As I knew I would, I forgot in my last entry to discuss one of the most tangled and irrational aspects of contemporary travelling: phones and computers.
Before you leave the country you need to have your mobile provider unlock your phone, so it works overseas.
We are travelling with my Google Android phone and two laptops–one of them a Chromebook (which, by the way, I would NOT recommend if you are not completely devoted to Google’s way of doing everything, e.g., using Google + instead of Facebook, etc.) and the other an old Lenovo PC with Microsoft Word. When we got to London, George bought a cheap mobile phone apparatus (Nokia) with a pre-paid SIM card. In London, I also bought a new SIM card for my Android, which made it possible for us to use the Android’s internet capacities as well, as long as we found a place that had WiFi–and most places did have some kind of WiFi connections, but sometimes we couldn’t get them to work (e.g., in Selfridges). For the laptops we had access to our friend’s WiFi in our apartment.
Ask the locals where to buy a SIM card. Sometimes they are available at the airport, sometimes you can buy them where they sell computers, sometimes you have to get them at the local newspaper/tobacco shop or the gas station (true!). Once you have your new SIM card, either you or some kind young person will use a fingernail to pry the back of your phone off, take out the battery, carefully take out the existing SIM card (put it in an envelope for its eventual return to the phone), slip in the new one. You’ll then follow the directions on either your receipt or on the flyer in the package regarding starting the plan and using the new pin number.
When we got to Berlin, our apartment had WiFi for the computers, but we had to buy new SIM cards for each of the phones. The service we got at the airport was blau.de, a prepaid card, which turned out to be a bit of a bother, because as soon as the prepaid amount ran out, we had to buy a new card NOT ONLINE–you couldn’t just add on without having bought a new card. These cards could be used to make international calls, but at a higher rate, and when we went to Poland for 2 days, we ate up E30,00 of time very quickly, because it was roaming rates.
So then we come to Vienna. Almost all of the cafes and institutions have immediate WiFi hookup–you don’t even need a password. But once again, we had to buy another SIM card to get reasonable usage rates. These cards cost between E10,00 and E20,00. The system we used this time is Ge Org!, as you can see above. In the apartment, our ”landlady” Nora has a portable WiFi called a WebCube which is operated through A3, an internet company that charges a monthly fee for the cube and unlimited hours. This worked well, but Nora needed the cube back. So we went again to the big electronics store on Mariahilfestrasse, Saturn, to buy our own portable WiFi.
And here begins the usual run of confusion for us when dealing with all these apparatuses (and all the myriad of accompanying cords, connectors, and add-on devices necessary to get these things to work). The nice young men who offer advice showed us the easy-to-use small portable device, a TP-LINK that cost about E35,00. And, of course, required, ANOTHER GeOrg! SIM card! The nice young men who had been helping us insisted that we would have no problem installing everything, and that we would only have to follow the minimal instructions in the little manuals–for BOTH the portable WiFi device and then the new GeOrg! SIM card. So we bought it, took it home, installed the SIM card, and then turned on the portable WiFi device. It kept saying ”PIN REQUIRED”, but with no place to install the PIN. I re-read BOTH manuals (I thought), but being in German, I may have missed a few steps. We got the WiFi hooked up to the laptops, but couldn’t open the internet. Sigh.
So we took everything back to the store and the nice young men, who went through all the manuals, completed a couple of steps that we had missed–and still it wouldn’t turn on the internet. In the end, we had 3 guys helping us before one of them came over and said it was somehow connected not to GeOrg!, but to another provider! Boom, it worked–to the chagrin of the other nice young men who couldn’t figure that out. So now the portable WiFi works, with a prepaid SIM card that we can add on Gigabytes if we need to. When we go to another country, we will have to get yet another SIM card, not only for the portable WiFi, but for the phones, too.
I write all of this to show that while the technology and the companies are there to provide the services, they change in every country, and we have rarely had a completely seamless hookup of anything. Thank goodness that most rentals and hotels now will have WiFi hookup, so if you aren’t staying someplace with out it, you may not need to buy a portable WiFi. And the systems and availability seem to be changing every day. Eventually, someone will earn every dollar of a fortune for making the whole shebang sensible. My bet is that when you step off the plane they’ll sell you a sim card for your existing phone with a modestly priced plan that makes it work everywhere.
For calling back to the States and elsewhere, we have been using Skype and Google Video, which has worked very well, and is free or nearly so.
All up, then, for the next little while, if you want to be connected at a reasonable price (E20-30), you’ll need to get a SIM card in each country. If you’re going to 5 countries in 10 days, you should probably just arrange with your US provider to use your existing phone plan with stiff roaming charges. You’ll not need to use your phone unless it’s a minor emergency. Remember, your computer will work fine pretty much everywhere.