As a perpetual wanderer who spends roughly half the year outside the United States, I’ve learned a few savvy tricks for bettering my own travel experience. From making free phone calls to accessing the entire “Doctor Who” series, here are five tech tips for the modern traveler abroad.
1. You can watch Netflix out of the country.
You can also watch HBO Go and Hulu, listen to Pandora Radio or access Facebook in China. All you need is a VPN. This stands for “Virtual Private Network,” and what it does is run your Internet traffic through a network with a different IP address, making your computer look like it’s back in the states, while you’re typing away in a hostel in Beijing.
Once you sign up, you’ll have access to a number of servers around the world. The set-up instructions are also easy to follow, and both companies have excellent 24-hour customer service. A VPN will work on your iPhone, iPad and computer.
2. You can make free calls to the United States.
T-Mobile is the best cell service for travelers abroad, but they don’t really want you to know it. They certainly won’t advertise the fact that all calls made to the United States from abroad over a Wi-Fi connection are free. As in, totally free. No roaming or data charges apply.
Wi-Fi calls connect to a UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access) network. Much like a VPN, UMA gives the Wi-Fi caller external IP access to T-Mobile’s core network, making the phone act like it’s in the United States, even when it’s not.
Heads up, university students heading overseas in the fall: it might be worth it to invest in a T-Mobile plan for the year to keep in touch with friends and family back home.
T-Mobile and Blackberry also have the best-combined overseas data plan. For $19.99 a month, unlimited emails are covered. This service doesn’t cover apps like Twitter and Facebook, but once on the UMA Wi-Fi network you can access the phone’s web browser and log onto your favorite social media apps.
3. You’re at risk for being electronically pick-pocketed
RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) “skimming” is the world’s latest, greatest form of pickpocketing. RFIDs are the radio frequency chips in your credit cards and passports that carry all sorts of personal data, and stealing that data is a piece of cake. All it takes is someone with a portable card reader to simply walk closely past you in a crowd.
I personally know travelers whose data has been accessed while in transit, and their bank accounts drained. Crowded transport hubs like airports, train stations and shopping centers are pickpocketing hotspots, electronic or otherwise.
How to protect yourself: invest in an RFID-proof wallet or passport case. I swear by PacSafe‘s anti-theft and travel security products, carrying the RFIDtec™ 150 RFID blocking passport wallet everywhere I go.
4. You don’t need a converter.
I’m often asked which adaptor plugs are used for different countries, and if purchasing a converter is necessary. Today, most – if not all – modern electronic equipment comes with a converter already built into the charger. This covers your camera, iPod, computer and cellphone.
What you do need is an adaptor plug. Different countries use different types of plugs. In Europe, the plugs are two-pronged and round. In the United Kingdom, they’re three-pronged and square. It’s always a good idea to do some research in advance and determine which plug adaptors you’ll need when traveling.
I recommend purchasing an all-in-one or universal plug adaptor that will work in Australia, Europe, Asia and the United Kingdom, currently available on Amazon.com for less than $5.
So when DO you need a converter? The answer is: for a hair dryer, curling iron or electric shaver. If you absolutely have to have your styling products abroad, then you’ll need to invest in a good step up/down voltage converter. Be warned: even with a converter, I’ve seen rural European sockets melt American appliances to mush, with a good dose of indoor fireworks to boot.
Take my advice: buy a hair dryer abroad. It will most likely cost you less than buying a voltage converter and it will be one less thing to lug in your suitcase.
5. There’s an App for that.
It’s a good investment to purchase destination-specific travel apps before you leave on your next trip abroad. Mobile guidebooks, language lessons, city maps and comprehensive transit information are just the tip of the travel tech iceberg.
Apps don’t take up that much room on your electronic devices, and they don’t cost a lot. What’s an extra $20 in your travel budget if it means you can competently navigate the London Underground or effortlessly order the next round in Moscow?