Cheat On Your Cellphone Service With Tep Wireless

If you are a smartphone user and love to travel, this has probably happened to you: you return from a trip abroad to find your cellphone service provider has piled on hundreds of dollars for roaming charges and data usage. No matter that you purchased an international plan or topped up with extra data before you left. You’re now faced with a huge bill and a growing ulcer from the stress of it all.

Some elect for a workaround, getting an unlocked phone and performing the old SIM-card switcheroo when traveling overseas – but that’s not especially convenient. What is convenient is a Tep pocket Wi-Fi, a personal hotspot that lets you cheat on your cellphone service with pay-by-the-day Wi-Fi.

Here’s how it works:First, you book your service with Tep, providing information on where you are traveling, dates of travel and a delivery address. Tep will deliver your device to either your home address or to your hotel.

Second, your device arrives, complete with charging equipment, a small tag indicating the name of the Wi-Fi network and its password, and a postage-paid return pouch. Just locate the network on your phone or laptop – the hotspot signal is strong enough for use with about five devices – enter the password, and you’re ready to go.

Finally, when your trip is done, simply pack up the Tep equipment in the mailing pouch and pop it in the mail.

During a recent test drive of Tep’s Wi-Fi hotspot, the thing I found most difficult was printing out a return label and sending it back. Tep pays postage on the pouch but emails the return label, leaving it to customers to remember to print out return labels before embarking on trips. That’s not so convenient.

On the bright side, I got excellent connectivity on three devices simultaneously, including an older model iPhone that is Wi-Fi only.

If you are heading to the London Olympics or to any of 38 European countries this summer, Tep is offering rates starting at $5 per day for a 30-day plan (3G data) to $9.99 per day for a five-day plan (500 MB data). Customers can pay an additional $6.95 per day for unlimited data.

This plan will allow you to fly, drive or take the train across the continent without losing connectivity. If you’re traveling to London, Tep has partnered with Heathrow Airport and Paddington Station to enable pick-up of its devices at designated terminals.

While Tep is designed for travelers visiting Europe or the United Kingdom, it also works in the United States, which means that you could ostensibly use it as an option when traveling domestically.

I’m heading to Maine soon and I wish I would have known about Tep before I shelled out the extra fees for a cabin equipped with Wi-Fi. Ideally, I’d unplug all together. But let’s save that discussion for another article.

Pocket WiFi device offers cheap service in Europe

Using your US-based smart phone in Europe can make for some expensive phone calls. US service providers have international plans that can help but the average roaming charge across Europe costs US travelers $19 per MB. Connectivity is another issue as travelers struggle to get and stay online with phones, laptops, tablets and other wireless devices. Tep is a convenient and affordable service is now available and more than just a way to avoid roaming charges.

“At long last there is an alternative to expensive mobile phone roaming charges and the hassle of finding WiFi internet connections aboard,” said Tep Founder Tomas Mendoza. “Our star service, the pocket WiFi, gives business travelers the power to go anywhere connected with their laptop and Ipad, a priceless service when not being connected can cost time, money and business.”

The Tep pocket WiFi device offers an on-the-go connectivity service across 16 European countries anywhere, any time for $7.95 per day. This isn’t fixed WiFi hot spots, this is 3G on the move that can be used for multiple devices: laptops, tablets, phones.

“No longer will business travellers across Europe be held hostage by mobile phone operators making excessive profits out of their need to use their phones and stay connected” added Mendoza.

The company also rents phones and the simple three-step process is easy. First, users visit the Tep website, choose their Tep service, select travel dates and provide a delivery address. Next, the company delivers the device to their home or destination. Once received, users simply turn the device on to begin use. A pre-paid mailer is provided to return the device after use and all personal information is erased after return.

“With the number of broadband enabled mobile phones hitting the one billion mark this year, and with 70 percent of all consumer devices connected to the internet by 2014, TEP is providing a service that will allow consumers to get the most out of these devices, rather than being prevented from using them by profit-hungry operators,” Mendoza said.

$7.95 a day with unlimited wireless Internet usage stacks up pretty nicely compared to plans offered by hotels or Internet cafe’s and beats any US-based service provider’s International plans that we have heard of.

