Luggage? Check. Money and ID? Yep. Snacks? Of course.
The necessities of a road trip haven’t changed much through the years. But technology has made the experience considerably better: apps that can sniff out the lowest prices at the pump, spoken GPS directions instead of fumbling with paper maps, access to tens of millions of songs through streaming music services.
Some tech toys can even help reduce the dreaded “Are we there yet?” from grandkids in the back seat. Along with your smartphone — an invaluable device for staying connected and informed while on the road — here are a few other gadgets you might want to pack ahead of your trip.
Dashcams cams can record a big road trip
Once reserved for police vehicles, dashboard cameras (dashcams for short) have become popular with civilian drivers. These small cameras continuously record both video and audio to a memory card, from a first-person perspective, and are usually mounted on a vehicle’s windshield, near the rear-view mirror.
Dashcams are ideal for two reasons: security and recreation. They can provide photographic evidence of an accident or incident, but you also can capture your adventures, such as a road trip through the mountains, and play it back later on a big-screen TV.
At the other end of the vehicle, aftermarket backup cameras let you better see what’s happening behind you. Garmin models start at $129 and feature 1080p (progressive scan) full-HD video recording with a 140-degree or 180-degree field of view and support for hands-free voice control. A parking mode records activity if it senses movement or impact while parked, such as if someone dings or hits your car in a parking lot, tries to break in or writes you a parking ticket.
The Thinkware line of dashcams, from $70, archives footage for you. Some models, such as the U1000 ($350), can record 4K footage for even sharper resolution and boast night-vision technology.
Thinkware bundles some models to include a rear camera. The X700 Front + Rear Dash Cam Bundle ($170) cameras both record 1080p full-HD video. The dashcam has a 2.7-inch LCD touch screen and includes a GPS antenna to track speed, time and route history, and can warn you of speed traps and red-light cameras, the company says.
Voice-activate your vehicle infotainment
Many newer vehicles include support for Apple’s CarPlay and Android Auto, both of which make your dashboard look and feel more like your smartphone’s screen. That's in addition to a vehicle's integrated infotainment system.
With CarPlay, plug in your iPhone and put it away as it’s charging. Some newer cars support wireless CarPlay, too, so there’s no need to plug it in — but do realize that it can drain your phone battery. Now your vehicle’s dashboard will resemble your familiar iOS home screen, displaying many supported first-party apps, including Apple Maps, Apple Music, Contacts and iMessages and a growing selection of third-party apps.
Press the Voice/Speech button on the steering wheel or simply say, “Hey, Siri,” followed by commands like “Read me my texts,” “Take me to 123 Main Street,” “Play Taylor Swift on Spotify,” and so on.
You also can use the large app icons on the dashboard screen — not while you’re driving — or a passenger can do so any time.
Google’s Android Auto is very similar: Connect your Android smartphone to your vehicle via its USB cable, then press the Voice/Speech button on the steering wheel or say, “OK, Google,” followed by a question or command to access contacts, messages, music and other info while keeping your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.
If you prefer Amazon’s Alexa as a personal assistant, you can add it to any vehicle. You can find it for only $20 these days; it’s usually $70. Amazon’s Echo Auto is a small device that plays through your car’s speakers, Bluetooth or an available auxiliary-input port that looks like the socket a wired earbud plugs into. Echo Auto features eight microphones and far-field technology, so it can clearly hear you over air-conditioning, music and outside road noise.
You can use your voice to check the news and weather, make calls, manage your calendar, or stream content from Audible, Amazon Music, Spotify, SiriusXM and others. An air-vent mount is included.
Emergency kits can be saviors
A battery booster in your vehicle is prudent. It could jump-start your car’s dead battery and save you from having to wait for roadside assistance.
A portable multifunction jump starter and power bank features a 12.8-volt jump starter and built-in USB port for charging your smartphone, too. An integrated LED light can also help you see under the hood when it’s dark. A generic Home Depot model starts at about $80. Some models, such as the QuickCable Rescue Pack 950 Booster Pack ($205), have an air compressor and air gauge that can inflate tires.
Other kits to keep in a trunk for an emergency are not high tech but are certainly handy, such as the AAA-branded 76-Piece Excursion Road Kit ($110). Included are an air compressor, booster cables, bungee cord, duct tape, an emergency warning triangle to place beside your vehicle on the side of a road, first aid products, an LED flashlight with batteries, poncho, screwdrivers, utility knife and whistle.
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Dollar store purchases worth making
Believe it not, your local dollar store has several smartphone and tablet accessories worth keeping in the glove box. From USB cables to charge your electronics to spare headphones — and perhaps a headphone splitter for two people in the back seat to hear the same thing from one device — to headrest mounts to slip an iPad into for back seat viewers, you might be surprised what’s available. And some items hardly cost more than spare change.
A smartphone clamp can lock onto your vehicle’s air vent so your phone is propped up for you to safely glance at maps and other info. That can be helpful for older-model cars without display screens and Android Auto or CarPlay.
While you’re at the dollar store, also consider matches and candles to keep in your car, in the event of an emergency, especially for those who reside or travel through colder states.
Other great gear for road trips
Finally, a few goodies for passengers. A tablet’s portability and touch screen make it an ideal travel companion.
Apple iPad, from $329, is powered by its A13 Bionic chip, has a 10.2-inch Retina display, dual cameras for FaceTiming or shooting pics and videos, at least 64 gigabytes (GB) of storage and support for countless apps. Use your fingertip to browse the web, listen to podcasts, play games, swipe through e-books and watch videos. If you prefer Android devices, you can try the Amazon Fire HD 10 ($150) or the Lenovo Tab P11 Plus (around $208).
Pro tip: For streaming video and music services, including Netflix and Spotify, be sure to download media while still at home with Wi-Fi available, so it doesn’t use any data while on the road.
Also consider Apple Arcade, a $4.99 monthly subscription service for access to more than 240 premium games, all with no ads or in-game purchase options.
If cell reception is spotty, a booster can significantly strengthen the signal. SureCall’s products (from $200) work with all North American cell carriers including AT&T, T-Mobile, UScellular and Verizon, to increase data, text and voice signals.
The Fusion2Go 3.0 ($400) is a strong solution for rural, suburban and urban areas with an up to 50-decibel gain in amplification. It includes a low-profile external antenna with magnetic mount for the top of the vehicle and has no monthly fees. Some models are designed for RVs, too.
Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies.