Gear We Like
Five states, two phones, no maps, dodgy internet: Road Trip USA
Last time I took a road trip in the USA it was 2004. There were no smartphones or mobile data, and as far as I recall Hertz didn’t even offer a GPS unit. My friend and I bought a few hilariously inadequate maps from a bookstore in Seattle and headed south. Over the course of 3443 miles we got lost once for five minutes – not bad considering we didn’t even have a map for two of the states we drove through…
Eight years later it is time to do it again. Dustin and I are half way through some sort of grand nature tour of the northern US, driving from Denver to Seattle via as many national parks as we can find. Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier – our trusty Ford Focus is seeing them all.
Once more, we don’t have an in-car GPS unit. We didn’t buy any maps before we started. All we have is a couple of unlocked smartphones, a MiFi device using the T-Mobile network, and hope. Can we do it?
We had hoped that Google Maps, Navigation and Skype would be the answer to most problems, and heading out of Denver things seemed promising. With a solid 4G connection on the MiFi the navigation app worked well, reading out instructions in a voice best described as ‘British Robot’. Although the directions were sometimes a little off, they were certainly good enough to point us in the right direction.
Shortly after entering Wyoming and using Skype to book our accommodation, however, we lost 4G signal. EDGE speeds were too slow to do much of anything, although I was eventually able to cache our destination in Google Maps (and ten miles around) thanks to that still-experimental Android feature.
And then we lost connection entirely. Visiting all (three) of the mobile phone stores in Laramie the next day, we asked when we were likely to be able to pick up a T-Mobile data connection again. "Not while you’re in Wyoming", came the laconic reply. Oh great. We were there for the next week.
Apparently we also couldn’t buy a pre-pay data package with AT&T – they just don’t do them for 3G phones like ours – and the one company who could sell us a pre-pay package (Verizon) uses an LTE network that doesn’t work our phones.
Long story short, the best we could do was a $25 SIM card (voice and text only) with AT&T, so that at least we could call ahead to book accommodation. Of course the guy neglected to tell us that AT&T doesn’t have a presence across much of Wyoming either – we only discovered that while trying to call ahead to book accommodation the following day. No signal. For several hundred miles.
So despite our best-laid plans, we’ve been resorting to flaky wifi connections in coffee shops and restaurants to find places to stay, then playing the ‘can you hear me?’ game on Skype to book them. I’ve cached several towns along our intended route in Google Maps, so that we can at least find the right street when and if we do finally get there.
As for the rest of our navigation and fact-finding? We’re going old-school. Paper maps from tourist offices and national park visitor centres still do as good a job as they ever did. Scribbled notes and brightly-highlighted sections have largely replaced our plethora of apps. Other than being used as cameras and music players, the phones have remained largely unused all week.
It’s not what we expected, but we’re making do just fine so far. Long may it last.
We’ll let you know if we make it to Seattle.