Viva the Wi-Fi, 11 Months Traveling the Globe without a Phone

“SIM Card? SIM Card? We don’t need no stink’n SIM Card” – Anonymous, 2015

Well, the title is not exactly accurate. We have had a phone but it has been provisioned for Wi-Fi use only – no SIM card, no cell network coverage, no phone bill.  What joy we experienced calling our friends at AT&T  11 months ago and informing them that we would no longer be needing their services. We parked our number with a service that forwards voicemail and text messages for a few bucks (there are many but we have used NumberBarn) and disconnected from any telecom services.

Just as satisfying was the call  with Comcast where we delivered a similar message. We were frankly a bit late in “cutting the cord” and this trip was just the impetus we needed to say “good-bye and good riddance”.

It has now been 11 months that we have been using Wi-Fi as our only means of communicating and connecting to the inter-webs….and it has been great. Around the world, Wi-Fi is pervasive, mostly fast, and free – for the most part. We use it for voice calls, messaging, watching movies, travel planning, web browsing and of course, blogging.  No surprises there – but what surprised us is how good the experiences have been around the world (of course, with a couple exceptions).

It has been fun to use our year of travel to experiment with exclusive Wi-Fi use without any cellular connectivity.  Especially because my career focus prior to this trip involved deep research of Wi-Fi usage around the world and helping both large companies such as AT&T and Vodafone as well as investors on Wall Street understand the growing usage of Wi-Fi networks and its impact on traditional telecom business models.

Without a doubt, we can confidently say that our experience has been fantastic. With very few exceptions, we have been able to do everything we have needed to do using Wi-Fi and compromised little (although, we acknowledge that our travel can change the type of daily connectivity and communication needed). We have used Skype  (still one of the best) as our primary app for voice calls and WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger for messaging.

Our minor issues:

  • Contact on the fly.  This is our common use case back home for all the reasons that you can imagine and primarily for connecting with folks on the fly and talking from the car (hands-free, of course). We have not had to deal with this too much while traveling.
    • On a couple group cycle rides, it would have been helpful to connect with folks with a traditional mobile phone but we managed to find free Wi-Fi hotspots that worked out.
    • We rolled the dice a bit with a couple weeks of road-tripping in the middle of nowhere South Africa and some cycling out in French farmlands where we would have needed cellular access in case of any emergencies or break-downs  – but we avoided both.
    • For the most part, we schedule calls when we need or want to chat with folks.
  • Authentication. Many websites and mobile apps and Wi-Fi services like to use text messages as a means to authenticate and validate users. Given the decrease in SMS text messaging and the increase of chat apps such as Whatsapp and WeChat, most of the good services offer an alternative, most commonly e-mail, but there are still a few out there that require a phone with cellular service (that should change quickly). In most cases when we have faced this issue, we have been at an airport or trying to use free municipal services (as example in St. Gervais and Megeve France).
  • On the fly, mobile navigation.  We thought this would be a bigger problem that it really has been.  But it has not been an issue – mostly because Google has improved their mobile apps quite a bit over the last few years and they are really good.  We take snapshots and screen shots of maps and navigation routes; we download and cache maps and use the GPS services of our phone.  This has worked really well. We haven’t spent a lot of times in cars though where sometimes the cellular access can help. We have had built-in nav included in some rental cars in Europe and we did buy a cheap portable nav system in South African road trip (that I tried to pawn at the end but that is a story for another post).
  • On the fly, point of interest location.  Again, we were surprised here. The Trip Advisor app provides a good way to download city guide information so that you can have access to restaurants and other points of interest when you are offline.

