Have Internet, will travel

To borrow the first line from The Streets’ magnificent A Grand Don’t Come for Free, it was supposed to be so easy. After a brutally long crunch period that lasted from late March through the first week of May, I set out on vacation. For two weeks, I would be roaming through the Italian countryside, girlfriend by my side, and the rigors of life as a hardware reviewer left behind.

Yeah, we get to play with the latest and greatest techno-toys all the time—and we get paid for it. But we also endure tight deadlines and last-minute releases that come without warning. The reviews we create here at TR take a lot of time, and I don’t even want to contemplate my hourly wage between the latter part of March and the first week of May. During the month of April, I think I maybe spent two days away from TR-related work completely. Admittedly, a lot of the hurt is self-inflicted, in the pursuit of higher quality, so I’m not complaining.

My epic crunch is simply relevant because it explains why I didn’t have time to do much planning for the trip. Neither did my feminine side, who was in the middle of her own work-related flurry. We were going to wing it. For two weeks, we’d road-trip from Lake Como to the Amalfi Coast. We’d done a little research and made a handful of reservations ahead of time, but the rest we were going to figure out along the way.

As I signed off from TR Friday afternoon, I felt optimistic that it would all work out. I had a secret weapon: the Internet.

Most folks eschew the thought of connectivity while taking time off from their everyday lives. In this situation, I was hoping to embrace it. While I planned to be dead to the world in terms of calls and text messages, I would have a 3G data device with an unlimited plan and support for up to five Wi-Fi devices. Add a Transformer tablet, two smartphones, and the power of Google—and its maps. What could possibly to wrong?

A couple of things, actually. But first, I should first take a moment to talk about this Internet device. I’ve seen smartphone and SIM rental services in airports before, but my smartphone is region-locked, and I didn’t want to be hampered by a cramped keyboard and screen. Cellular Abroad promised a MiFi hotspot with 3G connectivity and support for up to five simultaneous Wi-Fi devices within a 10-meter radius. My girlfriend could post Facebook updates while I read up on the day’s Giro d’Italia stage without having to make sense of Italian.

Although most of Cellular Abroad’s services have restrictive usage limits, the MiFi Italy plan offers unlimited data pretty much throughout the country. The first 10GB is available over a speedy 3G connection that offers 2.5/0.9MBps of downstream/upstream bandwidth. After that, you’re stuck on a slower 2G link.

For two weeks of connectivity, I paid $168 plus shipping. That’s not cheap, but the daily price goes down for longer durations. Given what some hotels charge for Internet access these days, I figured I was getting a pretty good deal for a device I could take anywhere. There would be no need to pay for a GPS to go along with the rental car, either.

A few days before we left Vancouver, the MiFi device arrived at my door. It was tiny and came with all the requisite power adapters. There were also instructions not to turn on the device in the US. Worried that Canadian cellular networks might mess with its programming, I kept the hotspot in its case until we arrived in Milan. I didn’t even charge the thing.

Upon arrival, my pocket ace got off to a good start. The hotspot had a full charge, and it took only seconds to establish a 3G connection. Connecting my tablet was no more complicated than joining the encrypted Wi-Fi network. We were soon barreling down the Autostrade, following Google Maps’ directions to our hotel in Como. The Transformer’s GPS tracked our location, and I was able to send out a quick email while sitting at a gas station, waiting for my navigator to combat jet-lag with a couple of espressos.

Although things started off well, we quickly ran into a problem. While walking about that evening in search of a quick bite, our hotspot dropped its data connection and displayed an "SMS only" message. Restarting the device didn’t fix the problem, and the few instructions provided with it gave no clues about what to do next. Initially, I figured we were too close to the border with Switzerland and had somehow latched onto a foreign cell tower that wouldn’t work with the service package I’d ordered. But the disruption persisted when we traveled south, guided by horribly antiquated maps printed on sheets of dead tree.

