Staycations Beat the High Cost of Travel This Summer

It doesn’t look good.  Traveling is costing so much more this year than last that the options are few for many consumers.  It doesn’t mean that there can be no fun, however.  It just means that the available funds must be more wisely spent.  Maybe I can help!Some of my favorite at-home and near-home activities revolve around the world of technology, so this is where I will begin.

Movies in the comfort of your own home

Watching movies is a good and inexpensive way to pass the time at home.  Netflix, starting at $4.99 per month, and Blockbuster Total Access, starting at $3.99 per month are the two mainstays of movies-by-mail.  Both offer quick turn-around from ordering in your “queue” to at-home delivery of more movies than you could ever watch.  Both have all the mainstream movies. Each has its own distinct mix of lesser known, arthouse and independent films, so peruse the offerings that each has available.  Netflix offers a growing number of downloadable  (Windows PC only) titles for near instant gratification. Blockbuster offers the option of in-store exchange. I’ve been pleased with both services.  I must say that, for me, the in-store exchange is welcome.  In addition, Blockbuster sends reminders to print two coded coupons per month movie or video game rentals per month at no additional charge.  When I have a hankering for something fresh and new NOW, it’s as close as my local Blockbuster store.  I like it!

Get the brand new $100 Netflix Player by Roku, a small and lightweight box that can stream over broadband or wired connection any of the growing list of 10,000 titles to your connected TV, from standard analog to the latest HDMI-connected HDTV. (Read about it HERE).

Get a new TV

Instead of blowing the vacation budget on travel, maybe now is the time to get that new High Definition TV for the family to enjoy.  Depending upon the size you want and the size of your budget, there are many great choices.  You might even spend less on this than you had allotted for part of your vacation!

The mainstream technologies are these: LCD, plasma, DLP and LCOS.

The flattest, thinnest panels are LCD and plasma.  Plasma screen sizes start at over 40-inches.  LCD sets are available in smaller and much larger sizes.  LCD is generally accepted as the best way to go in environments that are not ideal for a home theater. That is, where there may be lots of light.  Also, today’s mainstream LCDs don’t show blacks as well as do most plasma sets.  Most consumers are not so discerning to care, however!  Longevity on either is going to be a very long time.  In sizes that both technologies have in common, LCDs can be less expensive, but there are high-end LCD panels that are quite expensive.  Let your eyes be your guide and don’t pay for what you cannot see or do not care about.  To those in the know, however, “they” say that plasma sets offer the best picture quality overall, cost aside.  The best plasma sets can cost upwards of $3000 for 50-inch models.  I think the best is Pioneer Kuro. Were I to buy plasma today, it would be one of these (and it will likely be just that in the coming months).  In LCD, I think it is hard to beat the picture on Sharp Aquos models.  I currently have one of these sets.  Samsung, Panasonic, Toshiba and LG are other fine and popular brands. Many consumers also like Vizio and Westinghouse LCD TVs. IF you are in the market for this technology, LOOK at the candidates and compare them, as well as comparing them to other technologies. Consider your budget and don’t pay for technology in a new TV that you cannot see or hear.  In other words, don’t pay for what is NOT important to you.

If you don’t care about the flattest, thinnest sets available and if it will NEVER be a candidate to hang on the wall, then you may wish to look at DLP technology from several brands. DLP technology is made by Texas Instruments and is inside all DLP sets regardless of brand.  Currently, you will find DLP TVs from Mitsubishi, Optoma, RCA, Samsung, and Toshiba.  DLP is a rear-projection technology that looks pretty good to my eyes.  Every several years a $250-ish lamp will need to be replaced.  That’s about it.  The viewing angle on this and most other rear projection sets is not as wide as for plasma sets, for example, so be sure this is not an issue. Size for size, DLP sets are generally less expensive than the others, too.   Sizes start at 50 inches and range as large as 73 inches!