The Wi-Fi experience around the world differs, as you can imagine, but here is our experience

  • The Good (Really the Great)
    • Asia is the gold standard for Wi-Fi internet access – at least, in the countries where we visited. On this trip, Asian countries included Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam. Free access is everywhere – airports, hotels, restaurants, bars, train and bus stations as well as on trains and buses, and even at gas or petro stations.  It was free everywhere and bandwidth was plentiful. We never had issues here.
    • South and Central America was also great. Although, not quite as pervasive as Asia, Wi-Fi access was fast and free and always available at hotels and in restaurants. And airports generally have decent free access (with some exceptions such as Cusco, Peru as an example).
    • We also found a handful of locations in South America, such as Lima, where there was free Wi-Fi available in urban neighborhoods.
  • The (not so) Bad
    • Europe was and continues to be good. Access in restaurants and bars is limited but that is not always such a bad thing.  Hotels are mostly free now, where in the past it was often only a Pay-for model.
    • Most airports in Europe offer free services but we have run into many bandwidth issues with the free services in many locations. And there is still a Pay-for premium model (for more bandwidth) that exists. Although, if you need good access, it is usually available.
    • In France, we had some disappointment with limited availability or SMS only authentification at bus stations, some train stations, and in cities but the fact that free Wi-Fi is even available in some of the small villages was a bit of a surprise. Orange seems to be lurking about in many small villages with a 5 euro/hr offer.
  • And the Ugly
    • South Africa, by far, was the worst experience.  There is a Pay-for-MB model that is still very much in place. Many public spots, such as hotels and restaurants,  will give you free access but most will not. Apartments, such as those found on Airbnb, will often charge guests.  This was one of only two spots in the world where we paid for Wi-Fi access  – it was about $5USD per day for unlimited usage – which is a lot more than most of the world and enough to make you change your daily activity (although not too much at the end of the day).
    • Japan was the second spot where we paid for access. We were only at the airport during our initial flight over from the States so not sure that counts:>. But we needed access to tie up some loose ends on our exit and there was no free access available.

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Thoughts on Travel Gear for an Around the World Adventure

It is hard to believe it has already been 5 months on the road. Roaming around the world can make time accelerate. Life is good.  We are having a great time, meeting all sorts of interesting folks and exploring fascinating lands. Apart from spending time with family and friends, we are not missing too much – at least not yet. We would love to be able to cook a little bit more and miss “Sundays”, but we may book into more AirBnB spots during the rest of our trip so we are expecting more opportunities for both.

Our gear is working out well. After 3 months or so, we shipped about 5 lbs. of extra clothes and some extra electronics accessories back to the States. We also shipped a water filter and mosquito net back  – these were just not necessary for our travels.

On the electronics front, we no longer have any doubts that a laptop, tablet, smartphone, and two Kindles are the right amount. It felt like a lot initially, but we are using everything regularly. Apart from a smashed iPhone screen that I replaced in Capetown, everything is working great. We have been 100% Wi-Fi and have used Skype, Whats App, WeChat and e-mail for communication. We have not bought a single SIM card while on the road. Being completely independent of any telecom or cable company is WONDERFUL. Wi-Fi is prevalent in most countries now and usually free.  Asia has had the best.  Wi-Fi was free and fast. South Africa had the worst Wi-Fi experience.  It was pay-for the most part and relatively slow.  India tended to be free but very constricted and often unusable in public spots.

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For keeping everything charged, we use this universal charger from Monster with a universal adapter that has worked everywhere (with the exception of some spots in South Africa).

 

 

It is a pretty tight set up – only 2 pieces and can charge up to 5 electronics at once. (It gets a little hot when you load it up that much though.)  We shipped all our iPad and iPhone charges back to the States to minimize the load. And when we absolutely need a mobile charge, this Jackery travel charger has done the job. It is not small and a bit heavy, but it packs the watts to get both our smartphone and tablet fired up and rolling quickly (although their mobile app is a bit wonky providing time-based notifications, not charge-based, reminding you to charge it).

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The laundry gear outlined in our previous post here has worked very well. The soap tabs didn’t work well so we just use shampoo when we wash in sinks (which also limits what we need to lug around with us).  The clothesline is working fantastic and we are both very careful not to leave it behind in a room (easy to do given it is usually out on a patio or balcony).  To date, we have both only left one item each behind in a hotel room – incredible given the number of hotel rooms where we have stayed, and we were able to recover one of the items.  However, mostly, we have been using laundry services as they are readily available and inexpensive in all the countries we have visited so far with the exception of India.  (It is quite a luxury  to drop laundry off some where in the morning and pick it up that night smelling fresh and in some cases, ironed.)

