Thoughts From a Blind Traveller – Staying Connected When Overseas
Recently, my 11-year-old daughter and I spent some time on the Gold Coast in Australia. It’s been a tradition I’ve kept with all four of my kids that just before they turn 12 and become subject to adult airfares, we go somewhere special, just the two of us, and do crazy things like amusement parks and wild rides. You can’t put a price on memories like that.
Trips such as these, along with numerous international business journeys, have required me to look into many options for staying connected without the need to take out a second mortgage. I thought I’d share a few tricks here in the hope it will help others, and spark comment from readers who have something helpful to contribute.
As my regular readers will know from other posts, I’ve become interested in mindfulness and meditation over the years, so I want to start with an acknowledgement that it is now too easy to suffer an imbalance between enjoying the moment, and our tendency to want to preserve memories of the moment and share it with friends and family. Sometimes, all the fiddling around with your phone to take that perfect picture, check in to some location sharing service, or share what you’re doing via social media can detract from savouring the special time as it happens.
Equally though, I think there’s a unique blindness angle to staying connected when overseas. For everyone, blind and sighted alike, having access to your smartphone at a decent rate is convenient. There are apps for many frequently visited tourist attractions that will do useful things like alert you to wait times and even save your place in the queue. I love being able to look around virtually and find out about places of interest around me, and many location apps require an Internet connection. But a sighted person has work-arounds. While at the hotel, you can connect to Wi-Fi, assuming it’s behaving, and memorise an area using a maps app. If your memory’s not so good, you can always take an old-fashioned map book with you.
For a blind person though, if you’re travelling independently or you’re a parent who needs to take responsibility for a family trip, having access to a working data connection that’s not going to break the bank can put you in control of the situation in a way that isn’t possible without it.
Before you travel, it’s important to check the simplest options to see if they’re viable economically. The simplest option from a technical perspective is to use your carrier’s international roaming facilities.
International roaming means that you can turn on your phone when you get off the plane, and enjoy cell service including data. Some phone software, including iOS, defaults to turning data roaming off, to help you avoid bill shock. So if you’re about to travel and you know you want to use data roaming, be sure to check that data roaming is on.
Conversely of course, if your carrier’s data roaming charges are exorbitant, and many are, it pays to ensure data roaming is off so you only receive calls and texts.
Data roaming has become much cheaper in recent years in certain markets. The European Union has done some excellent work in this area, and now using your phone if you reside in one EU country and are travelling to another is quite affordable.
Other carriers offer some pretty attractive deals now. Just before I went to Australia recently, my carrier offered a deal where I could get a 500MB data pack that lasted me a week for $15. If it ran out, I could buy as many as I liked.
The Vodafone group, which is a large international conglomerate with presence in many markets, now also offers some great deals if you’re a customer of theirs and stay on their network when you travel to another country.
At this point, while 4G/LTE is very common now, roaming with it is not. Typically, roaming customers will only have access to 3G.
So overall, things are looking up, but it’s not universally rosy. Some carriers offer international plans that can only be described as mediocre. They feature charges that will sting you for excess data use, and charge a bomb for incoming and outgoing calls and texts.
What seems to be happening now is that many of these remaining offending carriers charge like a wounded bull if they have plans where they sell phones on contract that are locked to the carrier. Many of these plans are enticing because of the low upfront price of the handset, but they can be costly when the entire duration of the contract is taken into account, along with punitive elements such as not being able to insert a SIM from another carrier. That’s a frustrating restriction for the traveller on a budget, as I’ll discuss shortly.
Thankfully, it is now legal again for US customers to unlock their phones while a contract is in force. If your carrier won’t do this for you, there are services that will, although they may not be cheap. When Bonnie moved to New Zealand, she had a phone locked to AT&T, and I received excellent service from Chronic Unlocks. Last year, I bought a second-hand iPhone for my son which was being sold in New Zealand cheaply because it was locked to a US carrier. Chronic Unlocks did the business for me then as well.
With an unlocked phone, you have the option of considering whether it’s worth removing your carrier’s SIM from your phone temporarily, and replacing it with a prepaid SIM from a carrier local to the country you’re visiting. This will almost always work out far cheaper than continuing with your home carrier’s SIM when you’re away. You’re likely to get a great data bundle and all the minutes you need.
