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Travel on the cheap with an iPhone

Posted on Friday, November 27th, 2009 at 11:14 pm. #

In Vancouver with the iPhone

Going abroad with your iPhone can be incredibly expensive; but I’ve spent a long time fiddling, and have found a relatively cheap way of using it. Here’s what I’ve discovered works relatively well.

Get cheaper data

Your mobile phone provider may offer a special international data plan. O2 offers an international data bundle that includes a portion of cheaper mobile data. You’ll probably need it at some point, so worthwhile looking into getting it temporarily.

…set your iPhone up correctly

In Settings/General/Network, make sure that data roaming has been switched off. You want to only switch this on when you really, really have no alternative to using mobile data.

When you do connect to mobile data, you’ll want to limit your bandwidth as much as possible. In Settings/Mail-Contacts-Calendars/Fetch-New-Data, switch ‘push’ off, and switch the ‘fetch’ settings to manual. This will stop your ‘phone from sucking down new email and calendars as soon as it’s connected to a data connection: that gets expensive.

You’ll also be operating far more in an offline mode, so make sure your iPhone will work well like that. Back in Settings/Mail-Contacts-Calendars, you may wish to use Gmail’s IMAP service and not their new swizzy Exchange service. Unlike Exchange, IMAP does not require a constant connection to do simple things like deleting an email. You might also wish to reduce the amount of pieces of mail to show (assuming you’re not an inbox-zero freak), and to switch off ‘load remote images’. All this will cut down on data transfer when you connect.

… prepare before you go

Use Twitter or Facebook? You can set these up to send you texts, so you don’t have to use any internet connection to, for example, receive direct messages. See the Twitter or Facebook website for more information. Incoming texts from Twitter or Facebook appear to use your text allowance while abroad, though O2′s text allowance package is quite large.

Download Skype on your iPhone (and your laptop). Wherever you have a wifi connection, you can use Skype to make the call, rather than roaming costs on your iPhone. You can also send SMS texts through the Skype application, often at cheaper rates than your mobile phone provider. This significantly cuts your costs. You can also use a Skype-In number to avoid the roaming bills you’ll get for receiving calls, too.

Pay for and download WifiTrak – it’s an app that sniffs for open wifi. It’s considerably more sensitive than the iPhone’s built-in wifi system, and tests each open wifi connection it finds to see if it can reach the full internet. If it can, it can be set to automatically connect you. It’s well worth the couple of bucks that you’ll be charged for the app. Highly recommended; and great for road warriors too, since it’s simple to test for wifi before whipping out the laptop. It’s not infallible, so test some networks yourself if they should be open – particularly ones like Second Cup and Starbucks that require registration.

… and on the road…

Free wifi is normally found in cafés and bars.
- In North America, there’s normally a Starbucks round the corner, and (like the UK) you get free wifi if you have a Starbucks card in the US. These are essentially free; the minimum top-up is $5, which allows you to get access to the wifi, and use that $5 as part-payment for a coffee or two.
- In the UK, this is the same, though you’ll find Pret a Manger also offers free wifi without a prepay card. Alternatively, Wetherspoons pubs also offer free wifi. And decent beer.
- In Canada, head for the Second Cup or Blenz, which have free wifi. (Starbucks do also offer free wifi in Canada, however, if you really can’t find a Canadian-run store).
- In Tokyo, you might spot a few FON spots; otherwise, Starbucks don’t offer any wifi here, and it seems fairly uncommon. Some places offer it, like the Brooklyn Parlour in Shinjuku (which also does good beer and good food).

TripIt can keep all your travel information in one place; and the iPhone application works offline (though you need to remember to synch it every so often). This is invaluable for keeping those hotel and flight bookings in one place. TripIt Pro also monitors flights for you, and can even text you if your flight is delayed; again, saving internet access.

Google Maps on the iPhone is a huge bandwidth hog; yet very useful for finding your way around. However, it does work offline in a partial sense – for iPhone 3G models, at least. When you’re in a wifi area, punch up Google Maps and plan your journey; the map will normally cache in your device, and the GPS system work fine when you’re outdoors and offline. It’s perfectly possible, therefore, to use Google Maps to find somewhere, using no connection whatsoever. (Tip: if only half the map displays, just move the map a little, and it should fill in the gaps).

Other apps that work nicely offline include Byline (a Google Reader client); Remember the Milk (a to-do client, pro users only); and the ebook reader Stanza.

…and watch out for the timezone gotcha

You’ll probably change your iPhone timezone to where you currently are, but you might leave your MacBook on your home timezone. This is foolish: because when you plug your iPhone in (even if you don’t sync) it will automatically set itself to your home timezone: causing frustration and even missed alarm calls. The way of fixing this? On your Mac, go into ‘date and time preferences’, click ‘time zone’, and check the option marked ‘Set time zone automatically using current location’. It works perfectly, and your clock will always be correct.

iPhone apps that are useful for travel (but need online to work)

Kayak – good for flights and hotels – consistently the cheapest way of booking that I’ve found
Google Earth – sitting in a café? Punch up Google Earth, zoom in, and see places of interest nearby on Wikipedia. Very useful.

Share your wifi
Hotels, particularly in asia, only offer wired internet and not wireless. Not to worry; your Mac can easily become a wifi hotspot for you. Choose System Preferences > Sharing – ensure that ‘internet’ sharing is on. It should say ‘Share your connection from ethernet to computers using Airport. Then, follow the instructions to enable it. (Ensure you set a password, in case someone else does something rude.)

And one more useful tip

If you use your proper computer at home to synch your music, you can still use your MacBook on the road to synch photos to your iPhone. So, if you’re uploading photos to Flickr as you go, synching your iPhone will also mean you’ve your photos to bore people with.

Any other tips? Please do share them in the comments.
(Last edited Jan 4, to add Japanese information and clarify a few things)

One comment

commenting at November 28th, 2009 at 8:47 am

Careful with Starbucks. When I was in San Francisco last year I painfully found out that not *all* of them offer free WiFi. Luckily for me, just around the corner there was a little coffee place that indeed offered it (and had better coffee):




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