Airlines Push Entertainment Options, Legroom Too, Eventually

airlineIt sounds like a dream come true for many airline passengers. A new generation of technology promises to deliver in-seat headphones, video screens and the ability for airline passengers to use their own devices – all the time. But at what cost? Existing technology runs through miles of leg room-consuming wire threaded through seats, but the future promises great entertainment and more space too.

Right now, the trend differs. “It’s of more value for an airline to add two rows worth of seats and have a good inflight entertainment system rather than do the opposite and give passengers more legroom,” aviation writer Mary Kirby told Technology Spectator.

Looking to the future, TriaGnoSys has teamed with Siemens to launch what the two firms say is the smallest, most complete in-flight entertainment and connectivity solution available.

The new system will replace expensive, leg room-consuming technology and can provide:

“The fact it incorporates both IFE content and connectivity makes it possible to provide live updates, for example for news, sport and destination information,” said Siemens CMT vice-president of technology Gerald Schreiber in Electronics Weekly.

All the necessary airborne hardware used with the new system is small and light enough to be mounted within the ceiling panel and connects to the aircraft’s existing communications system.

The idea is that once seats are free of wires and cables, airlines can use less bulky seats.

It would be a win for airlines, enabling them to maintain the number of seats they need to make their profit recipe work out.

It could be a win for air passengers as less bulky seats give back legroom, unless airlines get greedy and add more, less bulky seats.


Flickr photo by hugojcardoso

The top 10 ways to make phone calls when you are abroad

Welcome to the Gadling top 10 ways to make phone calls when you are abroad. This top 10 list will take a quick glance at 10 ways you can save on keeping in touch with people back home. It’s a well known fact that international calls are quite the racket, and making long calls back home can severely deplete your vacation spending money. Thankfully, technology has opened up all kinds of ways to save on your calls, and I’ll list the 10 that I think are the most important.

Your own phone

The most common way to make phone calls back home when you are abroad is of course to use your own phone with your own plan.

This is all fine and dandy if you only plan to call someone to let them know you arrived safely, but if you plan to keep in touch every time you see a cute giraffe walking down the street you’ll owe your mobile operator quite a lot of money once you arrive back home.

Before you start splurging on the newest technology, decide how often you plan to make a call, and compare the price of those calls with what you’d plan to spend on a nifty new way of making calls. If you only plan to make 20 minutes of calls back home ($20), then spending $50 on a new prepaid card may not be the best solution.
Prepaid mobile phone cards

When it comes to making cheaper mobile calls abroad, the prepaid SIM card is usually the first solution people think of. Prepaid SIM cards are more popular abroad than they are in the US, and you’ll usually be able to find a prepaid SIM card at any store, including kiosks at the airport.

A SIM card is the small chip you slide inside your phone to let your phone know who you are, and what your mobile number is. SIM cards are primarily used in the US by T-Mobile and AT&T (the GSM operators). Verizon and Sprint use a different system, but to make things complicated, they DO have some phones that are GSM compatible, and therefore use a SIM card.

One thing to keep in mind with any SIM card that takes the place of your regular SIM, is that your mobile phone has to be unlocked. You will need to contact your mobile operator to get your phone unlocked and not everyone will be eligible for a free unlock.

Before you consider using a prepaid sim card, it pays to research the rates of the different international operators. The differences in prices of calls back to the US can be staggering. A fantastic resource of all prepaid operators around the world is prepaidgsm.net. It may take 20 minutes to pick the cheapest mobile operator at your destination, but that time could easily save you $100.

For example; if you purchase a Vodafone prepaid sim card in the Netherlands, your standard rate for calls to the US is €0.75 per minute.If you purchased a KPN Mobile sim card, the rate is a whopping €1.45 per minute. With rates like that you’d be better off using your US phone instead.

Where? Anywhere prepaid mobile phone cards are sold
Price? “SIM Only” starter packs usually cost about $20, packs with a SIM card and a phone start around $40

Global roaming phone cards

Global roaming phone cards are not the same as prepaid phone cards – the technology behind them is the same, but these new cards are often issued out of countries with cheaper roaming rates, which allow you to carry the cheaper plan along with you, no matter where in the world you end up. One of the most popular cards on the market at the moment is the MAXroam sim card, offered by Cubic Telecom in Ireland (don’t worry, they’ll gladly ship to the US). The MAXroam sim card replaces the sim card in your current GSM based phone.

