Tech on tour: Family road trip survival tips

Can technology make the hassles of a family car trip simpler? Alex Kidman decided to put technology to the test on the road.

Alex Kidman
Alex Kidman is a freelance word writing machine masquerading as a person, a disguise he's managed for over fifteen years now, including a three year stint at ZDNet/CNET Australia. He likes cats, retro gaming and terrible puns.
Alex Kidman
6 min read
Road trip

Can technology make the hassles of a family car trip simpler? Alex Kidman decided to put technology to the test on the road.

Australia's a big place -- you don't need Google Earth to tell you that -- and at this time of the year, many of us are planning or embarking on family holidays around the school holiday and Easter period. The problem with Australia being so big is that it takes us a fair amount of time to get anywhere, which can make the family car trip something of an nightmare. I recently took a large road trip with my family -- two adults, three children all under five years old -- over 3,200km of dusty Australian road, from Sydney to Adelaide by the way of Dubbo, Broken Hill and then back to Sydney via Mildura and Hay. The general response of friends and family was that I must be mad -- and they may be right -- but the suitable application of technology made things a whole lot easier.

Nobody builds a screen mount for in-car coffee pots. I'm sure there must be a market for it.Click to enlarge.

Pre-trip thoughts
The first thing I did was a bit of planning. The two critical factors for any in-car gadget aren't screen size or even price -- they're space and power. Technology can make the trip much easier, but it's got to fit somewhere -- and that's not just the gadget or gizmo in question, but also its power cables, associated remotes and speakers, and preferably somewhere safe to store it when it's not in use.

More important again than space, however, is the power question. One essential item I picked up before driving was a cigarette lighter double adaptor, costing about ten bucks and doubling the number of gadgets I could charge on the move, from GPS to DVD and even an in-car coffee maker. Also in the packing list was a USB to Car Cigarette adaptor -- again, about ten bucks from any decent tech store, for those USB-powered gadgets that don't come with a supplied plug or require a custom connector. One word of advice here -- and something I learned to my regret -- is that it's not a good idea to mix power capacities of cigarette adaptor devices. I inadvertently plugged a small 12v portable fridge in while running an 8v in-car DVD player, and the resulting fusion of my car's electrical system was not pretty.

GPS -- The good, the bad, and the hopelessly lost
As my trip took me through both city roads and plenty of outback trails, I took a GPS along with me -- in fact, for testing purposes, I took four, which is probably overkill -- the
Mio A701, TomTom ONE, Navman N40i and Road Angel Navigator 7000. All four shared trip planning duty, and unsurprisingly, they all tended to agree on the longer haul aspects of my trip. Where GPS shined was in navigating me through unknown towns and cities, as it should. What GPS vendors won't tell you -- and what I found out with each and every unit -- were the shortfalls. On the minor side -- and I've no idea why this was -- none of my GPS units seemed fix to most of the street address numbers in Broken Hill. What did the people of Broken Hill do that was so bad?

On the major side, most GPS units can go a little odd when they get too hot. Like, say, it does quite often in Australia in the middle of nowhere. Of course, this is made much worse if you were to mount them on your front windscreen in direct sunlight, exactly where they're meant to go. Problems varied -- the Navman N40i and Mio tended to simply lock up, while the TomTom switched itself off, and the Road Angel started pretending I was driving about fifty metres to my left through the scrublands until it was forcibly reset. It occurred to me on the tenth reset or so that most GPS units come in black, which surely only makes the problem worse. My car doesnt' have tinted glass, but that's no safety screen anyway, as the metallic properties of the tint can often kill GPS reception outright.

Lots of in-car gadgets predictably means lots and lots of plugs. Try to not get them wrapped around the gearstick.Click to enlarge.

Are we there yet?
Long car trips are boring, and technology can make the hours pass by in a more pleasant fashion. For purely personal use, I took a
Nintendo DS Lite, but for the kids and the driver's sanity, we brought along some portable music options and an in-car DVD player. For the music, I took two personal music players -- one 8GB iPod Nano, and a Sansa e280 -- one for the front-seat drivers with our favourite music, and one for the youngsters to keep them entertained, along with a Belkin TuneCast Mobile FM Transmitter to push the music through our car stereo as needed.
I also took a simple, inexpensive in-car DVD player. If you're thinking about in-car DVD, don't be automatically drawn to the dual-screen, back of the seat models just because they seem to look cool. I'm not personally a great fan of that solution, basically because they can be a pain to set up, with straps, latches and possible permanent mounts, and the difficulty of installation also means you're more likely to be tempted to leave them installed, at which point the friendly local thieves at wherever you stop are far more likely to spot it and engage in a little smash and grab. Invest also in a CD wallet to carry your DVDs around -- much easier than messing around with full cases, and a whole lot more theft-proof.
I'm probably breaking some arcane laws of tech journalism here, but make sure you also bring along some non-tech diversions suitable to the age of your children, be they in-car games, books for the older readers or even some car-safe colouring kits. We kept our young flock happy with DVDs, but only because it was a sometimes option -- not the only option.

With this many GPS units, how could I possibly ever get lost?Click to enlarge.

Keeping in touch
My particular trip took me through busy metropolitan areas of both Sydney and Adelaide, and in those places I had few worries about phone coverage. Out near Broken Hill, however, it's a different story. Mobile phone vendors are always happy to point out how great a percentage of the population that they cover, omitting the fact that the mass of the population hugs the shoreline of our great country. Head inland and the coverage can vary quite widely, nearly always to your detriment. I travelled with two phones -- the aforementioned Mio A701 with an Optus GSM SIM in it, and an Telstra F850. The F850's not a stellar phone by any stretch of the imagination, but critically it runs on Telstra's much-hyped Next-G HSDPA. What surprised me was that while there were blackspots -- mostly driving from Broken Hill to Adelaide -- they were largely the same for both phones, with the Telstra phone only ever so slightly nudging out the Optus coverage.
The other aspect of keeping in touch in this day and age is access to the Internet. Depending on where you stay, you may get Net access thrown in -- as my
Adelaide accomodation did. However the motel I utilised in Dubbo didn't offer it -- but plenty of surrounding neon signs from nearby suggested I'd just made a bad choice in this regard -- while the converted miner's tinnie that I used in Broken Hill was never really designed with it in mind. For both I utilised the BigPond Next G Wireless Broadband Mobile Card. I'd used its predecessor, dodgy aerial and all for the same trip twelve months previous with generally poor results and was gearing up for the same, only to be surprised at how essentially honest Telstra's coverage maps were. They suggest (at the time of writing) that decent speed coverage should exist in a line from Dubbo to Broken Hill -- and it does. The gap in-between Broken Hill and Dubbo exists for wireless broadband, just as it does for mobile phones, and while my home ADSL2+ connection is undoubtedly faster, not to mention substantially cheaper -- BigPond Next G still offered a solid and reliable service.