Flickr photo by Ed Yourdon

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Xcom Global’s MiFi rental service: why you shouldn’t leave the US without one

The goal here was to utilize Xcom Global’s MiFi rental service to stay connected and work while traveling. The trip? Four days in England, followed by three in France. I was scheduled to shoot my first international wedding in Paris, and was spending a few days in England beforehand — partly to enjoy the country, and partly to ensure that no weather problems in the US delayed my flight over. Xcom Global provides a service that every US-based international traveler should consider: they rent MiFi devices for a host of nations (a list that seems to grow each month), and if you aren’t familiar with a MiFi, the concept is pretty simple: it’s a battery-powered pebble with a country-specific SIM card in it. Just press a button, and within a few seconds, you’ll have a WiFi signal that connects up to five devices to a country’s 3G network.

For example, a French MiFi gives you unlimited 3G data with Orange. So long as you keep a charged battery in there, you can leave your smartphone in airplane mode and still use Google Maps to get around a foreign city — just connect your phone to the MiFi over Wi-Fi. If you aren’t familiar with what it costs to use data internationally, it’s around $5 per megabyte. What does that mean? Downloading the emails you missed on the flight over could easily cost $20, and if you maintained that connection for a whole day? It’s easy to rack up $300 or more in data roaming charges. No US carrier offers a decent international plan (at least not anymore), so you’re really left with two options: struggle to find Wi-Fi, or use Xcom Global. These guys will rent you a MiFi for under $20 per day, with return shipping included. That means unlimited Wi-Fi for around $17 a day in a foreign country, and it’s a connection that multiple people can use at once. If your hotel wants to ding you 10 Euros per day for Internet, just use this — problem solved. It’s an awesome way to stay connected while abroad, but honestly, it’s more than that. For mobile professionals, it’s a necessity.

I love my husband very much, I really do. But even he was kicking himself when we took off from the US and realized our MiFis were still in their shipping bag in our vehicle, safely parked at the airport, slipping further and further from Manchester. This piece was slated to be a review of Xcom’s services; instead, it has morphed into a thesis on just how frustrating it is to visit a foreign country without their services. You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone — isn’t that what they say? Read on for more.Both my husband and I were scheduled to continue working while in England. The plan was to use Xcom’s MiFi in our hotel rooms to check up on emails nightly, return any missed calls via Skype and then use the Internet on-the-go. We’d never been to Manchester, and we were banking on using Google Maps Navigation to get us from our train stop to our hotel. Needless to say, we spent nearly 10 Pounds on a taxi ride that we could’ve easily walked if we had the Internet to guide us. And that’s just the beginning. We arrived at our first hotel, a Holiday Inn. It’s a fine place, but they wanted 15 Pounds for 24 hours of Internet usage. Internet that we couldn’t take with us when exploring the streets of Manchester.

At this point, the only reasonable alternative was to find an O2 store, which sells a pay-as-you-go SIM for 15 Pounds that includes 500MB of data. But alas, it’s hard to locate an O2 store when there’s no Internet to find a store locator. We run downstairs and spend a solid ten minutes attempting to take directions from the front desk, and then another 15 minutes wandering aimlessly to a bus station. And then another 30 walking to a mall, and then another 30 waiting for the SIM to be activated. After our entire first morning in England was shot, we finally had data — on one phone, and we could only use around 100MB per day. After that, it forced us to wait until midnight for the next block of data to become usable.

This was obviously far from ideal. We were fortunate enough to own an unlocked smartphone (a standard Apple iPhone from AT&T would never accept another carrier’s SIM, for example). Plus, the Nexus One has a Mobile Hotspot function that pipes 3G data out over Wi-Fi. This enabled us to check our emails on our laptops, but O2 badly compresses all images that are uploaded, so obviously I was unable to create any photo blogs using this solution. To say that this wasn’t the perfect solution would be a tremendous understatement. Had we been in possession of Xcom’s MiFi, we would’ve had unlimited data to use as we saw fit, without any image compression or daily usage limits. Even if you aren’t interested in working while overseas, having the ability to use Google Maps to search for eateries and monuments (and get directions) is a total godsend. Without a MiFi, the only way to do it is to pay absurd roaming charges or to rent a SIM card — provided you own an unlocked device.