Turns out Cellular Abroad screwed up my order. Fortunately, and as in A Grand Don’t Come for Free, everything worked out in the end. The error was corrected, and the several-day blackout confirmed the value of an omnipresent Internet connection. Traveling through a foreign country is much easier when the Internet has your back. Languages can be translated, routes mapped, hotel reservations made, and restaurant reviews perused without having to do more than tap a few times on a touchscreen.

Google Maps was probably the biggest asset during the trip. It made navigating a snap and saved me having to defy my male programming and ask for directions. However, real-time mapping did little to ease the butt-clenching stress of sharing impossibly narrow roads with oncoming tour busses. Italian drivers are insane and have seemingly no use for lane dividers or turn signals.

Interestingly, the Transformer’s GPS proved more accurate and reliable than my girlfriend’s iPhone 4S both in the city and on the road. Both struggled to establish our location when driving at high speed, though. Once the Transformer had a fix, speed wasn’t an issue. Its larger 10" screen made directions easier to follow than on the iPhone, anyway. We brought bicycles, too, and the ability to overlay terrain maps proved valuable when planning each day’s ride. I like hills, but my girlfriend does not.

Then there’s Google Maps’ ability to find just about anything. We tracked down laundry services, supermarkets, wine shops, and restaurants with little trouble, usually while strolling with the iPhone, which is considerably more discreet than a tablet. Online restaurant reviews were helpful and easier to trust than the recommendations of hotel receptionists, whose directions weren’t as good. Reviews also informed our decisions on the final few hotels left to book. We booked those online with little trouble, of course.

The Internet came in handy for a bunch of little things, like checking hourly weather forecasts to figure out the best time to ride or to relax in the sun. Wikipedia answered questions like "what’s that mountain range over there?" as we raced from Tuscany toward Rome. While munching a porchetta sandwich at an early morning market, I hit the Canada Customs website to confirm that cured meats could be imported, so long as they were pork-based, vacuum-sealed, and totaled less than 20 kg. Jackpot! During downtime and while waiting for the occasional train, I kept up with my favorite sports. I even sent a few emails to friends and family, which were banged out quickly and enjoyably on the Transformer’s keyboard.

The point of this exercise wasn’t to stay connected to my life back home, though; it was to have access to the incredible information resource I’ve grown accustom to having at my fingertips. We rarely had the hotspot on unless we were actively searching for something, in part because the battery only seemed to last about half a day. Connection speeds were typically slow outside major centers, but that was rarely an issue. We weren’t streaming videos or downloading files. Scoping the scenic potential of a ride while zooming in and out of Google Maps’ satellite view was probably the most bandwidth-intensive task.

Connection snafu aside, the service was absolutely worth the money. I probably wouldn’t bother for shorter trips or for those confined to all-inclusive resorts, but the hotspot was a vital resource in an adventure that covered close to 3,000 km of roads, trails, and the narrow alleyways that pass for old-world city streets.

That said, when the time comes to plan another trip, I’ll be looking for alternatives to Cellular Abroad. The service plainly states that emails may take up to 48 hours to answer, which is too long for paying customers who might have urgent needs. Three days have passed since I inquired about getting a refund for the days of service I lost, with no response yet. Also, the mix of power adapters provided with the MiFi device didn’t inspire much confidence. Three adapters needed to be daisy chained to charge the unit, and the last one was looser than Fox News’ interpretation of the term "fair and balanced." I had to prop up the adapters every time I charged the device, or it wouldn’t stay plugged in.

Those complaints apply to this particular service rather than the general concept, though. The Internet has become a fixture in our lives in part because it’s an unparalleled source of information. I can tell you from first-hand experience that travel is much more civilized with it than without.

Comments closed
    • squeeb
    • 7 years ago

    Good article.

    • anotherengineer
    • 7 years ago

    Cool stuff, however up here in northern Ontario Canada, there are a lot of areas, that don’t have 1g, 2g, 3g, or 4g cell service, some places long the Trans-Canada highway don’t even have radio to listen too (excluding satelite or cbc radio of course), just an empty void of nothing, well lots of trees.

