In response to a New York Times Practical Traveler article on How to Beat the High Costs of Dialing Abroad, I wrote the author an email agreeing with her suggestions of a prepaid local SIM card and Skype. She'd mentioned that her next column would address data roaming charges, and I recommended that she note the Amazon Kindle 3G as a device for avoiding all data charges while abroad. My advice didn't make it into How to Beat Roaming Fees While Traveling Abroad, but did get edited into a brief letter published in today's Times.
I thought I'd expand on that a bit here, as I've already been singing the Kindle's praises all over the rest of the internet for the last few months but only Tony has blogged about it here. The $189 Kindle 3G was a generous Christmas gift from my parents, who were somewhat befuddled as to what they should give a daughter who was going to be living out of a suitcase for another seven months, and my older sister arranged for me to get it upon arriving in Hong Kong. It was almost immediately useful, but not as one might expect.
On the Amazon page selling this product, one of the features on which I'm focused is trumpeted loudly and repeatedly: "Kindle 3G, Free 3G + Wi-Fi, 3G Works Globally." As a result, most people who have considered buying a Kindle 3G are well-aware that "Built-in Free 3G connectivity uses the same wireless signals that cell phones use, but there are no monthly fees or commitments--Amazon pays for Kindle's 3G wireless connectivity. The added convenience of 3G enables you to download books anytime, anywhere, while on the go--without having to find a Wi-Fi hotspot connection. With wireless coverage in over 100 countries and territories, Kindle 3G is a great option for travelers."
The other feature, however, is easily missed, leaving the impression that the 3G can be used only for book downloads. But if you look closely, there it is: "WebKit-Based Browser - Free 3G web browsing (experimental)." The reason to underplay it is right there in the parenthetical; the browser feature is still in beta and thus far Amazon hasn't made it a major selling point. But it's what made the Kindle seriously helpful on this trip, beyond its capacity as travel guide storage. With free 3G web browsing available in most countries we visited, I could finally check email, Tripadvisor reviews, the news and a great deal more even when we didn't have Wifi.
My first realization of just how fantastic this was came on the Hong Kong subway, as I was running late to meet an old classmate for lunch. How to let him know that I'd gotten lost but now was found and would be there a few minutes after the appointed time? I knew he had a work-issued Blackberry, but I didn't have his cell number and in any case was trying to avoid using our emergency international cellphone, with its high rates, for anything other than an actual emergency. I clicked on the Experimental Features, opened the browser and went to Gmail. It was slow, especially if I didn't click the "HTML only" option, but it let me log on to my email and successfully send a message. Social disaster averted!
Using the browser, we could look up a hotel's phone number so a New Delhi taxi driver could be given directions; check on the best-rated restaurants in Granada just after exiting the Alhambra; and email my sister when we weren't sure if we had Egypt-India flights booked yet. If the internet made our type of loosely-structured, plan-as-you-go-along kind of round-the-world journey possible, the free international 3G browsing on the Kindle added that extra touch of "No need to worry about making all our decisions while we're getting Wifi -- I can look it up on the road."
I don't want to mislead anyone with my evangelism for the Kindle. The browser is much slower using the 3G network than it is on Wifi, and it can handle only one window at a time, which means you can't click on anything that pops up as a new window. The Kindle screen, built to handle text, does not show images from the web very well. The navigation, built for moving amongst text in a single size and type, sometimes gets confused by the variety of Web HTML. And all Kindles are subject to occasionally freezing up and requiring a hard re-start, though this doesn't seem to cause them to lose any data, not even the last page one was reading in a book.
Still, I can't think of anything better at a similarly reasonable price. Its sheer physical anonymity -- easily mistaken for an actual paper notebook when you have it in a protective cover -- makes it a much smarter travel accessory than flashier and more famous devices like an iPad. In Vietnam, the only country we visited that wasn't among Amazon's 100 with wireless service, an employee at a Hoi An tailor shop asked about my Kindle but quickly lost interest when she realized it wasn't from Apple but some unknown "Amazon." Capitalist brand obsession takes another victim. Speaking of which, you can also get the Kindle 3G $50 cheaper, at $139, if you don't mind having advertising running on it.