December 16, 2017

iPad for Drivers

I’m in love. About three weeks ago I received my long-awaited Apple iPad — the tablet computer you’ve heard so much about (unless you’ve been hiding under a rock). And it has already changed my life. It is an amazing tool, truly a “magical” experience, as Apple CEO Steve Jobs puts it.

Those who know me know I’m a gadget lover. So it’s no surprise that I was one of the first on the block with an iPad. Actually, my 90-year-old dad beat me to the iPad experience — he bought one a couple weeks after they were introduced to use as a book reader. I helped him set it up, and knew I had to have one, too.

So what’s so great about it? What does it do that my laptop or any other computer doesn’t do? Nothing. That’s the short answer. But the real answer is not WHAT it does, but HOW it does it. That’s what makes the iPad revolutionary and a life changing experience. I warn you — you touch one and play with it for 15 minutes — and you’ll have to have one.

The iPad has made my job more fun than anything, ever. Here are a few of the ways I use it on a daily basis.

Maps

The most valuable app for a driver comes built into the iPad — Maps. It’s based on Google Maps, which I’ve used for several years already on my laptop to plan my trip routes. Having a portable version that’s so readily available, literally at your fingertips, anytime, anywhere, is amazing. The iPad’s built-in GPS chip automatically locates you on the map, so within literally an instant of turning it on, you’re looking at a detailed map of exactly where you are right now. Switch to satellite view with another finger click, and you can see destination entrances, exits, bus parking, etc. Invaluable. Your laptop can do this, too, of course, but not this easily or quickly.

Traffic Reports

One of the apps I’ve begun to rely on on a daily basis is Inrix Traffic, a cool little app that displays traffic flows, construction areas, accidents, and more on top of a Google map. The map, using the iPad’s built-in GPS chip, scrolls as you drive, so you can see upcoming traffic situations ahead. Or you can zoom out before you start the trip and see where problem areas might lie long before you get there. When you do need to take a detour, Inrix Traffic or the Maps app (mentioned above) makes it extremely easy to see what your options are for a safe detour. Inrix Traffic is a free app but also offers a pro version for $10 annually that includes additional features such as traffic cameras. I’m still experimenting with that.

Web Browser, Email

You can do all your homework for your trip right on the iPad. Look up destinations’ websites for more information, parking links on eightwheels.com, and more. Virtually anything you’d look up on the Web with your laptop or desktop computer, you now have in your hands with the iPad. Check and respond to email, too, anytime you have a free minute. No more coming home from a trip and finding yourself dozens or hundreds of messages behind.

Entertainment

The iPad really shines here. It’s a great ebook reader, and if you like to read, this is the way to go. It supports iBooks, Apple’s new electronic bookstore, of course, with the most amazing interface ever on an electronic reader. It also supports Amazon’s Kindle app with over half a million books available, and Borders’ new ebooks app. You will never in your life be without something to read — and probably less expensively than ever before.

Games, oh my, the games … I’m not really a game player, it’s just not my thing. But once in a while I do enjoy it as an interesting diversion. There are already thousands of games available to play on the iPad (and it plays virtually all the games written for the iPhone, too). Most are amazingly cool, taking advantage of the hardware features of the iPad, such as knowing what orientation the iPad is in at all times. For instance, steer your car around a race track by holding and moving the iPad like a steering wheel. Lots of classic games, too — checkers, chess, and a great game of Scrabble.

Movies. I used to try and remember some of the better movies that my groups were watching while I drove, so I could check them out next time I wanted to rent or buy a movie. No more. For about $9/month, I have Netflix on my iPad, and can watch as many movies as I want, anytime I want (not while driving, of course LOL). What a relaxing way to spend some time while you’re waiting for the group.

Music. Can’t forget the music. The iPad is also an iPod (speak carefully when saying that out loud LOL). I have over 20 GB of music on my iPad, which is my complete music library. I can play it through the bus stereo system or listen privately on headphones, or in a pinch use the monaural speaker built into the iPad itself, which doesn’t sound bad for its diminutive size.

Productivity

The iPad is basically a very, very portable computer you operate with your fingertips. No mouse, no keyboard, no wires of any kind (except to charge it after 10 or 11 hours of use). That opens it up to all kinds of other productive uses. Like writing. This article was written and edited on my iPad, while sitting in a restaurant (Strokos, my favorite deli) in Manhattan, New York City. When I have a lot of text to enter, such as with this post, I use a bluetooth wireless keyboard for the text entry. But you can also use the on-screen keyboard built into the iPad. I’m still struggling to be able to type as efficiently with that as I can a real keyboard, so I carry the ultra thin Apple Bluetooth keyboard in my bag for times like this. Switch it on, it connects automatically, wirelessly, with the iPad, and I’m typing away.

And there is so much more. This post was going to be a quick, short post extolling the virtues of the iPad for a driver, but it lost the “short” part because when I get so excited about an outstanding product, I want to tell you everything about it. I’ll save the rest for future posts. I know this is full of superlatives, but I can’t leave them out — the iPad is truly a revolutionary product, as if it was designed just for a tour bus driver. Is it perfect? No, there’s always room for improvement. But for a first generation product, this is more than just a home run — it’s a grand slam, maybe even a 9th inning walk-off-the-field grand slam for Apple. And we’re the beneficiaries. Enjoy.

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.

Luray Caverns, Car & Carriage Caravan Museum, Luray, VA

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Luray Caverns, in Luray, Virginia, are the largest and most visited caverns in the eastern US. It’s a great destination for groups of all kinds. In addition to the caverns, next door is the Car & Carriage Caravan Museum, an outstanding collection of antique cars, trucks, bicycles and a couple of other modes of transportation. You can purchase admission to both the caverns and the museum on one ticket. Although the caverns are the claim to fame here (and rightly so), I highly recommend the [Read more…]

Monticello, Charlottesville, VA

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I had a group of 8th grade students to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, VA yesterday. The group had an 8 AM appointment, first one of the day, and had been instructed to be there 30 minutes early. That meant leaving our hotel really early, but at the direction of our conscientious group leader, we dutifully arrived on time as instructed. And guess what … the [Read more…]