I tested a bunch of gadgets on my vacation so you don't have to

Vacations can be tricky business when it comes to technology. CNET's Josh Lowensohn shares some of his top picks and tips from a recent trip abroad.

CNET

It's vacation season, and while trips to far away places can be a terrific time to escape from technology, there are times when the right gadget, app, or service can be a lifesaver.

I recently returned from a trip traveling across Europe and London, where I used to live, but hadn't been in a decade. The last time I was there, I got around with paper maps, had to track down Internet cafes to check e-mail, and lugged around paper books. My cell phone's big feature was an FM radio.

Oh the humanity!

This time I came with a veritable arsenal of technology -- both hardware and software -- which collectively made the trip better. Did I need it all? Nah. Was I glad to have it? You bet.

Here's a list of some of my new favorites, along with notes on what worked and what didn't. Your mileage will vary, of course, depending on where you're going and how you travel.

Hardware

Phone/Camera - iPhone 5
I have a dSLR with a modest collection of useful lenses, but I left all of that at home in favor of a smartphone. In this case, an iPhone 5.

The iPhone 5 camera worked great for casual snapshots and artsy-fartsy pics of my food and drink. I frequently found myself using the iPhone's panorama feature, and the photos that have come out of that are good and big enough to print.

Some street graffiti in Amsterdam. Click to see the full-sized shot.
Some street graffiti in Amsterdam. Click to see the full-sized shot. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

One other handy thing was the high dynamic range feature on the camera's software, which let me snap quick shots in bright sunlight that would have otherwise been completely washed out. I could have done those HDR shots with my SLR, but it would have required extra steps in computer software to blend those shots together. With the iPhone, I had that shot just two seconds after snapping it.

The one major downside was battery life, which was well under a full-day's use when using it for things beyond just taking photos. I combated that with portable chargers, which I'll get into later.

This isn't the first time I've left my SLR at home on a big trip, and I definitely missed out on some terrific photo opportunities that made me long for better equipment. But you know what? Not lugging around a camera gave me peace of mind in rough neighborhoods and when leaving my belongings at a rented apartment during the day.

Fitbit One
Unless you're planning to head to the beach, chances are you're going to be doing a lot of walking on vacation. I've been a Nike FuelBand user and proponent for more than a year, but recently ditched it for the Fitbit One. Why? The design. It's much, much smaller. I used it to track distance, steps, and flights of stairs -- the last of which the FuelBand can't do.

The Fitbit's battery is rated for 5-7 days, and you've got to carry around a special USB adapter to charge it, which is something you don't have to do with the FuelBand. I synced it up with my iPhone every few days while on vacation and now have a permanent track record of my activity by day -- which now makes me feel like a lazy, lazy human as I sit here typing from my office chair.

My one regret? Not pairing this with my smartphone to track where I went using GPS, something you can do with the various third-party apps. What am I going to do with all this data now? Honestly, not much. But it was fun, and kind of encouraging to keep an eye on it throughout each day.

CNET

Noise-canceling headphones - JVC HA-NC260
I am a big, big fan of my relatively-inexpensive Sennheiser HD280 headphones , but have found new love for noise canceling sets after this trip. If you've got a long plane or train ride ahead of you, noise canceling can work wonders to cut engine noise and make it seem like you're in a quiet library instead of hurtling at 600 miles an hour, 7 miles high.

I used JVC's HA-NC260 , a 3-year-old pair that's since been replaced by newer models. For me, the HD280s sound much better, but the JVC pair let me play music and videos on various devices at much, much lower volume levels. The JVC pair also had terrific battery life, using only a single AAA battery for my entire trip.

To be sure, there are better sets out there (here are some of CNET's recommendations). The key thing for me was cutting out all that engine noise, something this pair did in spades.

External batteries: Romoss Sofun 2, Anker Astro3e, and off-brand liptstick-sized charger
You can get away with traveling without an external battery for your gadgets, but you're asking for trouble. Especially if you plan to use your smartphone for a camera, and if your phone or gadget has a non-replaceable battery. I brought a trio of batteries with me -- all at different sizes and capacities. What surprised me: all three of them ended up being useful, but it totally depended on the situation.

