Amazon.com Widgets A Round-the-World Travel Blog: Devil May Care: Travel Advice Archives

Travel Advice Archives

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.

Two More Round the World Blogs

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As we were searching for places to go next, we came across two more blogs written by couples making lengthy journeys, both of which are quite good. The first, Yann and Catherine's Global Undertaking, hasn't been updated in quite a while, but I love how they insist that they are not backpackers. Their travel style mirrors ours pretty well.

Jack and Jill's blog, on the other hand, has frequent updates and makes for a pretty pleasant read on a chill afternoon. They're in Ecuador now, and I'm hoping that they enjoy it as much as we did.

The situation in Egypt altered our travel plans considerably. We'd originally hoped to travel south from Egypt to Tanzania, from there to South Africa, and then on to Morocco. Instead, we skipped straight to Marrakech: South Africa is showing lows in the 50s and will only get colder, and we couldn't find an inexpensive London-Tanzania flight on short notice.

Right now, we're in Malaga, and the only flight left on our round-the-world ticket is Madrid-Quito, which we'll probably skip. We're working with a time restriction, in that we need to leave Spain around June 28, must be in India for a family event around July 23, and then need to return to the United States by early August. Yet we can go almost anywhere the budget allows in early July. Ideally, we're looking to travel somewhere cheaply, live there cheaply, and then get to India cheaply. (If it weren't for this last qualification, I might actually take the Madrid-Quito ticket, and then take a short hop to spend our last three weeks in laid back Buenos Aires.)

If you have a recommendation, we're all ears. Although we're open to any and all ideas, we're currently thinking about:

  • Tanzania: Back to the original plan. Although tickets are expensive, the cost of living is pretty low, and we'd be able to make our way back to India without much fuss.
  • Iceland: We'd been strongly considering Iceland as a recession-tourism destination. Despite their currency woes, however, it doesn't appear that the cost of living has fallen enough to make this budgetarily feasible.
  • Greece: A few weeks on a Greek island might be a nice way to chill out, but they're still part of the euro, and unless the dollar surges this may be a problem.
  • Ireland: Both of us have always wanted to go to Ireland. Same problem as Greece, however: the strong euro.
  • Turkey: Midway between Spain and India, and would allow for weeks of "it's Istanbul, not Constantinople" jokes.
  • Kurdistan: Adventure tourism. The NY Times says it's one of 41 places to visit this year, and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office is apparently less anxious than the U.S. State Department. What could go wrong?

As always, we'd welcome comments.

Following the welcome news (today must be a great day to be in New York), the U.S. State Department has issued an alert for Americans traveling until August 1, 2011... all over the world. While I suppose it's always useful to reiterate common sense advice (avoid demonstrations, especially if you don't know what they're about; pay attention to local news), this kind of generalized worry doesn't seem particularly helpful.

That said, the alert does link to the Department of State's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), one of those amazingly useful government services probably known to too few people. Not only does the system email you the latest news and alerts for the country you're in (we avoided some massive Bangkok demonstrations after the service alerted us), but if something does happen, the U.S. embassy knows you're around. If you're leaving the United States any time soon, it's worth registering.

Our travel strategies have differed radically among countries. In Ecuador, Peru, England and most of southeast Asia, we hopped from hotel to hotel, never staying more than a week in any given place. In Argentina, Thailand and Morocco, on the other hand, we've rented apartments. (In New Zealand, we lived in the back of a van for a week.) There are advantages and drawbacks to both modes of travel, and a few things we've learned along the way that help with both.

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Another unanticipated advantage of apartments: sometimes you get unexpected co-tenants in the windowsills

Is it much more difficult to ride a motorcycle than a scooter? I've done a bit of riding in Ko Chang, and I'm feeling a little more comfortable here in Goa, but if we want to ride to any of the neighboring towns we'll need a bigger bike.

A few things I wish I'd learned

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The idea of studying up for a round-the-world trip seems perverse, but now that we're on the tail end of our journey, I do wish that I'd spent a couple of months learning a few skills before we set out.

