I Traveled to 33 Countries. These Three Tricks Kept Me in Touch Abroad
Just like home: We streamed a live college football game on our laptop, then used an HDMI cable to connect the stream to our Airbnb TV.
What a difference a year makes. Just under a year ago I had set out on a trip around the world on what we were calling our one-year retirement. After a series of boneheaded errors I was lamenting the fact that my wife and I were bush-league world travelers. Now, after trudging through 33 countries and 120 cities and towns on six continents, I’ve evolved into a lean, mean traveling machine. That’s what a year of staying under a different roof about every three days can do. I’ve picked up many great travel tips over the past year, and have compiled the best of these tips in a three-part series of columns. I’ll post these three blogs over the next three Fridays. This week we’re focusing how best to stay connected on the road:
Friday, Aug. 4: Staying Connected – Smartphones and Sports
Friday, Aug. 11: Being Prepared – Jim’s Pre-flight Check
Friday, Aug. 18: Saving Money – on Hotels, Insurance and Walking Tours
Before you scold me for accessing mindless and pointless TV programs and sports while on my one-year retirement, understand that when you’re traveling for a year, you need some normalcy, and TV programming you recognize can be a nice way to feel normal again – unlike watching the Arabic-speaking announcer calling the live camel races (we actually found this on our Dubai TV). And for those who want to just “live in the present” and disconnect while on vacation, feel free, as everyone should spend their vacation in a way that makes them happy. Personally, I want to be connected. Here’s how I did that.
Get In-Country SIM Cards and Eliminate International Phone Charges
There’s no way I could travel conveniently without my smartphone. From directions to restaurant reviews to sightseeing advice to on-the-go hotel reservations, our smartphones have made our trips immeasurably more convenient and safe. We became so attached to our smartphones, that toward the end of our one-year trip I came up with the brilliant idea to shut off our phones for one destination. It didn’t go as planned. I ate terrible bagels and lost a critical Words With Friends match that timed out. It was a harrowing experience.
The key to using your phone internationally is to have ample data. International roaming is one option, but this is a cash cow for phone companies. They charge huge fees for your data usage and calls back home. To avoid these fees, they offer international calling plans, which are just semi-huge fees to get their limited service offerings for voice and data.
Cut out the middle-man by buying a SIM card for your smartphone when you arrive in the destination country. Depending on the country, you can get SIM cards at airports or convenience stores, and costs typically range from $20 to as little as $1 (Japan was a cost outlier at $60 for two weeks of data). We traveled to 33 countries and any time we were in the country for more than 3-4 days we bought a SIM card. This seems daunting at first, but once you’ve done it you’ll never go back to U.S. international phone company plans, or worse, being a Wifi zombie, ambling through the cobblestone streets of your travel destination trying to find a coffee shop with free Wifi.
To find out what will work best in the country you’re traveling, go to SIM Card Wiki. This amazing resource is updated regularly and not only tells you which phone companies have the best coverage, it gives you tips on where to get the SIM card, and what costs you can expect. A big thanks to Christina Saull at myviewfromthemiddleseat.com, who gave me this crucial tip before I left the United States. We paid under $15 on average for unlimited data and in some cases, voice service, too. And because we were using WhatsApp, FaceTime or Skype for many of our calls, a voice service wasn’t even necessary in most countries.
One limitation here is that you’ll have a different phone number while you’re using this SIM. You will get your old number back when you put your U.S. SIM back into the phone, but until then some travelers may need to either give family and work this new number, or just tell them to connect to you via email or Whatsapp while you’re away.
Word of warning if you’re traveling to India, as India was our worst SIM card experience due to the amount of bureaucratic hassle needed to get our card: We had to go to a designated phone store, fill out a long form in duplicate, provide two copies of passport photos, and wait for over an hour to get our SIM. When you’re on vacation, waiting in line is even more frustrating because you’re thinking about your limited time and all the other experiences you’d rather be enjoying. So waiting in the foreign phone store for your SIM is the travel equivalent of a trip to the DMV. Even after jumping through all those hoops, it still took almost four hours for the SIM card to activate. In many countries it takes less than 5 minutes at an airport kiosk. Not so in India.
Watch Sports Live Anywhere in the World
We don’t travel to exotic locations to watch television, but sometimes you just need to see the season finale of your favorite show, or your favorite team battle it out in a playoff game that happens to fall on your vacation (What? You booked your trip thinking the home team wouldn’t make the playoffs? You’re such a pessimist.). My challenge has been college football — for the past four years I’ve been traveling, usually for a wedding, during the biggest games of the season. Two years ago I was on top of a mountain in Telluride, Colorado, in the audience stifling my cheers and frantically updating my phone’s scoreboard for the Oklahoma State vs. Texas game, while good friends said their “I do’s.”
There are several options to watching live U.S. television abroad, but one of the best and simplest I’ve found is USTVNow.com. It streams network television programs live to your browser for free. You can pay a monthly fee for a digital DVR service and to see some cable channels, but the free service is all you need to watch those major sporting events on network television. Since many of the college and pro sports have contracts with the networks, you can see lots of sporting events using USTVNow. Plus you can watch any other live programs — like the Oscars — that you’d want to watch with the rest of humanity so that the next day you can poke fun on social media of a celebrity’s envelope opening/reading skills.
This USTVNow.com service saved my bacon on many a Saturday on the road when I needed to watch college football. We would also occasionally watch the evening news or morning programs to help us have a sense of normalcy and to catch up with what’s happening back home. In addition, some news programs allow you to stream the latest episode online anytime. For example, NBC.com streams the previous NBC Nightly News and the TODAY Show. The only obvious issue for USTVNow.com is the time difference — you’ve got to really be committed if your game is on at 3 a.m. Cambodia time. I was. Hat tip to my friend and fellow college sports fan Oris Davis for alerting me to this great service.
Access Streaming Services Abroad
To get the latest episodes of your favorite Netflix or Hulu program abroad, you have to engage in a bit of digital trickery. You’ll find that when you access your account in another country, it won’t allow access to the same programming, so your favorite show or movie likely will be blocked. To fix this all you need to do is sign up for a VPN service, or Virtual Private Network. Routing your internet access through a VPN service will give you a U.S. IP address, which makes your computer appear to be in the U.S. There are many VPN services, some free and others for a fee, and everyone who travels has a favorite. We had difficulty getting the free services to work effectively so we used ExpressVPN.com and have been streaming with them whenever we need to access our content streaming services.
Some travelers take a vacation to get away from their smartphones and favorite shows, and believe me, I get it. But if you’re keen on staying connected, and especially if you’re traveling for a longer period, these tips can have you feeling right at home anywhere in the world.
Let me know your best travel tips for staying connected while on the road. I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.
Next Friday, I’ll give you the perfect pre-flight check -- the eight questions to ask yourself before heading to the airport, to ensure you have a stress-free vacation.