From left to right: The off-brand 2,600mAh battery, followed by the Romoss Sofun 2, and lastly the Anker Astro3e.
From left to right: The off-brand 2,600mAh battery, followed by the Romoss Sofun 2, and lastly the Anker Astro3e. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

My runaway favorite of the bunch was the Romoss Sofun 2, which had a 5,200mAh capacity and fit in my pocket. The capacity was enough to recharge an iPhone 5 about three times, though it could also charge just about anything with a USB cable. It also has a built-in LED flashlight, which isn't particularly powerful or useful -- but hey, why not throw it in there? My favorite part about this product was its design. It just looks and feels good.

I also hauled along the Anker Astro3e, which had nearly double the capacity of that particular Romoss model at 10,000mAh, and two USB ports, one of which is a high enough power to charge power-hungry tablets, like the third- or fourth-generation iPad. I used this less than I thought I would, primarily because of its size and weight. It's not big and heavy until you compare it to the smaller Romoss, but you really just can't pocket it. The Anker unit saved my bacon on the flight there and back when my iPad ran out of juice.

My surprise of the trip was how much I liked the off-brand 2,600mAh charger I bought for $14 (like this one). It was the least useful of the bunch by capacity, but it more than made up for it because it's tiny. I could easily pocket it, along with a charging cable, and largely forget it was there.

If I were to do it again, I'd probably skip the Romoss unit (though it's the one I plan to stash in my day to day bag from here on out) and go with a phone case with an integrated battery, along with the Anker to stash in my day pack.

CNET

An eye on home - Dropcam
Dropcam ( CNET review ) is a wireless video camera that streams to the Web and can act as a DVR, keeping your recordings online and available on demand for up to a month. I'm a longtime owner, and I subscribe to the $99 a year, 7-day DVR plan.

During the trip I had it set up to watch my house, sending alerts when it detected motion. Unfortunately, the service still has some issues when it comes to these alerts, picking up false positives, for instance, when clouds make the room darker or when the light changes at dawn and dusk.

Still, if someone broke into my house, the feature might give me a chance to call the police who could intervene, or -- if that didn't happen in time -- at least give me a video of the intruders.

Services

Lodging - AirBnB
I used AirBnB exclusively to book two locations and lucked out with both. You can put together lists of places you might be looking at, and share them with other people, which was very useful when researching spots. The mobile app on iOS is also good, and it includes a built-in messaging tool that lets you communicate with your host without using text messages or e-mail.

One thing AirBnB both got me into and bailed me out of was a pest problem. About a week before I was headed to one rental, the previous reviewer noted the place had a bedbug problem. I was able to track the reviewer down for more details (using some LinkedIn sleuthing -- not through AirBnB) and get in touch with the host. I eventually canceled the reservation and booked elsewhere, but all this is to say there's some benefit to a system that encourages public reviews and good tools to help you find them.

SIM (subscriber identity module) cards give mobile phones their ID on mobile networks.
SIM (subscriber identity module) cards give mobile phones their ID on mobile networks. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Pre-paid SIM cards
A local SIM card can be much cheaper than an overseas plan from your mobile provider, and make things easier with a local number. You can buy these directly from the carrier, or from third-party stores. There can even be vending machines at airports, making things a snap to get up and running.

In London I went with carrier Three, which sold a 30-day, all-you-can-eat data plan, with 300 minutes of talk and 3,000 texts for £20 from a vending machine at Heathrow. You can get it for £5 less if you buy it from a Three carrier shop. In France I went through SFR, which had a 30-day text and voice only SIM for 10 Euros, and could be tacked on with various data packages. I recommend this wiki which breaks down various prepaid SIM providers in countries around the world and is lovingly kept up to date.

The big caveat here is that your phone needs to be unlocked, which it almost certainly isn't if you bought it at a discount with a two-year service agreement. There are many third-party unlocking services, but I'm not going to go into detail about them here.

Itinerary - Tripit
Tripit takes e-mails you get from hotels, airlines, and other travel services and pulls out the details to create itineraries. It's nice if you want to quickly glom together confirmation numbers, addresses, phone numbers, and everything else into one printable page, or PDF you can squirrel away on your phone. The $49 a year pro service, which I'm not a subscriber of, can do things like alert you to flight delays and give you free memberships to some car rental services.

Things to do - Tripadvisor, Foursquare
I grew up reading Rick Steves for travel recommendations, but have turned to Trip Advisor in recent years. I find Trip Advisor more useful for finding tips and recommendations on attractions than for food spots. Like Yelp, you have to assume the majority of people are coming on to either rant or rave.

And whether you're a check-in fanatic or not, Foursquare is worth having for recommendations on activities and restaurants if you're traveling somewhere with a lot of activity. I consider it a good companion to use with Yelp for discovery, and it helped me find several food spots and local haunts that were off the beaten path.

