It may not have been as historically significant as Neil Armstrong transmitting the message “One small step for man,” but last Friday, when I texted my husband “Just landed” from the runway at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam for free, it felt like the dawn of a new era.
Since then I’ve been channeling my inner Millennial, texting and uploading photos to Facebook several times a day. That’s just how you roll when you’ve got unlimited global text messaging in more than 100 countries, plus unlimited (albeit slowed-down) Internet as part of your standard cell phone plan.
The plan I’m referring to is T-Mobile’s Simple Choice option, which debuted last November. It comes with free mobile data, free text messaging and low-cost voice calls in about 115 countries. Knowing I was going to be traveling to Europe soon, I switched from my previous T-Mobile plan to this one about a month ago. The Simple Choice Plan starts at $50 a month.
While I’ve always taken advantage of free Wi-Fi hotspots while traveling, I was thrilled at the idea of being able to stay connected all the time at no extra cost. I’ve never been the kind of person who thrives on being disconnected!
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In terms of text messaging, the deal is just as advertised. I’ve been texting my husband, parents, friends and coworkers, holding multi-text conversations and sending photos since the moment I landed. The Internet, on the other hand, has been spottier. In general the Internet is available at 3G speeds, which isn’t bad, but when you’re used to 4G LTE, it sometimes feels like it’s crawling. And I’ve found myself in more than one blind spot. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to upload photos to Facebook multiple times, check railway schedules when I needed to and keep up to date with Yahoo! News. For those who insist on higher speeds, T-Mobile does offer for-fee upgrade packages.
The Simple Choice Plan also provides low-cost calling options. Here in the Netherlands, for instance, it will cost me 20 cents a minute to call home, which isn’t half bad. But even better, by hooking up to any Wi-Fi I can find (free, of course!) and then turning on my Wi-Fi calling option, I can call home without spending a dime.
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I’ve traveled all over the world throughout my adult life, and I’ve always hated the feeling of separation from the people I love. For the first time, I’ve been reaching out while traveling as casually as I do when I’m at home. If it was a small world before, free texting and Internet and low-cost voice calling have shrunk it even further. If that’s not one giant leap for mankind, I don’t know what is.
–written by Dori Saltzman
The days of having to stow your Kindle, cell phone or iPod at the very beginning and end of a flight will soon be coming to an end. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced today that “airlines can safely expand passenger use of Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs) during all phases of flight.”
The decision comes after the FAA consulted with a panel of pilots, aviation manufacturers, airline representatives and other experts, who determined that devices being used in airplane mode should not interfere with the safe operation of most commercial aircraft.
This doesn’t mean you can whip out your laptop during takeoff on a flight this weekend. The new policy will be implemented on an airline-by-airline basis, with each carrier having to assess its own fleet and present evidence to the FAA that its planes won’t be affected by radio interference from PEDs. The FAA expects that many airlines will be approved for PED use by the end of the year.
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A few things to note:
- You still won’t be able to use your cell phone for voice calls, and other devices must be kept in airplane mode.
- You may only use Wi-Fi on your device if the plane has installed a Wi-Fi system and the airline allows it to be used.
- Heavier devices should still be stowed during takeoff and landing.
- Finally, says the FAA, “In some instances of low visibility — about one percent of flights — some landing systems may not be proved PED tolerant, so you may be asked to turn off your device.”
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Personally, we think it’s about time — what’s your take?
– written by Sarah Schlichter
No, that isn’t a pig flying past your head, but it is an equally uncommon sight: a company that’s actually reducing fees for travelers.
That company is T-Mobile, and those fees are roaming charges for travelers using their cell phones abroad. The New York Times reports that T-Mobile will eliminate the exorbitant rates for texts, data and phone calls that send many travelers home with hundreds of dollars in unexpected fees on their cell phone bills after an international vacation.
According to T-Mobile’s website, travelers will be entitled to unlimited free data and texts in more than 100 countries, starting on October 20 for new customers and October 31 for existing customers. Calls will cost 20 cents a minute. To take advantage, you must be part of the company’s Simple Choice Plan and have a phone capable of connecting outside the U.S.
Keep in mind that while many popular countries are covered (such as France, Italy, Australia and Japan), there are a few places where traditional — read: expensive — international rates will still apply. These include Morocco, Laos and Botswana, to name a few.
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As the New York Times notes, this offers potentially huge savings over plans from competing cell phone carriers. AT&T, for example, charges $60 for 300 megabytes of data outside the U.S., 10 – 20 cents per text message and $1 (or more) per minute for phone calls.
Here’s hoping T-Mobile’s new policy succeeds in drawing globetrotting cell phone users away from other carriers; we always like to see companies that put customers first getting rewarded.
Now, airlines — about those baggage fees…
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– written by Sarah Schlichter
If you’re reading this, you’re clearly wired. Perhaps you limit yourself to perusing travel Web sites’ blogs, but if you’re like most of us, you likely throw some e-mail and social media into the mix, too. Whether it’s sharing photos from your current travels on Facebook or tweeting about a harrowing airport experience, we’re curious how long you can go without staying connected.
