Wiki catalogues pay-as-you-go SIM cards by country

Our good friend and technomad Paul Oppenheim stopped by this week with a dispatch from Germany and some more info on his current holy quest: to find an international phone plan that supports data and that doesn’t cost more than the mortgage on his condo in San Francisco.

Those familiar with data plans and roaming charges outside of the US might be familiar with the sad details: taking one’s smartphone outside of one’s home country can be an expensive endeavor. Sure, there’s international infrastructure and partnerships to forge, but is that all worth a twelve thousand dollar phone bill? Probably not.

As a result, many opt to use a different Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card while abroad — something, perhaps, with less aggressive data charges. The problems with that notion though are that you need to have a different (local) phone number and that until recently there wasn’t a great place to research carriers internationally. Spanish providers, for example, tend to provide all of their subscriber info and instructions on local, Spanish sites.

Part of that has changed with the paygsimwithdata repository over at wikia. There, travelers can leaf through a wide spectrum of providers sorted by country and service, with many vendors broken down by availability, pricing and value. And yes, it’s all in English.

Bear in mind that while traveling you’ll still have to suffer with a different, local phone number, but having connectivity for a reasonable cost is a small price to pay.

[Flickr image via mroach]

Going back to basics on the road – when high tech becomes high burden

In the past two decades, the high tech arsenal of the frequent traveler has gone through some major upgrades. What started with the brick phone, has evolved into a package of smartphone-digital-camera-socialmedia-netbook -3G equipment. On any given day, even the most amateur of travelers may be carrying over $1000 in high-tech gear. During one of my recent trips, I came to the realization that all this technology has stopped me enjoying travel as much as I should.

On the road, too many of us are more focused on making sure we keep our Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare account up to date, than actually looking out the window to enjoy the scenery. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating a return to complete non-tech, but there are ways we can stay connected and entertained without technology becoming a major part of our trips.
Social media

If I had to pull some kind of numbers out of my ass, I’d say that 50% of travelers are engaged in some form of social media when they travel. Some may keep this limited to a daily Tweet, others spend half their time making sure everyone in the world knows they just checked into the local coffee shop, museum, restaurant and attraction park on Foursquare. If you spend more than one hour a day updating your social media life, take a break. For starters, you need to determine just who you are doing this for.

I’m sure many of you social media aces think all your followers are constantly waiting for your next update, but you need to remember who you are traveling for – you don’t take trips for your followers, you take trips for your own enjoyment. If you fail to see just one amazing landmark because you were glued to your PDA or smartphone, then social media has failed you.

This doesn’t mean social media has no place in travel – I think there are plenty of things your online friends can help with. Especially when it comes to recommendations or other tips, the world of social media can be a great help. But don’t let online tools replace the old fashioned “ask a local” – remember when we used to do that?

Digital photography

Look, unless you are on a paid assignment from Newsweek, there is no real reason to be traveling with a $4000 camera and a bag full of lenses. Don’t get me wrong – I’d never recommend traveling without a camera, and I am jealous of great photographers, but just like with social media, spending too much time with your camera is going to divert your attention away from the reason you are on vacation.

The current generation point and shoot cameras are great for travel – you turn them on, take a photo and move on. There is no fiddling with the lens, no switching out the lens to something better, and no setting up tripods to get “the perfect shot”. At the end of the day, all your want to achieve is a collection of memories of the sights and sounds you saw, and perfect photos are really not required to bring back memories. In fact, the best way to record the feeling of your destination may be with something as simple as a $100 HD camcorder.

When shopping for a good point and shoot camera, you’ll want something that can last all day on a battery, can record HD video (with good audio), and something with good build quality. With a compact camera, you just pop it in your shirt pocket, without having to worry about dragging your massive camera bag around all day.

[Image from: Flickr / Claudio Matsuoka]

Ditch the laptop

In recent years, bulky laptop computers have become lighter and more powerful – making perfect travel companions. But at the end of the day, they still won’t last more than ten hours on a battery, and you always run the risk of breaking them or having them stolen. Yes – the iPad is a great alternative, but that hardly fits in the challenge of switching to a low-tech world, does it?.

