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  • Merrilee MacLean

Ruminating on Technology and Travel

keypad door lock in Norwegian hotel
The keypad doorlock to a hotel in Norway

Two weeks into my three month rail pass adventure, I can’t help but compare how things are the same and different from prior trips. The experience of traveling on trains is pretty much the same. You figure out the train track, get on when it arrives, and show your ticket to the conductor that walks through the train. The trains are pretty fancy now, with outlets and high backed seats, but I do miss the old trains with aisles down the side and compartments. Most trains now have seats like airplane seats, which are comfortable, but impersonal. The old compartments made you face your travel companions in close quarters, either three or four to a side. When you brought out snacks you shared them with the others – most of the time it was convivial; sometimes it was strange. And that one time with the strangely acting gypsies in Romania, we heaved a sigh of relief when the conductors escorted the gypsies away.

The one thing that is so different now in traveling is the role of technology. Smartphones rule. Everyone is expected to have one, and if you don’t, traveling can actually get pretty difficult. It used to be that when you arrived in a new town, you would make your way to the hotel/hostel/B&B that you had reserved (or had been directed to by the Tourist Information people), greet the host and after showing your passport and making payment arrangements, they would hand you a key. You would often ask about nearby restaurants or activities; they might offer to make reservations; it was essentially a personal greeting to the new location. Perhaps that is still the way with more upscale hotels, but as I am expecting to be on the road for over three months, I am choosing more budget options. And we are finding in the budget options that the system is now quite different.

In the past two weeks, for over half of our accommodations booked in advance electronically, we never met a host or other staff person in the place we were staying. I would get a notice that my credit card had been charged. I would then get an email or text (or both), informing me of the code to get into the building as well as the room number and code to get into the room itself. Doors don’t have keys anymore – they have keypads. Frankly, it has worked fine, especially for some later than expected arrivals. However, it is a bit odd and again, not as personal as it used to be. Budget travelers have to be pretty self-sufficient, which gets me to the second part of the technology issue.

I have been late to accepting technology, and particularly cell phones, when traveling. For years, it was the one place that I could be away from phones and emails and the press of work, so I liked being “offline.” I would go to an internet café to check emails and what was happening at home, but otherwise I was in my own little bubble, by design. I wouldn’t get an international plan for my phone (and when I did it didn’t seem to work anyway); I didn’t really want people calling me, and saw no need to call anyone on the road. It was problematic a couple of times, like when we were trying to connect with the vrbo host in Venice and they wanted us to call them for the key, or when the rental car agency in Ljubljana didn’t have a manned office, just a sign in the window with a phone number to call, but we found ways to work around that.

That, however, was the old days. Cell phones are so ubiquitous, everyone expects you to have one now. How else would we find out the code to get into our hotel or room? They are the way to stay in touch with friends and family, both home and abroad, by text, email, social media, and even talking. The map features are extremely useful when trying to find that hotel, saving you from walking the wrong direction or down a dead-end street with that big bag or pack you are rolling or hauling on your back. Phones are replacing guidebooks in many ways – it is common to see people with phone in hand walking a tourist route. Phones are also the way to find lodging and activities in a new town, as tourist information offices reduce staff or hours or close altogether. Being able to call for a taxi or uber also comes in real handy, particularly at the end of a long day. And, of course, phones or other electronic devices are the source of entertainment for those long train or plane or bus rides, whether it be games, books or videos. Indeed, I am writing this on a train en route to Oslo on my Surface Go.

One common question on travel sites is what to do about international phone and data service. T-mobile is known for providing international service without any extra fees. I think there are some restrictions, but don’t know for sure. AT&T and Verizon both offer international plans that I personally found to be unreasonably expensive, especially for a long trip. Those with unlocked phones can buy a SIM card for Europe with data plans that can be renewed, but that process replaces your phone number with a local European number and I don’t believe you retain your contact information (I could be wrong on that). It used to be that a different SIM card was needed for every country, which was quite cumbersome. That has been fixed, however, and generally one SIM card works for pretty much all of Europe, and it can be purchased through Amazon (or other places, I’m sure) before you leave. Orange seems to be a good source for information on that.

I chose a different option, however, which so far has worked real well. Before I left the country I switched from my Verizon plan to Google Fi, a relatively new phone service that allows you to use your phone as if you are in the U.S. No special codes or cards. It just works. Google Fi has a base cost of $20 per month for unlimited phone and texting, plus $10 per GB of data, up to a maximum of 6 GB. Anything over 6 GB is free, but it might switch to a slightly slower service. International phone calls are charged based on the country, but quite reasonable. While prepping for this trip I spent 56 minutes on a phone call with Norwegian Rail (I was in Washington and they were in Norway), first waiting on hold and then arranging all the reservations for the train trip. I just got the bill, and the charge for that call was 56 cents – Google Fi charged 1 cent a minute. Other countries might be as much as 20 cents a minute, but that’s still a deal. I still use wifi when I can (out of habit), but I can easily engage the mobile data whenever I am out of a wifi area and need to look at the map to find the hotel at 1:30 in the morning, or want to see if anybody has liked my posts. Best of all, it’s my phone and phone number, with all the contacts and apps in place. It seems almost too good to be true (and I didn’t want to talk about it until I saw the first bill – which of course appeared electronically). When Google Fi first came out there were issues about its use on iphones, etc. but I understand that has been resolved and it works for iphones as well as androids. My phone is a Google Pixel 2, so there was no problem. Bottom line, if you are considering traveling overseas (assuming you are living in the U.S.) and trying to figure out what to do about phone service, you might check Google Fi out. And no, I am not getting anything from Google Fi for this recommendation – they don’t know me, yet. If it keeps working as well as it seems, I may become an ambassador of sorts.

A version of this article was first published in the Grown Up Traveler Facebook Page on August 28, 2019.


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