|

30 best travel gadgets for your summer vacation

Mobile devices plus apps and tips to make your trip a blast

Published: June 2014

Planning your trip

Photo: Travis Rathbone

August is one of America’s biggest travel months—when vacationers hit the road, the airport, or the beach—but getting away doesn’t necessarily mean getting away from it all. Consumer Reports’ 2014 survey of 1,044 American adults finds that 94 percent of travelers bring electronic devices on vacation. In many cases, that tagalong is a smart phone: Two out of three Americans take one on vacation. But that’s not all they carry. These days Americans take three devices along for the ride, on average, according to our survey.

What should be on your packing list? It depends on where you’re going and what you’re doing. If memorable vacation photos are important, for instance, you should consider toting a dedicated camera with a decent optical zoom and image stabilizer, features you’re not likely to get with a smart phone. If you need to keep kids in the backseat occupied, a tablet loaded with videos and games could provide a little peace and quiet. And if you’re contemplating lazy beach reads, a dedicated e-book reader that’s easy to read in the sun will serve you much better than a do-everything tablet.

Whatever your destination or your needs, we have expert advice on the best devices, plus apps and tips that can add to your enjoyment. So get packing!

Don't forget the accessories

  • Charger(s), including one or more for the car
  • Adapter(s) if you’re traveling abroad
  • Extra batteries
  • External battery pack/recharger
  • Extra memory cards
  • Ethernet cable for faster, more reliable Internet access in hotel rooms
  • Microfiber cloth to keep displays and lenses clean

Before you go, get your gadgets ready


  • Using your phone for streaming and as a Wi-Fi hot spot for other gadgets could cause overages. Up the data allowance by a few gigabytes for the vacation month ($10 to $30). Switch back to your old plan after the trip.

  • Overseas phone and data plans can be pricey. Check with your carrier to see what options exist. Or buy a disposable phone at your destination. You can be sure it will work there, and calls to the U.S. might be cheaper.

  • Make room for photos, videos, and more by transferring or deleting files to free up memory on your gadgets.

  • Download e-books, videos, and apps you want for the trip.

  • Be careful when flying. Nine percent of vacationers we surveyed said their tablet, laptop, or digital camera was damaged in checked baggage, and 6 percent said it was stolen or lost. Also, 6 percent said it was damaged in overhead bins. Put devices in padded cases and cushion them in sweatshirts or other soft items.


Road trip

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Headphones

Bose QuietComfort 20i, $300: Want to block out the road noise and the roar of passing trucks while you’re enjoying your music or movies? This is the best in-ear noise-canceling model we tested, with very good sound and excellent noise reduction.

Also consider If you want to spend less and don’t need noise cancellation, check out the Polk Audio Nue Era, $100, or the Klipsch Image S4i II, $100.

Acer Iconia W4-820-2466

Tablet

Apple iPad Mini with Retina display, $400 (Wi-Fi, 16GB, iOS): This 7.9-inch tablet is a compact take-along that’s big enough for you to enjoy videos, read books and magazines, play games, and surf the Web. It has a great high-res display and offers excellent performance plus access to iTunes and  Apple’s  App Store. And its 12.8-hour battery life will keep the family entertained throughout a long day on the road.

Also consider Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4, $400 (Wi-Fi, 16GB, Android); Acer Iconia W4-820-2466, $350 (Wi-Fi, 64GB, Windows)

How to:

Use free Wi-Fi. Restaurants such as Denny’s, McDonald’s, and Starbucks, and many hotels offer free wireless, so take advantage. Just remember those aren’t secure connections, so don’t do anything involving a credit card or personal data.


Set up your own hot spot. Use your phone as a personal Wi-Fi hot spot so that your other gadgets can get online when no Wi-Fi is available. Bonus: It’s more secure than public  Wi-Fi.


Hit the cloud. Set up a cloud account. Reliable services include  Apple iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft OneDrive. Most offer a few gigabytes of free storage.Upload photos and videos as you go, and access content stored there, from anywhere.


Google Maps

Apps

GasBuddy, free (Android, iOS, and Windows): Using reports from other travelers, GasBuddy finds the cheapest nearby gas when you’re on the road in the U.S. and Canada. Win rewards and prizes for reporting gas prices.

iExit, free (Android and iOS): Plan your pit stops with the help of this app, which lists food, gas, lodging, and other services at interstate exits and rest areas.

