You may be on vacation, but that doesn’t mean you want to drop off the face of the earth. With a little planning and some smart gear, you can stay connected no matter where your travels take you.
$ - Bargain ($1–$30)
$$ - Inexpensive ($31–$60)
$$$ - Moderate ($61–$150)
$$$$ - Pricey ($151–$350)
$$$$$ - Splurge (more than $350)
Portability guide (from low to high)
Web 2.0 Wi-Fi finder
Rather than driving aimlessly around an unfamiliar town and looking for a place with Wi-Fi access, take some time before you go to check out Hotspotr, a Google Maps mashup that lists cafés with free Wi-Fi access around the world (though the primary focus is the United States and Canada). Forget to search before leaving home? Thanks to a low-bandwidth mobile version of the site, you can also use your mobile phone’s WAP browser to look up cafés, without chewing through a fortune in data charges. Users can rate the café’s signal quality, the availability of outlets, and the food, or even write full reviews. If you know of a hotspot that’s not on the map, help out fellow travelers by adding it (free; Hotspotr ).— Mathew Honan
Cell phone access from your laptop
Portability: Extremely Portable
If you want to get online from pretty much anywhere without having to hunt for a Wi-Fi hotspot, a 3G modem is the way to go. It offers relatively fast connections (700 to 800 Kbps downstream) and can access the Internet from anywhere you can get a cell signal. Recently, Apple improved OS X’s support for five 3G modems from Novatel Wireless. (Previously, unless you were using Verizon, which offers a Mac client for its 3G cards, you had to use a third-party utility to make the connection.) Novatel Wireless’s EX720 ExpressCard (Sprint) and V740 ExpressCard (Verizon) both work with the speedy new EVDO Rev A standard. If you have a pre-ExpressCard laptop, you can use the Ovation U720 USB Modem (Sprint or Verizon). Data plans vary by carrier, but most start at around $60 per month. By the way, cell carriers will often give you a discount on a card when you sign up for service (EX720 and V740, $180; Ovation U720, $250; Novatel Wireless ).— Dan Miller
Share the connection
Traveling with a group? You can share your 3G network, with the help of Kyocera’s KR1 Mobile Router. Just plug an EVDO modem into the back of the KR1, or connect the KR1 to your EVDO-ready phone via USB; then you and your crew can wirelessly connect your Macs to the router. To keep strangers from hitching a ride, you can use passwords to restrict access and WPA encryption to secure the connection ($230; Kyocera ).— Dan Miller
Flight updates on your phone
Several airlines now offer flight-status reports via SMS text messaging to mobile phones. However, you have to sign up for each flight separately to receive alerts, and the messages—like the flights themselves—are sometimes delayed. An even handier service for checking flight status for any airline comes from 4Info. Simply text your airline and flight number (for example, AA 212 for American Airlines flight 212) to 44636, and you’ll get a nearly instantaneous response from 4Info with flight-tracking information. Upon arrival in a new city, you can also use 4Info to find hotels by texting reserve and a city name (free; 4Info ).— Mathew Honan
The iPhone alternative
Portability: Extremely Portable
If you don’t need all the features of Apple’s iPhone—or just aren’t willing to pony up the dough for one—you may find Sony Ericsson’s Walkman W810 phone more to your liking. Currently offered by AT&T (check your preferred carrier for availability), this stylish, quad-band GSM phone has an easy-to-use interface, good battery life and reception, and a 2-megapixel camera, and it supports Bluetooth and OS X’s iSync. The W810 is also a solid music player with good sound quality and simple controls. It doesn’t sync directly with iTunes and, like most “music phones,” won’t play iTunes-purchased music. However, software such as Ilari Scheinin’s iTuneMyWalkman can sync unprotected tracks and playlists from iTunes for you. You also get a built-in FM radio and a speaker that’s good enough—and loud enough—for casual listening in your hotel room (with contract, $70; without contract, $320; Sony Ericsson ).— Dan Frakes
Not long ago, if you wanted to call home while traveling abroad, you had to enter the long string of numbers from your calling card into a hotel or pay phone. But today, with a little planning and research, you can use your cell phone from almost any part of the world.
Finding a Compatible Phone To use your cell phone abroad, you’ll need a phone that uses the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) standard. However, only AT&T, T-Mobile, and a few smaller carriers currently offer GSM phones in the United States.
You’ll also need to make sure that your GSM phone can operate on international cellular frequencies, or bands. GSM phones in the United States use 850MHz and 1,900MHz, while those in most of the rest of world use 900MHz and 1,800MHz. So to work both locally and abroad, you’ll need a tri-band or, even better, quad-band phone. These phones are usually called world phones, and include models such as the Palm Treo smart phones, Motorola Razrs, and Research In Motion BlackBerry. (To find out more about the networks in foreign countries, check out the GSM Association’s Web site.)
Keeping Your Phone Number If you want to use your U.S. phone number while traveling abroad with your world phone, you’ll need to contact your carrier before you leave and activate international roaming. This service lets you make calls from more than 100 countries, as well as from some cruise ships. You’ll pay a pretty penny for the convenience; rates are generally $1 to $3 a minute, depending on the country. And the airtime used to forward incoming calls to voicemail typically costs twice as much as the time used to make calls. AT&T requires a $6-per-month add-on package for its best rates.
Saving Money If you plan to use your phone a lot, you can save money by using a local number. Every GSM phone has a small smart card known as a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM), which identifies the phone on the network. In most countries, you can buy a prepaid SIM that gives you a local phone number—and much better rates when calling the United States. The major downside to having a local number is that people won’t be able to reach you until you give them that number, and they’ll have to pay international rates.
You can buy an international SIM before you leave, from a site such as Cellular Abroad, ekit, or Telestial. This is useful if you’d like to give out your international number before you go, but expect to pay more for a SIM bought at home than one bought at your destination.
There is one wrinkle: When you buy a cell phone as part of a contract agreement, the phone is usually locked into that carrier’s network. In order to use another SIM in your phone, you’ll need to have the phone unlocked. AT&T and T-Mobile will often unlock your phone after several months of your contract have elapsed—especially if you pay your bills on time—but there seems to be little rhyme or reason to how they make these decisions.
There are many services that can unlock a phone (just type your phone’s model number and the word unlock into an eBay or a Google search), but their legality is questionable. You can also avoid the issue by purchasing an unlocked phone directly from the company that makes it. (Of course, you’ll pay much more for an unlocked phone because a cell phone company isn’t subsidizing the cost of the phone.)
By the way, if you don’t have a phone that works abroad, you’re not completely out of luck. You can usually buy or rent an inexpensive cell phone for traveling and take advantage of local rates.— Jonathan Seff