The rates on these cards are substantially lower than the rate offered by your own mobile operator. Per-minute rates from most European countries back home to the US are about $0.30.

Of course, you often can sometimes get even cheaper rates with a normal prepaid sim card, but the low rates on these global roaming cards means you won’t have to buy a new prepaid pack in every country you visit.

Another great advantage of these global phone cards is the ability to assign a normal US based number to them, which means you can give your friends and family an affordable way of contacting you when you are abroad, without them having to call an international number.

Where? Research global roaming cards at Prepaidgsm.net
Price? Starts at around $20

MagicJack

MagicJack is a tricky one; they offer a quality product, but cheapen the brand with horrible early morning infomercials and a never ending “buy within the next 4 hours” hard sell.

MagicJack is a $30 USB stick for your PC that provides unlimited local and long distance US calls. You will have to bring your laptop along with you if you want to make a call. Magicjack comes with a local US number, which means your friends and family won’t have to call a foreign number.

MagicJack also offers cheap international calls. I’ve been using MagicJack for some time now, and it’s never let me down. Of course, you will need to be connected to the Internet to get a dial tone. Calls can be made with a regular analogue phone, or by using a headset plugged into your PC.

Where? www.magicjack.com
Price? $39.99 (includes the MagicJack dongle and 1 year unlimited local and long distance phone calls)

Blackberry from T-Mobile

I’ve written about this option before, so I won’t go into too many details. The Blackberry Curve from T-Mobile (along with several other T-Mobile Blackberry smartphones with Wi-Fi) have the ability to roam onto Wi-Fi instead of a foreign mobile network. As long as you can get online, you’ll be able to make and receive phone calls. The advantage of this, is that as far as T-Mobile is concerned, you are “at home”, and will be able to take advantage of the local US rates or minutes included in your plan.

Of course, once you leave the Wi-Fi coverage, you are back on the expensive cellular network. T-Mobile is also the cheapest option for international data because they offer a $20 Blackberry flat-rate and unlimited plan for any email sent or received when abroad.

Where? T-Mobile.com or any T-Mobile authorized dealer
Price? From as little as free on a 2 year agreement + monthly service charges

Skype

Skype is one of the most popular Internet calling applications on the market. It provides free Skype-to-Skype calls, as well as fee based calls to landlines and mobile phones. Skype is available for your computer, as well as several brands of mobile phones, and even on portable devices like the Sony Playstation Portable.

To make a Skype call when you are abroad, you’ll of course need Internet access.

Where? Skype.com
Price? Free Skype-to-Skype calls, $2.95/month for unlimited calls to US based phone numbers

Mobile phone add-on plan

Before you leave, be sure to call your mobile operator. You’ll want to do this for 2 reasons; first to make sure you are allowed to roam abroad, and second to ask whether
they have any international calling add-on plans.

These add-on plans don’t just apply to your regular mobile plan, many foreign prepaid cards also offer options to lower your per-minute rate for international calls. Using Vodafone in the Netherlands as an example again, their normal rate of €0.75 per minute for calls to the US can be lowered to just €0.30 by calling them and paying a one-time fee of about €10.

Where? Your mobile operator
Price? Starts at $5.95 (for example; the AT&T Wireless “World Traveler plan“)

Type, don’t talk

With roaming charges often as high as $4 per minute, it often makes more sense to send a written message instead of a spoken one. Many mobile operators offer add-on plans that add fairly large amounts of international data for as little as $20. Sure, an email may not be the most personal way of staying in touch, but at the end of the trip you’ll have a lot more money to spend on crap at the airport souvenir store than if you had made a bunch of phone calls.

Many mobile phones can be outfitted with instant messaging or Twitter clients that allow you to communicate in real time with anyone who has Internet access.

Just be sure to keep the data to a minimum as international data charges can be even more painful than phone call charges.

