Electronic Postcards and Comforts of Home

One thing about the technology revolution is that it’s made communication so effortless we wonder how we ever lived without the internet, email and texting.  YouTube, CNN, games and watching TV on our tablet is a daily routine!  It’s like second nature, especially to kids.  Also new is being shocked by outrageous phone bills like you can get today after an international trip if you’re not careful!  Maybe you know someone who’s had that special experience!  Awful!  In this section we’ll take a look at what some of the industry terms mean so you understand the basic IT lingo and we’ll suggest some precautions to help prevent a phone bill cardiac after you get home!

  • Types of Devices

    There are a number of devices that people travel with today.  Here’s a quick description of each so we have our definitions clear.  You may choose to take one or more depending on the length of your trip. There are three basic kinds of phones for our discussion: Cordless Phone This is what you have at home for a landline used only within the short range of a single, private base station that is plugged in. Not for travel. A mobile phone (also known as a cellular phone or cell phone) is a phone that can make and receive telephone calls over a radio link while moving around a wide geographic area. It does so by connecting to a cellular network provided by a mobile phone operator, like Sprint or Verizon, allowing access to the public telephone network. A smart phone is a mobile phone with an advanced operating system. It behaves like a small computer. Smartphones typically include the features of a phone with those of other popular mobile devices, such as a variety of apps (applications), media player and GPS navigation unit. Most today have a touchscreen and are camera phones. Later smartphones add broadband internet web browsing, WiFi and 3G or 4G, and mobile payment mechanisms. E-Readers are devices like a Kindle or Nook. There are different price points of each. The benefits of an e-Reader is that the battery can last weeks so charging is not an issue, you can store thousands of books and share them between family members, and the screen is non-reflective which makes them wonderful in strong sunlight. They are also relatively inexpensive. They are also only show black and white. (I absolutely love my Kindle paper white!!) A tablet is a device like an iPad or Amazon Fire. They can be quite expensive but like a smartphone can connect to the internet. They can connect via 3G or wifi. When you buy the Amazon Fire, you need to pick the connectivity with 3G being more expensive. A wifi-only Amazon Fire is very inexpensive. On tablets you can download apps, email, access movies and TV, access any website. Because of all this power, the battery life is very short and you will be looking to charge them often. They can also be a bit heavy. Tablets are popular because of the portability and the nice screen size. They are great “babysitters” as there’s a lot of kid content you can access. A PC laptop is also a common device for travel. The smallest laptops called notebooks are light and very handy. I love mine as it weighs only a couple of pounds and I have my documents and apps loaded just like home. They can do all the things like a tablet but have more functionality. I find my notebook very useful if I stay in one place for a week or more and can just create a “station” and keep it there. I can bring things on flash drives. Notebooks also can fit in many hotel safes easily.

  • Types of Connectivity – A Must Read!

    Let’s clear up the confusion between wifi and 3G and 4G.  These are not the internet.  They are how you access the internet.  You need to pay attention here because this is where those gargantuan phones bills come from!  You also need to know what kind of connectivity you desire when you purchase a device.  If you buy something wifi only, it’ll work great accessing the internet where there is wifi.  That generally excludes outside, in your car (no GPS) or train or airport or anywhere where it says you have to pay for wifi and you don’t.  So, know if your device is wifi only or has 3G. If you have broadband cable TV or satellite TV or DSL at home you likely have a router as part of your equipment. The router box is what converts that broadband signal to wifi.  So at home, you have wireless and can use your devices no problem.  Proximity to the wifi is called a “hotspot.” Cafes, libraries, hotels can provide hotspots.  Some for free or for a fee with password access.  But if you leave a hotspot where there’s no wifi, you have no internet. That’s where 3G comes in. 3G ( a “third generation software”)  provides internet access via the same radio towers that provide voice service to your mobile phone.   4G is just a later, faster, and even more expensive version of that technology in the software.  The result is like having the internet everywhere.  Wifi is available only where it is enabled while 3G is anywhere. Clearly 3G is more convenient but it’s also a lot more expensive way to access the internet.  At home your data plan will cover how much 3G access you get as part of your data plan.  The catch is that your home data plan does not cover you internationally ….

  • What is Roaming?

