Index to Tips & Tech

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Cell Service at Sea (Update)

Another Thought on Cruise Ship Phone Calls

We are getting ready for an extended trip, which will include a trans-Atlantic cruise and are going thru our check lists. Reviewing our communications options is high on the list involving several decisions we usually need to make.

Our primary cell service is with Verizon. With them we can choose between a 30 day package called “International Travel 100 (minutes) Talk” for $40 or “TravelPass” which costs $10 a day, only when used*, for basically unlimited calls and text and uses our data allotment. Normally we go with the Travel 100 with back-up on my OneSimCard phone. If a situation arises we can have Verizon switch us over to TravelPass during the trip.

In the last couple of years Cruise ship communications has been the biggest problem. AT&T controls this business and without having an AT&T account and buying a “cruise package”, most calls average $2.50+ per minute. As a general policy we try and restrict communications to text (incoming is free and sent messages are 25¢) and email.

We have now realized that we have some additional options. We use MagicJack for our home phone service. We’ve used this service for over six years. When we started this service we transferred our home number to the MagicJack service and since that time we have moved twice and it has allowed us to keep our number wherever we move. We also have friends that travel with a MagicJack and if they have internet they can make calls from their laptops.

Now MagicJack has a mobile App. You can use it with a cell phone, a pad or a laptop and make calls using WiFi. You can also take calls that are made to your home number while traveling (on a cell phone you can also do this thru cellular service).

We have now loaded the app on a pad we take with us and will try it out and report when we get back.

After talking with OneSimCard they suggested we take a look at their VOIP app on the phone using their sim card and call using WiFi.

These could represent serious savings. WiFi service on cruise ships has been getting faster and cheaper over the past few years while cellular service cost has been going up. Many people are now buying internet packages when they cruise and in our case, because of our frequent cruising status, we get a large allotment at no charge.

We loaded these apps and have made a few no cost test calls using our home WiFi and everything worked fine. This still needs to be tested on the cruise ship and we’ll let you know in June when we’re back.

The State Department Has Some Advice For You

DC Snow

Extra Protection While Traveling

The United States State Department has a program to help you while you travel internationally. Travelers are urged to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive security messages and make it easier to locate you in an emergency. The State Department uses security messages to convey information to you about terrorist threats, security incidents, planned demonstrations, along with information about natural disasters.

Enrollment is free and it creates an account that includes your contact information along with how to get in touch with your emergency contacts should something happen. You use the account online to update your travel information before and while you travel, which is automatically transferred to embassies and consulates near your travel locations.

Sometimes having Big Brother watch you might be a good thing…

Travel, Credit Cards & Identity Theft

Credit Cards for International Travel

These are interesting times we live in when it comes to financially protecting ourselves. Just the simple pastimes of shopping and travel can expose us to financial fraud and it does seem to be getting worse. A couple of years ago our son and a friend where cruising with is and the ship stopped in Mexico. On the pier they took advantage of  telephones advertising ten minute calls to the U.S. for $5. When they got home they were each notified that they had gone on a shopping spree in Romania and when  the charges for the phone came thru they were for over $30 instead of the advertised $5.

Over the years we have been notified a number of times about unauthorized use of our credit cards along with one an incident of identity theft. Once someone bought gold coins online shortly after we left the country (several days before that a rental car agent had everything needed, the card information, a copy of my drivers license and she knew we were leaving the country – maybe??). Another time we were notified that we had purchased several bicycles in Rome while we were traveling in Europe (I think that information was supplied from checking into a hotel in Italy). Another time someone bought a batch of train tickets in Germany shortly after we booked a hotel in Europe thru booking.com. The one case of real of identity theft was quickly caught by our identity theft protection service. Fortunately most credit card companies do not hold you libel for unauthorized charges.

Even considering the above, with the wide international acceptance of credit cards there is no reason to not make them your primary resource for paying while you travel. Often it can save you money  over making several currency exchanges. One important thing to understand is that the best card for your everyday needs at home may not be the best card for international travel. You need to shop wisely.

For years our preferred domestic card has been the Discover Card because of its points program. It also advertises that they don’t charge international processing fees, which made it seem a good choice for traveling. Unfortunately this card doesn’t often work internationally. We’ve had repeated conversations with customer service and while they claim that it is accepted anywhere that takes the Diners Club Card we’ve learned that this is far from true. Its been rejected at so many shops and restaurants that we don’t even ask any more. We have used it while traveling but only when dealing with large corporations like hotels and airlines.

