Thursday, April 23, 2009

Four Days, Four Hundred Dollars

I just saved almost $400 by moving my travel plans up by four days.

I'm making plans for what I hope is becoming an annual visit to Liguria, Italy where a good friend hosts a revolving set of visitors in a vacation home the the use of which he has for two weeks every spring.  This year the drop-in period is the first two weeks of June.

I find Pisa to be the most convenient airport for this region (the house is near the Cinque Terre on the coast near La Spezia) because there's a train station at the airport terminal, and because Delta offers non-stop flights from JFK at convenient times.  Unfortunately, the flight is expensive — $869 round-trip leaving the first week of June.

Last year there were a few days when my friend and I were the only people in the house, so we took an ad hoc road trip to Florence and Lucca.  This year I was considering spending a few days on my own touring another part of Italy — the time spent in Liguria is fantastic but there's so much Italy there, and this is the only time of the year I travel without my family.

My inclination, I'm not sure why, was to spend a week or so in Liguria then a few days traveling.  Fortunately, however, before I booked my flight I noticed a mention on one of the many budget travel blogs I read (was it Arthur Frommer's excellent site?) about good fares for the period ending May 26th (I had been planning to fly May 30th).  By moving my solo travel days to the start of my trip, I got my airfare down from $869 to $500.  The savings will easily cover my hotel and transportation costs for the three nights I'll be on my own.

A good example of how a little flexibility can lead to a lot of savings.  Unfortunately I don't have even that much flexibility with most family travel — school vacation is school vacation, and it's no good trying to move it backwards or forwards by more than a single day.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Hidden America — Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park

A few days ago I posted about Great Sand Dunes National Park, a little-known treasure of the National Park system in southern Colorado.  If Great Sand Dunes is known to few, then Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in southwestern Utah is known to almost no one.

The dunes at Great Stand Dunes are much higher than the ones at Coral Pink Sand Dunes, but the at the latter the sand is a brilliant salmony pinkish-orange color.  This park is not far from Bryce Canyon National Park with its famous eroded red rock formations, but here the erosion is already complete.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes is a convenient stop if you're traveling between the north rim of the Grand Canyon and the Bryce / Zion / Escalante area.  There's a campground at the park.  The nearest town is Kanab, Utah. 

I've been there twice.   One time we had the place to ourselves, the other time there were two other cars there.  At one end of the dunes is an area in which off-road vehicles are allowed, but as long as you stay out of that area you're likely to have the place to yourself.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

SIM Card City

In my last post I discussed different methods for staying in touch while traveling, ending up with purchasing a "world phone" (an unlocked GSM capable cell phone) and purchasing SIM cards. As I wrote then:
Unlike standard US cell phones which are tied to a single provider's network, with GSM phones, much of the important logic governing who your service provider is and what number your phone is attached to is stored on a removable card, called a SIM card, in the phone.  If your phone is "unlocked" then you are able to freely change the SIM card at any time.

This means that changing phone plans is as easy as swapping in a different card.  Since unlocked GSM phones can cost as little as $20 or $30 and the same for a pre-paid SIM card, this gives you a lot of flexibility.  But it leaves you with a decision — what's the best card, or combination of cards, to use for overseas travel.
Let's examine the question of which card to use.

Local SIM Cards

As you move from country to country you can buy a new SIM card so that your phone number and provider will be within that country.  You will then get local rates for calls within that country, and you will have the same international calling rates and roaming privileges that someone with service in that country has.

In general, when you purchase a SIM card, it will have a usage credit included.  You might pay $20 for the card and receive (along with a new phone number) $10 worth of calling credit.  You can then add credit to your card any time you want.

For instance, if you're traveling to France and Italy you would, on arrival, purchase a French SIM card and install it in your phone.  You now have a French mobile telephone number and can call within France like a local.  Calls overseas will be charged at the international rate that is associated with the plan on the SIM card you bought.  

When you travel to Italy, you can continue using your French cell phone, paying whatever international roaming charges are associated with your plan (because your phone will now need to use an Italian service provider).  Alternatively, you could remove your French SIM card (saving it if it still has credit on it, or you want to preserve the phone number) and buy an Italian SIM card.  You get a new (Italian) phone number and local calling within Italy.

