August 20, 2017

Eight of My Favorite iPhone Apps

WeatherBug Elite iPhone App

It’s been nearly a year since I last wrote about the iPhone. After almost 15 months of daily use, it’s become an indispensable part of my life. Here are just a few of the apps, a couple of which I’ve just come across recently, that I use nearly every day and would hate to ever again be without.

WeatherBug Elite — 99¢ (weather reports)
Simply the best weather app I’ve found — and there are lots of them. It has a really nice interface, very easy to read and understand, and all the important info you’ll likely need right on the opening screen. It’s shown in the photo above.

WorkLog — $4.99 (personal time clock)
Great app for tracking your work hours if you get paid by the hour and want to keep your own records. It has nice reporting and makes it easy to check that you’re getting paid for hours actually worked (or not overpaid, LOL).

Qik Video — $1.99 (video camera for older iPhones)
If you have the latest iPhone 3GS, you won’t need this … but if you have an older model, such as my iPhone 3G, this app gives you a pretty decent video camera for just two bucks! This is a relatively new app and works much better than I would have expected. Worth checking out.

Flashlight — FREE (turn your iPhone into a flashlight)
I’m amazed how often I use this. It’s one of the first apps I ever downloaded, it’s still regularly updated (although most of the newer features are of little or no use to me), and I still use this nearly every day! It’s great to find your way around a dark hotel room at night or look for something you dropped under a seat in a dark bus.

FlickTunes — 99¢ (iPod music controller)
I use my iPhone for its iPod features almost every day on my motorcoach to play background music. FlickTunes makes it easy to control the music while you’re driving without taking your eyes off the road; a simple finger swipe lets you pause or play the music or adjust the volume. Before I start the trip, I select what play list I want in the iPod settings, then after it begins playing, switch to FlickTunes, and I’m set for the trip.

AOL Radio — FREE (listen to radio stations across the country)
Part of my daily morning routine is listening to KYW1060, the local all-news station, for the latest news, weather and traffic reports for the day. This app lets me listen anywhere, anytime, as long as I have a cell phone signal!

Kindle — FREE (Amazon’s ebook reader for iPhone)
Before I had my Amazon Kindle (which I got this past Christmas), I had the Kindle app on my iPhone and began building my Kindle library. Now I use it mainly to read in bed at night; during the day I use the real Kindle. What’s cool, though, is how it keeps my reading synchronized, no matter which device I’m using — it goes to the last page read on whichever device was last used.

NoteMaster — $3.99 (note taking app)
I don’t take a lot of notes on my iPhone. But I do have some info I need readily available, and that may need updating occasionally. Apple includes a basic Notes app with the iPhone, but it’s a little too basic. NoteMaster syncs with Google Notes, so I can create notes either on my iPhone or my notebook computer and have them instantly available on the other — or any computer with online access. Some of my most used documents include a list of prescriptions for doctor visits, and a list of my hotel frequent-stay membership numbers. Lots of other uses, too.

Incidentally, I believe all of these also work on the iPod Touch, with the exception of Qik Video, since the iPod Touch has no camera.

Other apps I use nearly every day include many of those you probably already use, too: Clock, Calendar, Contacts, Messages, Calculator, Maps, Google, Voice Memos, and more …. I don’t know how I ever survived without my iPhone! If you’re not already an iPhone user, you might want to seriously consider it when it comes time for a new phone. Even though I had to jump ship from Verizon to AT&T, the iPhone made it more than worth my while.

Will the Apple iPad (available starting April 3rd, 2010) change things? You bet … but no one knows how just yet. I’ll likely replace my Amazon Kindle with an iPad in the near future, so stay tuned.

What are your favorite apps? Use the comments section below to respond to this article, or click the link to the forum discussion of this article.

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Virginia to Reopen Closed Rest Stops

Good news for tour groups, truck drivers, and tourists traveling through the state of Virginia: Virginia’s new governor, Bob McDonnell, has announced that all 19 of Virginia’s closed rest stops and visitor centers will reopen over the next few months. The state had closed them in July 2009 in an effort to reduce the deficit in their state budget. McDonnell, elected last November, had promised during his campaign to reopen the rest stops. Not surprisingly, state tourism, as well as Virginia’s public image, was hurt significantly by the closures. Click here to read McDonnell’s official announcement.

Four of the closed rest stops are scheduled to reopen by February 17th, 2010; eight more will reopen by March 17th; and the rest by April 15th.

Click here for a PDF map showing all of Virginia’s rest stops and welcome centers, both those now open and the ones scheduled to reopen.