We have also experienced frequent problems trying to use the American Express Card. It seems that there are whole regions where businesses won’t accept it. On a recent trip to Barbados we couldn’t find anyone that would take American Express. We also had them shut down our card while overseas even though we told them we would be traveling and I still can’t believe why that happened.

The good news is that Visa and Mastercard are accepted almost everywhere, which makes either one a good choice for the American traveler. There are some additional considerations in choosing a credit card for international travel.

  • Wide Acceptance – As already mentioned some cards can be a problem internationally and our experience is that you cannot trust their claims. At this time the only two cards available in America we will use is Visa and Mastercard.
  • Transaction Fees – Early on we learned that international transaction fees could add up quickly and you should select a card that doesn’t charge these fees. Of course there are exchange rates but you will pay those regardless of what card or exchange service you use.
  • Travel, Credit Cards & Purchase Protection – The best example of this feature is insurance protection if you use a card to rent a car. All cards have a catalog of these benefits from extended merchandise warranty to travel life insurance and some cards can better than others.
  • Earned Points and Rewards – This is a common feature of most cards today and are an important benefit for us. At home we select a card for payment that provides the greatest number of points for each use but internationally there are different priorities.
  • Security Policies –Fortunately the transition of most cards to imbedded chips has greatly improved security but there are still potential problems. Just to be safe we set up all our cards with notifications on all internet and phone charges. If possible we also prefer that notifications come by text message because often data isn’t available or affordable while traveling. We also notify the card companies of our travel plans but lately that doesn’t seem to be necessary –because of the chip  most aren’t interested.

Identity Protection

A number of years ago we weren’t concerned about identity theft – just didn’t think it was a high-risk problem. Over the past five or six years we have been victims more than once and now believe the protection is well worth the expense. Each recent attack was caught by our ID theft service quickly but we also take some additional steps to protect us.

We have used a couple of different services and our experience is they are very similar. We were however with Equifax and overseas when their data breach occurred and trying to deal with them was not a pleasant experience*.

For a good review on these services check out this article on  Reviews.com.

I think one of the best things we do to protect ourselves is to freeze our credit reports on a regular basis. All three agencies allow for you to do this and some identity theft protection services make this an easy process. while reporting agencies claim that you have to have a suspicion of a problem to use this service nobody will challenge you about doing this. The result is someone else cannot successfully apply for a card or loan in your name if you credit report is frozen.

Your credit report contains information about your payment history that all creditors and lenders use to make credit decisions about issuing you credit. When you freeze your credit report, creditors and lenders can’t pull your credit report or credit score**. Since most banks require a credit check, an application for credit would likely be denied. You can freeze your credit report at all three major credit bureaus, but it must usually be done individually.

To freeze your report go online to Equifax, or call 1-800-349-9960.

To freeze your report go online to Experian, or call 1-888-397-3742.

To freeze your report go online to TransUnion, or call 1-888-909-8872.

Also these freezes automatically expire after 90 days so it must be repeated. One additional advantage is the warnings that you get from your ID theft company will greatly diminish.

*Equifax’s web site wasn’t functioning and if we got a call thru to their switchboard  we spent almost an hour before giving up. We did send emails but they were never answered.

** This does work as I went to apply for a credit card that offered additional travel benefits and was turned down. They did send an email telling me my credit was frozen and if I would remove the freeze they would process the application again.

 

Ways to Save Money on Booking a Cruise

Getting the best deal on booking a cruise is a process very much like getting the best fare on a flight. Like all businesses, cruise lines want to get the most for every cabin and, like the airlines at the moment of departure, anything unsold has no future value. Economists call these items non-fungible, meaning they cannot be exchanged in the future. We’ve booked more than fifty cruises over the years and have discovered a few truths in this process. We have also discovered a few tricks that help us save money and reduce the outlay of deposit amounts.

Start By Researching Fares in the Market You’re Interested In

Like the cost of everything, cruise prices vary based on market conditions. Prices vary by the cruise line, the itinerary, the time of year and the cruise’s popularity.

Just like hotels and restaurants, cruise lines are generally priced by their expected level of service and their intended clientele. Carnival, an economy line, is structured to appeal to a younger group looking to party. Royal Caribbean, a mid-range price point, focuses on young families while Celebrity, a higher priced choice, focuses on an older demographic with higher expectations in service. Taking a quick look at a number of similar cruises will quickly give you an idea how this pricing element works.

An owners suite on RCL

Some itineraries are more popular than others and pricing reflects this difference. Alaska can be more expensive than the Caribbean and trans-Atlantic cruises are usually much less expensive than European cruises.