  • Photography: I didn't really understand how much help a photography course would be until we started using our DSLR. With our old camera, I could write off the inability to take good photos of certain things as a technical limitation. Now I know that my camera is capable of getting beautiful shots of the fireworks at Hoi An, the sprawling neon lights of Bangkok, or the delicate colors of a butterfly's wings in Sydney. The camera lacks an "idiot button" allowing it to take more than passable photos without my involvement, however.
  • Motorcycle riding: Especially in Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, motorcycles often outnumber cars. In Ko Chang (where we are this week), motorcycle rental is the most convenient way to tour the island. I haven't driven a motorbike or scooter since I was underage and my parents let me take a (closely supervised) wheel in the Cayman Islands. Needless to say, a mountainous island with relatively sparse hospital facilities is not the place that I'd most like to learn.
  • Spanish: It would have been utterly unrealistic to try to learn every foreign language that we would need on this trip. Southeast Asia alone has a prohibitive variety of languages. Nevertheless, a grounding in Spanish would have stood me in good stead throughout South America. At the very least, I would not have needed a crash course in Spanish numbers from Pallavi prior to my Argentinian poker game.

On the other hand, I'm glad that we learned to scuba dive before we left Texas, as it has literally added another dimension to our travels. [1]

[1] Only those with the most literal minds will think that I'm violating the Oatmeal's style guide here, in that anyone planning on flying is already intending to travel in the directions "up" and "down." (Maybe NSFW. Also, I sort of want that shirt.)

Where has this been all my life?

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Another fine product from TripAdvisor: SeatGuru. Simply input your airline and flight number, and it happily shows you which seats have more (or less) legroom, the location of power sockets, and other details. (via Lifehacker)

From the "I wish someone had told me this before we left" file. While you're on the road, your computer will crash. Someday I'll tell the epic farce that has been my interaction with ASUS tech support, but suffice it to say that I left them with a computer that booted into Windows, and they gave me back one that blue-screens. Reinstalling Windows looks to be the only solution.

I can back up the data, but reinstalling Windows will delete all of our installed programs. We don't have that many that we use regularly, given that most of our computing is in the cloud these days. But it's hard to collaborate with anyone without Microsoft Windows [1], and I keep track of finances on Quicken. [2] I won't be able to get those back. The disks are... well, somewhere in Texas or New York, who can tell?

So here's my advice, if you're taking a long term trip and leaving key software behind: copy the disks (or ISOs) to a USB key, and bring a file with the relevant software keys (those lengthy strings of numbers and letters that you need to install the program). Because over a year, your computer will die, and you'll probably need them.

[1] Yes, there are alternatives like OpenOffice. I have it, and I like it. But many collaborators don't.

[2] Though it strikes me that I could start the new year with Mint and abandon Intuit forever.

Another useful travel tool: TripIt

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Starting on Wednesday we're in Hong Kong, a city that both of us have visited and another expensive destination. We're only there for a week, and we intend to spend a lot of time catching up on the blog and other items on the to-do list.

In the meantime, here's an word in favor of a handy travel app useful to anyone who takes a lot of trips: TripIt. The core concept is easy. Every time you book a hotel, flight, or other travel plan, forward the confirmation email to TripIt, and the application automatically compiles it into an itinerary. [1] Your flight times, record locator number, hotel address and phone, and other information are (mostly) automatically at your fingertips. If you don't get an email, you can add information the old-fashioned way: by hand.

While this system isn't foolproof -- we've had a few hotel reservations missing the hotel name -- it takes very little effort to correct any errors, and I've been surprised at how few there are to begin with. All in all, it's the easiest way to get all our plans in one place on the web. Typical of such systems, there are mobile apps that synchronize with your mobile for offline access.

There are many other bells and whistles (e.g., the ability to share trips with friends, keep track of frequent flier miles, and a map showing your travels) but TripIt's ability to keep track of our schedule with a minimum of fuss is what has turned it into an indispensible tool in our kit.

[1] You can even give TripIt access to your Gmail so that it scans for travel plans automatically. That said, I'm not comfortable giving anyone that much access to my email.  

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