In a recent Facebook poll, we asked this: What’s the longest you can go when traveling without checking your e-mail/Facebook/Twitter/social media outlet of choice?
Given that the vehicle for the poll is Facebook, it’s amusing that the general consensus among those who commented is that they can forego online communication when a vacation is involved. (It’s also worth noting that several respondents mentioned cruises, where it can be difficult — and particularly expensive — to get Internet or cell phone service.)
“Social media, likely not a problem,” says Wynne Gavin. “E-mail? Now THAT would be hard, but since that’s the way I’d keep in touch and let people know I was ok, it’s moot.”
Steven Long says he sticks it out through his whole trip: “… through the entire cruise! I do not need Facebook to live!”
Lavida Rei takes it a step further, claiming she could go “forever” without it if she really wanted to.
What’s your take? How do you keep in touch while traveling? Weigh in below.
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– written by Ashley Kosciolek
When vetting flights and possible layovers, I take my options for connecting airports very seriously. What’s the distance between connecting gates? How speedy is immigration? Can I find something halfway decent to eat and a quiet, clean spot to sit and wait?
The availability of ultra-hip technology never entered the picture for me, until I recently discovered two airports where it’s actually fun to have a layover.
LaGuardia International Airport, New York City
Mention LaGuardia, and you can pretty much be guaranteed a grimace, wince or groan. But perhaps no longer. LaGuardia has Botoxed its image with the installation of 2,500 iPads throughout Terminals C and D. Tall tables with stools (like those you’d find in a bar) are anchored with iPads that are free for anyone to use.
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Scroll the Internet, post on Facebook, play games, monitor your flight — even order a fancy cured beef panini and a beer and have them delivered directly to your table from a nearby eatery. The iPads are a great way to kill time.
(Good news for Minneapolis and Toronto: They’re both scheduled to see similar iPad installations in the coming months.)
Changi Airport, Singapore
Changi is a techie’s dream. The airport won the 2012 World Airport Award for best leisure amenities from Skytrax, a British airline data compiler that runs an annual airport passenger satisfaction survey in 160 countries. The Wi-Fi is free and signals are Speedy Gonzales fast. More than 500 free Internet stations are sprinkled throughout the concourses and gates.
But what’s happening in Terminal 2 is the main attraction. The terminal houses an entertainment center where you can distract yourself with Xbox 360′s, Playstation 3′s and other gaming stations. There are also free, 24-hour movie theaters (in Terminal 2 and also in Terminal 3).
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And if all of that isn’t cool enough, the airport has 3D and 4D motion simulators that show eight movies with “visual, sound, motion and environmental effects.”
A long layover has never been more fun.
– written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Plane tickets, hotel reservations, copies of your passport and credit cards: Would you trust your most sensitive travel documents to a cell phone app? We were skeptical, so we tested it for ourselves.
We first checked out Web site www.personal.com, where we created an account and added “gems” — categories under which you can upload and save everything from contacts to bank statements. (For our purposes, we tested out the travel gem, where we stored passport copies, trip itineraries and flight information.)
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Overall, we found the site a little tricky to use — there are still some pages we can’t figure out how to get back to — but the cell phone app, available for iPhone and Android, proved a bit easier to navigate. The app allows you to easily access your important information on the go, even while abroad, without incurring crazy international fees. The best part? It’s free to download.
So, how secure is it? Personal.com’s Web site promises all information is encrypted, and your account is also protected by a username-and-password login combination. There are ways to share gems, but much like Facebook, users have to request to share information with other users before it can be seen by others, and each user has the right to deny said requests.
As part of its newest software updates, Apple has released a program called Passbook, which, through various applications, offers functions similar to those afforded by Personal.com. We haven’t had much time to test it out, but it seems these sorts of paper-saving features are becoming more common.
Overall, we’re still unsure how safe these services are — especially if a phone containing sensitive documents were lost or stolen — but they sure do make traveling a lot more convenient.
Have you used applications like this? If not, would you consider it? If so, how was your experience? We welcome your comments below.
– written by Ashley Kosciolek
My brother — a total tech geek — recently posted a picture on Facebook of his hotel bedside table during a trip. It was cluttered with gadgets recharging via the power strip he packed. My other brother countered with a bedside shot of his own, a bottle of wine and a new wine opener that he obviously hadn’t yet mastered, as the cork was bobbing in the half-empty bottle. I was appalled — by the technophile brother’s pic, not the oenophile brother’s pic — until I realized I often travel with just about as many gadgets. My electronics and their accoutrements seem to swallow more than their fair share of my carry-on’s real estate.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if my hotel provided me with a recharging station, so I could at least leave power cords at home? Aloft properties, such as the one in Brooklyn, have a plug and play connectivity station that charges all your electronics in addition to linking to a 42-inch LCD TV. And according to CNN.com, the Ecclestone Square Hotel in central London features in-wall docking and charging points for your electronic devices.
The Opus Vancouver hotel goes one better: It provides guests with the use of an iPhone, as reported by USA Today. This is especially cool if you’d otherwise have to pay for international roaming fees on your own phone. Plus, the important numbers for the hotel (concierge or housekeeping) are already programmed in. And they wipe the iPhone clean when you check out to protect your privacy and security. The Opus also offers an iPad 2 in every room, loaded with an iPad virtual concierge.