Most importantly, the luggage is working really well.  Susan would like something a bit larger, but the packs feel like the right size for balancing manageability with storage space. We love the wheels, and they have only challenged us once – in Northern Thailand where we had a 300 m walk on dirt road with a bamboo bridge. But the pack’s duffel handles make carrying them short distances very easy.  The day packs are being used constantly for countless reasons including day hikes, carrying groceries, being students or just roaming around cities visiting the sites.  The bags are holding up relatively well – no broken zippers or holes yet.  The waterproof coating is falling off a bit. I suspect that it does not like as much sunlight and heat as we have thrown at it.  Eagle Creek has agreed to replace (lifetime warranty), but we need to be in a country where they are actually sold.

the pack

We bought some travel organizers that we both love. I was a bit skeptical and thought they were a bit gimmicky at first, but they solve the issue of locating items in a duffel bag by allowing you to sort your cloths, keeping things well organized and nicely pressed (relatively).  We are now big fans and highly recommend. They are lightweight and, the large one has a plastic board that keeps shirts from getting too wrinkled.

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We are also using a couple of these compression bags for dirty laundry. They keep dirty and wet laundry away from everything else, and the compression is great when it has been a couple weeks since the last wash. They do not look too sturdy, and the “ziploc” closure has fallen off a couple times, but it pops back on and the bags are holding up. We also highly recommend these.  They really are the perfect laundry bag.

 

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When you are literally packing and unpacking on a daily basis for weeks at a time, these bags make all the difference and help you “breath in with the smile and breath out with the happy”.

We are heading into the mountains of Peru and Colombia in March so we expect to do a bit of re-configuring but likely only temporarily.  We are planning to buy larger day packs that could support 3-5 day outings, are better equipped for longer hikes of 6-8 hours and have a bit more waterproofing, if we are in sustained rainy situations. We have a bunch of colder weather gear that we need to purchase because our shipment from the States with our hiking gear got stuck in Argentine customs, and we could not get it out.

This guy has been invaluable for so many reasons but especially the scissors and cork screw. We have been using the original Huntsman, but the updated version has some nice new features.

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Unfortunately, we had it confiscated at the airport when a last minute reconfiguration of our gear was required and we left it in our carry-on bag.  Luckily, we borrowed one from Raghu in Pune for the remainder of our trip (and we have already used a dozen times since then).

We are settling in to life with much less.  It is amazing what one does not need. Of course, when you are not going into an office or seeing anyone twice in the same week, you need a lot less clothes.  But even so, we suspect one outcome of this trip will be downsizing in a number of areas.

We are thinking about buying a better camera, but there are some benefits to the one we have.  We are making do with an iPhone 6 Plus and a 10+ year old Cannon Elf.  The nice thing about the Cannon is that it is fast and manageable with one hand so it is great for biking. It is also small, tough and survived many drops. It is bullet-proof and ours has a tremendous number of dents and divots to prove it.  An SLR with bigger lenses would definitely give us better photos, but it is another thing to lug around and worry about. So at this point, we are sticking with what we have.

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But perhaps my favorite travel gear is my Civilian Rewind Duo Retractable Cable Security Wallet. For someone who loses things regularly and has been traveling in “pickpocket” countries for sometime, this also provides peace of mind. There are only two spots for it – 1) hooked to my belt or 2) hooked to the inside pocket of my backpack.  When it is not in one of those two spots, there is drama, but that is rare.  It is thin, lightweight and holds cards and money. Carrying cash is something different for us. We have been accustomed to plastic in the States, but cash is still king in many spots. (South America, where we are now, is very cash-oriented).