    You wouldn’t want to breakdown, as in some cases you would be walking 100km to the nearest town lol

    I really think infrastructure should be beefed up here in the north, but if there is not enough money to be made your not going to see Bell, Rogers or anyone else put up a tower.

    Maybe the government should put up some towers.

    One of the funniest signs I seen was leaving Hearst Ontario. “Last McDonald’s for 500km” I think a warning about no gas station for 200km would be better, but I got a laugh from it.

    • Imperor
    • 7 years ago

    I would definitely go for a local prepaid! If anyone is going to visit Sweden for instance, an example is 199 SEK ($28) for the card (comes in micro as well), including 1 week of Internet (max 20GB) with an additional week costing 99 SEK ($14) and a whole month is $42. Speeds of 16/4,6. And coverage is pretty excellent unless you go to the farthest northern parts. And that’s just one of several providers.

    edit: Wow, if you can settle for less speed, 1Mbps, they state “unlimited”, but there’s always some cap on these, might not be one with such a low speed though, you can get a whole month for a total of $28! There’s also a “World”-variety with extra low prices on calls abroad, same price!

    I pay 249 SEK/month ($35) for my 4G-plan. 80/20 and I really get those speeds in real life! (Haven’t even bothered to connect my laptop to the 100/10 cable modem at home, my dongle is enough anyway, no cap, pushed it to something like 300GB in a month 😉 ).

    Now, Sweden is pretty extreme, broadband availability for ALL citizens is legislated. Kind of a “Human Right” here. 🙂 But most European countries have excellent possibilities for travellers.

    To do some more advertising for my country, another upside with Sweden is that everyone is pretty much fluent in English since we don’t dub TV or movies and it’s taught in grade school from the age of ten (if not earlier in some schools). Not like huge parts of Europe where everything is dubbed and people don’t know a lick of English even though it’s taught in school because they never hear or use it. (Myself, I know both German and Spanish, so I’m good 😛 ).

    • The Dark One
    • 7 years ago

    I was lucky enough to go on a trip to the Sorrento peninsula. The roads were so twisty and narrow in the the area that cars would preemptively use their horns every time they hid a blind turn. The house we were renting overlooked a lemon orchard had a clear view of the island of Capri. It was a gorgeous place to stay.

    Naples, on the other hand, was pretty disgusting. There was some kind of strike/lockout with the garbage pickup service, so every public bin was buried beneath a pile of trash. People had started stuffing garbage into the planters, too. The gaps between the city’s black volcanic paving stones were filled with cigarette butts.

    • smilingcrow
    • 7 years ago

    ‘Italian drivers are insane and have seemingly no use for lane dividers or turn signals.’

    If you think they are mad try India. I was on a moped near Pondicherry on the main East coast road and that was really scary. Came to a bend and was greeted by two lorries with one overtaking the other with no space left for another vehicle so I had to ditch the road and drive onto the dirt by the side.

    • d0g_p00p
    • 7 years ago

    Big LOL at the trashbin

    • modulusshift
    • 7 years ago

    “The words discrete and discreet are pronounced in the same way and share the same origin but they do not mean the same thing. Discrete means ‘separate,’ as in a finite number of discrete categories, while discreet means ‘careful and circumspect,’ as in you can rely on him to be discreet .”

    Copied from my Mac’s internal dictionary. This has been annoying me soooo much over the past few months of me living in the PC component technosphere in preparation for my build at the end of this month. Why can’t anyone get the usage right? It doesn’t help that a lot of blogs of this nature seem to have English as a second language. Tech Report is awesome, and so is AnandTech and Tom’s Hardware, but as soon as you leave those sites for a bit more coverage, you get hit over the head with just barely misunderstandable English.

    But anyhow, an iPhone is more discreet when you’re walking around, not more discrete. It’s no less connected to the internet, it’s just not as obvious that you’re entirely lost.