Where? Twitter.com or search for “mobile instant messaging client”
Price? From free

Picking the right roaming operator

When you arrive at your destination, your mobile phone picks the strongest signal it can pick up. This may not always be the cheapest provider. When your mobile operator negotiates prices with foreign operators, they won’t always get the same deal. A simple rule of thumb is to always try and stick with partners of your own operator, if you use T-Mobile in the US, pick T-Mobile in the UK and anywhere else you can find it.

Where? Check the international rates of your operator on their own web site.

Not making the call…

This one sounds pretty lame, I know. There is however some logic to it. Before you pick up the phone, always decide whether it’s really worth the money. Sometimes it makes more sense to just drop the folks back home an email. Just 15 years ago people survived fine without a mobile phone, and it can often be quite liberating to spend a week at the beach without the constant interruption of your Blackberry. I would not suggest leaving your mobile phone at home, as it always makes sense to have access in case of an emergency, but you do not need to keep your phone on 24/7.

One other tip to consider before leaving, is to turn off voicemail on your phone before you leave for your destination. If someone tries to call you abroad and reaches your voicemail box, you will actually pay the international rate for them to leave a message.

Do you have any other tips or ways you call the folks back home when you travel? I’d love to hear them, so please leave them in the comments!

Phone safety tips – safeguarding your phone on a trip

If you plan to take your phone abroad, please take a moment to read through these tips on safeguarding your phone and your data. Back in January a member of the UK government lost his Blackberry during a trip to China. Of course, with a device like that there are all kinds of security risks. But even if you are not a senior government official, it is important to protect your phone.

I’ve put together a couple of simple ways you can stay safe, plus some information on what to do if your device does go missing.


Don’t show off your phone.

The iPhone and most Blackberry models rank up there with that well known Cola brand in the red can; everyone recognizes it. Sadly, not everyone around you will be as good natured as yourself, so don’t flash your phone around too much. If possible, put it in a nondescript case so you don’t tell the world you have an expensive phone. Don’t forget that those white iPod headphones can also be recognized by anyone. Replace them with something less recognizable and you won’t stand out too much.

Leave your phone at the hotel and carry a cheaper model.

If at all possible, leave your phone at the hotel, and carry a cheap disposable phone. Your Blackberry, iPhone or other smartphone is always going to be attractive to thieves, but if you carry an ugly $50 phone, nobody will think of stealing it (hopefully).

Know who to call
.

If disaster does strike, and someone runs off with your phone, do you know who to call? If your phone is stolen or missing, don’t assume it’ll be OK, and don’t think you can take care of things when you get back home. Call your operator immediately. When someone steals your phone, the first thing you’ll want to do is block the account to prevent it from ending up being used by 100 people at the local phone store to make international calls.

Since some countries block access to US toll free numbers, you’ll need to use the international customer service number for your operator. In some cases, if the call is about a stolen phone, you can ask the customer service representative to call you back, or even use collect call to contact them.

  • AT&T Wireless: 1-916-846-4685
  • T-Mobile: 1-505-998-3793
  • Verizon Wireless: 1-908-559-4899
  • Sprint: 1-817-698-4199 (Sprint also have several toll free international access numbers here)

Password protection is your friend – use it!

Pick up your phone right now, and read through all your emails, text messages, notes and contacts. Now picture all of that information being handed over to a complete stranger. That is what happens if someone steals your device. Everything you have stored on the phone will land in the hands of someone else.

If you must use email on your device, make sure it is not using the same email account you use for banking, Paypal, Ebay or anything else important. If someone steals your phone while it is set to receive your primary emails, then they could gain access to all your personal information and bank accounts in a matter of minutes.
Some devices have the ability to be remotely locked, if you have a company phone with this option, be sure to carry the number of your IT department so they can assist you.

Always enable the password protection feature of your phone. I’m fully aware that it is a hassle to have to enter the password every time you want to use your device, but it really is the only way to safeguard your data. If someone does make off with your phone, you’ll at least feel safer knowing that there is no way for them to make things worse.

How to use your mobile phone abroad

I understand why many people don’t pack a mobile phone when they leave the country. Aside from the high costs for international roaming, many associate mobile phones with the annoyances and stresses of day-to-day life. Nevertheless, I am a strong proponent of bringing your phone along for your trip. With a few small modifications, your phone can become a tremendous enhancement while you’re out of the country. When I travel with my friends, we usually carry two phones so we can meet if we split up. Not to mention the joy it brings to my friend Nick or my parents when I dial them from Spain at 3 in the morning. And the best part of all this? You can even avoid the painful international price-gouging that usually comes with using it.

