Traveling with tech: A geek goes to Rome

Susan Bradley

These days, most of us wouldn’t think of traveling without at least some of our digital devices. But there are pitfalls when doingso.

Here are a few lessons learned after a week on a Mediterranean cruise ship and five days touring Rome.

It’s true that travel broadens the mind and soul. And for a true technologist, taking along your smartphone, tablet, and/or laptop doesn’t necessarily detract from the experience. There can be good reasons to take your digital devices with you: communicating with those back home, posting updates of your travels, processing and uploading photos along the way, etc.

In the May 23 Top Story, I described my plans for an upcoming overseas vacation — and what preparations I was making for my digital devices. I’m happy to report that the trip to the Mediterranean was fabulous. I can also relate what worked — and what didn’t — when using phones, tablets, laptops, and their accessories overseas.

Getting Internet access while at sea

Surprisingly, using Skype to keep in touch with my dad while I was at sea was the only complete technology failure during the trip. It probably shouldn’t have been a surprise; following the May Top Story, I received numerous tips from fellow Windows Secrets Lounge members warning me about the use of Wi-Fi aboard cruise ships. They were right. Wi-Fi at sea was slow and expensive. My plans for regular video chats with Dad sank like a dropped phone.

A fellow Windows Secrets Lounge member had warned me that ship-based Wi-Fi would be expensive. On our cruise ship, rates were U.S. 75 cents per minute, and if you logged in for even a fraction of a minute, you were charged for the entire minute. I purchased a prepaid block of Internet time for $99, which brought the rate down to 45 cents per minute. Whenever I logged in, I was informed that I had to completely sign off when ending a session; and so I set up a bookmark for the sign-out page.

CORRECTION: This story has been revised. The original text stated U.S. .75 cents per minute and .45 cents per minute. The correct amounts are 75 cents and 45 cents.

Of course, one night we failed to sign out the iPad, incurring a $45.00 overage charge. Lesson learned; we didn’t use the ship’s Wi-Fi after that.

What worked well was text messaging, assisted by Mi-Fi devices I’d pre-ordered before the trip. (Planning for that was complicated somewhat by the many ports of call the trip entailed.) As discussed in the May Top Story, these devices would give me unlimited data plans for each of the countries I planned to visit.

XCom Global (site) actually sent me three units — one each for Spain, France and Italy — along with preconfigured cellular data cards. The devices came with two batteries each to ensure I had nearly a full day’s worth of power.

Because the Mi-Fi devices came with a flat-fee Internet connection, text messages weren’t charged to our international phone-data plan. It was extremely cost-effective: the digital devices carried by my group of fellow travelers included one laptop, two iPads, and four iPhones. All seven devices could connect to the Internet via the Mi-Fi boxes.

As the cruise ship pulled into port in the early morning and left port every evening, I had about an hour’s worth of Internet access — when the Mi-Fi devices could connect with shore-based cell towers. That was plenty of time to send Dad a quick note and/or a photo, just to let him know where we were and what we were up to. If he wasn’t awake, he could check the text when he got up.

Mi-Fi connection

Figure 1. Near shore, my Mi-Fi devices connected with shore-based cell towers.

To prevent other excessive data charges while at sea, I set up minimum plans for international text, data, and phone before leaving home. The ship had cellular service, but the rates were exorbitant. So we also turned off all cloud-based services and extra notifications our phones might try to use. (On my iPhone, I also turned off iCloud connectivity.) As an additional measure, we placed the phones in airplane mode, which not only prevented unnecessary data-use changes but also vastly increased the phones’ battery life.

Using our digital devices once ashore

A few Lounge members chided me for taking my technology along on vacation. But I found it helpful when walking the streets of Rome. Using paper maps is not only difficult at times, it also immediately marks you as a tourist. Granted, most of the people visiting typical Roman tourist locations such as the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps are obviously tourists, but sometimes you want to be less conspicuous. Using our cellphone-based mapping apps in conjunction with the Mi-Fi boxes let us easily navigate to various locations within the city.

I brought along a power converter but had little need for it. The power bricks for many electronic devices have built-in support for various voltages. For example, my laptop, iPhone, and iPad needed only the necessary European plug adapters. So before heading overseas, check the items you plan to take with you. Hair dryers and similar devices are the hardest to convert. But let’s face it, ladies: you’re on vacation; either stay at hotels that have hair dryers in the bathrooms or accept that your hair is going to get wind-blown and just live with it.

