In the wilderness and wired for convenience

iPhone vacation apps help you document a trip along the way

By Elizabeth A. Plageman
Globe Correspondent / December 5, 2010

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My family and I returned from a three-week road trip to Yellowstone to find a personalized postcard we had sent to ourselves. Instead of the typical grizzly or breathtaking mountain view, the picture on the front showed our two boys fishing at the secluded spot where we had caught a 16 1/2-inch cutthroat trout.

The postcard, which I also sent to relatives and friends, was a stunning example of my efforts to “electronically enhance’’ our vacation with my iPhone. The device proved to be useful and fun in a variety of ways. I had a few missteps, but they had their place in my electronic education.

Before the trip, I downloaded a variety of applications for the iPhone from Apple’s iTunes store. I found them by searching the web for “iPhone vacation apps,’’ or variations specific to our destination (“iPhone apps, Yellowstone’’). Some were free; others cost a few dollars.

One of the apps I liked best, dubbed My Vacation, allowed me to document the trip with daily iPhone journal entries and photos. Thanks to the phone’s GPS, the app automatically mapped where each photo was taken. That, coupled with the ability to add captions, meant that by the end of the trip my photos were already labeled and organized. No more mystery shots.

Another plus: My Vacation allowed me to e-mail individual photos to family and friends and post them to my Twitter account (the caption became the Twitter text). After I got home, I realized that I could have posted my daily journal entries and associated photos to Facebook. Next time.

I did, however, take advantage of the app’s connection to Flickr, the photo-sharing website. I created a photo album and slideshow on Flickr that we have thoroughly enjoyed.

Electronic communications are great, but what is a vacation without postcards? SnapShot Postcard promised to convert my iPhone photos to printed postcards — complete with personal message — and even mail them. Ever the skeptic, I used the app, but also bought and mailed a few regular cards. I needn’t have worried. The card I sent “to us from us’’ came out beautifully, and is now on the fridge.

Although my husband and I were excited to drive across the country, that was tempered by the reality of our easily bored sons, 11 and 13. Several apps came to the rescue. For example, the boys were mesmerized by games like Rat on the Run and Stop & Go.

Also, Family Car Games provided instructions for 100 no-equipment-necessary games that even the driver could participate in. The first few games we tried were disappointing. However, we never came close to exploring all 100, so I’ll keep this one for future trips.

We enjoy books on tape, so I also went for the iPhone equivalent through Free AudioBooks. This app cost $1.99, but gave me access to 2,947 classics available through the public domain. I downloaded several, from “The Biography of a Grizzly’’ by Ernest Thompson Seton to “The Oregon Trail’’ by Francis Parkman Jr. I also found a variety of free audio lectures through iTunes U.

Attempts to actually listen to these recordings brought one of the first glitches in our adventure. I had asked my 17-year-old nephew beforehand for his advice on how to link the iPhone to our car’s audio system. His immediate response (through Facebook): Buy a cassette adapter. “That’s what I use, Aunt Lisa.’’

I promptly ordered the device, and a few weeks before our trip tested it during an hours-long drive in our sedan. It worked perfectly.

Halfway to Wyoming in our other car, a van, we settled in to listen to “Ox Team Days on the Oregon Trail’’ by Ezra Meeker. After about 10 minutes, we were hooked. But suddenly the reading stopped and the adapter popped out of the tape deck. I gently pushed it back in. It popped out again. Repeat. Several times.

We gave up on “Ox Team Days,’’ but successfully got through “Biography of a Grizzly’’ and a wonderful lecture from the University of Wisconsin on the wolves of Yellowstone. All additional attempts, however, were futile. The adapter simply wouldn’t stay put.

In a separate frustration, I learned the value of backups for the iPhone. Although I regularly recharged it while driving with an adapter that fit into the cigarette lighter, it still occasionally ran out of juice. This happened a few times when I either forgot to recharge, or we had been out in the wilderness and used up the available power.

That’s what happened for the trout. I had just taken a few photos of the boys fishing when my husband landed the big fish we later had for dinner. He held up the beauty for a picture, but the iPhone was dead. Fortunately, I had also brought along an old hand-me-down digital camera that saved the day.

Reception — and access to a wireless network — can also be tricky. I couldn’t get coverage from our remote campsite in the shadow of a mountain some 10 miles from the main road. Then a fellow camper told us his coverage was fine, and sure enough, I found that walking 60 yards toward a more open area worked.

From there I regularly checked the weather forecast in preparation for each day’s adventures (I strongly recommend the Weather Channel’s app), and made reservations for horseback-riding and a hotel. Overall, I found that coverage was surprisingly good throughout the trip. I was able to send e-mails and Twitter posts from a variety of other seemingly remote areas, including Old Faithful.

We’ve been home for a few weeks now, but I’m still reaping the benefits of my electronic experiment. On the train home from work recently, I watched a slideshow of the trip through My Vacation, complete with journal entries scrolling down one side.

Elizabeth A. Plageman can be reached at

If You Go

3-in-1 iPhone Home/Travel/Car Charger
Belkin Cassette Adapter for iPhone
AAA Discounts, free
Family Car Games, $1.99
Free Audiobooks, $1.99
My Vacation, $2.99
Rat on the Run, 99 cents
Stop & Go, free
The Weather Channel, free
SnapShot Postcard, first one free