Google Maps, free (Android, iOS, and Windows): Recently revamped, Google Maps now has downloadable maps of 220 countries and territories; transit directions and maps for more than 2,800 cities; live traffic conditions; automatic rerouting; and lane guidance. You can also search places to eat, shop, and play in unfamiliar cities.

The great outdoors

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Rugged action cam

JVC GC-XA2 Adixxion, $275: Going white-water rafting? Capture the whole wet, wild journey. This wireless JVC has a rugged and waterproof body (unlike GoPro action cams, which must be inserted into their waterproof case). JVC claims this cam is waterproof to a depth of 16 feet and can withstand a 6½-foot drop. Bonus: It has a small built-in LCD, which is rare on an action cam.

Also consider GoPro Hero3+ Silver Edition, $300; Garmin Virb, $300

Fitness tracker

Samsung Gear Fit, $200: This smart-watch/activity-band hybrid features a built-in heart monitor, accelerometer, gyroscope, and pedometer that will keep you on track as you’re hiking in the Grand Canyon or kayaking along the Pacific coast. It’s slim, sleek, and light, and the curved design fits comfortably on the wrist. Downside: It’s fully functional only with certain Samsung phones.

Also consider Fitbit One activity tracker, $100

Joos Orange Portable Solar Power

Accessories

Mophie Juice Pack, $100: This almost doubled battery life on the Samsung Galaxy S 4 in our tests. Models for other phones are available.

Joos Orange Portable Solar Power, $150: This rugged, waterproof solar charger is claimed to generate 2 hours of 3G talk time for every 1 hour in sunlight.

How to:

Conserve battery life. When you’re far from a power source, lower screen brightness and turn off auto-updates. Use GPS sparingly. When there’s no signal, turn off the phone or set it to airplane mode, which stops attempts to connect and turns off Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and mobile connections.


Dry out a wet phone. Do not turn it on to see whether it works. Remove the SIM card and, if accessible, the phone’s back cover, battery, and memory card. Shake off water and wipe down parts. Stick them in a jar of uncooked rice. In a week, put the pieces together, push the power button, and hope for the best.


Apps

Oh, Ranger ParkFinder, free (Android and iOS): Want to go bird-watching, waterskiing, or climbing? Using this app, enter your location, select from a list of activities, and find out where to go. The database includes state, national, and local parks.

Night Sky Lite, free (Android and iOS): Now stargazers can commune with the constellations. Point your phone or tablet at the sky, and this app will identify the stars, planets, and galaxies that are mesmerizing you.

The airport and beyond

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Camera

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10, $1,300: If you’re taking that once-in-a-lifetime trip, consider an advanced camera, like this top-rated advanced point-and-shoot. It takes stunning photos and excellent video, and its high-quality viewfinder ensures that even in bright light, you’ll see the shot you’re composing.

Also consider Samsung NX30 mirrorless SLR-like, $1,000; Canon Rebel T5 SLR, $50

Laptop

Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus NP940X3G-K06US, $1,300: This 13-inch touch-screen Windows laptop is an excellent performer that gets 9.75 hours of battery life—enough to last you from JFK to Heathrow and then some. At 3.1 pounds, it won’t weigh down your carry-on. The very good display makes movies pop, and it has lots of oomph for gaming and video editing.

Also considerApple MacBook Air 13-inch laptop, $1,000; HP Split 13 g210dx x2 Convertible Ultrabook 13-inch Windows laptop with detachable tablet, $800

Beats by Dre Beats Executive

Headphones

Beats by Dre Beats Executive, $300: Whether you’re trying to block out the incessant drone of a jet engine or muffle the snoring of the guy in seat 16B, you’ll be grateful for noise-canceling headphones like these. They have very good noise reduction and satisfying sound quality—this model topped our Ratings—plus a stylish look.

Also consider Bose QuietComfort 15, $300; SMS Audio Street by 50 ANC, $280; Monoprice Noise-Canceling Headphone 10010, $110

How to:

Be security smart. When you run your devices through the security check, keep them in sight. Don’t put them on the belt until you’re ready to walk through the scanner.