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Eight Tips to Help You Navigate the Interstate Highway System

On the Interstate

On the Interstate

The Interstate Highway System of limited access highways is one of our nation’s great assets, relied on every day by motorcoach, truck and automobile drivers across the US. Although its roots go back to planning in the 1920s and 1930s, it wasn’t funded and building wasn’t started until 1956, when Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, championed by then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower. It has grown into a network of nearly 50,000 miles, making it the largest highway system in the world and the largest public works project in history. It is a subset of the National Highway System. Here are eight tips for finding your way around the Interstates, some well known, others less so.

Now, before you email or comment, I know there are numerous exceptions to most of what I’ve listed below! But in general, these tips will be very useful in finding your way around the Interstate Highway System. It’s the government, you know … and they don’t always follow their own rules.

  1. It’s a big grid.

    Not a perfect grid, thanks to our geography, but a grid none-the-less. The grid consists of one- and two-digit even numbered highways running east and west, lowest numbers in the south and highest numbers in the north; and one- and two-digit odd numbered highways running north and south, lowest numbers in the west and highest numbers in the east.

  2. The grid is supplemented with loops, beltways, and spurs.

    Interstate loops, beltways, and spurs

    Interstate loops, beltways, and spurs

    Loops and beltways bypass or circle major metropolitan areas, often easing your drive around highly trafficked areas. They are numbered with three-digit numbers, the first number being an even number, and the last two reflecting the primary Interstate to which they connect at two different locations.

    Spurs, likewise, are also numbered with three digit numbers, the last two of which reflect the primary Interstate from which it’s a spur, and the first digit being an odd number.

    There are no duplicate three-digit Interstate numbers within one state, but the numbers are duplicated from state to state.

    Interstate Mile Marker

    Interstate Mile Marker

  3. Mile markers are your compass.

    The Interstates are indexed with small green or blue signs marking each mile of the highway — in most cases, marking each tenth of a mile. It’s a great way to know exactly where you are on the highway. Miles are numbered from the west to the east, and from the south to the north, always restarting from 0 at the border of each state. So … if you’re on I-80 (an even number so you know it’s an east-west route) and the mile markers are increasing, you know you’re going east! If you’re on I-95 and the mile markers are decreasing, you’re going south.

    If you’re traveling south or west, you know exactly how many miles it is to the state border (or the end of the Interstate, if it doesn’t reach the border). Traveling north or east, however, you need to know how long that section of the Interstate is to know how far it is to the border.

  4. In most states, exits are numbered by the mile marker.

    A few states still number Interstate exits in numerical order. But most states have followed newer federal guidelines and renumbered their exits according to the nearest mile marker, making exit numbers infinitely more useful. If you’re headed to exit 40, for instance, and you’re at mile marker 20, you know you have 20 miles to go to your exit. If the exits are numbered in consecutive order, you have no clue how far it is to the next exit based on the mile markers.

  5. Left exit or right exit? The clue is on the sign.

    The exit number flush left to indicate a left exit, flush right to indicate a right exit.

    The exit number flush left to indicate a left exit, flush right to indicate a right exit.

    Interstate exit signs usually mark the exits at one and two miles in advance. The exit number is at the top of the sign on a separate board. If that exit number board is flush with the left of the larger sign, it’s a left exit. If the exit number board is flush with the right side of the sign, it’s a right exit! See the photo at the right for an example of each.

    Left exits are much less common than right exits, and are often marked in a yellow section at the bottom of exit signs, also.

    There are a few states who have opted not to update their exit signs to this national standard — Connecticut, for example. They have exit numbers centered at the top of the sign, giving no clue to whether it’s a right or left exit. You’ll occasionally see other exceptions, too, even in states that largely follow the federal guidelines. But for the most part, you’ll find this tip very useful.

  6. The Interstate Highway number grid is a flip-flop of the US Highway numbering system.

    The US Highway system, around long before the Interstates, is also laid out in a nationwide grid. But it’s flip-flopped, north-south and east-west from the Interstate numbering scheme. Odd numbered highways still run north and south, but the lower numbers are in the east, higher numbers in the west; even numbered highways run east and west, with lower numbers in the north, higher numbers in the south.

    There are exceptions to both numbering grid systems, although more exceptions in the US Highway system.

    Because these numbering grids are flip-flopped, you’ll find no I-50 or I-60 route numbers; chances are they’d be in the same states with US Highways of the same route number, and would be very confusing for drivers.

  7. Interstate Design Standards: Roadway widths, bridge clearances and weight limits

    I-95 Shield

    I-95 Shield

    Interstate design standards include a minimum of four 12-foot wide travel lanes, a minimum shoulder width of 10 feet, full control of access, and design speeds of 50 to 70 miles per hour (depending on the type of terrain).