Finally, there is LCOS technology.  Also a rear projection technology, Liquid Crystal on Silicon is generally regarded as the best of the big-screen rear projection technologies, and I concur.  Were I looking for a rear projection model in screen sizes from 58- to 70-inches, my choice would be for the brilliant JVC HD-ILA sets, all of which use this outstanding technology.  Cabinet depths range from under 11 inches to just over 20 inches. Cost is relatively reasonable, too.  Remember, these are premium sets with remarkable clarity. They range (retail) in price from $3300 to $4500, but expect to find them starting at as little as $2500 online. That’s not much money for a huge, top-notch display.

Imagine the fun with family and guests watching a smashing picture with kickin’ sound in your own home at various times throughout the summer season and beyond. Of course, you’ll have to offer them something to eat, and I’ll cover that topic a bit later.

Get Home Theater Sound

Gone are the days when lots of expensive and bulky equipment was a requirement for spectacular home theater sound.  Make no mistake, it IS the sound that makes the movie and not the size or type of video display.  Try this the next time you visit a theater with great surround sound.  It will help if you are seeing an action adventure movie, by the way.  During a particularly awesome and exciting scene during which you are hyper aware of the audio, simply close your eyes to feel and hear ONLY the sound.  I will have proved my point. The sound will have a visceral affect upon you that is apart from the visuals.

Yes, you can get the nice AV receiver for several hundred dollars and spend hundreds of thousands on at least five nice speakers, plus a super subwoofer to feel those low and rumbling tones.  Who’s going to install the system?  And how much is everyone else in the house going to love learning how to operate it? Go wireless with all the connections if you are on a big budget.  None of the systems are simple to operate and do you really want the bulk and clutter? Or . . .

You can do what I am doing.  I’m in the process of de-cluttering Gadget Central.  Gone are my three big AV receivers for surround sound in three different rooms. Gone are my big and powerful speakers and subs and all the wiring, AND all the complexity.  It’s amazingly simple and uncluttered looking now. We’ve started with our first flat panel TV and we’re going with a sound bar.

So-called sound bars are thin and long units with numerous speakers inside that live below your flat panel TV, bolted to the wall-mounting holes in the back of virtually all of these sets.  The output from the TV, either analog or digital, is connected directly to the sound bar. All sound is routed through the sound bar, with its own power source, of course.  The surround sound effect is compelling, not overpowering, and no, there are not really surround speakers to the side and rear, but your ears and brain would swear they are there.  Equipped with decoders for both Dolby and DTS sound, this uncluttered look and great sound is simple for anyone to operate and definitely unclutters the room with its sleek appearance.

The one I’ve selected to go with is from Sound Matters and the product is called SLIMstage, available in three models to accompany larger than 30-inch displays, larger than 40-inch displays and the big one, to accompany displays larger than 50 inches and priced from $699 to $1099.  That’s all and that’s it.  Clean and neat, uncomplicated and uncluttered, and priced right, too, for great sound that will last for years and years.  It’s the right trade-off of bulk and complexity for a useful, uncluttered environment that makes so very much sense to me.  Who wouldn’t love the simplicity of such a solution?  Other products in this category include ZVox, Polk Audio, Samsung, and others.

TiVo can’t be beat!

The winner and still champ in the DVR wars is TiVo. That’s my take. Staycationers can get a new High Def TiVo DVR from my friends at Weaknees and enjoy dual tuners and up to a whopping 292 hours of HD recording. Prices start at $299.  If you already have a TiVo DVR, consider supersizing it with a TiVo upgrade kit from Weaknees.  Kits start at under $100!  They’re experts at what they do, my “go to” guys in this business that I use and recommend without hesitation.  Make the most of being at home with a new TiVo or upgrade your own from Weaknees.  Click the link above or call 1-888-WEAKNEES.  TiVo units operate with your antenna or cable service only and NOT with satellite.

While I’m on the subject, I also want to let you know that TiVo and Amazon have teamed up to allow movie downloads straight to your TiVo for not much money.  Learn more about TiVo Unbox here.

Movie rentals on Apple TV or from iTunes

Here’s another option or two.  Download movies from iTunes to your computer and transfer to your iPod.  OR, buy AppleTV and rent or buy movies that show through AppleTV on your TV. More info is here.

