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Five apps (and more) for the summer road trip

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The Independence Day holiday week is upon us, and millions of American families are heading out on the open road. Where past generations depended on paper maps and Mad Libs, the march of technology has given us new tools for kids and parents alike. Our five-plus apps for road trips are accompanied with standbys and alternates to match up with your specific travel needs. Got other favorites or recommendations? Give them a shout out in the comments.

When I was young, in the pre-cellphone days, our road trips with other families included walkie-talkies or CB radios to help coordinate bathroom stops or route changes. Even with iMessage and hands-free headsets, there's something to be said for the one-button convenience of push-to-talk -- just ask the crowd of satisfied and loyal Nextel users who depend on the technology every day. Three popular apps that simulate the PTT experience on the iPhone are Voxer, HeyTell and Zello (all free).

All the walkie-talkie apps offer one-to-one or group voice chat at the press of a virtual button. Voxer's got Facebook integration and a rapidly growing userbase, plus photo and text sharing (and some hefty funding); Zello's got a simple UI including "one big button" for PTT conversations with the other cars in your convoy; and HeyTell's got geographic indicators for your chat partners plus in-app purchases for fun items like voice changers. Any one may save you some dialing and phone calling while you're looking for your next pitstop, so consult with your fellow vacationers and settle on the one you like.

Eyes on the road, please! If you want to automatically alert your friends or family at your destination that you're making progress, check out the free En Route! or the $0.99 just-released iETA. Both apps will automatically update your selected contacts with your expected arrival time and optionally share your location as you go. Other options in this vein: Glympse, Google Latitude or Apple's Find my Friends app. Want to make sure you've got solid 3G or LTE coverage where you're headed? Reader Chris suggests his $2.99 Coverage! app, which consolidates multiple carrier maps into one convenient view.

Getting there is half the fun, and getting distracted along the way is at least 15% of the fun. Roadside America for iPhone ($2.99 + IAP) delivers a mapped guide to the silly and serious attractions that make a road trip memorable. Buying the app unlocks a single region of the US & Canada, with a $1.99 option in-app to purchase additional regions or $5.99 to unlock them all permanently. You can track your attraction visits, upload photos, get sunset alerts to time your visits to scenic sites, and of course get directions/hours and phone numbers. Not to be confused with the one and only Roadside America miniature village in Shartlesville, PA, which is absolutely mandatory if you're taking I-78 through southeastern Pennsylvania.

Speaking of I-78, I'm positive that my wife and I have made the same mistake at least four times on that highway -- taking an exit for lunch at Friendly's only to find that it's a five-mile winding drive to get to the restaurant, when there's one right off the highway two exits further on. The solution may be iExit for iPhone and iPad (now on sale for $0.99, usually $1.99), which gives you a list of all the amenities and dining options for up to 100 exits on down the road.

You can sort your iExit results by type (hotels, gas, fast/slow food, coffee) or identify favorite outlets for more filtering choices. iExit also comes in $0.99 Food and Hotel versions (not much point in buying them while the main app is on sale, though) plus a free Lite version; the Lite version only shows what's coming up at the next exit. There's a similar free app called RoadAhead that Mel reviewed last year; on my next highway drive I'll compare it to the Lite version of iExit and see which one stacks up better. Hat tip to CNN for Roadside America and iExit.

Of course, the king of the American road guide castle is the venerable AAA Triptik. Readers of a certain vintage may remember the paper strip maps from AAA with manually highlighted routes, mileage indicators and approved motels & restaurants marked along the way. Triple-A has also changed with the times, as seen in the AAA Triptik Mobile app (free).

Integrating maps and navigation details from NAVTEQ, the app simulates the experience of the old paper Triptiks by letting you shake your iPhone (or press an onscreen button) to announce the next navigational maneuver; not exactly turn-by-turn, but not bad. It also lists AAA-approved hotels, restaurants, campgrounds and more. You can also get navigational help and geosearch from the built-in Maps app, naturally, and from apps such as Mapquest (free) and MotionX GPS Drive ($0.99 plus subscriptions). AAA's separate, free Roadside app is also a must-have for members, as it ties into the complimentary roadside service and towing options from the association.

If you'd rather document your journey with a photo journal, there are apps for that too. The latest entry is the free Rough Guides Trip Lens, incorporating technology from the HipGeo trip journal app. Trip Lens gives you an Indiana Jones-style map path with your photos along it, even if you took them far away from WiFi or cell towers -- the geocoded photos are cached and uploaded when you're back in range. You can share or send photos, see other shots taken nearby, and give family or friends a custom URL where they can follow along with your travels.

Keeping pointed in the right direction is one thing; keeping everyone from boredom-induced road coma is another thing entirely. BoingBoing points out the social trivia app Trivi.al, available in ad-supported or paid ($2.99) versions. Compete against other quizmasters around the country to see who's got the fastest finger and the sharpest recall... and watch the miles fly by.

Being on the road means being away from your familiar -- and presumably secure -- home and work WiFi networks. To keep your mobile connections protected on Random Truck Stop Network, a VPN is a good idea. The commercial VPN service Hotspot Shield secures your data with a bonus; compression routines squeeze your data requirements down so that if you're stuck using your 3G or 4G connection, you can minimize the amount of your quota that gets chewed up. Hotspot Shield subscriptions for a single iOS device run $0.99 a month or $9.99 per year, but there is a current deal via Parallels that gets you protection for up to five computers and five iOS devices for a year for $39.95.

Finally, when you do step away from the car for a few minutes of sunbathing, you'd better know how much UV you're absorbing before you burn (sticking to the car seat = an uncomfortable ride). Katie Couric's blog, of all places, points to the UV Safe Timer app (free). This tool takes the actual weather at your location into account when computing your sun exposure, along with your activities and skin type. A timer alerts you when you're due for a reapplication of sunscreen. And wear a hat!

Photo by C.G.P. Grey | flickr cc

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