    Bridge clearances are specified to be at least 16 feet, including shoulder clearances. Although the maximum height of trucks in the US is 13′ 6″, the design standards were written to allow movement of military equipment, part of the missile defense system, now obsolete. Bridge weight limits accommodate at least maximum legal loads of 80,000 lb. (40 tons); in some states the limits are significantly higher — Michigan, for instance, with their super-heavy trucks.

    HOWEVER — it’s important to note that there are many exceptions to these numbers! While new construction meets these design standards nearly 100% of the time, many older Interstates do not, especially roads such as the Pennsylvania Turnpike that were not originally constructed as Interstates but became part of the Interstate system later. Motorcoaches should not generally have a problem on any of the Interstates, but trucks do have to be careful and watch for an occasional low clearance or underweight bridge limit even on the Interstates. Exceptions should be well marked in advance of the problem. Most problems will be limited to oversize loads, not a problem for tour buses.

  8. Interstate Highway Trivia

    The longest Interstate:
    I-90, 3,020.54 miles, from Seattle, Washington, to Boston, Massachusetts

    The shortest Interstate:
    I-97, 17.62 miles, Annapolis to Baltimore, Maryland

    The highest point on the Interstate system:
    I-70, in the Eisenhower Tunnel at the Continental Divide in the Colorado Rocky Mountains (11,158 ft.)

    The lowest point on the Interstate system:
    I-95, in the Fort McHenry Tunnel under the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, Maryland (107 ft. below sea level)

    Highest speed limit:
    80 mph (130 km/h): I-10 and I-20 in rural western Texas and I-15 in rural central Utah

    Lowest speed limit:
    40 mph (64 km/h): I-490 through Rochester, New York; I-68 through Cumberland, MD; and I-394 east of I-94 in Minneapolis, Minnesota

For references and more information, visit these sites:

The Perfect Hotel Room

Four Points by Sheraton, Charlesbourg, Quebec -- a very bus-friendly hotel. 

Four Points by Sheraton, Charlesbourg, Quebec -- a very bus-friendly hotel.

I’ve been on the road a lot this summer, as far south as Mississippi, and north to Quebec City, Quebec, Canada. And lots of places in between. As I sometimes tell my passengers, I call home every day, so my wife at least recognizes my voice when I come home!

When you’re on the road that much, the right hotel room can mean the difference between a great trip and a terrible trip. It’s often the little things that make the difference. But it never ceases to amaze me how many hotels screw up the little things!

The basics: a clean, quiet room is a given. But many hotels fall down right there — the room isn’t clean, or not as clean as it should be. Good help is hard to find, I know; but in most cases I’ve seen, management is the issue. People do what’s expected of them and only so far as they’re held accountable. Often a dirty room means someone at a higher level isn’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing. (Does that apply to dirty buses, too?!)

A comfortable bed is also a given, you would think. I’m a tall guy — 6’5″ — and used to a king size bed at home, which is my ideal on the road, too. A queen size bed is still comfortable; but some hotels, mostly older ones, still have full size beds in their standard room. In those, my feet stick out the end, and I definitely don’t sleep as well. Some hotels have newer style “pillow-top” mattresses — wow, some are so comfortable I’m in no hurry to go home! Others have hard, “spring-loaded” mattresses; when you sit down you bounce right back up again — not good.

Other important factors include working temperature control in the room, preferably without having to hear a very noisy air conditioner or heater. A bathroom big enough to turn around in, with plenty of fluffy white towels. A wall mirror in the room in addition to the bathroom. A TV with a working remote. An elevator if you’re not on the first floor. A portico high enough to get the bus underneath for loading/unloading luggage on a rainy day. And, of course, bus parking — if you can’t safely park your motorcoach at or very near the hotel, all of this is a moot point.

Some hotel chains have introduced amenities over the years that have now become must-haves for the regular traveler. In the bathroom, a curved shower rod (thanks, Hampton Inn), and a great shower head (thanks, Holiday Inn). A “free” continental breakfast with at least one or two hot items (saves a lot of time and money when you’re on the road). Free Internet access. All of these used to be niceties, but I don’t want to stay in a room without them anymore.

If you’re away more than one night, especially on a trip where you end up killing a lot of time in a hotel room, a microwave and refrigerator is really important, too — partly for convenience, but especially for cost savings. On a multiple day trip I’ll often make a stop at a supermarket the first day and pick up a few things I can lunch on in the room.

