Written on March 5, 2014 at 11:43 am , by Christina Tynan-Wood
My daughter recently got her learner’s permit. My son has been driving for about a year. That means when we go on a road trip, my husband and I can sit in the backseat, bicker, snarf down snacks (leaving Goldfish crackers all over the seat), watch movies and ask—every three minutes—“Are we there yet?” So you better believe we’re planning some road trips!
In fact, that’s my sneaky way of teaching my two teens some essential driving skills not covered in driver’s ed: budgeting, route planning and time management. And Google has stepped in to make those all easier, by completely updating the web browser planning tool Google Maps, which is now better than ever. Here’s how:
Is driving the best idea?
Teenagers don’t have a lot of life experience, which is why my son recently assumed the best way to go on a weekend trip with friends was by car. I spent 20 minutes calculating time, distance and cost with him before he understood that driving would be expensive and he’d spend most of the trip getting there and back. The updated Google Maps would have simplified this conversation. Ask for directions to your destination and it weighs all your options. If flying is a possibility, it will do a quick calculation—based on actual flights—and include the time and price in your directions. I would still have to calculate the cost of gas for driving, but seeing all that info spelled out quickly is an easy reality check for a teen.
Deciding what to do
We often spend a lot of time deciding on activities and restaurants when we get to our destination. Google Maps has stepped up to improve this conversation too. For example, if we’re planning a trip to D.C. and search for a museum, Maps quickly grasps what we’re doing and highlights all the museums in the area to help us make more informed decisions—and include the kids (who probably don’t know what the options are) in the discussion. Search for Indian restaurants and it will focus on those too.
Taking public transportation
When we ask for directions from, say, our hotel to the White House, Maps will display not only various driving routes but any public transit choices. Just choose the bus icon and click “List All Times and Options.” It will show you a grid of possibilities so you can see how far you’ll have to walk. This is a quick way to explain to a teenager that sneakers will be a necessity, no matter what the Pretty Little Liars are wearing.
What’s going on?
Want to make sure there’s a ballet or concert worth seeing while you’re in town? Locate a venue on Google Maps and click “Upcoming Events” to see what’s scheduled for the coming week. Quick and simple—so the kids stay focused on our trip planning instead of sliding headphones on and disappearing again.
Once we come up with an itinerary, I can share it with my entire crew so they can’t claim I never tell them anything. The updated custom map section of Google Maps is super powerful. Learn how to use it by clicking “My Custom Maps” from Google Maps. Next, click “Create” and select the gear icon in the top right-hand corner. Then go to “Take a Tour” for an introduction to creating a map.
Map to go
After I’ve created a custom map, I only have to save it from Google Maps on the web and it will automatically be saved to my smartphone (as long as I sign in from my phone with the same Google email address I use for Google Maps online). So when we get in the car to leave, I can simply turn on Google Maps and tell it to navigate. Then my husband and I can put on headphones and watch True Detective till we arrive at our destination.
Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.
Written on January 8, 2014 at 11:54 am , by Christina Tynan-Wood
I am on my way to CES in Las Vegas. Getting to this annual massive gathering of all things geek has been an epic quest this year—cancelled flights, insane weather, mistaken rebookings that would have me arriving as the show ended, tears and a sudden overnight layover in a distant city. Sometimes travel goes well. And sometimes it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, I am always grateful for my smartphone and a little tech savvy.
When a flight was delayed by this crazy winter storm, I missed my connecting flight and there wasn’t another unclaimed seat on any flight out of Atlanta. So I found myself suddenly in need of a place to sleep. Did I sleep on the airport floor? Demolish my budget by walking into the closest hotel? No. I sat quietly (while others around me wailed, lamented and panicked), tapped a few times on my phone and had a room in a nearby (nice) hotel for a fraction of its standard price. In fact, my smartphone—and the right app—has saved me many a hassle on numerous adventures. When traffic threatens to derail a meeting by trapping me in my car, I (pull over and) tap my phone to find out the cause of the congestion and plot a reroute. When I’m in a new city and need to be somewhere on time—either by car, foot or public transportation—I pull out my phone for turn-by-turn directions.
I use a lot of apps to keep me on track. But here are three that helped me keep my cool on this particular journey—one that otherwise could have been an ordeal to make even the most seasoned traveler snap.
This app has saved me quite a few times. Hotels hate to have empty rooms. So they release those that aren’t booked at noon every day for that night—to this app. When I realized I was stranded in Atlanta, I pulled up the available rooms closest to me; it knows where I am because my phone does. I tapped, booked a room (at an upscale hotel for $100), got on the hotel’s shuttle and slept.
