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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

How to Safely Stay Connected When You Travel

Craving an adventure? Join the crowd. After more than a year sticking close to home during the pandemic, many of us who are vaccinated and ready to get back outside are suffering from a severe case of wanderlust. Now that over half of Americans have had at least one dose of the Covid vaccination, we’re making plans to get away.

But not too far. Julie Willett, president of Julie’s Fun Travel of Asheboro, North Carolina, reports a 75 percent increase in bookings over last year, with half of those being for domestic destinations such as the Florida Gulf beaches and points westward, including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, and Hawaii. A common question among all tourists is the availability of internet access. “Technology is always important but even more so now,” says Willett. “My clients want the latest information on Covid and any restrictions that may affect their plans.”

Staying connected while on vacation will not only help you stay safe, it also lets you enjoy the comforts of home and enriches your experience. The tips below, divided by transportation mode, explore the many communication options available for intrepid voyagers across the board.

By Foot

The oldest form of sightseeing is the most flexible and gives travelers an intimate look at parts of the country inaccessible by vehicle. Graduate student Sean Alexander, who once solo-hiked 1,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail, knew better than to lose contact with the rest of the world. “A smartphone is a lifeline for me, as is a charger,” he says.

To replenish power, some hikers use a series of solar panels that fit over a backpack. “While this approach is eco-friendly, it’s not always dependable,” says Mason Harris, a solutions architect and technology consultant. “Because you may find yourself under shade or cloudy skies for an extended period of time.” When hiking, Harris prefers a portable, high-capacity power bank that can last up to a week before needing a charge. “The best models are as slim as a paperback and weigh less than a pound. If you’re traveling light, this is the way to go.”

For serious treks into the woods, there are endless navigational tools to help you find your way. Free apps such as the one released in April from the US National Park Service offer iOS and Android users interactive maps, tour information, and news alerts. Some content can be downloaded for offline use later. For a small fee, subscriber-based programs like Gaia GPS, AllTrails offer even more engaged content with features that use your location to identify major peaks, access to trail reviews, and the ability to turn your phone into a star finder, coordinate converter, or binoculars. Even Google Maps, which is probably already on your phone, can be used offline. And if you need a place to set up camp, The Dyrt has you covered.

Now that Alexander is married and has a son and stepdaughter, he prefers to take his family on shorter camping trips to places like William B. Umstead State Park, closer to his home. A nature lover, he uses Seek on iNaturalist to identify flora and fauna for a real-time family nature lesson.

By Bicycle

In addition to hiking, Harris also unwinds by cycling along trails that are part of the national Rails to Trails Conservancy project, which since 1986 reclaims old rail corridors across the US for safe use by pedestrians, bicyclists, and anyone who wants to be active, including people who use a wheelchair. He recently cycled 335 miles from Pittsburgh to DC, starting with the Great Allegheny Passage and picking up the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal trail.

When cycling, paring down is paramount, and Harris relies on his smartphone and watch for all his communication needs. He likes Life360, a free family geolocation app available on both iOS and Android. “My family is always on the go, and we actually use this tool to stay connected even when we’re not on vacation.”

He also adores the information available through the Cyclemeter app on his iPhone that measures speed, mileage, cadence, and, supplemented by his watch, even his heart rate. “This $10 app can do even more than a navigational device that used to be mounted on my bike that cost $300,” he says. Such data will come in handy this fall when Harris bikepacks 550 miles from Washington, DC, to Damascus, Virginia, on the famed TransVirginia Bike Route.

By Car

Americans still love their cars. According to a recent report on American travel by Destination Analysts, the automobile will be the most popular mode of travel this summer.

For Jane Thomas, a retired Tai Chi instructor and a devotee of Bermuda’s pink sand beaches, Covid-19 concerns meant she had to find a Shangri-la much closer to home this year. In May, she and her husband drove 167 miles from Burlington, North Carolina, to Carolina Beach, a place she hadn’t visited since childhood. With the help of her smartphone, they turned the trip into a restaurant crawl and sampled different grub every night, an experience that helped her appreciate anew the flavors of her home state. But she wouldn’t have left home without her personal “butler,” a character in the game Homescapes that she played on her iPhone in between shell seeking.

Thomas’ unlimited data plan meant she didn’t need to rely on the free Wi-Fi offered by her hotel, but not all trips require reservations, or even hotels with amenities. Entrepreneur Angela Mackintosh loves surfing so much that she car camps in beach parking lots in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and other seaside locales. In between hanging ten, she squeezes in a little work by relying on free hotel or public Wi-Fi. "Or, if there's none available, I use my phone as a hot spot to tether internet to my laptop,” she says. Relying on free or public Wi-Fi is safer than it used to be, thanks to the ubiquity of https on the web, but there are still a few things to keep in mind to surf safely. 

Digital nomad and Gen Zer Jennifer Pressley regularly car camped while working for three retailers before landing her dream job as a sales rep. She recommends the use of a virtual private network app when using public or unfamiliar networks. Here are our favorites.  

