Thomas Friedman, author of the best seller The World Is Flat, argues that information technology has leveled the world’s competitive markets and made access to finance and products more dependent on understanding that technology and its opportunities. Technology had made the world “flat.” However, anyone who has traveled twelve time zones away from home elsewhere in the world knows that the world is not flat, not even in the sense that Friedman suggests. Among other things infrastructure, policies (public and private) and cultural differences ensure that while we may indeed be globally connected, the world is definitely not flat. Though my experience in traveling over the past six months may only provide anecdotal evidence, I think I can illustrate that using information technology—your smart phone, your iPad and/or your laptop—while abroad may not be as simple or as inexpensive as one would hope. That is staying “connected,” essential in the type of travel I was doing, was challenging to say the least.
Some may question the need to stay connected at all during travel, especially when the whole point for many is to relax and to “get away.” A fair question, but even the most ardent vacationers recognize the need to stay in touch for emergencies or just to let family and loved ones know they are all right. Being incommunicado also works better in short stints abroad (1-2 weeks) but rarely works in today’s world over periods of months or longer as in my case. Just staying up with the world events, news and weather necessary to keep one sane in strange environments and new cultures takes effort.
Ready or Not—In contemplating this travel six months or more back, I had determined that I would need more than just a smart phone or an iPad since I was planning on trying to do a minimum amount of “work” with my colleagues and associates back home. As such I added my trusty Mac laptop to my IT bundle and ensured that everything was interconnected with iCloud and/or DropBox to protect myself against possible loss of crucial files. (Ultimately my Mac “died” somewhere in Asia and was replaced with a new Mac Air—the “cloud” made it almost seamless.) I had recently upgraded my iPhone to an iPhone 5 and through Verizon signed up for their “Global Services” for voice and data. In the back of my mind was the idea that once I was in Europe, I would be able to buy a “universal” SIM card for the iPhone 5 and thus avoid even the Verizon service charges. I had also recently purchased a new iPad, so I felt confident I had enough technology “umph” to weather most potential glitches I might encounter along the way. To top it all off, I ordered a special backpack for carrying the various devices and their power supplies, cords, etc., along with room for paper documents and other travel materials I would also need in my journey.
On arrival in Europe one of my first tasks was to find additional plug converters to change my flat-pronged plugs into the “round” European plugs. I had only brought one but soon realized I would need at least one more to keep each device charged while I was using the other(s). My friends in Frankfurt were happy to help me find the hardware in a local store, although it was necessary to “trim” it down so my plugs could be inserted into the adapters used in many homes or hotels. Finding a universal SIM card proved more problematic. We checked with several providers and discovered that, yes, I could buy a SIM card for my iPhone 5 but first, it would only work in Germany and not elsewhere in Europe (I later determined that this was true everywhere—the SIM cards available would only work in one country at a time, not helpful to one going to multiple countries for relatively short times of one to two weeks); and second, that the data would cost roughly $50 per 100 MB of data flow—about double what the Verizon plan was already offering. Unlimited data plans common in the U.S. were not available in the rest of the world. With this new information I elected to stick with my original SIM card and the Verizon plan, albeit I would have to be careful not to leave the data turned on since I could easily (and did!) chew up 100 MB of data just sending a few pictures home by email or text. Wi-Fi would be my friend.
The World of Wi-Fi—I quickly discovered that not all Wi-Fi’s are created equal. While free Wi-Fi’s existed in many if not most public places (restaurants, cafes, etc.), the speed of the Internet connections varied widely. Your device might show four bars, but the Internet it is connected to may move at glacial speeds or simply not have the bandwidth to take care of a large number of public users all at the same time. The other problem was lack of adequate number or range of the routers within a given location of a hotel room or an apartment in a building. This was a problem even when paying for use by the hour or day as is the case with some hotels in Germany or France. In this case sometimes I would be lucky to get three or even two bars for Internet service in my room, even as the Internet meter would be running while I was hurriedly trying to upload those important photos or arrange for my next hotel or apartment on down the road.
It was not just files or emails that were impacted either. Because phone calls while abroad even under global plans are expensive (a $1.50 per minute), I found that Skype and/or other similar services are the best way to stay in touch by voice or even video. I have seen other travelers standing in tourist information offices which generally had free Wi-Fi, using their laptops to talk with their friends/families, trying to hold more or less private conversations as other tourists milled around asking for directions or other information. At some points in my travel I found myself at some very odd hours sitting in hotel hallways where I could get the best Wi-Fi connection to hold a Skype call conversation with someone eight time zones away.
Another problem was the way in which many systems were set up. In general many would allow only one device to be used at a time for a given login and password. Thus it was necessary to turn off one device (iPhone) in order to use another (iPad or Mac). The iPhone 5 does have a nice “hotspot” feature where you can use the iPhone as a hotspot router for your other devices. Unfortunately, many countries and/or service providers won’t let you connect a second device, even though the hotspot. This was particularly true in France and Spain in general, but some service providers in other countries as well. As soon as the Internet service detects the second device it disconnects from the server. I found this would happen even in private residences where the owners were not even aware that their providers had placed this limitation on their routers.
