Technology for Traveling I

Our Travel Technology. Our average trip length is now three to four weeks so we are very choosy about what we pack and carry. For cell phones we carry several. My wife uses a Verizon iPhone 5 and generally it works well internationally but at times service is costly. She usually keeps data turned off except when actually needed so to prevent unexpected costs. We can download Google Maps into her phone for major cities we will visit and can then use the GPS feature to navigate data free. I have a Verizon phone that when traveling internationally I turn off and switch to a dual sim GSM phone (originally a compact Samsung but now a Blu 5.5) with my primary service prepaid with OneSimCard. I use auto replenish and have a second U.S. phone number for family and friends to call. If it is a good value I will buy a country specific sim card while traveling in a specific country (worked out great in Australia).

We each have android tablets (a 7” and an 8”) which we use as e-readers. We have shared accounts with B&N Nook, Amazon Kindle Books and Google Play Books with all three apps on both tablets. We use the tablets to recover and send e-mail mainly because it’s easier than using the cell phones and we can better control data usage. Reading e-mail and composing replies is much faster on a tablet. In addition we keep photo libraries, games, music collections, keep our calendars and take notes with them. I also carry an adapter that plugs into the micro USB port on my tablet to access SD cards for downloading photos and thumb drives to transfer documents. I also have a Bluetooth folding keyboard and use it with the tablet for writing. I also use Google Drive to transfer and store files and it works fine when I have an internet connection but can get confusing at times without. I have had problems with downloaded documents on Google Drive not showing up when off the internet so I prefer now to save them to thumb drives. Just as the smart phone has the limitation of size the Android tablet can be awkward at transferring and working on photos and documents. It is also cumbersome to use for design work and uploading work to the internet.

I now also have an HP 10” 2 in 1 with Windows 10. It works great as a substitute for a full laptop and I can detach the keyboard and use it as a touch screen tablet. One of its biggest advantages over most tablets is it allows me to easily transfer documents between it and a thumb drive and with an adapter I can also plug in a full sized camera SD card to download recent photographs (the 2 in 1 has a large capacity micro SD card that I leave in as part of its primary storage).

I also travel with a compact digital camera that gives me more capability than a smart phone. My current camera is a Nikon compact that yields 22 Mb images and has a 35X zoom lens. My camera pouch/case has a pocket for a spare battery and a back-up SD card. If we are out for a whole day one charged battery isn’t enough. I also have had an SD card fail on me. It started acting up and I managed to transfer almost all the photos to another device before it failed completely. Ever since that day I have upgraded the quality of my SD cards and I always carry a spare. My wife is happy using her iPhone as a camera and can automatically transfer them to her tablet with bluetooth.

The miscellaneous stuff fits in a travel pouch. That includes a three port USB smart charger (it adjusts output based on the needs of the device plugged in),  power banks to keep tablets running on long flights etcetera. We also carry country specific power plug adaptors (power converters are usually not necessary as most modern electronic devices will handle multiple currents), various Apple cables 😦 and a couple of micro-USB charging cables. I also have two USB cables that can switch tips including micro-USB, various Apple tips and USB C and USB mini that saves some cable tangle. I also take along spare SD cards and a couple of thumb drives and a good quality compact set of headphones.

While this may seem like a lot it will all fit comfortably in a small backpack along with toiletries and more and weighs less than five or six pounds.

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International Travel and Email

You’re traveling and you go to recover your email and, without warning, access is denied. If you travel overseas and you haven’t experienced it yet, you eventually will. We already use or have used multiple email accounts with primarily Google, Apple and MicroSoft and have had degrees of this issue with each one.

Our experience is that MS Outlook is the most problematic and difficult to get working again but almost all of them have similar protocols. They detect that you are accessing your account from an international IP address, think that you are being hacked and then lock your account and send out a notice to that effect. You can arrange to be notified by most of them via text message but you still have to go thru the process of going online, verifying your account information and confirming that you were the one that triggered the event; all while using unsecured public internet service or paying an internet fee. There have also been times when our emails just stop, leaving us to try and figure out what happened.

