To Live on the Road
What to take with us was a big issue for us. We needed to be physically mobile and able to have on line access to make any reservations (hotels, transporation, tours, guides, …) as we traveled. Doing that would have been very difficult only a few years ago, but almost universal Internet access and mobile phones now make it feasible.
We couldn’t travel the way we wanted to with each of us pulling two 31 inch suitcases behind us and a carry-on bag on each shoulder. While that was obvious, it also gave us the constraints we needed to figure out what we could take with us. We decided we’d each take a 28 inch checked bag and a carry on with a slip-through back strap that allowed it to slide over the handle of the larger bag.
Two 28 inch checked bags and two carry-ons meant few, if any books — either guidebooks or recreational reading –– or information on paper. It wasn’t going to be possible to carry 20 or so guidebooks with us and file folders with articles and notes on the countries we were going to visit. The latter was not really a problem, but I still like paper books, and the requirement for eBooks took some adjustment. For novels and so on, I would use a Kindle, but for guidebooks I would use my iPad Air with its larger color screen when we were not moving around, or an iPhone 6 Plus when we were.
One of the most popular travel topics on the web is packing — how to travel light, and how to not look like a tourist, aka be a magnet for pickpockets and thieves (don’t use fanny packs, or wear white tennis shoes, baseball caps, and so on). But in reality, what you need to take depends on where you are going and when you are going there, local customs and standards, and your own personal style. Packing right requires understanding all of that.
While there are some general rules — for example, you’ll need to cover your shoulders and upper arms and legs when you visit some temples and churches — you’ll have to find things out more precisely for each country you are going to. We used Wikitravel and the U.S. State Department website for each country as well as what we had learned about a country as we went through the process of deciding where to go.
The elephant in the room for all long term travelers is laundry. While we don’t want to spend some part of very week in the laundromat, we also don’t want to take 18 months’ worth of clothes, especially underwear, with us. So we decided to take clothes that could be hand washed if we needed to, but find places to do our laundry every couple of weeks. The one exception was we would limit our underwear to seven sets and we would wash it as needed.
It is not always clear that technology will make your life better, or if it does, at what cost. This is particularly true when it comes to traveling. For us, technology could make it easier to travel the way we would like, but we needed to be careful not to let it get in the way. We wanted to travel to discover, explore, and engage with people. If you spend too much time engaging with a smartphone, you miss engaging with people and even with the physical place.
But it’s not just smartphones. Many years ago, on a self guided tour through Versailles, we fell in step with a women who was videoing her experience. She went through the entire tour without taking her eye from the eyepiece of her camera and actually seeing what was there.
In order to decide on the right technology, we needed to completely understand what we needed the technology to do for us. It turned out to be a lot of work to figure out the technology that would do what we needed it to do and, at the same time, was non intrusive and easy to use.
Phone service and Internet access within a country
The first thing we needed to deal with was making phone calls and accessing the Internet. To travel the way we wanted to would have been very difficult a few years ago. But with almost near universal Internet access, the way we wanted to travel became possible — as long as we could access the Internet anytime and from any place. Of course most of the places we were going to stay would have WiFi, and there were always Internet cafes, but we also wanted to be able to access the Internet from our mobile devices as we wandered around. We would also need to be able to make voice calls both within the country we were in, and make and receive calls from the U.S.
Since we don’t want our mobile phone bill to be the size of the GDP of some of the countries we were visiting, we decided to take two unlocked phones, one an iPhone 6 Plus and the other an iPhone 6. The 6 plus would do triple duty as a phone, a camera, and a mobile guidebook. We would get a SIM card in the places we were visiting and put it in the iPhone 6 Plus or 6, depending on what we were doing, and I found a web site that gave me a start in figuring that out — Prepaid Data Sim Card Wikia.
I also found SIM cards that would work globally, and the phone rates seemed quite reasonable, but the data plans were much more expensive — more than $100 per month per gigabyte. There was the convenience of a single global number, but then again for the few people who really needed it, I could simply email them the number for each new SIM card.