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So that is it.  This is the gear with which we are traveling. Apart from clothes, we don’t have too much more.  We are compiling our thoughts on clothes for an around the world adventure so stay tuned for Susan’s “Steve Jobs” approach and our arguments in favor of polyester.

 

 

 

Travel Hacking with Podcasts

PostcastWe are only a few months into exploring the “travel hacking” universe but have found some great sites and podcasts (If you don’t listen to podcasts, what are you waiting for?  Start with This American Life, Stuff You Should Know and Freakanomics).

But like a lot of things in life, one needs to filter out some of the silt and water to find the gold nuggets.  Here are some of our favorites:

Indie Travel Podcast – New Zealand couple traveling around the world for years.

Extra Pack of Peanuts – Another young couple that have traveled around the world for years and have a great perspective on a lot of spots.

Too Many Adapters – Some good travel tech recommendations and reviews.

Wander Mom – Great friends who traveled the globe for a year with two kids.

Go Curry Cracker – Friend from the Microsoft (MSFT) days. Traveling and living light, one spreadsheet at a time

Travel with Rick Steves – Old school but great Euro content.

More Podcast Below

These podcasts are a little heavier on the promotional side for folks working to support a digital nomad, location independent lifestyle but still plenty of good nuggets.

Nomadic Matt

Amateur Traveler Podcast

Zero to Travel Podcast

Travel Freedom Podcast

The Daily Travel Podcast

Tropical MBA

Our Favorite Travel Apps

From years of travel and months of planning for our big trip, we have come to rely on a number of apps while on the road.  Here is a list of some of our favorites. Let us know if you have other go-to travel apps!

  • Travel
    • TripIt – The best for keeping track of all those confirmation numbers and getting everything on your calendar.
    • SkyScanner – An aggregator that does a pretty good job including the low-cost carriers. We found a $200 ticket from Bangkok to Barcelona!  But it is not always the cheapest so look around.
    • Kayak – We use this one a lot for finding flights too.
    • Expedia – We try to book with these guys when the prices work. We have growing points.  Note: they have a special right now where they will give you 3x points when booking from the app.
    • AirBnB – We plan to spending many nights at AirBnB spots.
    • Trip Advisor – Great for planning and scoping out new areas. Reviews always seem to be pretty accurate.
    • Jetsetter – They have great deals on high end spots but they also sometimes have decent deals on lower end spots – especially in emerging countries.
    • Priority Pass – We use it to find out of the way lounges for AMEX users.
  • Communications
    • WeChat – I love their stickers!
    • WhatsApp – Everyone has it so you need to be on it.
    • Skype – Old habits are hard to break.
  • Financial
    • Mint – Another old habit – great for tracking and charting spend.
    • Amex – We like their app. Why doesn’t every app that requires a login support the Apple Touch ID API?
    • Wells Fargo, Merrill Lynch, Capitol One are key for moving and tracking the USD.
  • Misc
    • Trello – We love this service and app.  See our other post here.
    • Office Lens – Great for scanning docs and converting to PDF’s. Do not be fooled- MSFT still has the juice. We scanned all our docs, visas, passport, etc., etc. and put them in the cloud
    • Hola VPN – One of many VPNs to get you access to US content.
    • KEXP – Just because you are not in Seattle doesn’t mean you can’t have access to Seattle music!
    • My Data Manager – The best app for managing mobile data while traveling – to manage your local data plans or avoid roaming charges.  Also proof that if you BELIEVE and work hard, you can make good things happen.

Trello

Trello_logoPlanning to take a year off and travel requires some planning.  Chris and I started by logging our ideas in a notebook dedicated to the year sabbatical.  Despite organizing the notebook, it was just not working.  We had notes everywhere and there was no quick and easy way to “search” through the notebook.  We tried using excel and creating various worksheets but that was not great as well.  Chris went on a mission to find an app.  Since, we have been using Trello to organize the pre-planning for the trip, manage confirmations as well as various ideas we have.  While Trello can be a little clunky at times, in the few weeks we have been using it, it has become a great tool to centrally locate and organize information.