Staying connected

Sim CardThousands of websites and blogs are devoted to the promotion and review of communications devices for travelers. The information is complex and often technical.

After spending hours researching laptops, tablets, mobile phones, SIM cards, carrier plans, mobile hotspots and more, I reached a few conclusions. They may not be the same ones others would reach, as everyone has there own preferences. I chose technology based upon weight, functionality and security.

Mobile phone

I don’t feel comfortable walking around big European cities with a $400 iPhone in my pocket. I don’t want to worry about misplacing it or having it stolen.

Based upon numerous online recommendations, I chose to buy an inexpensive phone for limited use—phone calls and text messages only.

Research indicated these specs:

  • Unlocked, allowing it to work with a variety of carriers
  • GMS network standard (CDMA doesn’t work in Europe.)
  • Quad band, supporting radio frequencies 850, 900, 1800 and 1900
  • At least 2 or 3G for faster data transfer

I stowed the iPhone and bought a BLU Samba W Q170W for $35.

Never heard of BLU Samba? Neither have I. I plan to use it primarily for making local calls while traveling and, of course, for emergencies. If I lose it, I won’t mourn too long.

SIM cards and carrier plans

SIM cards are tiny circuit boards that identify the phone to the carrier. The phone I bought is unlocked, allowing me to change the SIM card whenever I want. In fact, the BLU Samba has two SIM trays, which makes it easier to switch carriers when traveling between countries.

After reviewing numerous carrier offers, I decided against committing to a global plan and card. Many travelers report disconnects as calls are transferred through servers in distant countries, e.g. Estonia, and back again.

Most travel blogs suggest buying pay-as-you-go SIM cards at each border crossing. Reportedly, country-specific cards are much cheaper than global plans and readily available at shops, kiosks and vending machines.

PrePaid GSM makes it easy to compare carriers and plans by country ahead of time. These include MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) that buy access to mobile networks from major carriers at wholesale prices.

I’m going to give this approach a try. If it proves unsatisfactory, I can always buy a global plan and card later.

For visits home, I’ll buy a stateside pay-as-you-go card, such as Red Pocket, or other options available through Yippz. Cards cost as little as $4.95 and 30-day 100-minute plans are available for $10.

Tablet and accessories

A road computer is a must for checking email, making video calls (e.g., Skype), booking transportation and lodging, navigating with GPS, researching attractions and restaurants, paying bills, watching movies, listening to music, reading ebooks, uploading photos and more.

As a loyal Mac user, my only decision was laptop or tablet. The release of the smaller, thinner, lighter iPad Air made the choice easy. Guessing at the volume of ebooks, music and movies I might download, I settled on 64GB capacity.

The model I specified included both Wi-Fi and cellular network capability. To save money on carrier plans, I intend to use Wi-Fi only. However, as cellular is more secure and more widely accessible, I added the capability as a contingency. I can always add a pay-as-you-go European SIM card later.

I added a Logitech FabricSkin keyboard folio to protect the tablet and make typing easier.

Snail mail

For now, the Mail Center of Chicago is providing a physical address. An interesting alternative is Earth Class Mail, a service that would collect my mail, open it, scan it and post it online for my review.

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