Finally, the time of year has a huge effect on pricing. The easiest example is Caribbean cruise prices in August compared with October. While summer is usually off-season in the Caribbean it is also school break time. By October the kids are back in school and demand has dropped accordingly and so have the fares.

Look at Add-On Expenses You’re Likely to Use

In addition to the cabin rate, you should also consider onboard expenses you are likely to incur. Included services vary by cruise lines and frequent cruiser status. In addition, most cruise lines are now offering onboard packages that can include laundry, internet, sodas, fancy coffees and bar drinks. Another major onboard expense is booking tours.

Make sure you understand what things are included in a cruise and if not what they are likely to cost you specifically. For example, some cruises include drinks while others may cost $500.00 or more for a drink package. Making this price comparison may actually justify the expense of an upgrade.

Decide What You Want in a Cabin

Picking a cabin category isn’t as straight forward as you would think. Most people assume that an inside cabin is the choice for saving money and, often it is, but not always. More and more the cruise lines are offering free add-ons as a sales promotion. These can include prepaid gratuities, drink packages and onboard credits. Sometimes incentives include one and at times all three. Often, inside cabins do not qualify for these free add-ons and that can have a big impact on the overall cost of the cruise.

At the time we make a reservation, this is a major consideration. When these promotions are being offered, an ocean view or veranda cabin can be less expensive than an inside cabin. There have also been cruises where an inside cabin costs more to book. We believe this happens when we book early and the cruise ship is trying to keep these cabins in reserve.

When we select a cruise we often let the itinerary dictate which cabin we want. Long ago we decided that we have no problem with inside cabins. On most cruises we actually spend very little time in our cabin so upgrading means little. On one cruise we were upgraded to an owner’s suite and while spacious and beautiful, it really seemed a waste of space and certainly would not be worth it to us if we had to pay full price. On a trans-Atlantic, an inside cabin is fine with us but, in Alaska, getting a veranda cabin usually is a must. Often it is all about the view.

Food, food,and more food

Book Early

Many times the best prices are available when a cruise is first announced. After the initial listing the cruise company can discover the cruise is getting a good response and the simple rule of supply and demand allows them to increase fares. Also, unlike airline tickets, the cruise line may allow you to take advantage of price reductions right up to the final payment date which is generally 90 days prior to sailing. That policy usually includes reduced fares, upgrading the cabin or taking advantage of free add-ons.

There are also situations where the opposite strategy can produce big savings. That is last minute booking, usually only a few days or weeks before sailing. Faced with empty cabins and no revenue, many cruise lines will offer super last-minute discounts. This is partly because the cabin fare is only part of the potential revenue from a passenger. Casinos, drink sales and tour fees add up to big money. We generally do not use this option in our planning but will take advantage of last minute cruises if the price is too good to pass up.

Always Book Onboard

The likelihood of a passenger returning to the same cruise line is actually very high and with frequent cruiser programs the likelihood is even greater. Most ships have a future booking office onboard and to get you to commit they offer additional incentives. These may include greatly reduced deposits and special add-ons. Since you can take advantage of price changes or switch cruises up to 90 days before the cruise and also get your deposit refunded if you cancel, this is a great opportunity*.

Watch and Take Advantage of Incentives

Even after you have confirmed a reservation and put down a deposit you can take advantage of special incentives. If you are a member of a buying group (Groupon, AAA, AARP), or an online travel service (Expedia, PriceLine) that sends you emails of special offers, get in the habit of reviewing these on a regular basis. If you see a good offer, see if you can add it to your reservation. Most times these offers are not exclusive regardless of what the agency says.

After You Book Keep Watching the Fares

As likely as fares are to go up, price reductions also happen but you can’t take advantage of them if you don’t know about them. Get in the habit of checking the prices on cruises you have already booked looking for opportunities to save or upgrade.

Work with a Good Travel Agent

There may not be such a thing as a free lunch, but travel agents are actually free (at least to you) when booking a cruise. We strongly recommend getting to know a good travel agent and getting in the habit of booking everything through them. They actually will appreciate the business and most consider it their job to help you manage saving money. They are also much more effective at dealing with the cruise lines when getting fares reduced or adding on incentives. Your way to contact the cruise line is to call an inside agent but the travel agent has a marketing representative that they routinely deal with and have less difficulty negotiating changes.