What are the rates?  For country-specific SIM cards in Europe I've seen them as low as about 22 US cents per minute for both in-country and international calling, depending on the country.  Other countries are variable — service is much more expensive in Mexico, for instance.

The advantages of using local SIM cards are that you have the best price calling within the country where you purchase the SIM card.  You also have an in-country number to give to friends or family in that country.   This works well if you're planning to be mainly in one country.  If you're traveling around a good deal, however, you'll find yourself switching phone numbers frequently and if you want others to be able to reach you you'll need to let them know every time your number changes.

International SIM Card

A number of companies now offer international roaming SIM cards.  These are SIM cards in which you receive a permanent phone number in one country (it generally seems to be Britain) and a service plan that is usable in any GSM country in which the phone works.  The rates are not as cheap as local calling, generally starting around 50 US cents per minute and heading upwards from there.  For that higher cost, however, you get the ability to use the phone in any country without replacing the SIM card and you keep one phone number as you travel.

One thing to watch out for with international cards is to make sure that incoming calls remain free in those countries where this is normally true.  (Free incoming calls aren't really free, by the way, it's just that the caller is charged the per-minute cell phone surcharge.)  Sometimes it's worth it — Telestial has a card that charges for incoming cell phone calls even in Europe, but in exchange their rates for both outgoing and incoming calls are not much different from having a local card.

Some international SIM cards are prepaid, meaning you get a certain amount of credit to start and then "recharge" your account in pre-determined increments.  But some offer credit card billing in which you pay only for the minutes you actually use.  That's more efficient in those cases where you won't be talking a lot (or may not even use the phone at all), although the per-minute charges with these services are generally higher than with prepaid services.  Mobal offers this kind of service and advertises in a lot of in-flight magazines.  They offer post-billing (you only pay for the calls you make) and a permanent number (it doesn't expire after 9 or 12 months).  In return, their rates are high— $1.25 per minute and up for calling from Europe, for instance.

Mix & Match

If you have an unlocked GSM phone you can mix and match local cards and international cards as desired.  For normal travel you can use your international card, but if you settle for a while in a single country you can temporarily swap in a local card.  Although I don't yet have a phone, it looks like I'll be getting a cheap unlocked GSM phone and the cheapest international roaming card I can find.  If, in the future, I wind up spending a lot of time in one country, I'll just pick up a local card there.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Staying Connected On The Road — A Roundup.

I've never been that concerned about staying in touch when I'm on the road.   For me, being out of touch has always been one of the pleasures of traveling.  I remember in 1985  finding that I was able to pick up a telephone in a campground in northern Greece and (relatively) easily make a clear collect call back to my family in New York.  At first, I was pleasantly surprised but that pretty soon gave way to a sense of disappointment.  My world had suddenly become a little smaller.

While that views seems a little naive now (so 20th century, you might say), until recently I still felt the same way.  A number of factors have recently combined to make me think about staying connected on the road.  

The first is that I'll be most likely be repeating my without-the-family Liguria trip of last year again this spring and I want to know that they can reach me anytime they need to.  

Secondly, I have the opportunity to travel a little more these days, but I still can't afford to completely out of touch with my clients.   In particular, I find myself limiting the length of my trips to two weeks or so even during the summer, when the family could travel for potentially as much as six weeks at a time.

Finally, I increasingly feel the need to be able to make in-country  and next-country phone calls to arrange hotels and other things.  Last year I had a needless two hour wait in the Levanto train station because I wasn't able to let my host know exactly what train I was on.  Earlier this year I had to purchase an expensive calling card in the airport when it turned out that a poet's convention had booked out most of the rooms in Granada, Nicaragua (that doesn't happen in New York, by the way!) on the day we were scheduled to arrive at 11pm.  

When you have unlimited time for travel, two hours spent in a train station can be a pleasant opportunity.  When your return is booked for eight days later, it feels more like wasted time.  And while the 25 year old me wouldn't have had any concern about walking around a city at 11pm trying to roust a hostel owner to let me in, 46 year old me isn't really willing to put my seven and a nine year old daughters through that.

I write all of this a little defensively because there are plenty of people who feel the way I used to feel.  And not just that they want to be out of touch when they travel, but that anyone who doesn't is, somehow, morally inferior.  Just check out the comments at the recent Frugal Traveler blog on the subject.