But before you can enjoy this blissful world of cheap local calling worldwide, you’ll need to take a few simple steps to get your phone ready for travel. Here’s Gadling’s guide to using your mobile phone abroad. Follow along as we take you through the steps.

IT’S THE NETWORK

The most important part of using your phone abroad is having a model that is compatible with the worldwide wireless networks. For 95% of the world (excluding Korea and Japan) that standard is GSM. You’ll want a phone that is compatible with the GSM system. If you live in the U.S., both AT&T and T-Mobile, along with a few smaller wireless carriers, use GSM systems. Check with your provider if you’re not sure. If you have service with a GSM carrier, you’re already a step ahead, though you still need to confirm if your phone is tri-band or quad-band, which I will explain in the next step. If you are a Verizon or Sprint customer, your phone is not compatible unless you have a “world phone” – but don’t despair. You can easily purchase a cheap phone online or through a third party retailer.

TRI-BAND VS. QUAD-BAND

In addition to a phone that works on a GSM network, different countries operate using different “frequencies” within GSM. Don’t worry about matching a specific frequency when you travel – instead make use of a phone that works across all the various frequencies. A phone that is quad-band works across all four GSM frequencies and will allow you the most flexibility. Tri-band phones will work in most situations, but there’s a few exceptions. Quad-Band is always your best bet. Check your phone’s user manual to find out what kind of phone you have.
BUYING A PHONE

For those lucky enough to already have a GSM-compatible, quad-band phone, skip this step and move to the next step, unlocking. For everyone else, you’ll want to get yourself a compatible phone. You can rent these types of phones online, but they can be purchased for about the same price and you get to keep it indefinitely. Sites like Amazon and eBay have lots of cheap handsets for sale. Find one you like and keep your eye out for the word “unlocked,” which I’ll explain in my next step. Also make sure it accepts a SIM card and that it’s quad-band or tri-band as mentioned before.

UNLOCKING

So you’ve gotten yourself the right phone, but there’s one last step before you’re ready to use it abroad. GSM phones use a technology called a SIM card that identifies your particular phone and its account on the wireless network (see the photo above for an example). If you open the battery pack on the back of the phone, you’ll see a little plastic chip wedged into a slot. That’s your SIM card. Wireless companies in the U.S. “lock” their phones so that if you take out their SIM, it’s useless. You will need to remove this protection before using it abroad. So we’re clear, you can still use “locked” phones in other countries – it’s just that you’re paying $2.00/minute to your favorite phone company back home. By unlocking, you’re using local service providers and getting cheaper rates.

There are a few ways to unlock but the easiest is to buy a phone that comes pre-unlocked. Search for the term “unlocked” on Amazon or eBay and you’ll see what I mean. You can also unlock a phone you already have that is locked. Surprisingly, your wireless carrier will typically give you the codes and instructions to do it, provided you’re not a brand new customer. I called up AT&T and they simply gave me the instructions. Done. It’s not always that easy however – if you’re unsure at all, take it to a third party wireless store and they’ll do it for a small fee. Or check out this.

LOCAL SIM

Your phone is unlocked, congratulations. All you need now is a local SIM card. You can either buy these online (check out Telestial) or you can buy a SIM card when you arrive at your destination. In most countries, mobile phone stores sell prepaid wireless service for low rates along with a SIM card for their network. Once you’re set up, you can add more minutes with refill cards bought at places like ATM’s, convenience stores, newstands or even online. You might also wonder if the SIM card you buy in one country works in others. The answer is typically yes – I have used SIM cards from Spain while traveling in Italy at rates that were still reasonable. The tricky part is when you go to add minutes in other countries. To make this process easier, try to find a wireless carrier who operates in more than one country. A good example in Europe is Vodafone, which offers service and minute refills in Spain, Italy, Germany, the UK, France and Belgium among others.

That’s it. It can definitely seem confusing at first, but there are plenty of resources online to help you if you get stuck. Sites like Telestial or Howard Forums are great resources if you need more information. Give me a ring and say hello once you’ve got it working, will you?