Using your webOS phone internationally [guest post] 38
After returning from some international travel of my own, I wanted to pen a sort of how-to for international data access (admittedly written from the perspective of a U.S. based traveler). That is, I want to share with you how (and why) to take your webOS phone with you either while traveling or on an extended stay abroad. We are increasingly reliant on (and some of us addicted to) internet access on our mobiles. Now, we can maintain connectivity while traveling.
My recent travels to Peru were to visit a significant other who is working in the Peace Corps there. I had the good fortune that she already had a data plan on contract but began to think about what I would have to do if we didn’t have access to her active data SIM card. As soon as I landed at the airport I saw sales booths for internet sticks and phone SIMs but I also discovered that the path to global connectivity is riddled with booby traps or rather steps that are somewhat hard to understand for all but the well-seasoned traveler.
I hope that most of us will have an opportunity to share in the experience of travel outside of our home country. Some may prefer to abandon any attachment to their phones, but I suspect that most of us are here are nerds who enjoy (and can't live without) our devices. I would rather use my webOS phone to its capacity as the connected device it is designed to be, even (and especially) while exploring an unfamiliar place, a new people, and possibly a new language. After the break: how to get connected the easy way or the (relatively) cheap way. After reading this, you should have the tools you need to chat in Chile, tweet in Taiwan, go geek in Greece, and generally get nerdy outside of the United States.
Things to be aware of
If you are not comfortable with the spoken language at your travel destination, one of the services below such as XCOM may be a better bet than getting a data-SIM at the airport or in country. When it comes to getting a data-SIM, you need to be more aware of your fees and limitations than you would with, say, a pay-as-you-go voice SIM card.
If you have a Sprint or Verizon webOS phone, you will need a MiFi (a portable cellular modem and WiFi router) because those phones don't use SIM cards, though the Pre3 should change that with its global phone status.
You may not have 3G access even in a 3G service area if the country you go to uses different 3G frequencies. The Veer, for example can operate on EDGE (2G, e.g. slower) anywhere in the world, but its UMTS (AKA high speed) frequencies are: 850/1900/2100. Any service that uses UMTS 900 for 3G will default to EDGE.
You will need to charge your phone fairly often or carry an extra battery with you (sorry Veer users).
Walking around with a smartphone can make you a target in some areas, so be aware of your surroundings and see if other people have smartphones, iPods, etc. out.
Don't forget to ask the locals. They may (or sometimes may not) be more helpful than, say, Foursquare.
You're on vacation, so relax a little. If you know that getting email is going to stress you out then turn off your email or maybe you should just leave your smartphone at home.
If you don’t think you’ll need the net that much, you can always just use your phone's WiFi capabilities at one of the many hotspots around the world and relegate your smartphone to more of a PDA.
Whew! You still here? Ok. Here is a simple summary of what to do.
- Unlock your phone (we're talking at&t here) or enable global data roaming
- Get an international SIM card
- Get a MiFi
- Enjoy! (but with more stuff to carry around)
AT&T does offer a global data plan. This may be an option for those of you who will not use much data at all and do not wish to unlock your phone. Additionally, if you've been with AT&T for more than 6 months, they should be able to unlock your phone. If the phone is brand new (like the Veer is right now) then they may or may not do it.
There are also multiple unlock services available to those who cannot get AT&T to perform the unlock. Check the forums for more info. – Note that I have successfully used DigitalUnlock on a Palm Pixi+.
Lastly, if you really don’t want to unlock it but want a better global data rate than AT&T offers, the iPhoneTrip service says their SIMs will work in a SIM-locked AT&T device (they're not exactly clear on how).
Getting your SIM card at your destination:
You can get a SIM card at many airports right now (many people call a SIM a "chip"). Do a little online hunting. The Pay as you go sim with data Wiki is pretty much the motherlode.
You can also do a Google searcj something like "data SIM travel Colombia" or "SIM card airport Mexico". A brief perusal of the internets resulted in the following:
- In Mexico, you can get about 200MB for about $4 a day or less through Telcel.