Eventually, we took a train to London. There, our hotel also wanted 15 Pounds per day for Internet access, which just so happened to go down for a critical five hour period where my husband was scheduled to make an important Skype call back to the United States. We had already used up the 100MB daily allotment through O2, so it was off to the streets in a frantic attempt to find an open Wi-Fi hotspot. Considering that we had no mobile Internet to guide us, we were forced to remain on streets we had visited the day before and knew were well-lit. It was closing in on 9PM, and we had already spent an hour on Regent Street — one of London’s most popular roads — with no luck whatsoever. The Starbucks closed at 8:30PM, and the only coffee shop that we could find with later hours wanted to charge us 5 Pounds for using their Wi-Fi for just 1.5 hours.

In the end, we ended up standing outside of a locked Apple Store door, borrowing their free Wi-Fi long enough to complete a 20 minute phone call. Something that would’ve taken 20 minutes if we had Xcom’s MiFi in our hotel room ended up taking around two hours, and rather than being able to have a private call, everyone on Regent Street could pass by and have a listen.

In France, it was even worse. Hardly any of the signage is in English, which left us with little choice but to Google Map something in our room and then write down instructions before heading out. We were also unable to make Skype calls on the go, as we weren’t able to procure a local SIM here. Unlike the UK, there’s no carrier in France that openly sells prepaid SIM cards with data; it’s possible to get one from SFR, but it takes over a day to activate and it requires fluency in French to sort through a phone menu to have the data feature added.

In the end, I found it interesting that going a week overseas without Xcom’s Global MiFi rental service is the best possible advertisement for the service. It may be easy to assume that “you’ll be fine” without Internet access, but consider the life that most of us lead today. We’re perpetually connected. We rely on Google Maps to get us anywhere. We lose connections with people if email sits around for two days. And as for ponying up for Internet at the hotel? That’s a frustration that no traveler should have to face. Looking back, I would have gladly paid Xcom Global $17 per day to have unlimited access to the Internet both in my hotel and everywhere I traveled to while overseas. Suffice it to say, this has taught me to never leave home without one when traveling abroad — in my mind, it’s just as essential as a passport. If you still have your doubts, you could head overseas for a week and do your best to find the Internet. I wouldn’t recommend it, though.

Cockpit Chronicles: Navigating Paris with an iPhone GPS

I’ve lamented on Cockpit Chronicles about my distaste of four-day trips. I’ve come to realize that I shouldn’t be flying such long trips after I came home once and I could actually see the growth in my two daughters.

But when a rare (for the Boston base anyway) six-day trip showed up on our bid sheets, I had to rethink my bidding preferences. The trip had a 24-hour stay in New York between two Paris layovers, and since my wife and kids were already away visiting relatives, I figured I may as well be working.

I’d be flying as a relief pilot working with Boston, Miami and New York pilots. The layovers in Paris and downtown Manhattan easily made up for the loss of stick-time since I wouldn’t be at the controls for any takeoff or landing. I would likely meet some new people from the other bases as well which can be nice.

The evening trip to Paris started off with a Boston crew that I’ve flown with before, and went without a hitch. We managed to catch a nice view of the high altitude (300,000 feet) noctilucent clouds, a spectacular phenomenon that I’ve written about before. It never gets old, especially since it’s visible for just two months out of the year.
Captain Mark flew a beautiful morning arrival into Paris, after which we piled onto the crew bus for the long ride to the hotel, near the center of the city. While the location is amazingly convenient for sightseeing, the bus ride on weekdays can take as much as 2 hours and 10 minutes to travel just 21 miles. I’ve often thought we’d do better on a bike.

On this morning though, we were lucky to keep a relatively good pace, arriving at the lobby just an hour and a half after we left the airplane.

While on the bus, I did a bit of sightseeing. Since my iPhone required a data connection to view the maps as we traveled, I couldn’t use the GPS function to get a better feel of where we were. Since the iPhone doesn’t store the maps by default, an extremely expensive roaming data charge would be needed to see where we were. In fact, as an experiment, I once checked my location on the map in Paris and racked up $6 in roaming data charges in less than a minute.

