Cell Phones

The Things We Carry

Main Serbian Train Depot

Historic Belgrade Train Station

Salutations from Budapest! As our travels enter October, Brooke and I are onto a new month and another new country. We landed in Hungary yesterday via an uneventful seven hour train ride from Belgrade to Budpaest. The easy going ride on the mostly-empty, mostly-modern train gave us time to visit the dining car and enjoy the passing scenery from giant windows (rural Hungary looks a lot like rural Indiana) during a comfortable ride. And at only 15 Euros a piece, riding the rails made for an inexpensive way to get north to Budapest. Speaking of the Euro, we find ourselves in yet another European country that is not using the Euro for its currency. How is this possible? Denmark, Finland, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and now Hungary – all of them Non-Euro. With 17 countries using the Euro, we must be defying some serious odds here. Ah well, the Hungarian Forint will be just another conversion rate to learn and another set of colorful bills with faces of unknown politicians and local heroes to master. I counted whilst on the train; this is our 11th different currency (not counting any stops from our Baltic Seas Cruise) since we began our trip in New Zealand. Fun financial fact: three of those nations (Singapore, Hong Kong, and New Zealand) also call their monetary standard the dollar.

Each time Brooke and I move from country to county, we attempt to inventory, pack and repack. As we’ve covered on the blog before, trying to determine exactly what and how much to pack was one of our most daunting challenges during our trip prep. We repeatedly heard the motto “pack half as much stuff as you think you’ll need and twice as much money as you think you’ll need.” Sure, this is easy enough if your grandfather’s name is JP Morgan. But all in all, we feel very good about what we are (and, just importantly, what we are not) lugging around the world with us. Although, early on, we realized that we probably did pack a few superfluous extras. Our deck of playing cards has seen the light of day twice so far. I brought along juggling balls because….sigh…I planned to learn how to juggle. Our days have been packed with exploring and learning, so I could probably have left those ridiculous multi-colored balls at home. But there are two handy, electronic gadgets that we use every day and have been essential in our travels: our iPhones and our digital camera. At this point in the trip, I couldn’t imagine getting by without both of them.

Everything we need for the trip in four bags…

First things first regarding the iPhone: we do not have any type of cell phone service or plan. Verizon and AT&T were understanding enough to put both of our plans on hold until we get back to the United States. We’re using the phones as WiFi devices only. The phone calls that we do make are through an exceptional app called Local Phone which connects over WiFi. Local Phone allows us to dial just about anywhere for mere cents per minute. It’s odd, but I haven’t sent a text message since late July (and hopefully no one has tried to send me one). But even just on WiFi, our little Apple gizmos have been a valuable part of our traveling arsenal. We usually have little trouble getting online and the phones have allowed us to book rooms through the Hotels.com and the Air B’nB app, read reviews, map our route, set an alarm, research next steps and check e-mails while just waiting at the bus station or relaxing at an outdoor cafe.

Needed surgery for the iPhoneThe iPhone has been particularly handy when things go slightly awry, like a cancelled hotel reservation, and we both can scramble to get things set right. Brooke tracks our budget at every turn using the notepad and I play Penguin Airborne. Plus, the iPhone makes a wonderful back up camera along with a couple hundred of our favorite songs. I did run into a mini-disaster that left me in a state of panic and dismay last week. When the new iPhone operating system was put out there to correspond with the release of the famed iPhone 5, I attempted to upgrade my phone. Along the way, my iPhone went kaput and I was in the dark for three days. Luckily, a helpful, patient clerk at the “iStyle” store in Sofia allowed us to connect to a Mac and helped me reinstall the new software. Thanks to the Cloud, I didn’t lose a thing. Huzzah for the Cloud! Huzzah!

