Communications Abroad

 

Communication Tech

Do you ever have those times when you just want to disconnect from the world? Where you just want to turn your phone off, switch off all your electronic devices and just decompress? Yeah, us too. With the amount of information at our fingertips, sometimes it’s good to just disengage, unplug and unwind. When you’re a full-time traveling family though, the difference is the amount that people at home worry about you. They’re always concerned for our safety (I’m glad they are, because that means people care) and want to make sure we arrive safely at our destinations. Even though we’re on the road full-time and don’t always have access to the internet, we seem to always be on the internet looking for something. Anything from whether they have Uber where we are or trying to find a place to eat or just looking at a map to figure out where the hell we are and where we’re trying to go, not to mention the homeschooling situation we have, we seem to always be plugged in. We too need a break.  A break from social media, a break from homework, a break from trying to keep up with writing blogs, or figuring out how to make a vlog. Sometimes, it’s great to be unplugged, but as the full-timers we are, it’s not usually an option. Someone somewhere in some time-zone is trying to make sure we’re still alive and we’re thankful for that.

What we’ve found while traveling abroad over the last 14 years, not just since we’ve been on this trip, is that communications are one of the MOST IMPORTANT, if not THE most important aspects for any length of travel. When we first started really traveling abroad it was a little more difficult to keep in contact. There were international cell phone plans, but they cost an arm and a leg, and depending on the network of the country we were visiting and whether our cell phone company had an international agreement with them, the connection would be hit or miss, and usually a miss. We had an app at the time, “WIFI cafe hotspots” which would show us where there were WIFI hotspots near our location. It all worked off GPS, no internet required. It was great. We found numerous hotspots using this method and were virtually never out of service. We had set up a VOIP on our phones, either Skype, Viber, Facetime, WhatsApp or something similar in order to call home. We would do this for a month at a time while we were abroad.

After a few years, we started buying disposable phones for the countries we’d be in. This was helpful because for whatever reason, we always need to make local calls to businesses in the area and calling internationally is kind of a hassle, not to mention it costs a small fortune and you’d need to re-mortgage your house when you actually get through and complete a call. This option was fine for local, in country calls. However, calling home was difficult because we’d have to figure out the country code exit number plus our country code plus the phone number and it amounted to practically a whole new phone number before you actually entered the phone number you were trying to dial in the first place.

Fast forward a few years later and about 20 countries, we started using SIM cards. We would fly into an airport and pick up a pre-paid SIM card and get a 30-day plan. You just have to make sure you have a phone that is capable of GSM/CDMA capabilities and you’ll practically be able to use any SIM anywhere in the world. We would change out our home country SIM card and insert the new one, program it or have the person at the kiosk program it for us and add a plan. This usually gave us plenty of data and was SUPER cheap, seriously in every country we visited that we’ve done this for, it has been less expensive than having the same data plan in the USA. Usually by a minimum of 30%. In Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, you can purchase a SIM card and pay the equivalent of $25 for the month and have access to 12GB of data and unlimited SMS, social media and phone calls. And if you run out of data, you can choose to purchase more and it can be filled on the spot. No problems. Thailand and Cambodia are ridiculously cheap, I think we spent maybe $15 for the entire month and had nearly unlimited data and surprisingly, it was good. Just make sure to do your research before you leave your home country so you’re informed of what the best carrier is for your travel situation. Not all carriers in other countries are as competitive as they are in the USA when it comes to connectivity.

Mint Mobile

For this trip, we decided to leave our trusted Verizon provider and go with Mint Mobile. This was a GREAT decision for us. It worked practically flawlessly in the US for the four months we had it there (it runs off of T-Mobile towers). It was so cheap I now wonder why we kept Verizon for so many years. They have three different data plans, 3GB, 8GB and 12GB. You get those GB every month, and whatever you don’t use, rolls over to the next month. The plans start out as low as $15/month for the 3 GB plan, but you pay quarterly, so up front the plan would cost you $45 for three months of service. I chose the 12GB plan for us because I did a lot of hot spotting for Kaden’s homeschooling. You could get the 12GB plan and if you chose to pay for the entire year, the total cost FOR THE ENTIRE YEAR is only $300.00. Yes, that is not a typo. Seriously, three-hundred dollars. The best thing about it? You can use it internationally. Just charge up your International Roaming balance in the amount of $10 or $20 and you’re good to go. They charge data by the MB when outside of the USA. However, the rates are super cheap in Mexico and Canada, but get pretty pricey outside of those two foreign countries. If you turn off your roaming data, this could last a really long time. Just be cognizant of how much web-surfing you’re doing. If you constantly need to be connected, get a local SIM card or this one could cost you a fortune. The upside? If you don’t change the SIM card, friends and family can still call you while you’re abroad at little to no cost to you. Seriously, this is one of the best options we’ve come across for necessary access to communications especially if you’re afraid of trying a SIM from another country. You can pick up a Mint SIM card for $5 at Best Buy. The directions are simple and if you choose, you can keep the phone number you already have.