- In Argentina, "With a Movistar GSM SIM card you can get online for 10 Peso for one day max 1GB.
- In Spain, you can go with Yoigo (or others) when you get there.
If you go elsewhere in Europe, you would do well to see if O2 is available in your area. You can get a data plan for as low as $11 per month using Orange. Additionally, country specific carriers exist across the globe, such as Swisscom in Switzerland, Singtel in Singapore, and Telestra in Australi. Do your due diligence and following up to verify rates and availability.
Note that there are usually multiple operators in a given country. When I visited Peru, there was Movistar and Claro (and Nextel, actually). Both had kiosks at the airport. If you are going to get a SIM at the airport without doing homework, at least ask the representative for a map of their coverage to make sure you will be in a coverage area.
Going with a packaged service instead
There are many services available to you that will help you put together your data package for a travel abroad and deliver the goods to your doorstep. Many of these services also offer MiFi cards to those who cannot or choose not to swap out a SIM card.
The XCOM service is useful for people traveling through multiple countries because it will charge you a flat rate for multple country travel, taking out the headache of trying to find a sim card for each region or accidentally roaming. The base cost for one or two countries is $12.95/day unlimited internet. No-hassle convenience has its price: those that want to can opt to get a sligthly more costly MiFi rather than a USB modem that you pop the SIM card out of.
If you don't want to unlock your AT&T device and you want the convenience of a home-delivery service, check out iPhoneTrip. This service not only lets you cross borders without huge roaming fees but also lets you add a voice plan to your data SIM to have the best of both worlds. Prices range from $16 - $26 /day, with MiFis available at additional cost. Note: make sure to request iphone 3G/3GS compatible SIM because if you select iphone4, you will get a Micro-SIM that's not compatible with any webOS device.
If you are traveling in Australia, China, or Italy, you have the additional choice of CellularAbroad, which offers a good rate (MiFi only) if you need only 1 GB and your stay is a multiple of 6 or 7 days.
If you go to Spain, you can use OnSpanishTime which offers unlimited internet from 3-7 euros per day, depending on the length of your stay. Voice plans are also available.
Roamforce provides SIM with both voice and data, but the pricing scheme is confusing and not inexpensive. This is best used by the more well-heeled and jet set business travelers. The service includes perks like unlocking your phone and access to an interpreter (at additional cost) to translate for you on the fly. Voice plans are available. Most Roamforce services require year-long commitments.
If you are a traveler that likes to have your ducks in a row or if you are more the type to wing it, you should be able to get connected while on the go, even half-way around the world. There are a few additional bits that you may be able to use in your journey, however.
If you have a data SIM and want to send text messages without paying for them, check out this page. You can email a text to someone's phone number but they won't know it came from your phone, so put your name/number in there!
For now, if you want to make calls you will either have to wither go with one of the aforementioned voice/data services or get a separate pay as you go burner phone in country. You may also be able to or to tack on minutes to a data SIM purchased in country but there isn't much info out there on this. Safety is important so don't rely on VoIP for emergencies when we eventually get an app for that.
If you are really (I mean really) going to be in the boonies and need phone or data coverage, have a look at satellite services.
What to pack in your phone
I found that there is something satisfying about having your Grooveshark, Facebook, TripIt, and other services available to you practically anywhere, not to mention the utility of a translator app! For a day by day insight into how I used a Pixi in Peru, visit my blog here. I won’t rank apps here and encourage you to look through the app catalog to see what you like best. Allow me, however, to summarize some apps I have used and some I should have used.
TripThat is a TripIt.com client for webOS. In short, you can dump your itinerary into the TripIt site either by forwarding emails of your flight confirmation, hotel stay, car rental, etc. to TripIt directly or by using the interface via TripThat. What’s nice is that you can add places you want to go, people to visit, and share your itinerary with some or all of those people. It has a wealth of uses. I should have used it more because then I would have realized that I needed to bring warmer clothes with me than I expected. Can you use the service without the app? Yes, but why would you when it is presented so cleanly on a screen as small as the Veer using TripThat? Also useful to those who do not want to opt into TripIt is a flight status app to warn about flight delays and gate changes. This is especially useful if you have only minutes to catch a connecting flight, which is all too common. Note that of the flight apps I’ve used, they only work on flights that start or end in North America, so a connection in Caracas isn’t going to show up.
