Tips for traveling with digital devices

Susan Bradley

Taking a multi-week trip out of the country takes careful planning. Making sure you can use the technology you take with you, even more.

Gone are the days when we vacationed without our phones and portable PCs. Now they’re as essential as shorts and sandals.

Planning for overseas communications

I do a fair amount of traveling within the U.S. — for business, personal pleasure, and visiting friends. I take it for granted that my digital technology always goes with me. Wherever I am, I can be relatively assured that my smartphone will find a local cell tower and my notebook will find Wi-Fi somewhere nearby.

But this summer, I’m taking an extended trip overseas. I’ll be in places where my phone might not work — a problem that must be solved before I leave. My office and my aging father must be able to contact me in an emergency.

A few years ago, it was almost guaranteed that a U.S.-based cellphone wouldn’t work overseas. However, newer phones, such as my iPhone, work internationally. In my case, I just need to call my service provider at least one day before travel begins and have an international plan added to my cellphone plan.

Because international calls can be expensive, I’m also adding a personal Skype phone number. At U.S. $18 for three months or $60 for a year, it will ensure that, no matter where I am, as long as I can get to Skype on a computer, tablet, or smartphone, my father can reach me relatively inexpensively. And Skype will give me a local number so he doesn’t even have to call long-distance.

Of course, Skype-to-Skype calls are a free call, even overseas. So our first mode of regular communication will be at a set time, Skype to Skype, over the Internet.

Make adjustments to your phone before departure

I rely heavily on technology and have added various alert and messaging services to my phone over the years. These services will consume bandwidth and roaming charges while I’m overseas. So one of the items on my pre-departure checklist is to disable all push email services. While on the road, email will download only when I request it. Typically, this change is made within the phone’s email settings.

On my iPhone, I can also use the Do Not Disturb option under Notifications. Two additional options in Do Not Disturb, Allow Call From and Repeated Calls, give me other choices. The former lets me control who calls me; the latter rings my phone if the same person calls twice within three minutes — a good precaution for emergencies.

I’ll also adjust the phone’s location services so it doesn’t waste minutes/data by constantly — and unnecessarily — checking its current location. I’ll also need to adjust some of my phone’s apps. Some apps can sense when they don’t have a full network connection and will wait until they’re on a good network before synching the data back to online web servers. In my case, I’ll have to adjust my personal fitness apps (RunKeeper and Jawbone UP) to make them less chatty while I’m on vacation.

I protect my phone with a passcode. If you haven’t done so, create a passcode before you leave. Also enable any options for automatically erasing your phone’s data if someone enters too many incorrect passcodes. And if your phone supports it, enable remote phone locking and wiping.

I plan to take my phone with me so I can use convenient tools such as Google Maps and translation services. But there is the option of purchasing an inexpensive phone that works only overseas. This temporary phone is no great loss if it’s stolen or misplaced, but it will provide another emergency number for my office or my father.

The question is whether to buy this backup phone before or after departure. It’s probably going to be cheaper overseas. However, it might make life a bit easier to have it in hand before leaving.

There are stateside phone and Internet companies that will rent international MiFi (or mobile hotspot; more info) devices with unlimited Internet use while abroad. That will give your traveling Wi-Fi-only devices an easy connection to the Internet. A review of many cruise and travel forums will provide recommended vendors. If you do a lot of traveling, purchasing a pay-as-you-go MiFi device would make more sense in the long run.

Part of my trip will be on a cruise ship. I’ll be able to make calls on my phone while aboard — as long as the ship has electricity. (Not a given these days. The ill-fated Carnival cruise–ship passengers lost cellular when the ship lost power.) That said, using your phone aboard ship can come at a high price. Consider leaving the phone mostly off and enjoying the “solitude” — or use the onboard Internet to contact loved ones. (I’ll keep my phone on in case of emergency, but I plan to rely on technologies such as Skype to stay connected.)

Back up all devices before leaving home

Before departure, fully back up all devices you plan to take with you. If any of the devices has sensitive information, ensure that the data is encrypted. On laptops, use TrueCrypt (site) or Windows’ BitLocker to encrypt the hard drive.