Before visiting a country for the first time, I always try to find some locals who can give me carrier recommendations. Visiting all the carrier websites and trying to make sense of the various plans on offer is a confusing business. Plus, locals can give you feedback about coverage, data speed, customer service and overall reliability.
It’s important to be aware of some of the pitfalls of this prepaid SIM method. The most significant of these is that your phone gets a new number, local to the country you’re visiting. In fact, this is both a limitation and a benefit. It’s a limitation because friends, family and work colleagues back home may need to make an international call to reach you on your smartphone. But it’s a benefit because if you’re ordering a cab and the driver wants to call you, or you’re getting something yummy delivered after a long day out and about, companies at your destination aren’t going to want to call overseas if they need to reach you.
There are ways to work around the local number issue for your regular contacts back home.
The first is simply to forward your calls from your regular number back home to your temporary number in the country you’re visiting. Remember, you’ll pay the international component of the charge, but even if you have to spend a little on an international minute plan for a month, it could well work out a lot cheaper overall than roaming.
If you use Skype or a similar service that offers local phone numbers, pick up a number local to your phone country, forward your calls to that, and take the calls overseas using the app in question. This works out extremely cheap, because all you’re using in terms of your phone plan is your local minutes.
Text message forwarding is not widely available, so if you receive a lot of SMS messages, the option of inserting a SIM in your phone may not be attractive.
Depending on the device you use and how you stay in touch with people, you may find that not having your local number for a week or two really isn’t a big deal. I’m an iPhone user, and most of the people I’m in touch with regularly are iPhone users as well. This means that most of the text messages I receive are in fact not SMS messages, but iMessages. As someone who travels regularly, I make sure that on all my iMessage-capable devices, my messages come from my Apple ID email address and not my phone number. You can control this in the Messages part of the settings app in iOS, and in the Messages part of System Preferences in OS X. This means that when I insert a local SIM from another country, my contacts don’t know, and can keep messaging me via my Apple ID.
The same is also true of FaceTime. The caller ID people see is my Apple ID, not the phone number I happen to be using at any given time.
If you don’t have an iThing, or you talk to others who don’t, there are plenty of other options. Skype, Viber, Facebook Messenger and many other services will handle voice requirements as long as the data connection is good. Many of these services, plus WhatsApp, will also handle your texting requirements. So telling people who really need to get hold of you to use one of these services for a while really isn’t a big deal given the money you’ll save.
Some people just have to have their regular SIM in their phone, for business or personal reasons. Never fear, there are other options.
If you have a tablet with cellular capabilities, prepaid plans for data on tablet devices are common. Since my carrier offered an OK data plan for roaming in Australia, I chose to keep my regular SIM in my phone, but 500MB doesn’t go that far, and data at the place we were staying was expensive, slow and flaky. We headed out to a nearby mall and I bought a prepaid Optus SIM for my iPad Mini, and we used that in Personal Hotspot mode. It offered blazing fast LTE and worked a treat.
If you don’t have a tablet with a cellular option, consider investing in a portable wireless hotspot, which will work with the same prepaid data plans. These tiny devices connect to an LTE network, and make it available to your other devices via Wi-Fi. So many hotels have expensive and under par Internet access that this is really worth doing.
And finally, a bit of icing on the cake. If you use TV, video on demand, and radio services at home that may be restricted by geoblocking, invest in a VPN service. You can find out more about the benefits of a VPN, among other things, in my book “Imagine There’s No Countries”. Doing this will ensure you can access the same services you enjoy at home.
I highly recommend the Hide My Ass VPN service. They’re reliable, fast, and have a presence in a large number of countries. It’s also just common sense to use a VPN when connected to a public hotspot, as my book also discusses.
Note that many hotel Wi-Fi services, and some cellular carriers, will prevent you from connecting to a VPN. Some hotels offer a more expensive plan that unlocks VPN ports. These plans can sometimes even offer better performance because they are considered business-grade services.
In the case of mobile carriers, a call to their support desk will usually give you an alternative access point you can programme into your device to get VPN access.
With a bit of forethought and forward planning, you can get great quality, inexpensive service that will keep you connected at a decent price, and give you access to all the information that is so empowering and informative when you’re a blind person in an unfamiliar place.
Do you have some useful overseas tech travelling tips? Share your thoughts in the comments.