      • Dissonance
      • 7 years ago

      Not sure how that made it passed editing, or maybe it was introduced during, but it’s fixed now. That kind of thing drives us nuts, too 😉

        • bitcat70
        • 7 years ago

        It might be coming full circle. Language is a living thing. From the (legend of) Tower of Babel until today. English is the language of the Internet. Non-native speakers do their best to use it. We maybe witnessing language evolution in action at an accelerated pace. who knows maybe a new language will be the result?

    • Nutmeg
    • 7 years ago

    Interesting article, but I agree with Madman in that I don’t think it’s really something i’d want to do. It’s fun to just wander or set off somewhere without having Google in your pocket to tell you exactly where you are and what is happening at every moment. It’s like when a photography buff goes on holiday and spends their whole time taking pictures rather than actually living in the now and enjoying themselves.

    • trackerben
    • 7 years ago

    Whoa, that’s expensive.

    You can buy a local prepaid 3G SIM and load weekly fixed rate xMbps data service for a small fraction of that in most major cities in Asia and the US. With a spare unlocked Android for use as a mifi, many local dataplans can be hotspotted. In most major US cities, if you know where to park or meet you can find 20Mbps service for free.

    While in Hong Kong I got three 3G sim/microsim packs and subscribed to a week of uncapped data (plus some voice minutes) all for around USD40.00. Between an iPad and two iPhones, we had up to 21Mbps mobile connectivity at any given time, although in practice it averaged 1.6Mbps/device.

    The Mainland was internet backwater though. Metered service and the ever-grooming presence of the Great FireWall of China was bleh-worthy.

      • floodo1
      • 7 years ago

      that’s awesome…..but what does that have to do with Italy?

    • Madman
    • 7 years ago

    That’s why you buy something like HTC Evo/HTC Wildfire S/HTC Desire [b<]UNLOCKED[/b<] and never worry about stupid cellar network limits or something. Common, the phone costs from 300$-500$, and you can forget about stupid limitations forever! Turn the cellular data network on, wifi hotspot on, and done. Subsidized/locked phones are a total piece of *****. I actually wonder why people still buy them.

      • dpaus
      • 7 years ago

      [quote<]Subsidized/locked phones are a total piece of *****. I actually wonder why people still buy them[/quote<] Only a fool would. (not you, Geoff, of course not; I meant the rest of North America)

      • Bauxite
      • 7 years ago

      Bang for the buck, I’d get a G-nexus from google for 400 and pick up a sim wherever you end up. (also grab a sim cutter before you leave)

      • floodo1
      • 7 years ago

      not everyone leaves the area of coverage which their subsidized phone is locked into. so not everyone cares about their phone being unlocked, for good reason.

    • dpaus
    • 7 years ago

    Welcome, Geoff 🙂 For the last 3 years, my girlfriend and I have done 10,000+ km motorcycle trips with my Palm Pre velcro’d to the handlebars, and a Bluetooth earbud snuggled under the edge of my helmet. Hotels, restaurants, even – once – a Honda service shop. It even helped with the language issues in Boston 🙂

    • Chrispy_
    • 7 years ago

    Haha, you poor bastard Geoff 🙂

    Don’t ever travel in Europe without [url=http://www.google.co.uk/products/catalog?hl=en&q=WorldConnect+World+Travel+Adapter&um=1&ie=UTF-8&tbm=shop&cid=11886170897160930683&sa=X&ei=ple_T4iHEIn08QPHoI3bCg&ved=0CGEQ8wIwAQ<]one of these[/url<]

    • AGerbilWithAFootInTheGrav
    • 7 years ago

    When all is put together $168 is not a lot, but going domestic with a bit of research beforhand could be even cheaper. Over here (Croatia) you get 20 gb wireless for ~$35, so that is about quarter of the price for double the traffic, even though you would need an unlocked hotspot device for European sim cards (to buy the local one it costs $40).

    I guess it is down to convenience, and after all $168 is not a lot of extra money for an overseas trip.