Ironically, the more expensive hotels don’t include many of these things, or charge extra for them. Breakfast and Internet access, for instance, are often extra charges. Those hotels are more for vacationers and corporate travelers. Fortunately, for working travelers like motorcoach drivers, there are several chains who do a great job at meeting our needs. But the list is pretty short for those who do it well and do it consistently. There are exceptions, but overall, here are my favorites; the first three are way, way ahead of the pack:

  1. Drury Inn
    Too bad this chain is only in the midwest. “The extras aren’t extra” and they have no equal in my limited experience with them. It’s probably not a coincidence that they aren’t franchises — all are family owned.
  2. Hampton Inn
    Long my number one choice until my experience with Drury Inns this summer. They just get it right, over and over, across the chain. Must be someone following up somewhere!
  3. Holiday Inn Express, Holiday Inn Select
    These are the newer of the Holiday Inns, and, like Hampton Inn, get it right over and over again.
  4. The rest of the list is a distant fourth place or worse. They tend to be inconsistent — I’ve stayed in some excellent ones, and had to leave an occasional one, it was so bad. But because of the cost and/or location, they’re often in the running:

  5. Comfort Inn
    Many (most?) of these are two floors, no elevator. Many are older and run down. But a few are also very nice. I’ve had both good and bad experiences with these.
  6. Red Roof Inn
    Low price, pet friendly (which means if there’s a local dog show, you’re going to have lots of animals around!). Inconsistent quality.
  7. Days Inn
    Many of these are older and not in good shape, but there are some good ones, too.
  8. Ramada Inn
    I’ve only ever stayed in one Ramada I was comfortable in (Ligonier, PA). But I’m sure there must be a few other good ones somewhere.

Sheraton isn’t on my list above, because they’re often among the more expensive hotels that charge extra for things like breakfast and Internet access. But I recently had a good experience with a Sheraton near Quebec City in Canada, which is where the above photo was taken. Note the bus parking — right by the front door! I was the only bus there, so no competition for that spot; but other buses wouldn’t have had too far to go, since this was a fairly new hotel with very large parking lots.

A driver friend of mine has a real simple hotel rule: if there’s no front door giving access to all the rooms, it’s the wrong hotel. An oversimplification, perhaps, but you know what — he’s often right!

That’s my list, based on my personal experience. How does it compare to your experience? Feel free to add your comments below.

Five of My Favorite Broadway Shows

I love Broadway shows, and because I frequently do trips to New York City, I get to see a few shows each year. Here’s a list of my top five favorite Broadway shows that are still playing, plus a few others worth seeing and two of my all-time favorites that are no longer playing.

1) The Phantom of the Opera

The longest running show on Broadway, and once you’ve seen it you start to understand why. Great music. And one of those very rare shows you want to see more than once. I had one passenger recently who was seeing it for the 11th time!

2) Mamma Mia

I love ABBA’s music, and this is a fun story built around their great songs. Another one you can see more than once — my wife has been there twice already.

3) Jersey Boys

Okay, I love oldies … and I love Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. So this show in a no-brainer — great music and a great, mostly true, story. [Read more…]

Five Day Trips Everyone Should Do

Day trips by motorcoach are something nearly everyone can do and enjoy. Here are five destinations that should definitely be on your short list if you’re in the eastern PA area and haven’t already done them at least once. All are easy and inexpensive; just dress comfortably and wear good walking shoes. Most tour companies offer trips here, but if you want to go with the best, go with Hagey Tours, the company I drive for. You can go by yourself on a public (retail) tour, or if you have a group, charter a trip especially designed just for your group, including custom pick-up and drop-off points.

1) New York City

What an easy way to visit the Big Apple! Take the motorcoach directly to the Times Square area. There is so much to do. If you like Broadway shows, pick up a half price (or deeply discounted) ticket for a same-day show at the TKTS booth in the center of Times Square. Lunch at one of the hundreds of great restaurants. Shop along Fifth Avenue in some of the most famous stores in the world. A short subway ride takes you [Read more…]

Eight Tips for Group Leaders on Motorcoach Trips

Have you chartered a motorcoach for your group’s trip? Great — smart move! Here are eight tips for you, the group leader, from my perspective as your driver for your charter trip.

1. Introduce yourself, as the person in charge, to your driver.

You’d be amazed how often we have to guess or ask around the group to find out who is in charge of things like letting us know when you’re ready to depart, confirm destinations and time schedules, letting us know that all passengers have boarded, etc. Sometimes our paperwork tells us who’s in charge and we can find you, but just as often the person listed on our paperwork is the person who booked the coach for the trip, not the person who’s actually in charge on trip day.

2. Ride Bus #1, and sit in the front of the coach.

If you’ve booked multiple coaches for your group, the overall group leader should ride on the first coach in the group. Sometimes last minute “executive decisions” need to be made en route, and it’s difficult [Read more…]