    Roaming refers to the continued data service you get when you go outside of your mobile operator’s coverage area.  Most phone users pay a fixed monthly price for their data service and thanks to cooperative agreements between your cellular provider and other network operators domestic roaming is usually unnoticed by you and is free. That means when you’re using your phone to browse the web, send emails, text or check social media sites in your home country, you’re connecting to your phone company’s wireless network–or networks that belong to other companies in your country that your phone carrier has agreements with. Ultimately this means that whatever network you’re on in your home country, the price you pay for your data is going to be the same. Unfortunately, international roaming usually involves being charged those data roaming fees. You can continue to access the Internet or make calls but you’ll no longer be using the cellular data network belonging to the your wireless carrier. In that case, your phone will be in data roaming mode–which means you’re not using your data plan and will have to pay for each megabyte of data your phone sends or receives.  There’s a number of ways you can trigger data roaming fees: by making or receiving phone calls, by sending or receiving text messages, and/or by downloading or uploading any Internet content such as emails or accessing web pages. Kids will use their devices without recognizing the potential costs so it’s a real hidden threat to your budget. Additionally, phone companies charge much higher rates for people from other countries accessing their data networks. Of course …  You can easily rack up a bill of hundreds or thousands of dollars by using very little data. There are several ways you can counteract this possible financial debacle.  You can limit internet access to wifi only, you can purchase an international plan from your internet provider before you go or you can buying a SIM card once you are there to replace the one currently in your phone.  You can also plan ahead and download books and games to be accessed locally on the device only, without internet access at all. See more in the Tips section how to do these and more.

  • What is Airplane Mode?

    Airplane mode is a setting available on many mobile phones and other electronic devices that, when activated, suspends many of the device’s signal transmitting functions. Other names include flight mode, offline mode, and standalone mode.  It got it’s name from a precaution on board commercial aircraft where mobile device transmissions were thought to be limited so they didn’t interfere with aircraft or ground networks. Airplane mode limited transmissions but you could still use other features such as playing games, camera or MP3 player for music. Today, more and more airlines are allowing terminal to terminal use of devices so airplane mode’s life span may be limited. Airplane mode can also be useful to travelers in different ways.  Since battery life is always a concern while on the road, you can turn on Airplane Mode to limit power-guzzling apps and still let you use your phone as a camera or to check the time.  For the same reason, if you turn off the power-guzzling apps and “quiet” your phone, it will charge more quickly that when everything is on.  This is especially useful if you are on the run and only have a limited charging window.  It can be used during concerts or dinners or at bedtime …and the alarm will still work!

  • Types of Phones, SIM cards and Why it Matters

    Sometimes you may hear about simply replacing a SIM card in your phone and that will allow you to use it overseas.  Let’s discuss what that means and whether it’s an option for you.  Mobiles phones run on software built to certain technical standards.  The two predominant standards are GSM and CDMA.  Phones are built to one standard or the other, not for both.  GSM and CDMA are different technologies that accomplish the same outcome.  Powerful networks are built using them.

    In the United States, two of the four major carriers (Verizon and Sprint) use CDMA while the other two (AT&T and T-Mobile) use GSM.  You may choose one over the other because of the quality of coverage may be superior by one over the other for where you live.  CDMA,  known as Code Division Multiple Access, is used by many carriers around the world. It is most popular in the United States and Russia, but it’s also used in some Asian and African countries. For CDMA phones, you will need to buy a phone made for your specific carrier, and the easiest way to do this is buy directly from your carrier. For example, if you want an AT&T branded iPhone you should buy it from At&T tuned for their network.  You wouldn’t buy a Verizon iPhone for the AT&T network.  The thing is, if you want to leave AT&T and move to a new network, you will need to buy a new phone.

    GSM stands for Global System for Mobile Communications and most people across the world have this type …. hence the word global.  It’s the standard most used in Europe. It is why they tend to call them  “mobile phones”  instead of cell phones.  GSM phones are able to be unlocked and moved between carriers.  You would replace one carriers “SIM card” with another card to switch.  This is known as have a phone that is “unlocked.”  In the GSM system, your phone number and other identifying information are stored on a little chip: the Subscriber Identity Module (SIM). It’s a small-sized smart card that slides into the back of your GSM phone under the battery (on most models), or the side or the top (iPhones). But even with the ability to replace SIM cards, your GSM phone may not work in Europe due to differing frequencies and bands.  You need to purchase a GSM “world” phone for it to truly be international and work on US or international networks.  I had one once …

    So, where are we going with this discussion?  Now you know why it’s very complicated.  You could buy a European GSM phone which would be a lot cheaper than using your American phone.  Or, my personal preference:  stick to wifi and use Skype.  You can pre-purchase a one-month international  plan before you go with your carrier for emergencies.  If you rent a car, buy their GPS option for $40 and you’re set!