This navigation app gathers the collective knowledge of everyone else on the road who is also using the app (and you’ll see there are a lot of us) and uses it to inform you of what’s ahead. People can post what they can see in terms of accidents and holdups. But the app also tracks how fast those other phones are traveling, so you know if there’s a slowdown ahead and what routes have fast-moving traffic.
Google Maps has gotten so good at giving turn-by-turn directions that I depend on it. Meeting in an unfamiliar city? I enter my destination (it knows where I am because my phone has GPS) and tell it how I want to travel—public transportation, walk or drive—and it will take me right there. If I’m walking, I use a Bluetooth headset and it speaks the directions right into my ear. It even knows the train schedules for most urban transportation systems.
Written on December 16, 2013 at 9:41 am , by Jill Feigelman
Written by Jill Feigelman
Orlando is the American city most synonymous with the family vacation. A place where memories are created, it calls to mind visions of sunny beaches as well as theme parks. And when you make “couple only” time a priority, the classic Orlando family vacation can do wonders for your marriage.
Family Circle teamed up with our friends at Visit Orlando and had readers share with us why their family deserved to win the ultimate getaway: a five-day/four-night trip for four with special time to reconnect with their significant other. We sorted through hundreds of entries, and while it wasn’t easy, we picked our three winners!
FC caught up with the three lucky families to see what they’re most looking forward to on their upcoming Orlando vacation.
Winner #1- Leslie Dahlman
You could say Leslie is an expert packer. She and her family have moved from Jacksonville to San Antonio to Las Vegas to Houston—all within the span of four and a half years. But when Leslie packs for Orlando, she’ll be especially happy. That’s because while Leslie is now living in Florida due to her most recent job relocation, her husband of 17 years, Ray, and their 15-year-old son, Raymond, have stayed in Texas.
Even with daily Skype sessions, the separation is still hard (especially when it comes to missing her son’s football games). When the family is all in the same place, they’re extremely busy, which leaves hardly any downtime. “We’re trying to fit everything into a few days,” Leslie says.
Leslie jokes that the next time she thought she’d be able to go to Disney was when she had grandkids, which was not soon enough for this Disney fan. Originally from Jacksonville, she’s got Disney in her blood. Ray grew up hooked on Astroland, but Leslie is hoping this trip will convert him. Besides sharing her love of Disney with the family, Leslie is excited to see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: “If it’s as amazing as everyone says it is, I might just have to spend the whole day there.”
Leslie and Ray are looking forward to a special meal out and finding the best location to watch fireworks from one of the theme parks. Since the Fourth of July was the first holiday the couple celebrated together, fireworks hold a special place in their heart.
Winner 2 – Christina Radke
Over the past year, “alone” time for Christina and Jason, her husband of seven and a half years, has mostly consisted of going to doctor’s appointments and, later, chemo sessions.
When Christina was diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago, she quickly saw that the diagnosis affected not just her but her whole family as well. Her son, who was in kindergarten at the time, would periodically share her treatment stories with his class. “He would let them know about me losing my hair and getting a new wig and how I wasn’t supposed to cook in it because it might catch fire. It made me laugh when I visited his school to have lunch with him and got an impromptu cancer Q&A from his kindergarten class,” Christina recalls.
Christina’s last radiation treatment was on August 5, and she found out she’d won the trip two days later. “I was beyond excited! Heart racing and tears. I know that may seem a little overdramatic, but cancer treatments come with some pretty extreme emotions and make you appreciate the little and big things in life,” she says.
This will be her family’s first trip to Orlando. Christina is most excited to see Disney’s Magic Kingdom because “it just seems like such a beautiful and magical place.” Both her boys (9-year-old stepson Christopher and 6-year-old Hunter) are excited about the hotel and its pool. “I have to admit the hotel [Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek] looks like an attraction on its own,” she explained. The boys are also looking forward to going on their first airplane ride.
Christina and Jason are planning a special meal with just each other at Bull & Bear Steakhouse, located at the luxurious Waldorf Astoria Orlando Hotel, or at La Luce and then a night out in Downtown Disney. They might even catch a Cirque du Soleil show.
This vacation will be a chance to let go of the challenges of the past year. “It will signal getting back to having fun and not having that nagging diagnosis in the back of everyone’s minds,” Christina said.
Winner 3 – Megan Scarniac
Megan Scarniac, her parents and her sister will be bringing their own brand of magic to Orlando.
Scarniac family vacations usually include driving to their destination. “My dad told us about trail magic, which means the things that happen along the way that are out of the ordinary. We’ve seen so many neat things, like eagles soaring, manatees in a spring,” she explained.
Megan is engaged and is planning her wedding for next December. Megan thought that this trip to Orlando would be a great way to give back to her parents, who have not been able to enjoy a nice vacation in years due to financial struggles.