That full-backup task includes your phone, in case it’s lost or damaged. Tethering my iPhone creates a complete backup on my personal computer. You can also place key documents you might need while traveling — copies of reservations, for example — in a SkyDrive or Dropbox folder, where you can get to them at any time.

Speaking of reservations, there are any number of online applications and services for planning, coordinating, and keeping track of reservations. TripIt (site), for example, will document your itinerary; simply forward the service your confirmation and reservation emails. (If you’d like to know what the site does with your information, check out its posted privacy policy.)

On the road: Use Internet kiosks with caution

Internet kiosks — pay-to-use public computers — can be useful when you want to do some online research on a full-size screen. However, they’re also a favorite target for malicious keylogging software used to steal usernames and passwords. Never sign in to a sensitive site, such as your bank, from an Internet kiosk. Even checking your email could leave you exposed, if you use the same password for both email and banking.

If you must contact your bank, ensure it’s on a trusted Internet connection. Better yet, simply call the international number on the back of your credit card.

Rutgers University published a helpful security guideline for traveling with technology on its website. Although focused on business travel, its suggestion for taking the bare minimum with you when traveling applies to individuals, too.

One of the Rutgers recommendations is to use a virtual private network (VPN) for transmitting sensitive information. So before you depart, consider whether to sign up short-term with a VPN service. A Google search will list numerous VPN solutions.

Be especially cautious using public Wi-Fi

Several years ago, an acquaintance traveling overseas had to call his email provider to gain access to his mail. For security reasons, the provider blacklisted ranges of IP addresses for suspect countries. It’s still the case that some countries have had their entire IP ranges dropped from the international Web presence. If you suspect one or more of the countries you plan to visit might be a problem, call your provider before departure and check whether it blocks email addresses from those locations.

As in the U.S., some hotels include Internet access with their room charges. For others, connecting to the Net is a separate charge. Be sure to ask about Internet charges when you check in.

In the U.S., you can generally assume that every coffee shop has Internet connectivity. That’s typically the case overseas, too. Whenever you connect to one of these public nets, always set the connection as “Public profile” to ensure that your firewall is set for maximum protection. (In Windows 7, it’s the “park bench” setting in the Network and Sharing Center window.)

Bring along your own portable power source

When traveling, evenings are when you have the best opportunity to recharge your digital devices. Most mobile devices can go all day on a charge — if you rarely use them. Turn on services such as mapping, and your phone or tablet power can drop like a rock. I travel with a portable power brick; it lets me fully charge at least one of my devices without connecting to an electrical outlet. Although several are available, I use one from Mophie (site). It’s relatively compact and weighs about a pound. If you’re driving, take along a small power inverter that will power 110-volt chargers.

Travel carefully with these battery-powered devices. Don’t leave them in hot cars or in trunks where they can overheat and possibly explode.

Posting travel plans on social-networking sites

In these days of online social interaction, some of the information we post could be read by people other than just our friends and family — by potential thieves, for example. Among the many such tales on the Web, WBIR.com posted a story about a family that put all the details of their vacation on Facebook — before and during their travels. They returned home to find their house vandalized and burgled.

Never post where, when, and for how long you’ll be gone. Law-enforcement authorities recommend posting recaps of your vacations after you get back. If you’re traveling in a group, make sure you don’t end up tagged in your fellow travelers’ photos. An Ehow page gives step-by-step instructions for blocking tagging. Also, don’t upload smartphone photos directly to public or social sites; they could contain specific location data in their metadata.

So that’s my plan for traveling with my digital devices. I’ll let you know how it goes — when I get back. (Following my own advice, I’m not about to say when or where I’m going.) Needless to say, I plan to thoroughly enjoy myself and not be totally off the grid (unlike my editor, who tends to travel to less civilized places). My digital devices will add peace of mind and enhance my vacation.



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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2013-05-23:

Susan Bradley

About Susan Bradley

Susan Bradley is a Small Business Server and Security MVP, a title awarded by Microsoft to independent experts who do not work for the company. She's also a partner in a California CPA firm.