Get satellite TV

Get more programming than your can shake a stick at with satellite TV, and get more High Def channels, too.  I’ve seen the ads saying that Dish TV’s DVR is “better than TiVo” but I don’t believe it.  That claim is a quote from one reviewer, and that person was not Mr. Gadget.  On the other hand, satellite TV programming looks great and I like it for the variety offered.  Maybe your family would enjoy expanded satellite programming offered by DirecTV or Dish.  You’ll find prices comparable or less than what you are now paying for cable TV.  Both services offer their own DVR. For me, having TiVo is most important, but I realize that many of you just do not care.  Having any DVR is better than not having a DVR.

Get your TV and Internet service from your phone company

Verizon’s FiOS is F A S T!  Internet flies over their fiber optic cable and their TV service does, too. If you are a Verizon customer eligible for the service, check it out.  Everyone I know who has it loves it. AT&T’s new high speed U-verse service is in many ways similar, though few areas are up and running.  If you are eligible for one of these, please do check it out.

If neither is available, at least look into higher speed DSL for your Internet service if you eligible for this service.  I’m an AT&T customer with their $35/month 6 Mbps downstream service and up to 768 Kbps upstream.  Service is excellent and rarely goes down.  Speed is consistent, which is more than I can say for those I know with Internet services from their cable companies, even though their speeds often exceed mine under the best circumstances. Still, I believe that DSL is usually a better choice, if available, for its lesser price and more consistent service speeds in most areas.

Internet from your cable company

Enjoy surfing in your underwear on your staycation, on your computer, that is.  Switch from dial-up to high speed or from high speed to higher speed if cable is the way to go in your area.  Higher speeds are required for heavier, faster downloads and for video streaming.  Maybe this is a good way to enjoy those vacation dollars, perhaps for only little more than you now spend per month on the Internet service you already have.

Install wireless Internet in your home

With wireless service, you can share your connectivity with those of your choosing within your home, roam freely and still be connected and share files wirelessly between computers.  The cost is relatively little and the security is good and reliable.

Why wireless?  For staycationers, especially those with laptop computers or those who may have visitors who may wish to come with their laptops, offering them connectivity is a nice touch for a one-time fee.

AT&T DSL customers are advised to get ONLY the 2Wire devices offered exclusively by AT&T to their customers from their online store.  This also includes BellSouth customers.  Find the 2Wire DSL Gateway here. In my experience, this is the ONLY one to get for AT&T customers.  It is superior to all others I’ve tested.  As a matter of fact, so satisfied am I with their product that I do not even bother testing others.  It is a waste of my time.  This product combines a DSL modem and wireless router in one product.  It is well worth the $79 it sells for but be sure to investigate any rebates that may be available.

If you are a DSL customer from another phone company or a cable modem customer from a cable company, then you may wish to search on the outside for your wireless solution.  In this case, I’d look for the latest “N” router from the likes of D-Link or Belkin if you are a Mac user. These brands seem to be the most Mac-friendly and are also fine for Windows users.  Beyond these brands, Windows users should also do well with Linksys wireless routers.  The new “N” routers range in price from about $70 to $200.

Be a good host to family and friends

Lots of suggestions here.  Get a new outdoor grill.  From simple to sublime, from the $300 range to the stratosphere, outdoor grills are staycation favorites that keep on giving long after the summer rush.  You may be a charcoal lover.  I’m more the gas grill type.

Look at the Weber products as a good place to begin. From their simple original Weber kettle design One-Touch Silver 18-1/2” model to an array or gas grills, you are sure to find one to like here.

Look at their three-burner Spirit E-310 that sells for as little as $400 as a good candidate to feed the troops on a budget.  The only downside I know on this and similar designs is that the burners run from left to right instead of front to back.  This design does not allow reliable convection cooking wherein you might have the left side on and the center and right side off.  The meat, chicken or fish would be on the right, cooking from the indirect heat on the left. No flare-ups, no burning, for example.  This is an impossibility with the left-to-right configuration.

Fiesta Gas Grills showed a new digital model at the recent Hardware Show I attended in Las Vegas. It seemed to have all the bells and whistles and burners of the right kind and configuration.  Digital controls allow precise settings at very accurate temperatures.  I’ve not tested it, but I look forward to doing so in a month or so.  In the meantime, visit Fiesta Grills and look around at their well-regarded products, searching for where they are available in your area.

