Tech Tips for Travel
I write frequently about better ways to use technology on the road, although I have to admit, some lessons I’ve learned the hard way (just ask my husband, who called AT & T several times to argue down my smartphone bill).
I speak about this topic periodically at the Rick Steves Travel Center, and would happily bring the same presentation to another event.
Portable power chargers. Batteries have notoriously short lifeline and staying charged is one of the biggest problems. Rule of thumb: The more expensive it is, the more charging time you’ll get.
Recommendation: If you’re a serious tech traveler and will have room to spread out on your trips, splurge for the Energizer XP18000 as it charges multiple devices for several hours. ($137). For basics, the iGo power Extender can provide a quick juice boost and you can buy extra tips for different devices ($7.42, or $20 for a packet with two tips)
USB chargers. If you have multiple devices, you’ll want a plug that has several USB ports (though you’ll still need to bring the USB cords with you).
Recommendation: the Lenmar ACUS B4 Travel Adaptor has four ports, prongs for international plugs and doesn’t take up much room ($24.99).
If you’re taking a road trip, try a USB charger that plugs into the cigarette lighter. This helped immensely while my husband and I were renting a campervan in New Zealand.
Power converters. Most major electronics these days (Apple devices, cell phones, e-readers, newer laptops) are dual voltage, meaning that you don’t need a power converter. Check before you go.
Power strip. Most old European hotels don’t have enough outlets for all of our devices. A simple power strip can help accommodate a family or a tech-y couple. Make sure you have power adapters, or buy a power strip that has a British or European plug. Another type of power strip to consider: A universal, which will accept plugs from different countries ($28 from Walkabout Travel Gear). How else can you charge your devices and still use a European hairdryer?
Calls. Forget the phone and use a web app such as Skype for calls back home.
If you must bring your phone and intend to use it for calls, call your mobile provider and get signed up for the international calling plan. This reduces per minutes charge, but calls can still add up. Be sure to tell people back home that you’ll be gone, as you can get charged international rates for calls, even if you don’t answer.
Some companies do allow you to “unlock” your phone so you can buy and change SIM cards when you are in other countries. None of the US mobile providers that support iPhone do this.
Another option is to buy a new pre-paid phone when you reach your destination. Make sure it’s an “unlocked” phone so you can change SIM cards as you cross borders (these are usually more expensive than the locked ones, but they will give you more options). Some stores sell used phones.
SIM cards. SIM cards are small, fingernail-size chip that stores your phone number and other information. They cost around $5–15, come with a European phone number and starter credit. While you can buy them in the US, it’s usually best to wait until you’re in Europe. In some countries, you can buy them at newsstands; otherwise, go to a mobile phone store.
Within the SIM card’s home country, rates are about ,10 to .20 per minute for domestic calls to fixed lines, and nothing to receive. Calling the US can cost $1 per minute or more, so you’ll want to get an international phone card to bring the cost down.
If you leave the country, rates will go up. Within the EU, fees are regulated so you won’t pay more than .55 per minute to make calls or .21 per minute to receive. It’s more expensive in non-EU countries so you are better off getting a new SIM card.
Some SIM cards prompt you to enter a SIM PIN number. If you’re at a phone store, ask the clerk if you can disable the feature that requires you to enter the pin every time you turn it on. You might also want to check to make sure that text messages can be switched into English, and also figure out how to check your credit balance.
SIM cards expire after a certain amount of time, usually a few months, so don’t expect to save your unused minutes.
Unlocking your iPhone. Although the Internet is full of step-by-step instructions on how to do this, I haven’t. While it’s not illegal, it does invalidate your warranty. Proceed at your own risk, or get a tech savvy friend to help you.
Data Roaming. The last thing you want it a sky-high data roaming bill when you get back. Best advice: Don’t use it. Turn off cellular data and switch your phone to wi-fi only before you leave an American airport.
If you think you will use it, call your phone carrier before you go and find out what plan would be the best for you. Ask the phone company if they’ll set up a text message alert that they can send you when your included time is running out.
Even the international data roaming plans offered by the phone companies aren’t all-inclusive. Some countries (Russia) don’t offer the cheaper rate.
Finding Wi-Fi. Everyone know how to turn their iPhone and iPad to wi-fi only?
In some countries (Switzerland, Egypt), buying a network pass on the local carrier is the most cost-effective. Boingo also operates in many countries and is cheaper than many hotels.
Using MiFi. If you really need to stay on the internet at all times, consider renting a MiFi Mobile device that acts as your own personal hotspot. XCom Global charges around $14.95 a day (which might seem expensive, but you could pay that much for hotel wi-fi and/or data roaming chargers). It’s a great option for a family or group, as 5 devices at a time can use the satellite signal.
GPS/maps. You can download maps when you have wi-fi and cache them to use offline.
Buying country maps for your GPS (if you’re bringing it to the other country) can be expensive ($200-$300). It might be cheaper to rent a GPS in the country you’re traveling.
Back it up.Save all your data with external drive before you go overseas. Sync your iProducts regularly.
Use a system such as Carbonite, which, once installed, automatically backs up all of your personal documents and photos, and allows you to access them from cloud storage ($55 a year for unlimited storage). It can take a while for the service to complete its first complete backup (even up to a month); don’t buy this the night before.
Buffer. Use a carrying case, a tablet cover and make sure to stay away from water. In some countries, watch where you’re using it.
Lock it up. Use the safe when in the room. Always keep your valuables in a bag that stays close to you.
Settings. Set up your phone so it has a passcode. That way, if someone does take it, they won’t be able to access your personal information. You can also set it up so your data wipes if you get the passcode wrong 10 times.
You can also create a customized lockscreen that has your contact details on it at lockscreengenerator.com.
You can also set a password for your SIM card so no one can take out your card to make unlimited calls.
Turn on the Find My iPhone/iPad geotracking services. This allows you to find the phone’s location if it’s lost (although it has to be turned on and still be charged), send it a message or wipe it remotely. The latest operating system, iCloud, will also send you an email when your device comes back on line.
Write down your phone’s Serial Number, which can be helpful for tracking if stolen, and IMEI number, which you can use to block a phone (you can get it from any phone by entering #06# on the keypad). Note: If you do report the phone to be blacklisted, you won’t be able to use it either.
Take a digital detox for a week, if you can. I tried in Alaska and found it impossible. Maybe you’ll have better luck!
Got some tech tips to share? Leave it in the comments!