Solis X

Another thing we did, prior to leaving the USA was, we bought a Skyroam Solis X. It works awesome in the USA and some bigger cities in Mexico. In Belize it was really an orange hockey puck paper weight. Not useful AT ALL. The website says it has coverage in Belize, it doesn’t. We spent an entire month in Belize in most every major city and town and not once did we get any connectivity, though it searched and searched for signal. We’ve had the pleasure of trying it out in many areas of Guatemala, and it’s kind of hit or miss. In large towns and cities, it works well enough, but the download and upload speeds leave a lot to be desired, maybe it’s because we’ve been trying to use it during the holidays, Christmas and New Year’s celebrations in Guatemala, which are SERIOUS business. It’s like 4th of July on steroids, constantly for two full weeks. I imagine the bandwidth was being used by the hundreds of thousands of people that were on break during those weeks. The countries that are more developed will definitely support the device and you can subscribe to a monthly unlimited plan for $99.00 per month, you can stream all you want and you can connect up to 10 devices. We tested it in the USA before we left and it worked great with 6 devices connected and running different searches and streaming all at the same time. They also offer day passes for something like $10.00 per day or 5 day passes for $45.00. All in all, it actually works really well in more developed countries. We’ll review the device on their website soon enough. We’ve only had it for 4 months and 4 countries.

Weboost cell

We also installed a weBoost cell phone signal booster in the car. This coupled with our Skyroam Solis X is actually pretty amazing. For example, Bronson was talking to his dad on one of our VOIP programs using the Skyroam Solis X while in a house, and kept losing reception. He took the Skyroam out to the car and connected with the cell phone booster and had a clear and strong signal. Having the two things together has been really great while trying to get homework done on the long-distance car rides between destinations. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s lightning fast. I hope they end up getting more contract with other international cell providers.

 

Since we do spend a lot of time in more remote locations rather than in more developed areas, we’ve found that while the Solis X has been great in more developed areas, it’s not always the best for remote access points, unless you’re on the top of a mountain where you can get unbelievably awesome cell service, so it’s really helpful to have a local SIM card charged with Data that supports your needs. Here in Guatemala, with TIGO having the best service but being more expensive, we can only get 6GB at a time for 30 days on a prepaid plan. The best thing about TIGO is that it’s all through Central America and Colombia, so we might luck out and be able to use the same carrier without roaming data… We’ll keep you updated when we find out. They have a 35 GB plan, but according to a TIGO representative, in order to qualify for that it has to be a residential hook-up, which sucks because that would cover all of us for maybe three months and only costs $65.00, so just about the same as the Mint Mobile plan in the USA for 12 GB/month, or a few bucks less.

Jetpacl

Remember, whichever method you choose, you have to consider how long you’re traveling and where to best decide which communications plan suits your needs. When my family came to visit us in Belize for a week, I used my old Verizon Jetpack and charged up a SMART SIM. This gave them access to data and ability to use our VOIP program if we got separated, since they rented a car and traveled separate from us. It worked out great for them and cost us $25, plus we had data left over to hotspot our computers and do homework and research. Just be mindful of what you need to accomplish. Are you trying to go cheap? Easy? Cheap and easy? Is it important for you to keep your phone number for people to contact you or do you communicate mostly by e-mail? If you travel often and international and have to keep your phone number, consider getting a skype or google fi number. These plans can be used around the world, they use data so you never have to change your phone number and even with a SIM card from another country, you can still receive phone calls and SMS messages at that same phone number. If you use WhatsApp, which is what most countries seem to be using, it usually will come with unlimited calls, SMS and picture messages in the same data plan you purchase with your new SIM, but the phone number never changes. Just weigh your options before deciding that re-mortgaging your home to pay your cell phone roaming bill is worth the ease of use.

Money Matters!

credit cards

Nobody likes talking about finances, well hardly anyone. In the USA it’s pretty taboo to even speak of money in conversation. However, in this post, I’m going to address some issues of money matters while traveling abroad and help inform you readers of what you can expect if you’re planning on visiting another country and need some cash.

If you’re up to date with technology, meaning 21st century, it’s likely that you bank online and have apps installed on your phone to monitor your credit cards and bank accounts. If you do, just make sure you’re checking all that stuff on a secured network, not an open network. People can steal your data really easily from an open network. Since we’ve been traveling out of the USA, we’ve been unfortunate enough to run into a gamut of problems with the safety feature, two-step verification for all of our accounts. I’m talking any account that holds any payment information from Hulu and Netflix to Amazon and our Banks. All of the banking apps we have on our phones these days require a two-step verification process if for some reason you lost your phone or forgot your password or changed your phone number or e-mail address. This is a great measure of security, but when traveling abroad for any extended period of time and having to do banking can often be a little stressful. For example, we have credit cards with Capital One. They have been awesome. Every time I’ve ever had to call, I don’t wait forever to talk to a live human being and they have always been able to resolve any of the issues I’ve had. The problem comes when you change your SIM card while traveling abroad and then try to login either with your fingerprint or with your password. The online system will lock you out. I actually had to set up a skype US number that I can use for all of my two-step verifications. This was $50.00 for the year. However, there are still some companies that won’t verify through a VOIP program because the phone number doesn’t have a “user account” associated with it. Meaning, the number is unregistered with any company and they can’t verify who actually owns or has possession of that phone number.