Also, if your agent is affiliated with one of the growing super agencies, they can offer you specials provided by their agency in addition to the cruise line. Often their agency has booked a popular cruise as a group package and they can add you to the group and get you an additional discount or onboard credit. At times they also offer their own promotional specials like a free tour or an additional onboard credit.

The best way to connect with a good agent is to ask friends or fellow travelers for their recommendation and ask questions about their experience.

In closing, we have an observation about advertised offers. We get emails from a number of travel agencies and they are constantly screaming about their exclusive special deals from this or that cruise line. Usually they are not exclusive deals and often they are cleverly misrepresenting a price structure. “Cruises from $499.00 with a $700.00 onboard credit” sound familiar? It may be true that an inside cabin can be booked for $499.00 but it is not eligible for any onboard credit; the $700.00 credit is only for suites. We have rarely found a unique offer but often these are a clue that there are price reductions happening.


*Unfortunately, in the last year, a number of cruise companies have started adopting a policy of non-refundable deposits and this changes the process some. Currently, Celebrity is offering lower fares for non-refundable deposits so this is going to cause some rethinking of how we address some booking in the future.

 

 

International Roaming Cell Service

U.S. International Cellular Rates (Early 2018)

Major American Services

AT&T and Verizon offer a service where each day is activated one at a time. Each day of international travel costs $10 for 24 hours from first use. Data, text and calls are used against your monthly service plan. The down side of this service is a two-week trip will cost an additional $140 if used each day

Verizon has a 30 day plan that works in 140 countries for $40 for 100 minutes talk and 100 outbound text messages. Incoming text is free. It also includes a small amount of data.

T-Mobile has some of the best international roaming services. One standard plan allows you to use text and data internationally at no extra cost with most calls billed at 20¢ per minute.

Sprint also has a plan that allows you to use text and data internationally at no extra cost with most calls billed at 20¢ per minute. They also offer new discounted international roaming with Canada & Mexico at $2/day or $10/week and a selection of other countries at $5/day or $25/week.

International Sim Card Services

There are a number of these services and generally they work in much the same way. You activate their sim card and pre-pay for service. Usually the assigned phone number is in Europe (mostly England) and you can also activate a U.S. based number as well. Calls made to the principle number are free to you and outbound calls are usually 20¢ or higher per minute depending n the country you are in. If you receive calls made to the U.S. number you pay around 20¢ a minute.

World Travel Sim Card. They supply a sim card for $10 that Purchase the WorldTravelSIM card for just $9.95. Voice, Text and Data service with airtime credit that never expire. Includes a U.K. number and extra U.S. number and works in the USA and in over 200 countries. Voice rates start at $0.25 per min and Text rates start at $0.19 each with data rates that start at 10c per MB

One Sim Card Service. Service similar to World Travel Sim Card. It offers a sim card package for $40 that includes $10 worth of service. You can travel internationally on their pre-paid service with for charges as little as 20¢ a minute outbound calling

National Geographic Travel Cellular. This is also a similar service but the provider is actually Cellular Abroad Service which offers their own plans as well.

All of these services offer toll free support along with packages of additional services.

I’ve traveled several years with One Sim Card and generally it has worked well. One piece of advice is to download a list of providers and make sure that as you travel the local connected service is on that list (most times automatic connection finds one of the recommended services). Incoming text messages are also free and if you use their phone app you can send messages very inexpensively as well.

Click HERE for Information on Cell Service on Cruise Ships.

 

TSA – That’s Good to Know

 

After The Sequined Top post we got inquiries about more info on TSA rules. Be sure and check out Immigration FastPass too.


The TSA is the United States Transportation Safety Administration and it is currently responsible for inspecting all passengers and items they intend to carry onto all commercial airliners taking off from U.S. Airports.

The official TSA guidelines state, You cannot  take any objects in your hand baggage or on your person that could cause injury to yourself and other passengers.

Transportation Safety Officers (TSO) are trained, certified and authorized, in accordance with applicable TSA standards and directives, to inspect individuals, accessible property and/or checked baggage for the presence of explosives, incendiaries, weapons or other prohibited items. At a checkpoint they are the authorities as to what cannot be taken past the inspection area”

TSA Website Offers the Following Travel Checklist information:

Before Packing

  • Liquids, gels and aerosols packed in carry-on must follow the 3-1-1 liquids rule:

The rule of thumb for liquids, gels and aerosols: You’re allowed to take as many 3.4 ounce or smaller sized containers that will fit in one sealed, clear, quart-sized zip-top bag – and one bag per person. Make life simple by packing liquids in your checked baggage. That way, you don’t have to worry about the liquids rue.