If you're not yet connected when you travel but want to be, here are the results of my research on how to do it as economically as possible.  Options include:

Don't Do It

It is still possible to travel without a phone, providing phone numbers of hotels and friends for emergencies and using the occasional pay phone or Internet cafe to reach people if you need to.  If your needs don't extend beyond this, I definitely advise it.  This works best if you have a pre-planned itinerary, or don't have anyone who might want to reach you.  If you can do it, by all means do.  You'll save money and the hassle of carrying around yet one more thing.

Computer, Not Phone

Most people know about Skype and similar services, that let you use an Internet-connected computer to make voice and video calls.  This kind of calling is often free for computer-to-computer calls and very inexpensive (generally at in-country rates) when you use a service like SkypeOut that lets you place your call on a computer but reach someone directly on their cell phone.

The big advantage of using an Internet based system is the low cost, and the ability to do video.  The disadvantage is that you need a computer (although many cell phones can act as the computer in this case) and Internet access.  The Internet access factor is a negative if you're going someplace that has cell phone service but no Internet connection (a situation I frequently find myself in) but it can be a positive if you're someplace with Internet access but no cell phone reception.  I'm told that some upscale, remote resorts fall into the later category.  I wouldn't know.

Using Internet based telephony is a little bit like having a free land line wherever you're staying (assuming, again, that you have reliable high-speed Internet access).  But it won't help if you're on the train, trying to tell someone to come pick you up today instead of tomorrow.

One other issue with Skype.  While I'm ambivalent about having a cell phone with me when I travel I'm horrified by the idea of having a computer.  This Internet addict would hate to be sitting by the seaside in Italy scanning the front page of the New York Times.

It's worth noting that even if you use a cell phone solution, you can always use Internet calling on those occasions that you do have access to a computer and Internet connection.

Use Your US Phone Overseas

Sadly, most US phones use a different technology (CDMA) than most of the rest of the world (GSM).  If you're a subscriber to TMobile or ATT (which use the worldwide GSM system), you can use your phone overseas, although you'll need to get an additional service plan.  I'm a Verizon subscriber, so I'm out of luck.

World Phone and SIM Cards

Since GSM cell phone technology is used throughout most of the world, if you buy a GSM phone you will be able to use it in most countries.   You can even use it in the US, roaming on the ATT or TMobile networks.

Unlike standard US cell phones which are tied to a single provider's network, with GSM phones, much of the important logic governing who your service provider is and what number your phone is attached to is stored on a removable card, called a SIM card, in the phone.  If your phone is "unlocked" then you are able to freely change the SIM card at any time.

This means that changing phone plans is as easy as swapping in a different card.  Since unlocked GSM phones can cost as little as $20 or $30 and the same for a pre-paid SIM card, this gives you a lot of flexibility.  But it leaves you with a decision — what's the best card, or combination of cards, to use for overseas travel.

I'll post more on that question in my next blog.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Hidden America — Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes is one of America's least known National Parks.  It contains the highest sand dunes anywhere in North America. It takes about an hour to hike to the first high point in the dunes (700 feet above the base, which is already at an elevation of 8,000 feet) and from there, if you want, you can hike for miles into the dune field.

The park isn't really convenient to anywhere, but the closest town is Alamosa, Colorado.  The campground in the park rarely fills up and there are ranger programs most nights.

In addition to a half day spent on the dunes, the park encompasses some prime Sangre de Christo range wilderness areas.

I've been to Great Sand Dunes three or four times over the years.  I never get tired of it.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Who You Calling "Mister", Bozo?

I don't stay in youth hostels often these days. Been there, done that. Especially with a family there are usually cheaper, more comfortable accomodations available. Besides, I snore like on oncoming freight train and there's an issue of fairness here. Still the best deal I could find at short notice for our overnight in Portland was at the Portland Northwest Hostel (I did find a slightly cheaper place but the six reviews I found online were all negative and the most generous began "Never having stayed in a crackhouse before. . .")

So yes, I'm over youth hostels. But that does not mean that it is okay for the first guy I see to say "Can I help you with that bag, sir?" That's not okay. Even if I was having a little trouble manoevering that 53 pound of camping gear up the stairs.

You Know You're In Portland. . .

when you disembark from the airplane and the first thing you see in the terminal is three guys with watch caps and skateboards.