Deals - Groupon, LivingSocial, et al
If you're going to be staying somewhere for more than a few days, it's worth signing up for Groupon, or a similar service if that city has it. You can get alerted to deals on attractions or activities. Just remember to unsubscribe after you leave.

Apps

Word Lens - This app is a jaw dropper that does real-time visual translation of text into different languages, without needing to be connected to the Internet. Like all translation services, the results can be a hit or miss, but I found it very useful on menus with obscure dishes.

The app is free, but you need to shell out for different languages, which cost $4.99 a pop. Beware though, you'll look like a bit of an idiot hovering your phone over your menu. There's a handy feature that lets you take a snapshot and it will translate it. That same feature also lets you tap on individual words to get their definitions.

QuestVisual

This app totally falls apart on many handwritten signs, of which there are many in Europe and elsewhere, so plan to have a backup.

Google Translate - Google's translation service works with 64 languages and has nifty features like speaking aloud translations and presenting them in full screen to show to someone.

Unfortunately, the iOS software needs a live data connection to work, and it hasn't been updated in a year and a half. This means it doesn't look too good on the latest iPhone, and it lacks some of the nifty offline features found in the Android version. A source familiar with Google's plans, told CNET the company's planning to bring several of the Android features over to iOS and will have an update out soon. Let's hope.

Pocket Earth - If you're on iOS, this $3 app can download maps for offline use. My favorite use for it was a feature that could fetch Wikipedia entries on points of interest, which could be hit or miss depending on where you are. You can also use the app to track where you're going using your phone's GPS.

This was a nice app, but less useful than Google Maps, which had less features, but a better interface and local transit directions in the places I was staying. Another hat tip to Android here, where if you're using the Android version of Google Maps, you can download local maps for offline use later.

Box - Apple's Photo Stream feature is a handy way to make sure you've got a backup of the last 1,000 shots in your camera roll, but I tend to take a lot more photos than that over the course of a trip. I used Box's iPhone app to upload full quality versions of my photos and videos to a cloud folder every few days, just in case. The app isn't very good at making this easy. You need to tap each and every photo or video from your camera roll that you plan to upload, and it won't skip files you might have already uploaded. You also can't quickly send a group of files to another folder from the mobile app, something you can do in a few seconds through Box's proper Web site.

Another option here is Amazon's Cloud Photos app, which can just mirror your entire camera roll to Amazon's servers. I didn't use that because I've already run out of room and didn't want to pay to upgrade when I had the space elsewhere.

Let's go ahead and make this sign look more interesting than it is.
Let's go ahead and make this sign look more interesting than it is. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Instagram - I am less of a fan of doing a big photo dump at the end of the trip versus sending some of my favorite daily shots as they come. Instagram is a perfect app for that, and something I used extensively. Now I have a highlight reel from my trip, with some of my best, or otherwise interesting photos and videos in chronological order. Are they lovely, full-sized versions I can print out and frame? No. But I still have those in my camera roll.

Instagram isn't just about sharing though, it can also be useful as a discovery tool. If you geotag your photos, you can see shots other people have taken from the same area. At several restaurants this was an easy way to see what dishes looked like before ordering. The only hitch is that you need to take a shot there and tag it on the map before you can see those items, that is, unless you're good with Instagram's hashtag search.

Rdio - I still buy music from time to time, but Rdio's been my rock steady music subscription source for the past three years. Before the trip I downloaded a handful of albums, some playlists made by others, and that was it. I flipped the app into offline mode, and it had everything stored to work offline. One thing to note here is that you can't store that offline music forever, so if you plan on going on a long trip away from the Internet, those tracks will eventually self-expire.

Skype, FaceTime, iMessage, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger - No cell service? No problem. I used all these services to chat with people by text, voice, and video on my phone. This was especially useful when I didn't have a SIM card all set up in a local country.

These are just a few of the products and services I found essential over the course of a two-week trip. As mentioned up above, what will work for you depends entirely on how you like to travel, and of course, where you're going and what you plan to do when you're there.

Even with all these things, I didn't quite plan ahead for the fact that I couldn't find my house key when I got back. There's an app -- well, a gadget -- for that though.

 

Join the discussion

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Don't Miss
Hot Products
Trending on CNET

HOT ON CNET

Find Your Tech Type

Take our tech personality quiz and enter for a chance to win* high-tech specs!