College seniors Spencer Kurdian and Dakota Goodwin are combining two transportation modes for the ultimate cross-country road trip this summer. With an SUV, they plan to trailer their Yamaha WR250 and Husqvarna TE300i motorcycles from Raleigh to San Diego in search of the best areas to ride, tent camping along the way. For navigation, Kurdian will use Google maps, and they’ll upload pictures of their great adventure to social media. “We plan to document our journey on Instagram so friends and family can follow along,” says Kurdian. 

If you're thinking about hitting the road but want to let the spirit of the road trip take you, consider checking out or installing Roadtrippers, which can help you find points of interest along your route. There's no mobile app, but Roadside America has a great database of kitchy stops, and heading over to Atlas Obscura will teach you more about really interesting sights and places around the world that may be worth a detour. 


Travel by recreational vehicle has seriously revved up since the pandemic began. According to Todd Farr of Shaw RV (with North Carolina dealerships in Asheboro, Raleigh, and Wilmington), RV sales have risen 30 percent over last year.

Retired minister Danny Lemons from Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, is a veteran RVer. Staying connected to family and friends while vacationing in his fifth-wheel camper is a necessity. “I normally use my laptop. Most private campgrounds have Wi-Fi, and we primarily stay in them when on the road," he says. "State parks have limited Wi-Fi, so I've started using my phone as a hot spot. When that happens, I just change our data plan to unlimited.” 

Apps like RoadTrippers and The Dyrt can help you find spots to camp, while Reserve America caters to the RV and camper crowd. Also, don't forget Recreation.gov, the official database and trip planner from several federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, NOAA, and the Department of Transportation.

My husband, J.P., a film noir buff, can’t live without streaming his favorite flicks. But we recently bought a 1986 Chevy Champion LaSalle motor home, which was built during the VHS era. To make this vintage, pink-carpeted beauty road-ready and cinema-worthy, we’ll need a serious retrofit in the form of a mobile hot spot from our cellular company.

Not much bigger than a coaster, these devices operate by tapping into a 4G LTE connection and turning it into a Wi-Fi signal for the streaming device on our TV. The good news is that the cost usually includes unlimited usage; however, you may need to purchase additional plan upgrades for speed if buffering delays add unwanted suspense to your thrillers.

By Plane

Data from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) show that air travel is surging, with checkpoint numbers climbing toward pre-pandemic levels. People are catching up with family and friends they haven’t seen outside of Zoom, and they’re willing to fly to do it.

Twing Fields, a mainline flight attendant for United Airlines, encourages everyone to follow instructions provided by their gate agent and download the airline’s app before boarding the plane. Doing so enables passengers to watch free movies or listen to music from their phones or tablets during the flight through a special entertainment portal. “Prior to the safety demonstration, all devices must be placed in airplane mode,” Fields says. “Once the plane reaches cruising altitude, customers seeking internet access may log in to the plane’s Wi-Fi system for a nominal fee and use the internet or text during flight.”

Don't forget to grab the TSA's official app, which you can use to check airport security wait times before you leave home, and consider Loungebuddy if you want access to those sweet airport lounges before you depart. For more tips, check out our whole guide to skipping lines and breezing through the airport.

By Public Transportation

Interested in reducing your carbon footprint? Walking and bicycling aren’t the only environmentally-friendly ways to explore and relax.

“We’re seeing an uptick in bookings during the summer months,” says Kimberly Woods, Public Relations Manager for Amtrak, which is restoring daily service for 12 long-distance routes following pandemic-related schedule reductions. “To ensure you stay connected while traveling, we offer free basic Wi-Fi service in select trains and stations throughout the country.”

Tarot reader and communications consultant Emily McGill recently caught a train from New York to visit a friend in New Hampshire. “I took Amtrak from New York to Boston, and we drove the rest of the way.  Along the trip I used my phone as a hot spot and spent the time working on some projects that I’d procrastinated about for some time.”

“I traveled via bus on vacation last year, when I was looking to visit family,” says Jeremy Scott Foster, CEO of Travel Freak in Los Angeles. “I figured a bus would be safer than a plane because you can get off if it gets too crowded. I used a phone during my trip to listen to some audiobooks, and within a 10-hour trip I ended up listening to two complete books.”

On all routes, Greyhound Lines offers access to a special entertainment channel for free movies, TV shows, and games, plus three options for direct internet access, one that offers 100 MB of data at no cost and two premium options, one for 150 MB ($3.99) and one for 300 MB ($6.99). But if you’re working while playing, since reception can be spotty on both rail and bus routes, you may want to download your to-do list and finish it offline.

Never Too Far

“Due to advances in technology, it’s almost indefensible to lose touch while traveling,” says Harris. “In fact, with just the internet and GPS, you’ve got the crème de la crème of communication.” So unless you’re actually trying to go off the grid, you don’t have to.

But this isn’t all. One day we’ll be doing far more than checking in with each other while away from home. We may be sharing our experiences at the same time, no matter where we are.

“In the near future, with the increased availability of 5G next-generation wireless, staying connected will be easier than it ever has before,” says Harris. “With wireless throughput unlike anything seen today, sharing [ultra-high-definition] video or even live-streaming epic adventures becomes possible, allowing others to share and virtually participate in the outdoor experience.”

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