Splash. That was the sound of summer's first cannonball jump off a diving board at a swimming pool somewhere in the suburbs.
That means we're swinging into high gear, vacation wise. For those of you planning or about to take a vay-cay, your portable gadgets in tow, I've got some tips on finding the best gas prices, airports, and hotel rooms.
Shop for Gas Before You Go
Gas isn't likely to get cheaper anytime soon. Several Web sites and mobile tools make it easy to find the lowest gas prices around the U.S. Here are a few to try before you set out on your road trip:
MapQuest Gas Prices
You can also compare nearby gas prices using your cell phone. Mobio's free Cheap Gas utility runs on BlackBerry, Nokia, HTC, Sony Ericsson, and Palm Treo smart phones.
Many GPS systems let you check current gas prices along the route you're traveling. In some cases, gas prices are included as part of an optional traffic update service.
For example, the optional MSN Direct Receiver ($125) sends updated traffic, gas prices, and movie show times to the Garmin Nuvi 760 and other GPS devices. Three months of free service are included with the purchase of the MSN Direct Receiver. After that, it's $60 annually.
Fly Through Smaller Airports, When Possible
Airports serving smaller metro areas, or smaller airports serving large metro areas, are usually less crowded and hectic than large airports serving large metro areas. As a result, smaller airports are often much less stressful for departures, arrivals, and layovers.
Example: During a recent trip, my partner Nick and I flew into and out of the Richmond International Airport in Virginia. Upon arriving at the airport for our return flight, we briefly double-parked at an uncrowded passenger drop-off area in front of the terminal. We quickly unloaded and checked our bags with a curbside SkyCap.
Because there were no other travelers nearby, and the baggage check-in desk was so close to the curb, I was able to stand beside the rental car during most of our brief check-in process. (Airport security regulations around the U.S. prohibit leaving your car unattended except at designated parking areas.)
The entire baggage drop off/check-in process took under 5 minutes. And it was easier than having to roll my heavy suitcase from the rental car drop-off location back to the airport terminal.
Also, like many smaller airports, the Richmond airport offers free Wi-Fi throughout the departure gates. It also has a free business center, with cubicle-style desks, chairs, and wireless and wired Internet access. Some desks even have a phone line for dial-up.
The downside: As airlines are increasingly squeezed by rising fuel costs and other pressures, they're more likely to reduce flights into smaller, less-profitable markets. The supply and demand imbalance may cause flights via these airports to become more expensive.
Other tech-friendly airports include Denver; Portland, Oregon; Las Vegas; and Phoenix. For more about the best airports and airlines for tech-savvy travelers, read "The Most and Least Wired Airlines and Airports."
Try a New Hotel Chain
Maybe you've grown accustomed to always staying at a Marriott, an Omni, or another well-established hotel chain. Suggestion: Try one of the newer hotel chains catering to tech-savvy travelers.
Hyatt Place has become a favorite of mine. The chain of about 108 hotels, many of them converted from AmeriSuites properties, has been springing up around the U.S. over the past few years.
Hyatt Place hotel rooms come equipped with free Wi-Fi and 42-inch-LCD TVs, to which you can connect your laptop, MP3 player, or portable DVD or game player. If you need to print, you can send your documents to the hotel's guest-use printer via EFI's PrintMe service. Prints are free, and they're secure. Your document isn't printed until you punch in a document ID code at the printer. The PrintMe Web site supplies you with the document ID code.
The tech angle is carried over in Hyatt Place lobbies. To order from the 24-hour food service, you swipe your room card's magnetic stripe through the reader on a touch-screen terminal in the lobby. Or you can do it the analog way, by verbally giving your order to a hotel "host," as Hyatt Place refers to its public-interfacing employees.
Before long, an employee--perhaps the same person who checked you in--will bring your food. You can eat your meal at the Starbucks coffee/wine and beer bar, at a table in the lobby, or take it back to your room.
Last fall, I wrote about my stay at the Hyatt Place in Greensboro, North Carolina. (You can view a video of my hotel room at my blog Traveler 2.0.) The Greensboro hotel was still converting to the Hyatt Place format, unfortunately, so I didn't get the full experience.
A few weeks ago, I spent two nights at the Hyatt Place Atlanta/Buckhead, which has been in operation for over a year. Unlike my stay at the Greensboro Hyatt Place, I had absolutely no problems using the in-room wireless network connection, and the signal was strong.
The Hyatt Place Atlanta/Buckhead's food was surprisingly good and reasonably priced (for a hotel). The delicious oven-roasted turkey and Swiss sandwich on a pretzel bun was $10.25. The hotel staff was friendly and efficient.
Downsides: Room rates aren't cheap at this property, located in a high-end area of Atlanta. Weekend rates are typically about $98 per night but jump to $189 during the week. Also, not all rooms have safes for locking up valuables, such as laptops.
Aside from Hyatt Place, some midmarket and budget hotel chains, such as Motel 6 and Marriott Courtyard, are upgrading their amenities to appeal to traveling techies and fans of high-style hotels. Visit my blog for more about the Motel 6 and Marriott Courtyard upgrades at my blog.