Years ago when my son and daughter were younger, my sister nicknamed them the Bickersons. Now 14 and 12, Cole and Ava are still like those Siamese fighting fish that can't be put in the same bowl. People assure me they will grow up to be friends. (This seems farfetched, but I hope so.) Meanwhile, on a recent drive to the Great Smoky Mountains for a weekend away, I relied on technology to make bloodshed-free travel possible.
Before we left the house, my husband, Dan, and I insisted they supplement the music on their MP3 players with audio books from Audible.com. And even though our destination had no Internet access, we packed the computers. Our car sports its own Wi-Fi network and power adapters.
Once Dan was behind the wheel, the kids whipped on their headphones, played computer games or chatted with friends online. Our GPS delivered turn-by-turn directions, so we didn't lose time driving aimlessly. I used my cell phone and Android tablet to respond to e-mail, check on my mom and confer with the contractor working on our house. I even cruised Facebook and scheduled a grocery delivery for the day we got back.
Midday, I turned to the Yelp app on my tablet for a good place to stop for lunch. This online service is loaded with user recommendations. (I don't know exactly where we are, but the computer does.) Once we pin down a restaurant location, Google Maps gets us there.
After ordering, we estimate how much farther we'll drive that day and then find a cheap-but-good hotel room for the night. This used to be a giant pain. Now Dan can successfully bid in Name Your Own Price section of Priceline.com in the time it takes for the food to arrive. Just as I said to Ava, "Pass the salt, please," Dan announced, "All good. We have a room at a Marriott Renaissance." Sweet! I love the surprise element of bidding at Priceline and have found that as long as you keep to its three-star level offerings (or higher) and choose your location carefully, you won't be disappointed.
The next day we arrive at our destination ready to unplug and enjoy the wilderness. Our tech gear goes safely into the trunk, and we set out to hike to the top of the mountain. And it turns out, if you let the Bickersons loose in the woods with lots of space and sunshine— and make them hike to their lodging for several hours—they have neither the time nor the energy to fight.
A closer look at our on-the-go tool kit:
Mi-Fi 2200 (virginmobileusa.com, $150): A clever device from Virgin Mobile that allows you to create a mobile hotspot without monthly charges. Prepaid data plans start at $10.
TomTom Via (tomtom.com, from $169): A portable GPS navigator that's so small we bring it even if we're flying or traveling by train, so we can get around easily at our destination.
Audible.com (prices vary): A huge library of audio books that play on most MP3 players, Kindles, iPods, in-car GPS systems and many smartphones.
Yelp.com (free): Tons of feedback on restaurants and other local businesses. Apps available for iPhone, iPod, iPad and Android, or find it on the Web.
Google Maps app (google.com/mobile/maps, free): Uses GPS technology to figure out where you are and get walking, biking or driving directions to where you want to be.
12-Volt 3-Outlet Power Strip with USB Port (bellautomotive.net, $21): Plug this in to the lighter, and there's no arguing over who gets to charge first.
Originally published in the July 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.