For the first time in almost 15 years, I traveled with a notepad last week. And it was fantastic. Not a battery powered touch screen notepad – just a classic Moleskine and pen. Going back to how we kept notes back in school was weirdly satisfying, and I was able to put thoughts on paper much quicker than with any of my digital tools. Best of all, if you can’t completely break free from technology, you can scan notes or digitize them for use back home.

A perfect hybrid of old and new comes from Livescribe, who sell a pen that can record what you write, along with your voice. Simply jot your thoughts on paper, and when you get back home (or your hotel room) you transfer them to your computer.

Mobile phone simplicity

I’ve become so accustomed to my smartphone that I don’t ever foresee making the switch back to a “dumbphone.” Still, there are some advantages of a basic phone over a fancy smartphone:

  • Battery life – do you remember when your phone lasted 4 or 5 days? I’m betting that wasn’t with a smartphone. Today’s basic mobile phones have battery life in the 100’s of hours, some even last more than a week.
  • Price – I’m sure most of you spend well over $60 a month for the luxury of a smartphone, a switch to basic will save a fortune.
  • Risk – Walk down the street of some cities with your iPhone or Android phone, and you are an immediate target for a quick theft. Very few muggers will even consider the hassle of trying to steal your $20 Nokia from you.
  • Ease of use – Forget fiddling with syncing or configuring your email client, With a dumbphone, you just pop a sim card in it, and make calls. Not much more involved.

One affordable move could save you a fortune – switch to the combination of an iPod Touch and a basic mobile phone. With this, you get the best of both worlds – the same apps, email and Internet as on the iPhone, and no insane monthly data costs. You’ll need to learn to find free Wi-Fi to get online, but when you save $40/month, it may be worth the hassle.

How to pick the perfect travel smartphone

Picking the right smartphone for travel can be a major hassle – with so many choices of mobile operators, different phones, different network technologies and different budgets, finding the right one is like finding a needle in a hay stack. Worst of all – with mobile contracts, picking the wrong phone could mean you are stuck with a dud for two years.

In finding the right smartphone, you need to determine your budget, your traveling destinations, application needs, security requirements, current contract obligations and more.

But as always – we are here to help. I’ll stop short of calling myself an expert on mobile phones, but I’m on my 18th year of traveling with a cellular phone, and after over 400 different phones, I’ve seen enough of the mobile world to know a thing or two about what you need in a travel friendly phone.One of the best places to start, is to determine where your trips will be taking you – in the US, we currently have four large operators – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. Of these four, two use the GSM system for their phones, and the other two use CDMA. Why does this matter? Well, one of those systems is not used that much outside the United States, which means you could pick a phone that won’t work where your trips take you.

Picking the right network

Your first choice is going to be how to pick the best network. Don’t fall for the ads showing the “amazing new phone with the magical features” – it could very well be that “amazing” only applies to “within the United States”, making it a poor choice for international travel. A good example of this is the new Sprint EVO 4G – an amazing phone, but virtually useless for phone calls outside the United States.

AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM operators – their network and phones are by far the easiest option for international travelers. On their (postpaid/contract) plans, you can simply bring your phone abroad, and use almost any other GSM network. But beware – there is a high cost involved with this (more on that later).

Sprint and Verizon use CDMA (along with a bunch of other operators like Cricket and Virgin Mobile). There is absolutely nothing wrong with CDMA (despite what some TV commercials try to tell you). In fact, if you know in advance that you’ll be staying in the United States or Canada, CDMA networks provide by far the best coverage.

Sadly, when it comes to Europe, Asia and most of South America, CDMA is pretty much non-existent. This means you’ll arrive in France, and your Verizon phone will do absolutely nothing (unless you find some Wi-Fi).

Now, since this stuff isn’t complicated enough already, there are CDMA phones that are sold as “Global Phone” – these devices are half CDMA and half GSM. With a global phone, you use the CDMA network when available, and switch to GSM when you are outside a CDMA country. These phones use the SIM cards found on GSM phones. Confused yet?

Picking the right features

Oh my – this is a tough one, 3G, 4G, Skype, Google Voice, GSM, multi-touch, tethering, 3.2MP, 5MP, 8MP, HD video, Qik, HDMI…

The list of features on current generation phones is worth a story on its own. Bottom line is this – pick the four or five features you can’t do without – then determine your budget, then go shopping.