Frequently our email begins to get delayed for hours or a day while traveling and we’ve never found an explanation. When that happens it is usually a problem that effects most of our email accounts and is something we have just accepted in the past. The issue where access gets denied is, at times, a much bigger bother.

A couple of years ago we looked into options that would avoid these issues and we found GMX. This is a German based email provider that actually promotes their solution to the problem. It seems they just don’t put the sort of security systems in place that Gmail and Outlook use. Maybe for some that is problematic but we are not sure what value hackers would get from reading our email, other than picking up an address or two. We have set up a number of GMX accounts and when we travel we have email forwarded to them. This avoids the problem with the main accounts and we can also selectively forward specific emails like notices of credit card transactions or messages from specific people. All in all this approach has worked out pretty well.

Another tip regarding email: if you are concerned that you are not getting messages and you use an email application, the best way to double check is to use a browser and log directly into your email server (Apple iCloud account, Google Gmail account, etc.). We also request that our family members and friends time and date their e-mails at the beginning of the text so we can be made aware of excessive delays. (We know we can display the “long header” and get this info, but having it in the text is easy to recognize and actually more accurate).

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Cell Phone Navigation

Smart phone navigation without using data, two apps.

Navigating Without Data

If you are like us, cell usage, while getting less expensive, can still sneak up and bite out a chunk of your budget now and than. Often this happens while having to use data in a foreign country. Lost in a European city one afternoon I used up $15 of data just getting us oriented as to which way to walk.

With the right cell phone map app and proper usage you can navigate a foreign city without needing a data connection. It’s the map that needs to be acquired from the internet that costs data. Most smart phones have GPS built in that does not require data to find its location. The phone always knows where it is, it just can’t show you without a map. By selecting the right app and downloading maps before your trip you can find your way around cities step by step without a data connection. There are several apps and ways to download maps for destinations before leaving on the trip. Because of limitations in how much stuff you can keep on your phone you may have to remove some maps before you load new ones, but this can be done from your hotel’s wifi as you travel.

One app you can do this with is Google Maps (instructions here). One limitation is you can only keep them on your phone for 30 days (google’s requirement). There is also an app called Citymaps available for Android and iPhone that does the same thing without the 30 day limitation. Both of these apps will also include points of interest and bars, coffee shops, restaurants and hotels. If you do use data they will also update with current reviews.

There are also tablets that have built-in GPS but they are less common. Before leaving, make sure that your tablet/pad has an independent GPS function or you will be frustrated.

International Cell Service Options

Smart cell phones are one of modern life’s miracles but they also present multiple issues in international travel. U.S. based cell service is usually a costly option when traveling outside of America and, from experience, we’ve found it is often not the most reliable option. Before you leave on a trip, contact your carrier to find out what your options are and the potential costs.

CDMA vs. GSM, Prepaid vs. Contract Service.
There are three U.S. based CDMA providers: Verizon, Sprint and U.S. Cellular. While these companies offer international roaming, there may be countries where the service doesn’t work or is unreliable. It is also dependent on your specific phone (i.e. Verizon service is not available with iPhone 4). These providers offer special international plans but they are limited to specific countries and vary by cost. Again, we recommend that you find out your specific options before traveling.

All the rest of the U.S. service providers use GSM, as does the rest of the world. Because of this, phones from these providers  are more likely to work reliably while traveling internationally.  Their service costs can still be high so, again, we recommend that you find out your specific options and costs before traveling.

We would also recommend that you find out if your phone is unlocked or if it can be so that you can buy a sim chip from a provider in a country you are visiting. Often this can provide really inexpensive service for calling home. (See information on our Australia trips for an example of this).

Another recommendation is to buy an inexpensive dual-sim GSM phone. There are dozens of options for less than $100 and this would allow you to use your U.S. GSM service along with a foreign sim card in the same phone while traveling.

If you use one of the popular discount service providers (i.e. Straight Talk, Metro PCS) or use a prepaid phone plan, you really need to look into you options for using these services for international roaming. With a majority of these, international service just isn’t available.