The work around? I have the app on my phone and I login from my laptop. Capital One asks to send me a verification code and they default to your US phone number, which is great… If you still have it. They give other options, one being a phone call (You can’t use skype until you update it in your account contact information) and the other being opening the app from your phone and verifying that you’re actually trying to access your account. The caveat— Don’t replace your phone and computer at the same time, then you’re shit out of luck and have to call them. I was fortunate enough to be able to verify through the app and it logged me in on my computer. From there, I went in and changed my contact info and updated with my Skype number and set it to default. The online system gave me the green light and said that I could now use that number for notifications. I still have yet to see if it will.

Our bank had the same problem. Even if you have a travel notice set with the company, if you change the SIM card in your phone, they will request a two-step verification to make sure it’s actually you trying to access your account. I love this option in theory. When I’m in Belize and I’m trying to get money from an ATM machine and the ATM says “unauthorized, contact your bank” it really puts a damper on the trip. I will usually try logging in from the app and verify the purchase, then it will allow me to withdrawal money. If it doesn’t show that I even tried to access money, I then have to call the bank and figure out what the hell is going on. Usually it’s a problem with the ATM server not communicating with our bank. This happens a lot in Guatemala. Often times the merchant’s bank is not authorized to connect to an out of country server, which is why it’s super handy to be able to access cash from an ATM. We’ve run into this problem a few times with merchants, online purchases and ATM’s. They all have different parameters they work in. In larger, more developed cities, you’ll have an easier time using a debit card for Point Of Sale purchases. In most smaller towns and villages, cash is king- still, and always.

Mint Mobile

One way we’ve been able to work around it is using Mint. You can purchase a SIM card for $5.00 USD at Best Buy. They give options for calls, SMS and Data and plans start at $300.00/year. Yes, you read that correctly. Three-Hundred dollars per YEAR. I had the 12 Gb plan and it was $130 every 3 months, but if you prepay your whole year, the cost decreases. We also don’t do a lot of streaming, so we don’t really need Unlimited data. With Mint, you pay in advance for a 3-month, 6-month or 12-month plan. The network is great and we never had a problem connecting while in the USA or Mexico. They also offer a roaming package when you leave the US. When in Canada and Mexico, the rates are very reasonable and international data can be bought in $10 or $20 packages. They charge you per minute (something like $0.02 per minute and something Similar per Mb of data.) Our data, phone and SMS service in Mexico went far. I never had to recharge my international roaming balance while we were there for the month. Once you’re out of Canada or Mexico, Mint still works, but the cost increases significantly. You can really burn through your data on the plan, so if you want to use it and are going somewhere else outside of the US, Canada and Mexico, make sure you turn off your roaming data. Then you can turn it on when you really need to access it. We are still able to use the Mint SIM, but I’ve opted to put it into our Verizon jetpack MiFi. This way I can still receive texts for the two-step verification and I don’t use any data, so I’m not spending a ton of money trying to keep my balance in the black. We’ve tried using Verizon and getting the daily package, but it’s expensive and nearly NEVER works. You’ll have better luck with T-mobile. In Mexico, T-mobile works on the Telcel and Movistar networks. We get SIM cards for our phones in whatever country we’re in and send our new info home on a VOIP program like Viber, Skype or WhatsApp. This way we can be contacted from home and local companies and new friends can contact us on local numbers. We’ve found it very helpful to have local numbers when you’re staying abroad for an extended period. More about communications in another post later.

ATM's

No matter where you go, money matters. We don’t like carrying a lot of cash, but it’s necessary in many small towns and villages. If you don’t mind carrying cash, try to order cash from your home banking branch prior to setting out on your trip. The exchange rate is about the same as you’ll get at an ATM machine, but if you’re unfortunate enough to have a bank that charges international banking fees, the cost of withdrawing money from a foreign ATM can end up costing you a small fortune. Not even kidding. Credit cards (depending on who you use) often don’t have the international fee’s the banks charge. Check with your bank prior to take off to see if they charge international exchange rate fees. Many ATM’s in foreign countries will charge you, then you’ll get hit with the exchange fee from the bank, plus the ATM fee. If you bank with USAA or US Bank or Charles Schwab (to name a few), they don’t charge you the international fees or ATM fees or will reimburse you for all ATM fees you incur. This could save you literally hundreds of dollars for your trip, depending on how often you need to withdrawal money. I suggest pulling out as much cash as you can in a case like this, because it prevents you from having to visit the ATM as often.