Finding Your Way in Foreign Lands
with Steve McCarthy
Technology is a marvelous thing. Sometimes. You have to make it work for you, not the other way around. All this computer jazz is fun, but all the nards and skizzies are just tools. If they don't do what you need them to do, why have 'em? That's why I resisted getting a computer for so long and still don't have a cell phone. Still, I'm not the Neo-Luddite I make myself out to be. For the Grand Tour of the Isles, technology is going to be our friend.
The obvious thing is of course GPS. As long as you don't think it's the end all and be all, it's extremely useful ( see: http://roadtrippin-thebook.blogspot.com/2011/11/to-gps-or-not-gps.html) but beware of the limitations. What's really neat about my Garmin is the add in chip that gives me a full set of UK/Ireland maps. Well worth it. The chief limitation is of course, the GPS' major failing, it always wants to send you on a freeway (motorway over there) or some other main road. To defeat that, we'll be programming in the small towns on the back roads to force it to see it our way. You use the "Trip Planning" function and enter in a list of towns along your planned route, forcing the thing to send you on the way YOU want to go.
That leads us to another necessity. A real live, physical, analog piece of paper called a Map. You remember those, don't you? Big ol' fold out thing with squiggly lines all over it that you can never re-fold again? Yeah, those things. Thank God for the late, lamented Thomas Map Company. They came up with the brilliant idea of putting maps in books, each page an easy to read detailed map with arrows and page numbers for where the road went next. I cut my teeth on the LA County one when I drove buses back in the Dark Ages. Well, Michelin, you know, the French tire company? They've done the same thing and we got one for Ireland and the UK. Works on the same principle and has all the fine detail you need to explore the "B" roads. This will be a vital tool for nightly route planning and playing "Fool the GPS".
So, now I can hear all you Young Whippersnappers saying "What about Google?" What about it? Yes, it is a useful tool, but Google Maps (about the only really reliable set up) isn't as good as it used to be! The idiots there eliminated the most useful tool for long range planning. It used to be, you could make up to 24 alterations/destinations. Now, it's only about 10. Makes for a whole lot less flexibility. Yeah, I wrote them. they don't care. They know best. They are Google. sigh.
That doesn't mean we won't use it. It does make it easy to find places to stay and I've found that the Google ratings, along with those on Trip Advisor are the most reliable. They don't play games like Yelp does, forcing businesses to buy ads to boost ratings. I don't trust Yelp and won't use it. This whole internet rating game has changed the business world, and generally for the better. It forces businesses to offer the consumer better service and products. Instead of questionable magazine reviews that may or may not be influenced by those that advertise (except Consumer Reports and Cooks Magazine, who take no ads), you get reviews from actual users/visitors and overall, they are quite useful. Not infallible, mind you. Businesses have caught on and pay people to write good reviews and even bad ones for competitors. The trick is to read between the lines and look at the overall picture. One lousy review because the yabbo couldn't bring their hyena into the restaurant, or complaints about the WiFi shouldn't really deter you. Several reports of vermin in the room? Yeah, might want to stay away from that one. Look at the overall impression and weed out the whiners.
The coolest thing about Google Maps is of course, the street view. Not only can you take a look at the accommodation you have in mind, you can look at the neighborhood. And, most importantly for us, the parking. No, I don't want to park the TR on the street overnight! In large cities, I want something secure, in small towns, at least something off the street. The other cool thing is checking out possible backroads. Yeah, you drag the little person to the road, click the compass thingy to get you oriented, then, click on the road and away you go! This will help you see if it's a road you want to bother with or not. Damn, I've found some doozies out there! There is an added Bonus as well. Remember, this is the Land of Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road. Back in Aught Six, we flogged around Ireland in a Fiat Panda, learning to not only keep on the wrong side of the road, but shifting with the wrong hand. Now, using the street view, I can practice a bit, acclimating myself to the wrongness of it all, understanding the road signs and seeing what REALLY narrow roads look like. I'm telling ya, some of 'em look like back alleys, not backroads! So, a Mac AirBook will be accompanying us, as well as an iPhone so we can call ahead for rooms (remember, we've only made a couple of advance reservations, we don't want to get locked into a rigid time frame).
That brings up another limitation on technology. You'd think, with all the globalization, that cell phone service would be globalized too. No such luck. Each country seems to have it's own specific system that doesn't want to talk to your phone. Le Sigh. This requires that you do one of several things. Get a cheap "burner" phone in each country, or a sim card that will connect you to their system. Trouble is, you get a new phone number each time and you STILL can't ET it and phone home. To exacerbate it, say you are in Ireland and call a place in Scotland for a reservation. You give them your number. Then, when you get to Scotland, you have a new number, now they can't contact you. Poof, there goes the reservation. My good buddy Bill Morgan solved that for us. He and his main squeeze Danni took a trip to Spain, France, and Italy. He discovered that his provider here (AT&T in this case) offers an international plan for $60/month. It's not a contract deal, so, just sign up for a month or two, then cancel it when you come home. That allows you to use your phone just like you were at home. BIG WARNING!!! Only use your phone when you have to and ONLY use your hotel WiFi for anything involving the internet! You'll burn up your data plan REAL fast. Verizon has a plan that's similar to the AT&T, so pick your poison. The smaller carriers DO NOT SEEM to have such deals, unless you want Mexico or India, so you ARE stuck with one of the biggies.
The next bit of Techie Legerdemain is for our own communication. The TR is loud. It's a four wheel motorcycle. Usually, we wear earplugs under our Davida helmets to save what's left of our hearing. That means, Marianne has a white board to write me messages and route instructions. That's fine for a day or three. This trip is a WHOLE DAMN MONTH! Now, some guys might think that a whole month of not having their wife be able to talk to them for hours on end is a good thing. Maybe you need to evaluate your relationship. Just sayin'. The complexity of this trip, plus the desire to just be able to converse about what we see means that the white board just isn't going to cut it.
Technology and the Motorcycling Community to the rescue. Ever see those couples on their giant Honda Goldwings or Harleys? Ever see the boom mikes that comes out of their helmets? Yeah, they have communications. Used to be, they had to plug into a sound system on the bike. No more. Two words. Blue Tooth. Yeah, you get a unit that clamps onto each helmet. There's speakers that go inside the ear flaps and a boom mike. They are both synced to the Blue Tooth on your phone and Hey Presto, Robert is your Mother's Sister's Husband, you can talk to each other. It's Freakin' Amazing! Now here, you can dial your phone into Pandora or Spotify and get music, but over there, you'll burn through your data too fast. Enter the Blue Tooth MP3 player. That can sync in as well (or replace the phone) and again, Hey Presto, etc., you have tunes. We got the out fit from a company called Sena. It's the SMH-5 model. It comes with a pair of units, already set up to talk to each other. For a few bucks more, you can get one with an FM radio, but have you heard BBC1? Or RTE? I do have to tell you that when we got the units, I had to call their support people to get it to synch with Marianne's phone. A human answered on one ring (I know, right?) and were amazingly helpful. I had to download to the units a software update and the tech guy patiently walked be through the entire process. Oh, and because they're Blue Tooth, you can use them for hands off phone calls. Naturally, BE CAREFUL doing this. Even hands free calls ARE distracting. And another interesting concept, if your GPS has Blue Tooth (unfortunately, ours is not), pairing it with it means the directions will come through the headset! The other cool thing about this is that you can pair these units with others in other cars/motorcycles, so an entire group can yak back and forth. Them Motorcycle Folks have got this whole touring thing down!
So, Tech can be good, but remember, these gizmos are just tools. If they don't do what you need 'em to do, why bother?