  • 3.4 ounces or less per container
  • 1 quart size, clear, plastic, zip top bag (all liquids must fit in bag)
  • 1 bag per passenger

Deodorant: Flying with deodorant isn’t a sticky situation. Stick deodorant is not limited to 3.4 oz or less, but gel or spray deodorant is.

Makeup: Any liquid makeup cosmetics such as eyeliner, nail polish, liquid foundation, etc., should be placed in the baggie. That goes for perfume as well. Powder makeup is fine.


  • Review the prohibited items list for both carry-on and checked baggage.
  • If purchasing a baggage lock, be sure to look for those that are TSA recognized.
  • Tape a card with your name and contact information on your electronics.

When Packing

  • Pack items in layers (shoes one layer, clothes one layer, electronics one layer, etc.)


Not Allowed Items

Shaving Razors: In brief, all razors are allowed in checked bags. Disposable razors are allowed in carry-on bags, and safety razors with removable blades are not. Check out the blog post for pictures of razor examples and more information.


  • Firearms are only allowed in checked baggage and must be unloaded, placed in a locked, hard-sided container and declared to your airline.
  • All fireworks contain explosive materials and are not permitted in checked or carry-on baggage.
  • cigarette lighters. you can take a lighter on the plane. But no more than one. Confusingly, ‘you must keep the lighter on your person throughout the flight.
  • Pack large electronics on top layer of carry-on for screening accessibility.
  • Place your 3-1-1 bag with liquids, gels and aerosols in the front pocket of your carry-on for accessibility.
  • If traveling with a pet, be sure to bring a leash so carriers can be properly screened.
  • Before Leaving for the Airport. Give yourself enough time to arrive at the airport early.
  • Wear easily removable shoes.
  • Passengers with a disability or medical condition may call ahead to the TSA Cares toll free helpline at (855) 787-2227.
  • Before Entering the Checkpoint
  • Eligible passengers look for the TSA Pre® lane for expedited screening at participating airports.
  • Have your ID and boarding pass out for inspection.
  • In Standard Screening Lane
  • Remove the 3-1-1 liquids bag and place it in the bin.
  • Ensure pockets are empty (keys, tissues, currency, wallets, cell phones, etc.) and remove bulky jewelry (valuable items can be placed in carry-on).
  • Remove your shoes and place them directly on the X-ray belt.
  • Remove personal electronic devices larger than a cell phone from your carry-on bag and place them into a bin with nothing placed on or under them for X-ray screening. (E.g. laptops, tablets, e-readers and handheld game consoles.)
  • Remember to check the bins and collect all belongings after going through screening.

Screening Equipment

Metal Detectors – Before going thru remove all metal objects from your person. That should include car keys, cell phones, belt buckles and coins.

Scanners – Unlike the metal detectors you must remove everything from your pockets before going thru even non-metallic objects. They can detected small plastic pill cases and glass eye dropper bottles. They have even found a two pack of breath mints and when that happens you are going to get delayed.

How to get into the TSA fast lane.

Getting Expedited Screening

TSA Pre® – TSA Pre✓® allows eligible travelers to receive expedited screening. In layman’s terms, it means you get through security quickly. The average wait time in TSA Pre✓® lanes is under 5 minutes! Even if a TSA Pre✓® line looks longer, they move much faster than a standard lane with more convenience. For TSA Pre✓® travelers, there is no need to remove shoes, laptops, liquids, belts and light jackets. 

TSA Pre✓® travelers (including those enrolled in Global Entry, NEXUS and SENTRI), have access to faster TSA Pre✓® lanes at more than 200 airports when flying with participating airlines. To find the program that best suits your travel needs, 

What if TSA Pre® Not Reflected on Boarding Pass: If you’re looking at your boarding pass and you don’t see the TSA Pre✓® indicator even though you’re an approved trusted traveler, we’re here to help! Get live assistance by tweeting @AskTSA or via Facebook Messenger. Our AskTSA team can help resolve any issues.

TSA Pre✓® and Traveling companions:

On times while traveling either my wife or I don’t get a TSA Pre✓® on our boarding pass. We have asked agents and they have, on more than one occasion, told us that if one of us is pre-cleared the other can go with them thru TSA Pre✓®. As close as we have come to confirmation on this is following notice on the Ask TSA web site:

Traveling with children: Screening is simpler for children 12 and under, so they can keep their shoes on. Read about how to best pack for your child and read how Kids rule the airport”. Children 12 and under may also travel through the TSA Pre✓® lane if one or both of their parents have it!