Our digital camera has been the other key piece of equipment. A once in a life time trip justifies buying a new camera. The camera is incredibly important because it is the best thing we have to really document this trip. While browsing models at the always amazing B&H in NYC, we had to make the decision between a fancy, high-tech SLR camera and a point & shoot. In the end, we chose to go with a high-end, well reviewed point and shoot: The Cannon Power Shoot S100. I’ve already taken more photos than I can count and have only managed to drop it twice. While I would really dig a big,fancy camera with a collection of lenses, the truth is that I don’t know an F-Stop from the F-train. I would look impressive with my camera, but it would have been for naught. The pocket size of the Canon means that I almost always have it on me. Someone once told us the best camera for the shot is the one that you have on you at the time.

One of the best photos we’ve taken on this trip. In Japan using the low light setting.

The camera works exceptionally well, shoots outstanding digital video and has some nifty settings like Handheld Nightscene, Slow motion film, vivid setting and more. I do wish that I was a master of some of the more advanced functions on the manual settings so I could really get the most out of some photo opportunities. Like creating a silhouette of Brooke in front of a Japanese garden. or catching the low-light moon rise over the Bucharest train station. But, in any case, I’ve gotten some amazing photos out of it so far

Another small piece of technology that Brooke said I should add this to this list is a simple but important one: Our ATM card. Being able to withdrawal the local currency day and night has been a huge assist. Even in remote places, we haven’t had any trouble finding cash machines and, not surprisingly, ATMs are kind of the same the world over. It’s meant not worrying about banks, travelers checks and visits to exchange windows only when dealing in left over cash. It’s these small pieces of technology that makes taking this kind of trip in 2012 certainly a lot easier than taking it in 1962. And of course, we also have the last essential component: a large bag full of chargers and world-wide plug adapters! Certainly this trip would be possible without any gadgets or gizmos, but for the sake of ease and sanity, they are a “must-have” for us.

-Phil

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Categories: Cell Phones, Communication, Eastern Europe, Iphone Apps, Packing, Rail, Trains, Trip Prep, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Thoughts on traveling in New Zealand so far

We wanted to quickly say that Brooke and I have been flattered and delighted by the number of views and comments we’ve received on the blog so far. We are really glad that people seem to be enjoying (or at least reading) our travel journal. As a reminder, if you’re interested in keeping up to speed (and don’t mind some more junk in your inbox) you can sign up to get an update via e-mail every time we update the blog which is about once a day. To do so, just click on the “follow this blog” link on the right hand side of the screen.

Baby lamb photographed from the side of the road!Our trek through New Zealand continued today as we’ve made our way to the southern tip of the North Island. Our spaceship is now docked in the capital city of Wellington. A day driving in rain ended with a stay overlooking the city and a warm bowl of soup and delicious pizza on Cuba Street in the heart of the city. Another day driving through rain and small towns on roads that you fear might turn to gravel made us twice as glad to arrive. We look forward to explore New Zealand’s most hyped city.

We touched down in New Zealand a week ago and now we’re getting the hang of adapting to the long-term travel lifestyle. Turns out that all I really need to start the day has been a hot shower with good water pressure. Success at at every stop so far. And all Brooke needs is just a solid cup of coffee somewhere along the way. We’ve also found that living in New York City for the last six years has prepared us well for this trip. Dealing with nighttime noise, small beds, smaller hotel rooms, navigating public transportation and even discussing living in NYC (a city that everyone knows and has a thought on) has all worked to our advantage. And, of course, I’ve been blessed with the perfect travel partner who is helping to make this trip amazing each day.

Over the past week, it’s been a blast to soak up all the small differences that we’ve found so far while traveling. I’m getting pretty quick at converting kilometers to miles, centigrade to farenheit and US dollars to New Zealand dollars, but still get thrown for a loop when I have to figure out how much $7.99 NZD per Kg of zucchini really is. There are lots of small but unique contrasts in language, social behavior, and more that we thought were worth sharing.

Coffee for a long drive to Wellington!The first lesson we learned is that coffee is a whole new ballgame here. While there are vibrant, independent coffee houses every two blocks in New Zealand, ordering a cup of black coffee will only reward you with a confused look from the barista. Thanks to our new friend Jason, we’ve learned that a “long black” is what we’re after. It is basically a shot of espresso topped off with steaming hot water. Delicious and strong but not cheap. The minimum we’ve paid for a solid cup of joe has been about $3.50. And there are never refills. American coffee may be living up to the cliché of being on par with mud in comparison, but at least you can get it by the gallon for a couple of of bucks at the local gas station.