International Service Providers
International cut rate cell service providers are also an option. They all work on GSM phones and most provide plans that don’t expire and only charge for actual usage. Some of the providers are Mobal, OneSimCard and Cellular Abroad. While all advertise free incoming calls in a large number of countries, they all require the person calling you to dial an overseas phone number. This shifts the cost to the person calling you. We have used One Sim Card service for a number of years and they offer the option of paying for a U.S. based second service phone number ($10 year) and than your account is charged 20¢ a minute for incoming calls. (See our article on our Asia trip for a review on this service as well as Verizon.)

T-Mobile service may be the one U.S. provider with the best international roaming service. This is probably because of T-Mobile’s international roots and the structure of their network. If you are a T-Mobile customer you can add international service for $25 per month (as of Jan. 2017) and your roaming becomes part of your regular service. That means unlimited text, calls and data for that one monthly fee.

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Staying In Touch

Cell Phones & Cruise Ship Communications

If you are a frequent cruiser or are just planning a vacation you need to know your cell phone and internet options and costs. First, using the onboard phone service to place a call home can cost $4 to $6 per minute. Next, as of 2015 there is only one U.S. cellular provider that offers an onboard cruise calling package, while before that there were several. That provider is AT&T and the current situation is the result of AT&T being the owner of Cellular At Sea, the major cell service provider to the cruise industry.

Short of being an AT&T customer and buying the AT&T cruise package (currently $30 for 50 minutes as of Feb 2017) your only option for cellular calling on a cruise ship at sea is to pay a couple of dollars per minute on average. That doesn’t mean that you are completely without options but it has certainly increased costs recently.

You also need to be aware that the at-sea service on a cruise ship switches on and off as the ship gets to within range of a shore based service. This can work to your advantage at times but can also cost you if your are not paying attention.

Generally text messaging is a relatively low cost option. Depending on your service (check with your provider) received messages will cost between 5¢ and 25¢ each with outgoing texts costing 25¢ to 50¢ each. We use texting mostly at sea now and have family and friends notify us by text if they have sent e-mails so we can recover them on a timely basis. In my case even my OneSimCard service, while it cannot send and receive calls while at sea will send and receive text messages (no large MMS though).

There are basically two options for staying in touch with home while cruising. First is to wait until you are in a port and use international roaming if outside of the U.S. or Canada (see our article on International Cell Service) or call home directly if in the U.S. (Alaska & Hawaii) Canada (many plans include Canada & Mexico, Puerto Rico or U.S. Virgin Islands as well). Be careful of Caribbean island services as they can be pretty expensive though. The second is to use internet on the ship for Skype or other VOIP service. There are a number of smart phone apps that allow you to make calls using wifi like MagicApp which is available if you are a Magic Jack customer and additionally there are wifi calling apps from One Sim Card and other service providers. It should also be noted that many cruise ships will provide free phone service for family emergencies.

FYI, Verizon has a program called TravelPass that works in about 65 countries. It must be activated and when you use your phone overseas you get 24 hours of service for $10 and you use the service allowance on your account as if you were in the U.S. with no additional costs.  Before you use check that the country you are in is on the list. Be careful how you use it, as a single text message can activate the 24 hours and if you don’t do anything else that text will have cost you $10. You can also call Verizon internationally to switch this off and on though. Verizon also offers a package of international minutes ($40 for 100 minutes or $80 for 250 for 30 days) that work in a larger number of countries. It did work originally on cruise ships but that stopped a year or two ago.

Internet service on cruise ships has generally improved a lot over the past few years but that has come at a cost. Probably to offset their increased costs there has been a number of new internet packages popping up that require buying bigger segments of time with increased costs. If the internet and staying in touch is really important to you, one recommendation is to check with your cruise line before the cruise to see if there are discounts for buying before boarding the ship (Royal Caribbean is one doing this). Additionally most cruise lines offer service that can be either purchased for a number of minutes or a day at a time.

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