Keeping our existing numbers
One of the things we wanted to do was keep our existing phone numbers, even if we weren’t using them overseas. I wanted to simply have a voicemail update that said we were out of the country and please email us. (Goodbye robocalls, requests for donations for deputy sheriff’s associations, and all sorts of other “opportunities” — so much for do not call lists). So I first ported my landlines to mobile numbers, which was surprisingly easy. The plan was to have a cheap family plan that we would use when we returned to the U.S.
Calling and getting calls from the U.S.
Now I had to figure out alternatives to call back to, and get calls from the U.S.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each, and, depending on your needs, you’ll have to do some research to figure out which is best for you. Both Skype and Hangouts allow you to make calls to and receive calls from Skype and Hangouts users on their computers (or WiFi connected devices) for free, and also make calls to outside phone numbers (for a fee to international numbers). You can also purchase a Skype phone number so people can call you, or you can use a free Google Voice number in Hangouts. Since I already have a Google voice number, we’ll be giving that out to people who need to contact us. In addition, if you have data access on your phone, you can receive calls using the Hangouts App when you are not on WiFi.
I’ll post our experiences as we learn more.
Taking photos and videos for our postcards
I am not a photographer, but I needed to take photos for our website — to give people the visual context for what I was writing. I decided that the camera on an iPhone 6 Plus was perfect for doing that.
We had to be able to use eBooks on this trip. I have never watched much television, preferring to read, but if I wanted to continue doing that on this trip, I’d have to use eBooks. For that, black and white was fine. But some of the travel eBooks I was taking also look much better in color and on a larger screen, and we needed an eBook reader that could handle that.
Plugging things in
While most American-made electrical appliances work at 110 volts, the vast majority of the world uses 220 – 240 volts (except for Japan, most of the rest of North America, and parts of South America and the Caribbean). In order to use a 110 volt appliance in a 220 volt world, you need a converter. Fortunately, all of our computer and mobile device chargers work on either voltage, and we bought dual voltage appliances for those we needed to take.
These days that is the easy part — one appliance that works anywhere. The problem is a single plug doesn’t work everywhere. We would need adapters for different countries. You can buy a set of adapters or you can buy a universal adapter that will work almost everywhere.
But if we have a single adapter (or even two), and multiple things to plug in at the same time, we’ll also need some kind of travel power strip, not to mention an extension cord.
As we researched our trip, we came across many apps that did things ranging from making reservations, to getting tips from locals, to being a guidebook on our smartphones. But the proof is in the pudding as they say, and I’ll be posting the ones we find useful as well as updating this page.
Our collection of devices and software
With all that in mind we decided to take the following on our trip:
- An unlocked iPhone 6 and unlocked iPhone 6 Plus
- External batteries for the iPhones
- A 13 inch MacBook Air and a 12 inch MacBook
- An iPad Air
- Two Kindle Paperwhites
- A two terabyte backup disk drive
- A set of adapter plugs and a universal adapter
- A travel power strip
- An extension cord
- A cloud backup service — I decided on Crashplan, and yes, I am backing up to both a local device and the cloud.
- Evernote to manage content — the Pro version allows me to download to my mobile devices.
- A Virtual Private Network to secure our computer’s Internet connection — to protect our privacy and guarantee that the data we’re sending and receiving is encrypted and secured from prying eyes. There is actually more to it than that, and if you are interested, there are many sites that will explain VPN’s in more detail. We use Private Internet Access and they do a good job of explaining VPN’s on their site.
Your requirements may be different from ours, of course. Besides using the Internet to do all of our financial transactions, figure out where to go, what to do, where to stay, and how to get there, I am going to be managing our website and doing regular posts.
One final word — make sure it all works before you leave.
While there is no way we can possibly learn all of the languages in all of the countries we’ll be visiting, we do need to know a few words and phrases in each language — things like “Hello,” Thank you,” and especially, “I’m sorry I don’t speak [the language] , do you speak English?” as well as the spoken and written words for “bank” and “cash machine.” We used the Internet to find phrases, but a better solution are apps that can help with language — Google Translate (free) being one of them. There are also a few others that we will be testing out as we travel and I’ll post our experiences using them.
We also made up cards with our names and email addresses and our Google voice number in the U. S. to hand out to people that we meet as we travel.