an interactive graphic I made with Tableau Public. Just scroll over each circle to see the employment data.

For the month of November, employment was virtually unchanged n 39 states, nine states added jobs and two states lost jobs. Florida added most jobs (+29,600) and Virginia lost the most jobs (-13,600). California added 13,600 jobs last month.

The nation added 178,000 jobs in November, with most gains in professional and business services and health care, and 225,300 over the last 12 months.

Q&A: What the Alaska Airlines and Virgin America deal means for travelers

Alaska Airlines on Wednesday completed its purchase of Virgin America, kicking off a merger process it hopes to complete within three weeks.

The Seattle-based parent of Alaska Airlines paid $2.5 billion for Burlingame, Calif.-based Virgin America, a week after getting approval from the U.S. Department of Justice contingent on Alaska Air Group Inc. reducing the scope of its code-share agreement with American Airlines, the world’s largest airline based in Texas. Alaska expects to receive approval from regulators and Virgin America shareholders by Jan. 1.

The merger Alaska and Virgin America will create the nation’s fifth largest airline, with nearly 1,200 daily flights to 118 destinations in North America, Costa Rica and Cuba. Based in Seattle, the combined airline will be a West Coast powerhouse, with hubs in Seattle; Portland, Ore., Anchorage; San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Here are some answers to questions travelers may have:

Q. Where can Virgin America tickets be bought online?

A. Starting Dec. 19, customers can buy Virgin America tickets at AlaskaAir.com. They also can continue to buy tickets at VirginAmerica.com for the immediate future.

Q. Are there any new routes?

A. The combined airline will offer new daily flights to Minneapolis; Orange County, Calif.; and Orlando, Fla.; from its San Francisco hub starting in summer 2017. The schedule will be announced on Dec. 21, the same day tickets to those places go on sale.

Q. Will the Virgin America name and/or experience go away?

A. Travelers should not see “major changes” to the Virgin America product or flying experience in the next 12 months. Alaska said it’s “conducting extensive customer research to understand what customers value most” and hopes to have a decision about the Virgin America brand in early 2017.

Q. If you have an existing flight reservation, what should you do?

A. If you have an existing reservation, your reservation remains the same, and each airline’s current travel policies still apply. If you have a flight on Virgin America, check in at a Virgin America counter. If you have a flight on Alaska, check in at an Alaska counter.

Q. What changes will loyalty program members of each airline see?

A. Alaska Mileage Plan and Virgin America Elevate will continue to operate as separate programs. Starting Dec. 19, Virgin America Elevate members and Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members can earn rewards on each other’s flights and elite members will receive priority check-in and boarding on each other’s flights. Starting Jan. 9, members of both frequent flier programs will be able to redeem award travel on both airlines and Elevate members will be invited to open new Alaska Mileage Plan accounts.

aa-va-merger-chart
Courtesy of Alaska Airlines Group Inc.

Q. What does the merger mean for California customers?

A. The combined airline offers 289 daily flights to 52 places in California. Just from the San Francisco Bay Area, there are 113 daily flights to 32 destinations.

Q. Will Alaska’s fleet change?

A. Alaska said it has not made any long-term decisions about its fleet. For now, Virgin America’s Airbus A319 and A320 jets will join Alaska’s all-Boeing fleet.

It remains to be seen how the Alaska and Virgin America merger and their different styles will shake out. Virgin America is known as young, fun airline with cabin mood lighting and touch-screen personal entertainment. Alaska has invested in technology, such as luggage tags customers can print at home, for more efficient operations.

“Alaska Airlines and Virgin America are different airlines, but we believe different works – and we’re confident fliers will agree,” Alaska Air Group CEO Brad Tilden said in a statement. “The two airlines may look different, but our core customer and employee focus is very much the same.”

Travelers can find more answers on an Alaska web page designed for that purpose.

NOAA report: Long-term Arctic warming trends continue

Unprecedented warmer air temperature over the Arctic triggered extensive melting in the sea ice and land-based snow cover this fall, according to a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The 11th annual Arctic Report Card, which is based on research by 61 scientists in 11 countries, shows the continuation of long-term Arctic warming trends.

I recently wrote in another blog post about two New Zealand glaciers — Franz Josef and Fox glaciers — that have been melting at an accelerated rate in recent years. Franz Josef Glacier has retreated by nearly a half mile since 2008.

“Rarely have we seen the Arctic show a clearer, stronger or more pronounced signal of persistent warming and its cascading effects on the environment than this year,” Jeremy Mathis, director of NOAA’s Arctic Research Program, said in a statement. Here are some of the key findings of the report:

Surface air temperature: Average annual air temperature over land was the highest on record, up 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900. Arctic air temperatures are rising twice as fast as global temperatures. For October-November, the highest average temperature was 25 degrees Fahrenheit above the long-term norm in Northern Canada.

Continue reading NOAA report: Long-term Arctic warming trends continue