Another problem came from the logins themselves. While many had reasonable logins and passwords, others seemed determined to frustrate any would-be Internet “thief” with 15- to 20-letter/number, uppercase/lowercase sequences for passwords, requiring extreme care in logging in for the first time … not always easy “thumbing” your way on your iPhone keypad while your host impatiently wants to be moving on. I found it helpful just to snap a quick photo of the login instructions with my iPhone just so I’d have it handy to use with the other devices later.
Not surprising given all the issues noted above, I found that in addition to location, dates and prices, I had to give very high priority to Wi-Fi in each and every new location I would be heading towards. On arrival one of the first things I would do would be to test the Internet and make sure that at least one of my devices would work. Luckily, with today’s smart phones, iPads and laptops, they remember the connection codes, and once they are properly entered they work almost automatically. Almost. Some hotels/apartments insist on using systems that require a separate login every time even if free, forcing you to bypass the phone’s auto login system and taking you to a website that requires keying in the password each time—very annoying.
Staying Charged—Even when connected to the Internet it became clear that I needed to keep my devices charged, especially when I would be out and about for long periods of five or more hours just “exploring” or traveling without access to power. (In the car I was able to keep the iPhone charged but nothing else.) I quickly discovered that the iPhone 5 had nowhere near the battery-holding capacity of my old iPhone 4 or earlier Blackberry. I was lucky if I got four to five hours at a time before recharging—it was even less if I was taking lots of pictures or using any of the mapping apps. Somewhere in Sweden (Guttenberg) I discovered a backpacking shop that carried a portable, solar power charger for cell phones. While the solar feature was very inefficient, the charger could be plugged in for a full charge good enough to almost fully recharge my iPhone 5, doubling its useful time. While a bit expensive (around 100 Euros) it became an indispensible item walking around the cities of Europe where I was able to continue using the iPhone past its normal battery life and obtaining those “must have” photos I otherwise might have missed.
Apps Are Your Friends—I think the world at large has been astounded at the number of apps introduced over the past decade or so, as the smart phones have found their way into our lives, creating dependencies and changes no one a decade back would have even imagined. In terms of travel certain apps have simply become indispensible. Google map and Google translate are well known and very helpful in any travel situation. Both require either cell service and/or Wi-Fi to work properly although the map app will provide limited help if the area is already downloaded. One particular app I found almost indispensible is called Citymaps2Go, which you can find on the Apple store for a free download or an equivalent for Android devices. Citymaps2Go works whether you have cell/Wi-Fi connection or not. You simply have to have preloaded the particular country/city map in which you are located to find your way. Each city/region comes pre-bundled with local information about hotels, restaurants, museums, cinemas, etc. More importantly it shows where you are within a few meters, as well as offers a directionality feature that tells you in what direction you are advancing either to or away from your destination. This is particularly helpful in a strange city when you are trying to find your way back either to your car or your hotel. Simply mark where your car/hotel are located on the map before setting out and you can always find your way back later. For hotel or bed and breakfast bookings on the go, Booking.com and AirBnb.com proved indispensible for me over the course of six months. There are other sites used by many as well, including Agoda.com and Traveladvisor.com.
Being Secure—A final issue in traveling and global connectivity is security. Over the course of six months I have had to use my credit cards multiple times to either book rooms, buy airline tickets or otherwise purchase goods or services. In general I have not had any problems as long as I kept personal possession of my cards and any receipts that may result from purchases or use of the cards, even on the Internet. Despite all of my precautions I found my Visa card had been compromised twice and both times while in Italy. In the first case after about three weeks in Florence, I just happened to check my credit card account and found “I” had purchased $35 worth of gas in Denton, Texas the day before. Since I was in Europe and I had possession of the card, it would seem to be impossible that I could have actually done so. It turned out someone had gotten my card number, created a new false card and then used it in Texas. The bank officials, once I contacted them, immediately cancelled the card for use anywhere but in Italy until I could get a replacement three to five days later. The new card arrived and all was good for a while. The second case occurred shortly after I left Italy, had traveled to Turkey, and was headed elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The Visa security had put a hold on a purchase from a duty-free shop in Italy when I was shown as traveling elsewhere. Again they put a hold on the use of the card except where I expected to travel, and I will get a replacement card once I land in the U.S. in the next week or so. Luckily I am near the end of this long sojourn abroad, and I also have a second card just in case. However, Internet thieves are out there and the only alternative is to check your accounts on a regular basis to ensure they are secure.
The world at large, with all its variables, its distinct cultures and its many peoples provides enough bumps and changes to ensure that Friedman’s concept of a “flat world” remains more of a desire than a reality. That said, one only has to sit on a bus in Florence, Italy where all the passengers are busy keying in their smart phones, talking/texting to whomever … or see villagers in remote Sa Pa, Vietnam with cell phone connectivity setting up their next tour group … or observe the shops in Siem Reap, Cambodia near Ankgor Wat advertising free Wi-Fi to attract customers … or watch the young Muslim lady in Istanbul in full burka with ear phone buds attached to her smart phone … to realize just how important connectivity is in our brave new world. Whether we like it or not, we are globally connected.—Paul Maxwell
Paul Maxwell is on extended sabbatical and periodically reports on his observations across various borders.