Skip insurance. Very few people in our previous surveys bought a new phone because the old one broke or was lost or stolen. Premiums run $4 to $8 per month, deductibles can be $100 or more, and the replacement phone might be refurbished.


Use Wi-Fi rather than 3G/4G. Cellular roaming fees can be astronomical, so use hotel or airport Wi-Fi or your phone’s Wi-Fi connection to communicate with the folks back home. Just don’t reveal anything confidential on a public network.


Geotag photos. That will help you remember where you shot those stunning ruins. But beware of posting photos publicly, as viewers can see the location and know you’re not at home.


Foodspotting

Apps

Foodspotting, free (Android and iOS): This app doesn’t just find you places to eat wherever you travel—it helps you find the best dishes. Get the greatest pizza in Roma, paella in Barcelona, or buffalo wings in (where else?) Buffalo.

iTranslate, free (iOS); Google Translate, free (Android): Both can translate words and phrases in about 80 languages.

XE Currency, free (Android and iOS): Convert 180-plus foreign currencies so that you’ll know exactly how much a souvenir will set you back.

At the beach

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Waterproof camera

Nikon Coolpix AW120, $300: Scuba divers and klutzes, rejoice: This rugged camera is designed to be waterproof to a depth of 59 feet and to withstand a drop from 6½ feet. It has among the widest optical-zoom lenses in its class (24 mm to 120 mm) and a maximum aperture of f/2.8, so it should perform well in low light—which is what you’ll encounter in the deep blue sea.

Also consider Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS5, $275; Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX30, $200

Water-resistant phones

Sony Xperia Z1S and Samsung Galaxy S 5, prices vary by carrier and plan: These sleek phones are designed to survive a 30-minute dunk in about 5 and 3 feet of water, respectively, and laugh off wind-swept sand. Their cameras work underwater, so you can take pictures and videos of that school of fish. And these recommended models handle traditional smart-phone tasks as competently as their landlubber cousins. The Xperia Z1S has one of the best video cameras we’ve seen on a phone, and the fully loaded Galaxy S 5 has a heart-rate monitor and fitness app—handy if you muster up the energy to sprint along the shore.

Kindle Paperwhite with Special Offers

E-book reader

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite with Special Offers, $120: If you love to read on the beach, leave the tablet at home and pack an e-book reader. The Kindle has excellent readability in all kinds of light, including bright sunlight, and the battery lasts about eight weeks, so one charge can last the whole vacation. It’s small and light, and page turns are fast and smooth.

Also consider Barnes & Noble Nook GlowLight, $120

The 13-cent solution

Be prepared to protect your gear: Nine percent of those surveyed said a gadget got wet while they were outdoors or on vacation, and 19 percent said it got dirty or sandy. There are many pricey waterproof cases, but we’ve found that a quart-size Hefty Slider Bag with a zipper does just as well at keeping salt, grit, and water away from your device. And food-storage bags cost just 10 to 13 cents each. Bonus: Bagged gadgets should float (as long as there’s air inside the bag), and you can talk on a phone or read a text through clear plastic.

How to shoot underwater photos:

Double-check that the camera’s battery and other compartments are tightly closed.


Use underwater scene or shooting modes that will optimize the exposure for dim undersea settings.


Take extra photos. Even with goggles on, it can be hard to see the LCD to compose a photo, so shoot multiples.


Know how deep you can go. Some cameras are rated to only 5 feet, others to 50 or 60 feet. Review your camera’s specs to see how far underwater the manufacturer claims it can go.


Strap it on. Make sure the camera’s tether is wrapped around your wrist so that you don’t lose it when a wave hits or when you’re paddling through the surf.


Tides Near Me

Apps

Tides Near Me, free (Android and iOS): Keep track of high and low tides, as well as when the sun and moon will rise and set.

Yahoo Weather, free (Android and iOS): Check the UV index, radar maps, and forecasts galore.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the August 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magzine.
   

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters!
Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Electronics & Computers News

Connect

and safety with
subscribers and fans

Follow us on:

Cars

Cars New Car Price Report
Find out what the dealers don't want you to know! Get dealer pricing information on a new car with the New Car Price Report.

Order Your Report

Mobile

Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more