Since the family’s first vacation was to Orlando, they thought it would be great to return to the city as just the four of them one last time, before her wedding. The Scarniacs are excited about revisiting a lot of the sites that are the basis for so many of their family memories. And they’re looking forward to making some new ones, especially at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Written on August 7, 2013 at 5:57 pm , by Janet Taylor
I recently traveled to meet my girlfriends for a weekend birthday celebration on a magnificent New England island. Free-flowing cocktails, jokes, hugs and loads of fun soon replaced the stresses of everyday life. I truly love my friends. However, while sitting on the sand observing the people around me, I noticed a pattern that was heartwarming. Families. Multigenerational families, actually, that were walking, standing in line and just lounging together.
My fascination grew with every conversation I overheard. Proud grandparents, for example, would pronounce how far away their progeny had traveled, literally dropping everything for F.T.: Family Time. Watching the joyous interaction of families catching up with each other, window-shopping and making memories together made me nostalgic for the few family reunions that I’ve been to. My own family is small and our meet-ups ended long ago.
I was reminded of the importance of bringing young and old family together. The learning, helping and love reflected becomes irreplaceable after losing a family member. I thought of my four daughters and made a commitment to getting all of us together soon. Sharing experiences and making memories with family—from all generations—does not have to occur on an island, though. Finding time for family is important and can be achieved with an invitation and simple desire to see one another.
Watching the slow but attentive pace of grandparents and the amusing antics of grandchildren was a reminder of the timeline of life. As I turned to my girlfriends to toast a birthday wish, I was thankful for the wisdom and presence of our elders who gave me hope and inspiration for the years to come.
What’s your favorite multigenerational get-together memory? Post a comment below and tell me.
Written on July 25, 2013 at 11:00 am , by Christina Tynan-Wood
My daughter recently attended an ID Tech Camp at MIT in Cambridge. These technology camps for teens and tweens are offered on university campuses around the country and offer a high-caliber of fun learning on geeky topics. We don’t live in the Boston area but the camp she was eager to attend – one that focused on photography and Web design — wasn’t offered at any colleges near us. And, as it happened, my son had expressed an interest in touring colleges in Boston. So we decided to turn it all into an education-focused summer vacation.
So while she got an impressive education in tech skills and met some like-minded nerds to add to her social networks, the rest of us toured colleges, museums, and sites. We had a blast, he fell in love with at least one school, and she ambitiously set her sights on a future at MIT. So that went well. I know that the tech world needs more women. And a woman with her out-of-the box thinking and creative mindset would probably enjoy working in high tech. So I’m happy to see her acquiring the technical skills she will need for that – and embracing her inner geek.
A Tour Guide in My Purse
This trip was about education in other ways, too, though. In fact, my husband and I make a habit of making our tourism as educational as possible. We went to science and art museums and famous historical sites, which was, of course, educational. But Boston itself is full of history, not all of it widely known. And historical events in the real world aren’t always explained in a plaque the way they are in museums. So before we left, I installed the Field Trip app (free; Android or iPhone) on my phone. As we traveled, it buzzed my phone whenever we went near something it knew something about. And, when it was convenient, I read what it had to say.
So when we were waiting for an Amtrak train at Union Station in Washington, DC, my phone buzzed to tell me the history of that building and show us some photos of the station during its construction and early days. When we sat down for a coffee in a café at MIT before Ava’s camp, it offered information about the building we were in (shown above), who built it, and what tech luminaries had offices in the building. When we walked down the street, it told us about movies that had been filmed near where we were, historical events that had happened around us, and even good restaurants nearby. The information was relevant and fascinating. It added so much to our travels, in fact, that whenever we rode the subway, my son sat next to me and waited for my phone to buzz so he could find out about the buildings and sites nearby – whether we could see them or not. I am already a fan of my smart phone as a travel tool but this transformed our vacation from one where my husband and I delivered a series of lectures based on information we had looked up, to one where we were learning together as we traveled. And the app will even net you free admission to participating museums if you are near those and using the app. Sweet! I left it running when we got home. And it has already told me a half-dozen interesting facts about where I work and live that I didn’t know before.
Written on July 20, 2012 at 4:17 pm , by Christina Tynan-Wood
I receive a lot of high-tech gear to try out. Some of it I like. Some of it I don’t. And some of it wheedles its way into our lives and becomes part of the family. It’s usually easy to predict what devices will do this: those that let us enjoy entertainment together or communicate better. But recently a goofy little doodad I expected to be useful only while traveling has become a device we will all miss–if my kids will let me send it back.