Things I feel you need on any travel phone are: reliable data/voice, GPS, Wi-Fi and great battery life. Things that are nice to have include a good camera, decent storage for music/photos and videos and an easy way to enter text.

Everything extra is just that – a bonus. Don’t fall for looks – a good looking phone may make you feel important, but a good looking phone with a dead battery won’t help you navigate back to your hotel.

Applications are another important factor – are you looking for a phone that does nothing more than make phone calls, or are you going to be ambitious and find something that can do Internet voice calls, mobile travel blogging and more?

If applications are important to you, you’ll want to focus on the top three platforms – iPhone, Android and Blackberry (I’m excluding Windows Mobile at the moment, because it is transitioning to a brand new version that does not work with older apps).

The world of mobile applications is dominated by the iPhone – plain and simple. The best apps are currently all there – but Android powered phones are catching up very quickly. In fact, the Android platform has several applications you won’t find on the iPhone (Google Voice, Google maps with navigation).

So – determine your needs, then check out the app stores of each platform. If you have favorites on your desktop or laptop, check to see whether those apps are available as mobile versions for your upcoming phone.

With 100’s of phones on the market, you’ll need an easy way to narrow down the available options. The Phone Scoop phone finder is a great tool for this – their database can pinpoint the perfect phone, based off almost 50 different features and requirements.

The Gadling top picks for travel phones

As of this month (June 2010), the phones I’d recommend for travelers are:

Best pick for US only**
Best pick for international travel (CDMA/GSM)**
Best pick full feature smartphone
Best budget pick smartphone
AT&T N/A N/A iPhone 3GS
(or iPhone 4 on 6/23)
Nokia E71x
T-Mobile N/A N/A Garminfone or Google Nexus One Nokia E73 Mode
Sprint EVO 4G Blackberry Bold 9650 EVO 4G* Palm Pre or Palm Pixi
Verizon Droid Incredible* Blackberry Bold 9650 Droid Incredible* Palm Pixi Plus*

* Droid Incredible, EVO 4G, Palm Pixi (plus) and Palm Pre are CDMA only – for use in Europe and other GSM countries, pick a Global Phone

** All AT&T and T-Mobile phones will work around the world on almost any GSM network

Some unexpected choices?

When it comes to travel phones, a lot of folks instantly reach for the iPhone – and while it does indeed provide pretty much everything travelers need, there are some other often overlooked options out there:

Nokia Symbian S60 powered phones
– Nokia phones are a great choice, because of their great variety in hardware and availability of Nokia Ovi maps. This means almost all Nokia smartphones can be turned into a full navigation system with worldwide maps. And best of all, the maps are loaded “locally”, which means you don’t incur data charges when you travel.

Android powered phones – It is no secret that I’m a huge Android fan, but travelers can benefit from the power of these phones thanks to Google maps with navigation. One downside is that these maps rely on a data connection, making them less of an option when you are abroad.

Blackberry devices on T-Mobile (with Wi-Fi)
– T-Mobile Blackberry devices with Wi-Fi have one very special trick up their sleeves – when abroad, you can connect to a Wi-Fi network, and get the same connectivity as on a cellular network. The technology is called UMA, and we covered it back in 2008. With UMA, you can make and receive phone calls, send and receive text messages all without paying for international data. This means you can check into your hotel in Tokyo, get your Blackberry online, and use it just like at home. Minutes come out of your regular pool, or can be unlimited when you add the $9.99/month Hotspot plan. The best part is that you don’t need to configure anything – as soon as the phone gets online, it can use the service.

Things to look out for when you travel

There are some important things to keep in mind when you travel with your new mobile phone. The first, is making sure you are actually able to use it abroad – before you leave, check with your provider whether your account is provisioned for international use. In many cases, a brand new mobile account may be barred from international “roaming”, and you wouldn’t be the first person to arrive abroad and discover that your phone won’t work.

The next important issue is the cost of international data. If you freak out at the prospect of $2/minute phone calls, you’ll probably get a heart attack when you realize that international data costs around $20 per megabyte. To put that in perspective – downloading a one hour movie when you are abroad could end up costing about $14,000. Yes – 14 THOUSAND dollars.