But then I remembered a really inexpensive iPhone app called GPS MotionX (itunes link) that allows you to cache maps just for the area you’re traveling to by drawing a circle and pressing the download button. With the fast WiFi network and an $8 a month Boingo account, I managed to download the maps back at the hotel.

So many times I’ve followed other crewmembers around the city, checking out museums, restaurants, shops and of course the bike tour through Paris and I would have loved to have known what our route had been between the sights.

With the recent ability to run apps in the background on the iPhone, GPS MotionX allows you to track your path through the city, and even take pictures along the way at each stop or at an interesting sight. For those without a privacy concern in the world, you can even share, in realtime but at designated intervals, your path via Twitter or Facebook.

It also lets you know the distance traveled, the current, average and top speeds, and the elevation that’s depicted in a profile view. The ability to snap a picture at certain waypoints would have given me a much better understanding of a city. Paris is probably the best example, since there’s just so much to experience.

It’s a big city. A GPS could come in handy.

So when the other two Boston pilots and I decided to meet up at 3 p.m. to venture out around the city, with no specific plans, I could tell this would be a good track to record on the iPhone.

Once I explained the function of the GPS app, the path almost became a quest itself as we proceeded. We stopped at a cafe to meet up with the flight attendants, but decided not to eat dinner there, since we had already made plans to go to Willy’s Wine Bar, a restaurant that I hadn’t been to before, which meant I could add it to my list of conquered Parisian restaurants.

Unfortunately we discovered a full house at Willy’s, so we continued on to another place the captain knew about. While it didn’t quite garner a spot in my address book of favorite restaurants in the city, it wasn’t bad, and the appetizer, raclette covered potatoes, may make me want to come back for another entreé.

At least I’ll have the GPS track to remember just how to get there.

By the time we arrived back at the hotel, the MotionX app told us we had walked for 3 hours and 16 minutes, covering 8.16 miles at an average of 2.5 miles per hour. Adding up all the hills we climbed totaled 477 feet, so I don’t feel nearly as bad about the Crepe Nutella we had from an outdoor vendor on the way back.

I sent our route to the captain and first officer, but the .gpx and .kmz files it creates only store one photo from each outing. In fact, even in the app itself, there’s no way to view the pictures taken at each waypoint without digging into a few menus. If only you could touch the waypoint and the photos would pop up. Perhaps in a later version.

A few days before this trip, my wife told me she had found a great way to keep the kids entertained on vacation. She had just discovered geocaching from a friend of hers, and so she took our daughters out to a spot marked near her hometown in Germany. The kids were so excited, since they managed to go right to it without a GPS. But they were having trouble finding the next location on their list.

“Can we somehow do that with the iPhone?” She asked.

“Yeah, I’m sure there’s an app for that.” I told her. And now I think I’ve just found it.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? He’s on Twitter @veryjr.

Yearly reminder: turn off International data roaming when heading abroad

It has been a few years since we last reminded you to pay close attention to your international data usage when you head abroad. And now smartphones are more popular than ever, the time has come to remind you again.

Unless you make specific arrangements with your mobile operator by adding a data roaming package, you will be charged as much as $21 per megabyte of data when abroad. This means you could very easily end up with a $2000 bill for a couple of days of email. The only way to prevent these charges is to disable data on your phone.

Even if you stop checking email and surfing the web, your phone could be doing all kinds of data intensive tasks in the background. Simply forgetting to disable a news or RSS application could cost you $1000 in a week. Every year, people return from their vacation only to be welcomed by a phone bill delivered in a box. Need an example? How about a week in Cancun with an $11.667 Sprint phone bill?

Before you leave:

  • Call your operator and ask whether they have an unlimited or bundled data plan for international usage
  • Always note the name of the customer service rep, along with the time and data
  • Call back before you leave to verify any requested changes were made
  • If you do not want to do data roaming, ask for it to be turned off in your account
  • Turn off data roaming on your phone before you leave the country
  • On some phones, you can alter the “data access point name”, which also blocks all data
  • Consider investing in a prepaid SIM card with data when you are abroad in need of data
  • Keep online activities limited to WiFi when possible

With these simple steps, you should be able to enjoy your trip, without your phone blowing through the budget for your next trip.

[Photo credit; Flickr/Me and the Sysop]