Another thing we’ve noticed is that although everyone speaks English, we keep stumbling across some different words. In all public buildings, restrooms are just called the toilet. Which makes us feel relatively crass when we ask “Where is your toilet?” when at a restaurant. Sort of on par to “Point me to the crapper!” but it gets the job done. You “hire” a car instead of “rent.” On a menu, appetizers are called entrees. And entrees are called mains. When spoken aloud, websites such as http://www.Rugby.co.nz is referred to as “dub dub dub Rugby dot co dot en-zed”which is just fun.

Paying for purchases is also a bit different. Everyone takes credit card, but entering a pin number is much more common when you charge a purchase. Signing is decidedly against the norm and they check our signature against the signature on the card every single time. Since no one ever checked in the US, I would sometimes sign faux names like “Johnny Tellyawhattodo.” That won’t fly here.

Lastly, the people we’ve met so far are an incredibly friendly, well traveled bunch who are endlessly hospitable. It’s interesting to hear how they see America. It gives us some perspective on our own country. For example, we forget that, say, since Texas is almost nothing like Maine, 50 different states really does translate to 50 different mini-countries.

Overall, we are glad we started with New Zealand, because even though there are some small and interesting differences, we can generally clear up any confusion by asking a few questions. We are intimidated by our anticipation of how this will work in the next several countries we’ll be in (Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore) where English will be much harder to come by. I guess we’ll find out soon enough!

-Phil

Categories: Cell Phones, China, Discounts, Diversions, Health, Museums, New Zealand, Wardrobe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Communicating While Abroad

Planning a trip the size and scope of what we’re doing has taken some planning, but overall has been relatively manageable. So far, we’ve just needed some time, patience and organization. The more we learn, the luckier we feel to be planning travel like this in 2012 instead of 1972. The world seems to have gotten a bit smaller in the last forty years and in no section is this more apparent than in the area of communication.

Between expected near-universal internet access, e-mail and even this blog, we really don’t anticipate any issue with maintaining a link with everyone back home. The one area that we thought might be tricky is turning out to be a breeze: Phone calls.

First, we should mention that we’re shutting down our IPhones. We’ve placed our accounts on hold with our collective carriers. AT&T is charging me about $12 a month to place my account “on hold” for up to six months. No service, but I can restart with number and plan with one call when I get back. I don’t love it, but it’s cheaper and easier than starting over when I get back. Similarly, Verizon is not charging Brooke anything to place her account on hold, but she actually can’t suspend service until the day before we leave the United States, so that’s developing.

The imLocal Phone Reviewportant thing to note is that we’re both going to be able to use our Iphone as WiFi devices. Enter Local Phone!

Local Phone is a highly reviewed app that allows you to call just about any number in any country for a per-minute charge. One loads credit into your Local Phone account which is managed online or through the app. You can manage contacts, determine rates before you call and it looks like a winner even if you’re NOT traveling internationally. The Iphone app is easy to use on Iphone and you can use from a laptop or tablet as well. Rates can be viewed here, but run from a reasonable fraction-of-a-cent to twenty-five cents a minute depending on where you are calling. Most calls to the United States are half-a-cent a minute. That’s a phenomenal deal! And finally makes good use of all those pennies in my Scrooge McDuck Change jar. Of course, you must have WiFi and we haven’t tested it much to attest to quality, but it should be a great addition to our travel plans.

Nice bonus: I apparently have earned $5 in credit just by signing other people up. It reminds me of the old Vonage days when they would give huge bonuses for both parties when you get others to join. In fact, if you’re interested in the service and want to give us a boost, click here to sign up! Please and thank you.

-Phil

Categories: Cell Phones, Communication, Iphone Apps, Trip Prep | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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