Navigation is a critical component of travel. I couldn’t use TeleNav (AKA Sprint or AT&T navigation) outside the U.S and I found navigation to be a bit difficult in Peru using Google Maps (your mileage may vary) I also tried using BFG maps but it unsurprisingly suffered from the same lack of listings that google maps did. With the transition to Bing maps in webOS 3.0, maybe things will change. Another option available to owners of webOS 2.x devices (Pre2, Veer) is the recently released nDrive. If you don’t have webOS 2.x or you don’t want to spend the money, perhaps trying giving the open-source Navit a go. You’ll have to follow some instructions to set it up, but its free. If I were to do it over again (and I had something better than a Pixi) then I would have gone nDrive hands-down. Even if you aren’t driving, it is very comforting to be able to see where your taxi driver is taking you vs where you want to go. A useful app to tote along for those who choose to rent a car is a parking app. There are many in the catalog and they allow you to navigate back to your car as well as monitor meter time.
If you are going to get a SIM card, you probably want to communicate. The communication apps that I used included Bad Kitty, Poster, Facebook, and of course the built in email app. There are many Twitter clients available for webOS, too many to name. Poke around, find your favorite twitter app and take it with you. You may even use it in unexpected ways. Poster is an app that you can use to blog to from your mobile if you use wordpress.com or roll your own wordpress blog like I do. It lets you moderate comments, post photos, and save local drafts of your posts as well. If you are on Facebook then why not use the Facebook app to share trip updates and post photos from your trip while you are there? You can even check into places to bring your friends along with you on your trip. Another popular social media tool that I saw used in Peru was Foursquare. Don’t forget about the built-in apps. If you take a movie, upload it to YouTube or email it to someone as an attachment.
You probably are going to want to listen to music or catch a podcast by the poolside, on a train, or on a bus ride (unless you are in Peru, in which case you will be subjected to loud music and awful bootleg movies on bus rides). There are many apps available to provide aural stimulation. I used Grooveshark, Public Radio, and Dr. Podder for my music, news, and podcatching, respectively. These all worked internationally. There are obviously other options available but one should note some streaming apps such as Pandora will not work outside of the country. Stitcher uses a compressed feed, it should use less data than if you stream a podcast using Dr. Podder but I did not try to use it internationally. If you like to wake up to the radio instead of an alarm you can use Awake2Music or UberRadio to wake up to your favorite radio station.
If you need help keeping track of your finances then maybe you want to use Checkbook. I have that particular app but was honestly reluctant to whip out my phone when making purchases while traveling, so I instead had my bank email me daily balance statements to make sure I was on track.
Some of the more fun apps include a plethora of games to pass the time. I ended up using the more low-frag Crosswords, and Tile Breaker games, but who’s to say you can’t whip out some Need for Speed? I also use Touchnote and Cardsender to send postcards to friends and family. Touchnote currently lets you send free postcards from an HP phone (awesome for travelers) but Cardsender delivers to more countries.
One of the most interesting apps I used while hiking and biking in Peru was JogStats. This app allows you to measure all sorts of stats about your run, hike, bike, or walk. You can even share your stats with your friends or post info to Twitter. Note that this will use your battery relatively quickly so make sure to bring a spare or adjust the app settings accordingly.
Lastly, few foreign trips would be complete without a translator. Currently, there is no full translator with an onboard dictionary for webOS, so you will be in need of internet access to use this. I have been working on Spanglish and hence have used that app but there are many more tried and true translators available and I found myself also using Translator and Translate! as well.
While this list is pretty exhaustive, it only scratches the surface of what you may want to tote in your phone. The nice thing about having internet connectivity while abroad is that you can download any app when you need it, on the spot, from almost anywhere.
I hope your travels are enlightening, relaxing, fun, or productive (maybe all of them). Hopefully this information can help you in your travels!