Do watch your power usage. Some friends we met up with aboard ship told a story of their first night in Rome. They stayed in a bed-and-breakfast with older wiring. Before going to bed, they plugged their iPhones, iPads, and other electronic devices into one power strip — and popped the room’s circuit breaker. Once the power was restored, they carefully plugged their devices into different outlets in the room.

We purchased cheap, unlocked phones and prepaid cellular cards before we traveled to Italy. But you can also visit a local cellular store (such as TIM in Italy) and obtain a local phone number. This helps keep costs down when communicating with tour guides, hotels, or other local services.

We posted photos and comments on Facebook during our travels. However, I didn’t take my own advice to block myself from being tagged by Facebook friends — though I did ensure that tagged images were not public and could be seen only by “friends.” That made things a bit easier for my dad, whom I had “friended” before I left home. It let him see photos taken by others in my traveling group.

Facebook’s View As tool shows how others view your profile. But I prefer another method: set up a temporary Facebook account, don’t friend yourself, and then browse to your true account. Don’t forget: whoever is friends with you will be able to see photos tagged by others.

Visiting Barcelona, Toulon, Monte Carlo, Florence, Pisa, Rome, Naples, Pompeii, and Sorrento, I found it surprisingly easy to get around without having any real ability with local languages. Most of the places we visited are popular destinations, the locals adept at hosting English-speaking tourists. And technology played its part. For example, at ticket-buying kiosks, we could change the interface language to English by looking for a British flag icon. That made purchasing tickets for the high-speed, Naples-to-Rome train exceptionally easy.

On tours of ancient sites, we were provided small radio receivers that let us clearly hear our guides’ descriptions without their needing to shout.

(I was also surprised at the number of Subway sandwich shops and McDonald’s restaurants in these ancient cities. Seeing a fast-food outlet just outside the walled gate of the Piazza dei Miracoli, where the Leaning Tower of Pisa is located, was annoying and made me a bit embarrassed for my traveling companions. In the land of exquisite pasta, does one really need a Big Mac?)

Technology postscript: The journey home

On our return to the United States, I was impressed with the technology used to clear customs in Toronto, Canada. We scanned our boarding passes for our flight to the West Coast and were then instructed to wait until our names showed up on a monitor. The screen eventually indicated that our luggage had made it off the overseas plane and had been matched with our tickets. Only then could we get in line for the customs inspection and then proceed to the next leg of our flight home.

Because the flight from Rome was late, our layover was extremely tight. Fortunately, a customs official pulled us out of the line for an immediate inspection. We then had to run for the gate, huffing and puffing as we took our seats on the connecting flight. So a word of advice: either book a direct flight back home or make sure you have plenty of time between flights to clear customs.

Also make sure you have easy access to your digital devices. At almost every airport, I had to take only my laptop out of its bag to be scanned. But in Rome, we had to also pull out our iPhones. Oddly, iPads and other tablet devices could be left in our carry-on luggage.

Of course, now that we’re back home, we’re planning to share photos online. But doing so requires knowing the sharing sites’ rules and limitations. For example, on Flickr, only paid users can download the original, full-sized photo. Also, you need third-party tools to bulk-download from the site. Google groups can be another option for sharing photos. Or use Dropbox or SkyDrive to share photos with others and manage privacy.

Touring ancient cities such as Pompeii and Rome made me wonder what artifacts we’ll leave behind. Our ancestors left records carved in stone, scratched into wax tablets, and penned on papyrus scrolls. In a thousand years, will our descendants sift through our digital leavings — our text messages, Facebook posts, tweets, etc. — and wonder about life in the early 21st century? Probably not.

I tossed a coin into the Trevi Fountain which — according to legend — ensures my return to Rome. It will be interesting to see what type of technology I take along next time.

Trevi coin toss

Figure 2. Susan tosses a coin into the Trevi Fountain, ensuring a future return to Rome.

Thanks to everyone in the Windows Secrets Lounge who provided guidance, tips, and comments! You helped me and my traveling companions have a safe and fun-filled trip.

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2013-07-25:

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.