There are plenty of ways to stay away from cellular data when you travel, but the most important thing you can do is disable it entirely – so before you leave, check your user manual or browse support sites. If you try to figure out how to do this when you arrive abroad, you could have racked up a $500 bill before you even find the “off” button.

One final word of advice – when you shop for a phone, consider paying for an unlocked phone. The process of “locking” a phone means your mobile operator has altered its software to only allow subscriptions from their own network to use it. This makes it impossible to walk into a phone store abroad, and buy a prepaid subscription. We’ll discuss the advantages of prepaid phones in an upcoming article.

Google Goggles helps you explore the world with your phone

Ever needed a quick translation of a foreign menu? Wanted to identify an unknown landmark? A new app called Google Goggles offers mobile users highly useful way to decipher the world around us using the camera on your mobile phone. This new service for Android users makes it remarkably simple to find quick translations of foreign languages, identify landmarks or even pick a bottle of wine, all rolled into one.

To use Google Goggles, all you need to do is launch the app and take a photo using your phone’s camera. See a word on the menu in Paris that you don’t recognize? Skip the guidebook and send a picture. You’ll be given a translation right on your phone. Or maybe you’re walking around and want to know more about a building or landmark. Send a photo of it and you’ll be delivered an explanation. It’s a new way of searching the world visually, tapping into Google’s vast database and the increasing power of mobile devices. Much like augmented reality and location services, mobile devices now allow travelers the ability to make the real world ‘clickable’ – almost as if you were surfing the web.

Although Google Goggles is a tremendous leap forward for travelers, it’s still not universal to all mobile phone users. To download the app, you have to be an owner of one of Google’s compatible Android devices (sorry iPhone owners) like the Nexus One or Droid running version 1.6 or above. If that’s you, you can find Google Goggles by searching and downloading it from the Android Marketplace. The recognition software is also not perfect. The technology is still in its infancy so don’t expect every image you send in to be recognized. Still, the concept of Google Goggles is exciting one for travelers. For anyone with a mobile phone, a whole new range of services is on the horizon.

SkyMall Monday: Wrist Cell Phone Carrier

The older we get, the more forgetful we become. How many times have you misplaced your car keys? How often do you walk into a room and have no idea why you did so? If you had a nickle for every time you put your infant daughter on the roof of your car while you unlocked the door and then drove away with her still stashed up there, how rich would you be?

We all forget things from time to time. Whether it’s which pills to take, your own name or your alibi, it’s always embarrassing when your memory fails you. There is perhaps nothing more frustrating than losing your cellphone. You could try calling it but it’s often your only phone. You can have a friend call it, but you won’t hear it because you probably also forgot your hearing aid. Eventually, you just have to curl up in a ball and wait for the cold hand of death to reach you.

Well, not anymore! Now, SkyMall has decided that lost cellphones are a problem that can no longer be tolerated. This scourge must be thwarted. Rather than rummaging through your purse, checking your couch cushions and using a jeweler’s eye to inspect your dog’s anal cavity, you’ll always know exactly where your cellphone is. It’s strapped to your wrist in the Wrist Cell Phone Carrier.Who knew that your wrist could prove so useful? Sure, you could place your cellphone in your pocket, purse or, if you’re a middle-aged white man, on your belt, but that would only be moderately convenient. You’re a person on the go and need your phone constantly at the ready. Pockets are linty. Purses are filled with tampons and crumpled up tissues that look used but that your mother insists are clean. And those holsters just make you look like a douchebag. Clearly, the wrist is the only place to store your cellphone safely and with class.

Think that wrists are only for watches and masturbating? Well, does SkyMall have news for you. Take a look at the product description:

This innovative accessory uses sturdy Velcro to insure the safety of your phone and has been extensively tested by active joggers, cyclists, skate boarders, fishermen, hunters and business people.

Is there anything more innovative than Velcro? Plus, apparently it provides insurance, which is something that even the President and Congress are having difficulty doing. I only wish we knew how race walkers felt about it.

What a relief that we’ll never have to worry about losing our cellphones again. Now we can focus all our energy on remembering, um, to, er, what was I going to say? Shoot. Cellphones…memory…then I wanted to tell you to…uh…pick up milk…take the blue pill…dang it. Whatever. Just get the Wrist Cell Phone Carrier and you can call your spouse. Lord knows that they’ll remind you of everything you forgot.

Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.