You will likely spend much more for a larger grill with front-to-back burners, but, hey, it’s for your enjoyment this summer season and potentially the year round if you live where there is mostly sunshine as I do.  Even if your outdoor grilling weather is a short season, grilling is a terrific activity you can enjoy with family and friends at far less expense than many far away vacations.

Spectacular beverages

While we are in the entertaining mood, is there anything better than a vat of mixed beverages, such as margaritas, smoothies, daiquiris and slides?  I think not!  Sure, a big bucket loaded with ice and cold beer is mighty fine, but nothing says fun and vacation better than some adult beverages with margaritas topping the list, especially if I can show you how to make buckets of perfect margaritas as easy as one-two-three.  You know I have the answer!  Last year’s Margaritaville Frozen Concoction Maker was a hit and I had lots of fun testing it.  This year, it’s bigger and better than ever.   Starting at $200, this automated device can shave or crush the ice from a top-mounted reservoir, deliver the exact proportion to the blender jar below and then the powerful motor blends the mix for the perfect outcome. It can also simply shave the ice for the best sno-cone ever.  Make virgin beverages for the kids and more active libations for adults.

Get the high capacity $380 Fiji Frozen Concoction Maker that’s pre-programmed for these beverages along with an ice reservoir that holds enough to make two and a half pitchers of frozen drink.  Manual control allows you to blend and shave ice to your ideal consistency.  This is quite some machine!  It’s a small price to pay for so much fun and enjoyment compared to what you won’t be spending on gas and lodging, so go ahead and treat yourself and guests.

The Perfect Salsa is easy to make with the perfect blender

Another innovation found at the recent Hardware Show in Las Vegas was the Oster Fusion blender.  With its reversible motor and innovative blade technology, this $100 (retail) blender is, of course, a blender, but I actually took the challenge at the show and made some of THE best salsa I’ve ever eaten.  Other blenders without this technology puree the ingredients.  With my own hands and in front of my own eyes, I made perfectly chunky salsa, and not a thimbleful, either.  It was enough to fill your small soup bowl.  And in seconds more, another batch could follow. From small quantities of mixed beverages and the usual blending duties, to the best salsa, made easily, you’ll love this blender as I do now in the kitchens of Gadget Central.

Get my favorite barbecue and seasoning salt – The original Santa Maria Bar-B-Que Salt

There’s nothing like it and nothing better for my money.  It’s been my favorite for more than 30 years.  Get the best and the original, not available in stores. Good on just about everything, from meat and fish, to chicken, turkey and game birds, eggs and even cottage cheese and veggies.

It’s a staple here at Gadget Central and a gift we often bestow upon our guests.  Try it and you’ll be hooked.  Santa Maria Bar-B-Que Salt is the perfect accompaniment to your grill or broiler.  Your family and guests will thank you for using it.  Check out their recipes!  Be sure to let them know Mr. Gadget sent you!

Kitchen utensils and gadgets to make life easier and more fun

Treat yourself and family to these useful goodies, something different and fun to while away the time on your staycations and into the future.  Here are some of my favorites.

From Edgecraft:

The best knife sharpeners and best-for-the-price kitchen knives.

The best waffle makers and hot beverage appliances.

Silicone cookwear and gadgets are my new favorites!  The largest collection of high quality silicone products I’ve seen is from Silicone Zone. Potholders, bakeware, tools and gadgets, cutting boards and interesting and different goodies galore.

   

  

   

Get rid of many of your metal products, not all, but many of them, replaced by their silicone bakeware. Dump your old cotton oven mitts and get their grid potholders.  And the colors!  You’ll think you are on vacation in your own home with several of their inexpensive gadgets and indispensable, colorful tools.

More fun with silicone and other kitchen tools

Do an inexpensive kitchen re-do.  That is re-do your kitchen gadgets.  It will change the way you use your kitchen, providing fun that may be missing now.  There are so many inexpensive and useful tools and gadgets to explore, so start exploring and enjoy your staycation!

From iSi

From OXO Good Grips

From Zyliss

From Microplane

From Jokari

From Chef’s Planet