The Peninsula Hotel in Tokyo lends iPods to guests. The devices at the Peninsula can guide guests on walking tours of the Imperial Gardens and other city sites.
You could also use these loaner devices to take photos and upload them to social media sites where your sibling will try to one-up you.
Would you prefer to use electronics supplied by your hotel, or would you never leave home without your own gear?
– written by Jodi Thompson
In response to the sad news of Steve Jobs’s passing, the Internet has been inundated with write-ups about the iconic innovator. I spotted one article in particular that provides an interesting commentary from a traveler’s perspective: How Steve Jobs Helped Make Apple Become a Major Disruptor in Travel, by Kevin May.
May tells how Apple shook up the industry by pressuring travel brands to develop mobile apps and mobile-friendly versions of their products. He writes, “What Apple has given consumers is a new means to experience travel — not the actual going away bit, but how they research products, interact with brands, use devices in-resort.” We’ve published lists of trip-transforming travel apps that were, a decade ago, just a twinkle in Jobs’s eye. That awesome ATM finder or the currency conversion app you can’t globetrot without wouldn’t exist if Jobs hadn’t dreamed up the interface for it.
This probably isn’t exactly news to the tech-savvy traveler. Actually, considering the renown of Jobs and his inventions, nor is it news to the technophobe traveler who prints his itinerary on a typewriter. But here’s the exciting part: The biggest and best fruits of Apple may be still to come. Writes May, “For the best part of 18 months, Apple has been busily filing technology patents in the U.S. for essentially what is a series of tools for handheld devices, known as iTravel. These range from search and booking and location information tools, to hotel and airport concierges and cruise trip services.”
Picture this: You arrive at the airport, skip the check-in queue and head straight for security. Your passport and driver’s license are at home in a desk drawer. You don’t need to stand in line to get your boarding pass because it’s already on your iPhone, ready to be scanned — along with your hotel reservations, your itinerary and even your electronic identification. Patently Apple published a summary of a patent filed by Apple in 2010 that would allow travelers to accomplish just this. The patent even foretells the possibility of airport security checkpoints that use “automatic identity verification,” such as facial recognition technology or retina scans coupled with electronic ID’s stored on handheld devices, to speed travelers through security.
It’s exciting, inspiring stuff. Jobs may be gone, but he lives on through his technology, and through the already incalculable impact he’s had on the way we travel.
– written by Caroline Costello
In “Super Sad True Love Story,” Gary Shteyngart’s fictional novel set in the near future, bar patrons use advanced smartphone-like devices to detect the best-looking person in an establishment and rate all patrons on a numeric scale of attractiveness. Such an app, thank everything that is holy, does not exist. Yet. But a similar kind of app is rolling out across the U.S., and it could, surprisingly, offer some advantages for travelers.
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SceneTap, a free app for iPhone, Android and the Web, uses facial detection cameras to determine the male-to-female ratio of people in select bars, as well as calculate the average age of everyone inside. It’s kind of like Big Brother — that is, if Big Brother were a sleazy rake seeking gender-specific bar patrons of a certain age.
The app, which launched last month, presently functions just at bars in Chicago. But the folks at SceneTap are working hard to bring their app to a drinking hole near you. SceneTap spokesperson Andrew Cross told me in an e-mail that more than 250 bars and nightclubs around the U.S. have signed up to join SceneTap. And the company is in the process of researching international markets.
Now, here’s why I might actually use SceneTap. In addition to serving up the creepy age and gender stats, the app shows how many people are in a bar, and lists relevant food and drink specials. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve showed up at a historic pub listed in my guidebook, only to encounter a sweaty pack of patrons pushing out the door, half of whom were likely led there by the same mass-produced guidebook. Crowds spook me. So when this happens, I usually turn around and go someplace less interesting. I think it’d be useful to know how packed a place is before taking two tubes and a bus to get there.
What’s your take on SceneTap? Is it a useful travel tool … or an app for tools?
– written by Caroline Costello
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So you’re going overseas and you’d sooner cut off a limb than leave your smartphone behind. (We understand. There’s nothing like a little Angry Birds to while away a long flight.) You probably already know that you can call your carrier and have an international calling/data plan temporarily added to your account to cover the dates of your trip. But Ed Hewitt identifies one potential pitfall:
“When you make a connection overseas, you are typically not connecting to your own carrier’s service, but to a third-party carrier, which then bills your carrier, which bills you. Some of these carriers will not bill your account in an entirely timely manner, such that data connections made in July might show up on your August bill. As such, you will want to make sure the dates for your data package extend long enough after your trip to cover these late-billing companies, and you will want to watch your account to make sure all charges have been applied before turning off your international package.”
If you remove your international package too soon, any subsequent overseas calls or downloads could be charged at your cell phone carrier’s normal (read: exorbitant) rates.
Don’t assume that your carrier’s international plan is your best option. Hewitt offers his own secrets for avoiding calling and data charges in Traveling with a Smartphone: Cut Costs Overseas.
– written by Sarah Schlichter