It started innocently enough. In advance of our recent road trip, I agreed to try out a Verizon Jetpack 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot MiFi 4620L ($50 with a contract). This pocket-sized device is a Wi-Fi hotspot. It connects to Verizon’s fast 4G LTE cellular network and allows you to connect up to 10 devices so everyone can surf the Net from their own device: Laptops, tablets, Kindles, cell phones that are reaching their data limit, whatever you have. (The plans are explained here.) I thought it would make our long drive to the mountains more pleasant if the teens could get online. And whoever wasn’t driving could get a little work done in the car. It certainly worked, the car trip was peaceful and productive for all of us. It even saved us when our hotel room didn’t have Wi-Fi.
What I didn’t expect was that this little device would be so wildly popular while we were at home.
Two weeks into this summer, I shut off the cable TV and Internet to our house. I was tired of arguing with my kids over screen time. I gave them two weeks to work out a reasonable schedule that didn’t involve spending all day in front of a screen. At the end of two weeks, they were both still “working on it” (or so they said) so I cancelled everything.
Of course, this left us all bereft of video entertainment. But this was fun for a while. We all read more. We went to the beach in the evenings. But then my sister recommended a British detective show I hadn’t seen. This genre is a particular weakness of my mine and husband’s and we wanted to see it. So he and I snuck off to our room, connected our Roku to the MiFi and watched. It worked beautifully! The show didn’t hiccup, stall, or pause at all. We were back online! But it was our little secret.
We got all the way through–over the course of a week or so–four episodes of our new favorite TV show before Ava stormed our room demanding to know how we were watching TV. We giggled like schoolchildren while she studied our rig and figured it out. Then she demanded the password, went back to her room, and logged on from her Kindle Fire.
Ever since, the MiFi has been at the center of a family game of Spy vs. Spy. I shut it off and put it in my purse when I leave the house so my teens can’t watch TV all and surf the Net all day. But when I get home, my little pickpockets go looking for it so they can log on. Then they hide it from me. When they aren’t looking, I steal it back. And then we do it all again. It has made getting onto the Net a game–so far mostly a good humored one.
But now, the loan agreement is over and I have to send the MiFi back to Verizon. And neither of my teens is talking. They don’t usually agree about anything. But on this, they have formed a pact of silence–refusing to relinquish its whereabouts. That’s okay. I’m up for the challenge. I’ll find it.
Written on July 13, 2012 at 3:10 pm , by Christina Tynan-Wood
Last year I persuaded my family to hike to the top of the Smoky Mountains and stay at LeConte Lodge. (That’s a photo my daughter Ava took from the top last year—over the clouds—pictured.) There are no roads going up to the lodge. The only way to the top is by foot. And this is no stroll. Depending on the trail you choose, it’s anywhere from a steep six hours to an almost-as-steep eight hours. All the food for the lodge is carried up by llamas. So we only have to carry our essentials and make it to the lodge, where food and shelter await us. My crew agreed, somewhat reluctantly, especially when they learned about the lack of technology—no power and our cell phones would likely get no service—at the lodge.
We used a lot of technology to get there, though. And last year I explained how we survive a long road trip with two bickering teens in my column. But when we arrive to our destination, we lock it all in the trunk and go completely off the grid.
When we got there last year, my teenage boy trotted to the top, taking the six-hour hike in about three. The rest of us staggered along after him, dragging ourselves into camp hours later. And there we found him changed. No longer bored or sullen, he was happy, helpful, chatting with strangers, and standing up straighter. He had checked us in and thoughtfully turned the heat on in our cabin. (There was still snow on the ground in March.) He even walked partway back down the trail when he got word we’d been sited to carry my pack the last mile for me.
While sprinting up that mountain, Cole had discovered something about himself: He is young, strong, likes a challenge, and is willing to rise to it. Finally all that male energy felt necessary.
The rest of us felt it, too, of course. But for him this was an important moment.
This year, when I asked my two teens if they wanted to go again, both of their hands shot up without hesitation. And when we all sat down to discuss which trail to take, Cole lobbied for the hardest one. “We choose to do this not because it is easy,” he said, paraphrasing JFK’s famous speech about the decision to go to the moon, when my husband suggested a trail that might be easier. “We do it because it is hard.”
There was no reluctance to leave the technology behind either this year. In fact, both kids told me that the complete vacation from all technology—texting, Facebook, video games, electricity—is part of what’s great about this trip.
So we are going again. This is a long road trip for us. So, rather ironically since this trip is about going off the grid for us, I plan to share here the technology we will use to find the best deal on accommodations along the way, capture and share memories, and some in-car tech for keeping two bickering teens from driving us insane on a long car trip.
So stay tuned!