    • Prototyped
    • 7 years ago

    It may have been better to get the MiFi device and plan directly from Three once you arrived in Italy:

    [url<]http://www.tre.it/[/url<] I'm guessing they have a bigger customer support organization as well.

    • pedro
    • 7 years ago

    Wake me up when Interplanetary Internet is up and running.

      • dpaus
      • 7 years ago

      It is, but you can only get a signal in orbit.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 7 years ago

    [quote<]Traveling through a foreign country is much easier when the Internet has your back. Languages can be translated, routes mapped, hotel reservations made, and restaurant reviews perused without having to do more than tap a few times on a touchscreen. ...[/quote<] Hate to be a luddite, but once I got to this section of the article I thought 'In other words, travel is less of an adventure in which you actually have to interact with the local culture.' I understand the benefits you stated, I'm just not sure that they're worth the tradeoff of what makes foreign travel, well, foreign.

      • Geistbar
      • 7 years ago

      Is a culture foreign because of the people you interact with, or because how easy it is to figure out what a sign says? The actual people you encounter will still be foreign, as will the food and environment. These are all logistical changes — nothing about the local culture is lost or changed by removing such challenges.

        • MadManOriginal
        • 7 years ago

        Interaction with the local people and therefore culture is reduced by using gadgetry to replace said interaction.

          • Vulk
          • 7 years ago

          Yes because it’s always better to stop and ask a local who may or may not speak your language, and may or may not be interested in ACTUALLY helping you, for directions instead of just looking it up yourself. You’re absolutely right, I’ve been doing all my travel wrong. That’s the best part. Certainly not actually being where you want to go, and having a chance to relax and ENJOY your trip instead of being harried and not sure where the hell you are or how to get to the cultural icon you want to see.

          Devices are evil. I never saw that before, but clearly you’re right.

          In all seriousness, using a gadget to get around, and to look up things doesn’t in any way deminish a trip. Spending all your time on it and ignoring where you are does. Then again if you were inclined to the latter anyway, not having the gadget wouldn’t improve the situation, you’re still the problem.

            • Washer
            • 7 years ago

            Relax? Why are you traveling to relax? Traveling is about the excitement and adventure that comes from having to interact with someone who doesn’t speak the same language. It’s about actually interacting with the people and not just seeing the “cultural icons” you’ve been told represent those people. Not knowing where you are is an opportunity.

            Travel is not a taking a vacation.

            • Squeazle
            • 7 years ago

            Easy there Hulk.

            Some people take adventures as they come. Others prefer to plan, either a little ahead or the entire trip. One type doesn’t trump the other, it’s up to the person in question

            Although I certainly agree with your last point. Some people will stay locked in their own worlds no matter where they go.

          • ludi
          • 7 years ago

          You’ve been watching those Fly Emirates commercials again, haven’t you?

          Who says you can’t interact with the local culture AND use electronic devices to get around some of the basic map and language problems?

      • mattthemuppet
      • 7 years ago

      I agree. It may take some of the stress out of travelling, but it also sounds like it would take out some of the experience too. For all the travelling I’ve done, it’s not the places I’ve seen or restaurants I’ve eaten at (well, other than big things like the mouth of the Amazon) that I remember the most, it’s the people I met and talked to on the way. It becomes much more than a list of things to see and do and more of an understanding of what makes a country and it’s people tick.

      I have to say too, this obsession with planning trips in advance does come across as rather stereotypically American “do Europe”, although at least he spent a couple of weeks in one country rather than a whole continent. Still, who’s it for me to say how people should enjoy their holidays – each to their own 🙂

      • floodo1
      • 7 years ago

      to each his own

      • oldog
      • 7 years ago

      I think the “connected vacation” is more about reducing the time to plan the trip rather than affecting the overall experience of the trip.

    • ibnarabi
    • 7 years ago

    Nice article, but the internet works better when we put links in our articles 😉

    [url<]http://www.cellularabroad.com/[/url<]

      • Rand
      • 7 years ago

      Given his conclusion I suspect the lack of a link is intentional.

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